Students in the Archives

Emily Suzanne Clark

I have my classes spend a lot of time with primary sources. Readers of the blog are probably already aware of this. Sometimes my students and I chuckle at things we find. Students in my American Christianities classes also write 2 faux primary sources over the course of the semester. Both my American Christianities class and my African American Religions class have a primary source reader that we read from a lot during the semester.

This post is a sort of sequel to my post last month about the faux primary source assignments. Earlier this month my American Christianities class spent a week with the archives of the Jesuits of the Oregon Province (which covers the Pacific Northwest and Inland Northwest). Gonzaga is lucky to be the host of these archives, and so having class is the archive is easy. (That, and the collection has the coolest archivist around!) The assignment was not a full research project, but there are still valuable lessons that undergraduates can learn in a couple of days in the archives. Recently in The American Scholar, Anthony Grafton and James Grossman wrote about how archival research is good for undergraduates. "When students do research, they learn to think through problems, weigh evidence, construct arguments, and then criticize those arguments and strip them down and make them better—and finally to write them up in cogent, forceful prose, using the evidence deftly and economically to make their arguments and push them home.The best defense for research, however, is that it’s in the archive where one forms a scholarly self." Granted, my students did not have a lot of time to form their scholarly selves. But I hope that process began.

Crow Indians with priests, image from Foley Library
I split the classes up in 6 small groups, and the archivist and I brainstormed 6 groupings of sources. One grouping focused on ceremonial life and included banners, vestments, photos and descriptions of feast processions on Native reservations. Another group focused on the art of conversion and perused a fascinating collection of dictionaries, grammars, and hymnals that the Jesuits in the region translated into Native languages. One table had documents and photographs illuminated sacramental life and how the Jesuits captured personal and community timelines in their baptismal, marriage, and death records. Another grouping focused on the administration of the Jesuits and included instructions to priests, critiques of fellow Jesuits, and, much to the excitement and entertainment of the students, rules for dating that the Jesuits wrote back in the 1950s. This group and the next took students behind the scenes and into the more practical and business side of the Jesuits. The fifth group had a collections of business documents: financial records, fundraising documents, budgets, and the old Jesuit order cattle brand (this was the West after all). Finally the sixth group dove into the records of St. Aloysius, the parish here on campus named after the university's namesake. This included scrapbooks and photographs of the building over time - all documenting parish life. Each group will be responsible for a write-up on their small collection of materials that analyzes what the materials tell us as a whole.

Rev. Joseph M. Cataldo, S.J., from Foley Library
Each mini collection had more materials than the students had time to read, but this way students got to "dig in" and hunt for things themselves. I told them that feeling a bit lost at the beginning was to be expected. It's not until you've examined a few or more materials that you start to see a bigger picture. They also found materials that made them smile and got them excited. Many students used the word "cool" when describing the materials. While in the library, one group flagged me down with the same exuberance they would have for a free tshirt at a Zag basketball game. (They had found photographs from the mid-20th century cataloging when a relic of St. Francis Xavier [his arm] visited St. Al's parish here on campus.)

The best part of this assignment was watching students come alive in the archives. I teach classes that fulfill core curriculum requirements, which means I don't teach many Religious Studies majors. So one of my goals in the classroom is to cultivate intellectual curiosity. I want students to look at the materials (and the world) critically and thoughtfully. I want them to make connections beyond what's on the page. While watching them in the archive, I saw sparks of this.


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