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In the Archives: Jody Shipka

Today's essay is from Jody Shipka, an Assistant Professor of English at UMBC teaching courses in the Communication and Technology Track. Jody is not only a user of archives, but advises with her students on using archival resources to discover more about their campus and their place within the historical narrative.

On Archives and Lived Experience

I had my first experience working with archival materials at The Newberry Library in Chicago. The year was 1997 and I was one of eight students selected to participate in the Newberry’s first undergraduate research seminar. (For more on the NLUS Program, see www.newberry.org/research/underhome.html.) The opportunity to conduct research at the Newberry added an extra forty-five minutes to my already considerable commute time (approximately two and a half hours each way), but the experience was well worth it. I especially enjoyed travelling to the library on Mondays and having access to its holdings on the day of the week the library is closed to the general public. Back in 1997, my research interests centered on conduct books, medical texts, cookbooks, and (thanks largely to the holdings at the Newberry) diaries composed by women involved with the Westward Expansion. In the end, I was able to combine my interest in conduct books and cookery, producing a seminar paper entitled "The Woman Who Will Read": Cookbooks, the Role of Women, and the Science of Home Economy in the Northeast."

Flash forward half a dozen years or so. While I remain greatly interested in matters associated with conduct and behavior, patterns of consumption, as well as in first-hand accounts of movement, adaptation and growth, the focus of those interests has shifted. That is to say, instead of centering on the lives, activities and experiences of late 19th and early 20th century women, my research focuses, at least in part, on the actions, experiences and expectations of university students, particularly so, of first-year students.

Troubled by the dearth of information on the lived experience of college students, I began in 2000 to ask the first-year students with whom I worked to complete a task entitled “A History of ‘this’ Space.” My thought was that my students and I could begin to create an archive of sorts—one that would detail for future readers and researchers something of the lived experiences of 21st-century college students. In brief, the history task asks students to take up the role of class historian and to communicate to others something about who they were or what they did in this context. Students are encouraged to approach the task by defining the specific space or spaces their history would represent and to consider what it is about that space they would like to research and represent for others. Students must then determine the method (or methods) by which they will collect data, and to come up with the means by which and conditions under which they would represent their findings for the audience of their choosing. During semesters when funding made it possible to do so, each student’s contribution would be photocopied and bound copies of the semester’s history were distributed to class members.

The University Archives in Special Collections at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County has provided me with a way of updating the history task by providing students with the materials with which they can further contextualize or situate their projects in light of what they learn about UMBC’s history. Additionally, providing students with the opportunity to work with a non-circulating body of materials has allowed me to share with them something of the experience I had as an undergraduate at the Newberry Library. This is not to say, of course, that every student who receives the history task will necessarily find archival work as mysterious, engrossing and as full of potential as I did—and as I still do—but my hope is that the work they do as researchers, the questions they learn to ask and the strategies they employ while exploring the archives will, in some way, positively impact their lived experience as college students.

Jody Shipka received her B.A. in English from Loyola University, Chicago and her Ph.D. in Writing Studies from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research and teaching interests include mediated activity theory, histories of Rhetoric and Composition, multimodal discourse, digital rhetorics, and play theory.

She is the author of Toward a Composition Made Whole (forthcoming, University of Pittsburgh Press). Her work has also appeared in College Composition and Communication, Computers and Composition, Kairos, Text and Talk, and Writing Selves/Writing Societies.

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