York archivists host virtual class visit for international development students

Originally published in yFile: York University’s News.

The York University Libraries’ Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections (CTASC) hosted its first-ever virtual class visit on May 27 with Professor Miguel Gonzalez’s SOSC 3800 Development Studies Research Methods course, part of the International Development Studies program in the Department of Social Science.

For the past several years, Gonzalez brought his students to CTASC to learn about archives and archival research. For most students, this opportunity to handle and analyze archival records is the first time they have stepped foot in an archive. While redesigning the course to meet the realities of an online format, Gonzalez reached out to archivists Katrina Cohen-Palacios and Jennifer Grant to collaborate on a virtual alternative to his yearly class visit.

“For many students embarking on archival research can be a rather intimidating experience. Archivists design class visits, virtual or in-person, to teach students that the slow and sometimes frustrating aspects of archival research are challenging, finding primary sources to enhance your research is ultimately rewarding,” said Cohen-Palacios.

Though the in-person experience of visiting an archives is hard to replicate, Gonzalez still wanted his students to have experience working with and understanding archival records. He set the following learning objectives for the virtual class visit:

  • Familiarize students with the relevance of documentary materials for social science research inquires.
  • Understand key archival concepts and the intrinsic value of archival materials as primary sources for social research.
  • Develop practical skills to conduct archival research activities in a digital environment.

With these objectives in mind and guided by the experiences of others teaching virtually with primary sources, Cohen-Palacios and Grant developed a hybrid plan involving synchronous and asynchronous activities for the students.

“Pivoting our archival literacy instruction to a virtual platform required more work and research than is typically required when we host classes in-person in the archives,” said Grant, “but we were fortunate to work with Professor Gonzalez, whose encouragement, enthusiasm, and collaborative ethos made the process a pleasure.”

To accommodate a variety of schedules and learn-from-home situations, the York archivists created a PowerPoint presentation with audio and text that was sent to students in advance of the virtual class visit. This presentation provided background about the holdings of the CTASC and information about archives and archival research. Students were asked to answer a 10-question quiz based on the content of the PowerPoint presentation to be completed for participation credit in advance of the class visit. This approach allowed students to learn these new concepts at their convenience and then re-engage with the presentation content to answer the quiz questions. It also meant that they came to the virtual class visit with more information about archives and archival research than the typical student visiting the archives in person for the first time.

The synchronous portion of the class involved Gonzalez, Cohen-Palacios and Grant leading the Zoom-based class as co-hosts, where they engaged the students in various activities including a Mentimeter multiple-choice quiz, a guided tour of the CTASC database, a breakout room online scavenger hunt, and an examination of a digitized archival record housed in an online institutional repository.

Following the synchronous class visit, students prepared an archival research report that gave them the opportunity to put what they had learned into action, where they selected, described, contextualized and analyzed a digitized archival record available online. Designed in collaboration between Gonzalez, Cohen-Palacios, and Grant, the assignment required students to reflect on their experiences as researchers and consider the benefits and challenges of using virtual archives.

In this assignment, one student commented that some of challenges they faced with conducting archive research online instead of in-person is that by having to do it online they missed out experiencing what an archive looks like. However, the student said they were able to receive a more global approach to archive research, learning that different sources could be everywhere, as well as how to track that and find those aids. Another benefit, noted the student, is that Cohen-Palacios and Grant extended an open invitation to the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections when the University opens.

More about archival literacy instruction at York University Libraries

The archival holdings of the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections consist of more than eight kilometres of York University corporate records and the private papers of individuals and organizations. Areas of strength include Canadian history, fine arts (design, photography, music, film and theatre), philosophy, environmental history and sexual diversity. Archivists are involved with research reference requests, collection development, arrangement and description of records and archival literacy instruction.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2019-20, over 350 undergraduate and graduate students learned about archives and archival research in CTASC’s classroom. For more information about curriculum development with archival material or to explore virtual archival literacy learning options, contact archives@yorku.ca or visit the CTASC website.

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