by Param Ajmera
As a student and teacher of revolutionary literature and history, I believe that time is always ripe to talk to about the potential, performance, and process of structural change. What have social and political revolutions looked like over time? How do they manifest? When do they end? Questions along these lines are of deep concern to me, so I strive to incorporate them into all aspects of my academic work. When it comes to my teaching, the proliferation of open resources, and especially the many digital archives now available, has given me an opportunity to stage encounters with revolutionary moments for my students. These encounters strive to cultivate a critical consciousness, while also serving the overarching learning goals of our first-year composition course.
One such encounter happened last week, when my class learned how to write an annotated bibliography about the Haitian, French, and American revolutions. During a visit to the library, during which my students learned the language of Boolean searches and became familiar with using digital repositories and databases, I planned a class session where we would explore relevant materials in openly accessible archives, such as the Digital Public Library of America, Hathi Trust, Europeana, Digital Library of the Caribbean, NYPL Digital Collections, and Umbra Search.
I began class by recapping some of the major points from our library visit, to put everybody in the mental space of thinking about sources and searching. I then divided my class into three groups composed of seven or eight students each. Group 1 was assigned the American Revolution, Group 2 – the French Revolution, and Group 3 – the Haitian Revolution. Each group was provided a Google doc worksheet that included links to digital archival collections, and three guiding questions: What were some of the causes of the revolution that they were assigned, what was one prominent event that happened during this revolution, and what was one text / artistic work that emerged from this revolution. I then asked my students to use these digital archives and collectively compose an annotated bibliography of sources that addressed these questions. I tasked each group to pick a leader who would discuss their findings briefly towards the end of class.
Key to the success of this class were the sizeable collections that these digital resources made available, and the willingness of my students to enthusiastically participate in the endeavor. Within seconds, the groups were finding dozens of items of interest, and thanks to their collaborative attitude, were able to sift through this material strategically and quickly. Not only were my students astounded by the diverse array of materials that they encountered – from pamphlets and newspapers to images of statues and maps of regions – but they were also amazed (and sometimes confounded) by the similar-yet-different ways in which these repositories organized their collections and displayed objects. As we moved through the exercise, I observed how the students grasped the crucial necessity of thinking about different search keywords, how they collectively learned advanced search functions, and practiced critical thinking, in making meaning of a centuries-old text.
The process of searching for, evaluating, and organizing materials is among the learning goals of my class: and I know that our class exercise was a success because it directly addressed this goal. That we also talked about Toussaint Louverture, Marie Antionette, and Alexander Hamilton along the way only made this journey all the more gratifying. Having gone through the exercise, I learned that among the advantages of open materials is that they present students with the opportunity to encounter a smorgasbord of genres of writing, languages, and aesthetic forms. This creates an environment where students begin to see history as a dynamic and contested field, where multiple stories and interpretations vie for legitimacy. What goes out the window is the static, dry, and deterministic understanding of history that students previously found in their high-school textbooks.
In other words, the use of open materials can make the content of our courses more interesting and appealing to our students, because it challenges them to use their wits and arrive at their own conclusions.
Param Ajmera is a PhD student studying Early American Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center, and an Adjunct Professor at Brooklyn College. Ajmera’s research interests are in transatlantic literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, black studies, colonial / postcolonial studies, and digital humanities.