(tool-kit image borrowed from History Matters -- one of our inspirations -- with permission)

"I am scholar -- hear me roar!  Primary materials rule."
VA student, 8/03

In the second six-week summer session of 2003, the six of us offered the following online course at Lehigh University, using the Blackboard course management system.  The course enrolled sixteen students, half M.A. students in the Lehigh College of Education and half Lehigh juniors and seniors from a variety of Arts College and Business College majors.
Engl 301-11 -- Virtual Americana: Studying American Culture Online

Perhaps the most astounding educational opportunity provided by the World Wide Web is the availability of primary documents and sources of all kinds to the general public.  For instance, the American Memory Collection of the Library of Congress alone contains more than seven million items from over 100 of the library’s collections.  Now everyone can do original research!  In this course students will plumb a different collection of Americana on the web each week with the aim of actively “doing history” rather than just settling for pre-digested knowledge from scholarly textbooks and lectures.  Students with special interests in a certain field or figure in American culture, or who have already identified a virtual collection of personal value, should contact Prof Gallagher early enough to influence the syllabus.  Teachers or prospective teachers will be able to explore web resources and develop class exercises or units.

Our aim in the course was, frankly, experimental: to put, in Randy Bass's phrase, the "novices in the archives" and to see what we had to do to put them there effectively.  There were no print texts in the course; we did not lecture; in fact, we were not expert in any of the subjects or archives; and, of course, we did not even have any face-to-face contact with the students.  Five digital collections in the American Memory collection were our sole texts, and we saw our job as facilitating student primary research of a kind and scale made possible only recently by new technology.  Specifically, we wanted to experiment with developing the "open but guided experiences" that Bass suggests should characterize this new pedagogical opportunity (see Randy Bass, et. al., eds.  Intentional Media: The Crossroads Conversations on Learning and Technology in the American Culture and History ClassroomWorks and Days 16.1-2 [Spring/Fall 1998]: 46-47).

We chose to base our course in American Memory because, as Bass and Bret Eynon say, it is "the most outstanding single site for primary documents in American history and culture" (42), and the five collections we used were:

The Chinese in California, 1850-1925

Chicago Anarchists on Trial: Evidence from the Haymarket Affair, 1886-1887

After the Day of Infamy : "Man-on-the-Street" Interviews Following the Attack on Pearl Harbor

"Now What a Time": Blues, Gospel, and the Fort Valley Music Festivals, 1938-1943

Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942

Our sense is that although the number of digital archives is increasing dramatically, there are still few models for the intriguing pedagogical opportunities they offer -- and thus we offer our course as a contribution to the necessary "show-and-tell" that must go on within the field of American culture if these new resources are to to be explored in the rich way they deserve.

It is not practical to publish here on the web even a representative sample of the over 1000 posts in our discussion board "classroom" (for some indication of the student response to the class, see our April 2004 article in The Source, a Library of Congress newsletter ), but we have copied the other relevant parts directly from the Blackboard course and present them here:

Course Information


Course Documents


And we tip our hats to the sixteen students who made this ambitious first-time course go so well!

Paul Galante, Chinese in California

Edward J. Gallagher, Grand Poohbah

John Lennon, Florida Folklife

Stephen Tompkins, Day of Infamy

Robert Wilson, Chicago Anarchists

Michael Yellin, Fort Valley

For further information, contact Edward J. Gallagher, Dept of English, Lehigh University