This year in my class, Literature of the Great Depression in America, I designed three class days (I called them clinics) around connecting the text-based resources of Van Pelt Library — the stacks and rare books and manuscripts — with the library’s digital resources through WIC’s iPad lending program. While combining rare books with a more cutting edge tool might seem an unusual pairing, students found both cool and the combination solved a problem that I had getting students to understand the process and people involved in creating the types of books and magazines that readers used in the 1930s.
Students love going to the rare book room. Even the books I show them, which are less than 100 years old, seem like relics. For English majors, the fact that the books at Penn are often signed carries even deeper significance. Students tell me that it is exciting to hold a book in their hand that they can imagine the authors we read, John Steinbeck or William Carlos Williams, had touched. (They often have no idea how lucky they themselves are to be allowed to touch these things. Few rare book and manuscript departments are as eager as Penn’s to give undergraduates access.) Visiting the rare book room in a class on the 20th Century gives students some connection to the fairly near past, even as it feels quite distant to them.
However, about two years ago one of my best students pointed out that beyond seeing how “cool” the books were and that vague sense of connection they might feel to the past, our visits to the rare books room had little to do with the rest of the class. He felt that the days when we looked at objects created in the 1930s had no real goals. I knew why we were there. I saw these visits as a way to prepare students to pay the sort of attention to details and understand why publication history mattered. But, clearly, they didn’t get it.
So I redesigned those classes where we went to the rare books room, and as I did, I realized that the details made sense to me because I knew the period very well but my students had no idea which details mattered and why. Nonetheless, the information that they needed could be easily found on the Internet (although finding a full account of the texts they examined often demanded a trip to the stacks.) The iPads gave them access to that information (and the students didn’t have to lug their laptops to class) and kept them focused on the work they needed to do (without their own computers the students appeared to be less likely to buy shoes online in class). In the past, I’d often simply told them things that they needed to know. Having the iPads meant that they became responsible for finding information, a skill that they had to develop to do well on their final papers.
So when students found that the editor and publisher of Alcestis, the little magazine that contained Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order in Key West,” in 1934 was a man named J. Ronald Lane Latimer, or that F. Scott Fitzgerald dedicated his short story collection to Harold Ober, or that William Carlos Williams co-edited the little magazine Blast with Fred Miller, I coached them to find out more. Obviously, some of these names (Stevens, Fitzgerald, and Williams) English majors ought to know. Others (Ober, Latimer, and Miller) are less well known but fascinating. Paying attention to the details started to make much more sense as students used the iPads to find out who these people were, what reputations the various magazines and presses had, and even the cost of these objects in the 1930s. (Latimer was a shady figure who was both an avowed communist and a publisher of fine press editions. Ober was Fitzgerald’s literary agent. Miller was a leftist, out-of-work tool-maker with literary aspirations and Williams’ friend.)
I was worried that using the iPads would lead students to stop their search with a fairly shallow understanding of the figures involved. I was also worried that they would be frustrated that I asked them to find information I already knew. To get them past the shallows, I made them follow up on the information that they found to confirm it with scholarly and hard copy sources: in fact, I knew that to learn about Latimer they would have to find Al Filreis’ essay on him or Filreis’ book on Stevens which are not available online. I should not have worried about their frustration with finding information that I already knew. Most of them enjoyed chasing down the information, which was new to them and it was helpful to have a guide who had a sense of where to look next.
The pay off came with their evaluation of the clinics (they loved them and many found them incredibly formative) and their papers. While I’ve given students similar assignments for several years, this is the first year that they’ve done the depth of research that I expected. While I assume a high level of work from Penn students, these were exceptional and a pleasure to read and grade. One student is thinking about turning the work he has done so far into a senior thesis. While I was anxious at first about how this project would work out, combining the iPads with rare books was a great way to get students to do the type of work I hoped they would.