Presentation: SAFA and Aesthetics

On April 21, 2012, I appeared on the “Teaching Brooklyn History through the Archive” panel at the Brooklyn Aesthetics Conference in Brooklyn, NY. The other panelists were professors from St. Francis College who discussed their SAFA courses in detail.

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Welcome everyone. I’m Robin Katz and I’m going to introduce you to Students and Faculty in the Archives

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at the Brooklyn Historical Society.

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I am the Outreach + Public Services Archivist at BHS. I work in the library, but along with

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our Public Historian

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I co-direct Students and Faculty in the Archives

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SAFA is an innovative postsecondary education program

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which uses primary sources

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to build document analysis, information literacy, and critical thinking skills in first-year undergraduates.

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We look like a program, but we are funded like a project

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BHS received a 3 year

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$750,000 from US DOE FIPSE

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To work with 3 schools
-LIU Brooklyn, City Tech, St Francis
-all schools are within walking distance
LIU is 20 min
CONSIDER
-if want to GO to archive, how?
-they don’t have Spec Collections
-chosen for their commitment to minority, first-generation, non-traditional, and non-native English speaking students.

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-18 faculty
-selected before started through relationships, connections.

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Our faculty are tenured, junior faculty, and adjuncts.
They teach History, English, American Studies, Religious Studies, Art History, Photography, and Architectural Technology. And because we are so trans disciplinary, our faculty came in with a really wide variety of experience in working with archival collections.

So, what does SAFA actually look like?

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Class visits to the archive,

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BHS staff go to campuses for workshops / presentations

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BHS-led walking tours around Downtown BK / BK Heights… will go to Greenwood w photo class

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Students return to the library to do research on their own sometimes. We find: better to REQUIRE it, or not encourage it.

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and in one case: an Oral History collection that will end up in our archives

As if that wasn’t enough for 2 FT staff,

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Each course we work with is required to have a website, which we oversee and train them on

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Explain fellowship

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And as part of the dissemination plan, we have a network of national partners from VT, Philly, and the Providence area who will

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join our local faculty at our second annual Summer Institute here in Brooklyn.

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We are working with independent evaluators to judge whether SAFA is meeting its goals. In essence, we aim to

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Provide Faculty professional development
-we want to see an improvement over time, and I can tell you we are definitely seeing this!
-we spend the most of our time on this and this is the goal we think can have the biggest lasting impact on how teaching gets done.

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Establish a collaborative network with these faculty and campuses that maybe leads to sustained collaboration.

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Of course we care about student learning
-faculty/class learning objectives
-our evaluators are also providing students w a pre and post assessment of their document analysis skills, interviewing students, and looking at student work. This is probably the goal we care most about generally at BHS.

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We are also working w campus assessment offices to measure any impact or correlation with student engagement and retention.
When I started on the project, I was most excited about the potential for this data
-worth/value/relevance
-university “bottom line”

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So because we are in the middle of our second semester of teaching, our external Evaluators are mostly collecting baseline data right now.

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We have been busy! In our first semester…

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Here at SFC, we worked with these classes and professors

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This semester

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we are working with only slightly fewer courses, but far fewer visits. Discuss

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And here at SFC, we are mostly working with the same classes again (this related to the faculty development aspect – all of you really built this semester on what you did last term)
Jen Wingate had a totally new class, and Athena Devlin is on sabbatical.

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Based on all this experience, we have an emerging teaching philosophy. Essentially: you come to the archive for a reason, and your students should be ale to say why they’re there.

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We are not a treasure room, we do not do show-and-tell, and we don’t provide an exhibit of materials that just “illustrate” something, we USE materials.

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We have learned from experience that we don’t throw stuff on a table. Our mantra has become “less is more!” So our professors need to think carefully about document selection because

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We really focus on Document Analysis skills. That means we are using materials on the item-level, maybe (as with Sara’s class) on the folder-level.

We usually pull a single item from a collection, we do not set a whole box down in front of students.

