During the fall of 2011 and the spring of 2012, I taught an introductory seminar in American Studies, titled Popular Culture and American Childhood. The students enrolled in this seminar came with a range of experience with the liberal arts classroom; some were freshmen in their first semester, while others were senior American Studies majors seeking to fulfill the major’s requirements, and still others had enrolled in the class looking to collect a class with a Writing Flag before graduating.
In this class, I tried several new (to me!) teaching projects involving digital tools. Throughout the semester, students contributed “objects” to our class website, The Archive of Childhood. The idea was for students to carry out analysis of primary sources from their own childhoods, connecting these sources to the themes we had been discussing in class. (I wrote about the Archive project on my blog, here.) Students were required to identify and use a few secondary sources to analyze their chosen contributions to the archive; this requirement meant that they had to think hard about where their contributions might fit into a larger set of concerns about childhood and culture. Students also used these assignments to start thinking about their final papers, as many of them took the primary sources that they addressed in their archive entries and expanded them into longer papers later.
See sample posts from the Archive of Childhood, along with assignment sheets, here (PDF).
In order to encourage a sense of ownership over their original research, I also taught students how to use the free records management and citation system Zotero. (See tutorials that I posted for student instruction here and here.) Although I eventually decided not to reprise this part of the course in its second semester, I learned a lot from this experience about the positives and negatives of incorporating a citation manager into a seminar.
I reconfigured the digital writing component of the course. Rather than creating two separate websites—one with course material, and one with student writing—I integrated the two in a single WordPress site, hoping to bring down perceived barriers between my written production and theirs. And rather than requiring three “Archive of Childhood” posts interrogating cultural objects from the students’ early lives, I asked students to blog five times throughout the semester, and offered them three options for post categories. I retained the “Archive of Childhood” concept for one of these categories, offered a prompt (prompt posts can be seen here) for a “Reading Journal” in which students were asked to think further about one of our readings or class discussions, and asked them to identify and blog about a news story relevant to our class (“In the News”). Across their five posts, students had to hit each of these categories at least once. I took this approach in order to give students more freedom of choice in their writing, while still providing enough structure to provoke creativity.
You can see sample blog posts, along with the assignment sheet, here (PDF).
In class meetings, I began to alternate discussions with mini-lectures, which I used as a way to sketch historical context quickly, and primary source workshops, in which students worked with sources using a specific set of questions. Some sources we worked with in class included pre-code comic books, issues of Ebony Jr. available via Google Books, and the website girlsgogames.com. By the time we arrived at the research paper phase of the class, the repeated exercises in textual analysis we had carried out in these workshops helped students identify research questions for their own set of primary sources.