That also means that unlike other library instruction, we also do not start w formulating research Qs, IDing and finding sources, evaluating those sources.
We are not searching the library catalog or finding aid portal
We may look at biog/hist notes in a FA, or use an index to select which items to look at
But generally, the documents are pre-selected

For our faculty this means really thinking ahead of time what students are using. And that means that research for teaching is different than it is for one’s own scholarship – it doesn’t need to be comprehensive, you just have to find something that will work well.

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So as you can imagine, we collaborate pretty heavily with our amazing faculty on

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everything from big-picture Qs about course structure to details about assignments. We provide pretty tailored reference support, although that is really tapering off as two things happen:
our faculty get more familiar with our collections and settle on what they want to use
we do a better job of describing our materials Explain CLIR
And we are really hoping to collaborate with faculty around evaluation – what worked, what didn’t, what can we all do better.

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Now that teaching philosophy I just explained to you raises a lot of important Qs about the role of aesthetics in teaching with primary sources.

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There’s the Q of the stuff itself. I won’t go into too much detail here, but when I said we are more interested in research value than exhibit value, that raises a lot of Qs about what is the right document to select.

A more visual, maybe a more beautiful document might engage students more, if not better. I can tell you – actually in Eric’s class – when you set out an old, fragile pamphlet that is in library binding with a drab cover on it (no matter how beautiful it is on the inside), students don’t rush to it the way they do the ephemera and the tickets and the hand painted cards. Is that good or bad? How does that affect the way I as an archivist introduce students to our materials? In Eric’s class I realized I need to open up the things next time, and not gloss over them myself. How does this bias towards the visual or the beautiful affect pedagogical decisions our faculty make?

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We think about this a lot in the way we use our building,

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and our neighborhood as well.

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BHS is located on the corner of Clinton and Pierrepont – please go check our our exhibits, public programs, and our library! If you have a campus ID from one of our 3 schools, you get free admission!

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About 10 years ago we underwent a pretty extensive renovation, and we’re actually about to embark on another one that will renovate our entrance, first floor and lower level exhibit space, and create a new classroom.

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Part of why SAFA works is that we have a beautiful space, and it is a special opportunity to come to an interior landmarked library and touch real, physical, sometimes beautiful collections – but if we don’t push beyond that, and get to real research Qs, accomplish real learning, I don’t think we have done all we need to.

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As I said, part of our teaching philosophy is that we don’t JUST ooh and aah over the stuff.

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But we DO use the excitement of the space and the stuff to get our students going.

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I get a little grouchy when students just fetishize our creaky staircase…
I think if just stops there – with wow, what a cool space, we haven’t fully succeeded.
As a special collections library, plenty of patrons do this too – they love the smell of old books for some reason. It’s dust and mold, people!

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But students do walk in and think Harry Potter! And of course, I love coming to work everyday in an 1881 interior landmarked library.

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So our challenge is to get students to think critically. We like when students think the neighborhood is quaint or they feel special about being in our reading room, but we also talk about how places like BHS have democratized over time – and how we are still working on it.

Many of our collections document slave owners, for example – these are the same families whose names live on as our streets and subway stations, the Leffertses, the Bergens. And the people who founded LIHS in 1863 were interested in a particular history, and as a result our collections don’t document every Brooklynite of every era. We talk a bit about what is missing from our archives, and why. What research can be done here, and what questions still remain.

Similarly, when we go on walking tours of the neighborhood, we talk about how the early landmarking movement started in BK Heights, and involved many of our members or board members, and how they did research in our collections when they invented neighborhood names like Boerum Hill or tried to emulate the 19c in their brownstone renovations… we talk about how we may prefer the aesthetics created by these people, but we also try to talk about who has a highway running their neighborhood (most of us!) and who wasn’t able to lobby Robert Moses to change his plans.

So while we blatantly try to capitalize off of somewhat visceral reactions to an aesthetic experience, we also try to encourage some critical thinking when approaching a document, a building, a neighborhood – when approaching Brooklyn History.

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If you have questions about how to access collections at the BHS library, or about SAFA in general, do not hesitate to contact me.

Katz, Robin M. “Teaching Brooklyn History through the Archive.” Brooklyn Aesthetics Conference. Brooklyn, NY. April 21, 2012. Panelist.
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