Engaging Minds, Transforming Lives


Teaching with Archives

  • English professor Michael Saenger used some of the oldest books in Special Collections for his new First-Year Seminar that...
    English professor Michael Saenger used some of the oldest books in Special Collections for his new First-Year Seminar that examines different forms of texts. Faculty, students and staff were invited to the library in October to see some of the books the class researched. A student is shown here looking at a copy of the Latin Vulgate of 1482, which was the first printed commentary on the Bible.
  • Devin and Noah Saenger, sons of English professor Michael Saenger, examine a cuneiform tablet that dates to 2000 B.C. The ...
    Devin and Noah Saenger, sons of English professor Michael Saenger, examine a cuneiform tablet that dates to 2000 B.C. The tablet is the oldest object in Southwestern’s Special Collections.

Professors find a wealth of materials for their classes in Southwestern’s archives and special collections

When people think of archives, they usually think of boxes of old papers, newspapers and perhaps photos.

Southwestern’s archives, which are stored in several rooms throughout the Smith Library Center, have all those. But they also have a lot more.

“We have everything from a cuneiform tablet that dates to 2000 B.C. to 14 nightgowns worn by Lizzie Johnson, who was the first woman to drive a herd of cattle up the Chisholm Trail,” said Kathryn Stallard, director of special collections and archives.

For Southwestern faculty members, these collections provide a wealth of materials for their classes.

This fall, John Pipkin brought students from his Creative Writing class to Special Collections to find inspiration for a short story.

“Kathryn Stallard did a fantastic job of selecting about 20 objects representing everything from Southwestern’s storied history to artifacts from distant eras and cultures around the world,” Pipkin said. “My students examined all of the objects and then chose one to focus on. For about two and a half hours, they sat in front of their chosen object and imagined that object’s past: how the object was made, who had owned it, the things the object had seen, and how it made its way to Southwestern. Then I asked them to create a main character and conflict that incorporated the object in some way.”

Objects that Pipkin’s students wrote about included a pair of old Chinese shoes that were used to bind feet, a 1,000-year old Arabic medical manual, a copy of the Koran, a cattle-branding iron, old spectacles, the gold-capped cane that was given to early math professor C.C. Cody by his former students in 1915, and the original door knob to the Mood-Bridwell dorm room of the late Sen. John Tower.

Pipkin said he and Stallard plan to set up a display of the objects and some of the short stories they inspired in the library foyer early next year.

Several faculty members regularly make use of other materials related to John Tower that are housed at Southwestern. Davi Thornton, associate professor of communication studies, brought students in her Rhetoric of Civil Rights class to Special Collections this fall to research letters that constituents wrote Tower in 1963-1964 and see how they framed their opposition to civil rights.

“The exercise went very well,” Johnson said. “The students reported a number of interesting findings. While some people explicitly engaged issues of race (for instance, arguing that mixing of the races posed a serious danger to ‘white bloodlines’), many framed their opposition in ostensibly race-neutral appeals to freedom, democracy and individual rights.” 

Johnson said she is considering ways to expand the assignment for future classes since there is so much material in the Tower Papers to work with.

Tim O’Neill, professor of political science, takes students from his First-Year Seminar on “Political Ethics: A Contradiction in Terms?” to the archives to find original documents about the reasons why Sen. Tower, a conservative stalwart from Texas, nonetheless supported a woman’s right to choose established in the Roe v. Wade abortion decision.

“Perhaps for the first time in their lives, students see research materials that have not been prescreened and homogenized by the author of a secondary work,” O’Neill said. “The capacity to see original data, to creatively integrate it with scholarly commentaries, to analyze a problem and to come to a well-considered and supported conclusion is the essence of a liberal arts and sciences education. And we do this in the very first course my students take in college.”

Michael Saenger, associate professor of English, used some of the oldest books in Special  Collections for his new First-Year Seminar on “From Stone Tablets to YouTube: How Did Texts Shine Differently Before Digital Screens Illuminated Them?”

Saenger took his students to look at a variety of books that were published before 1700 and each student selected one to write about. Saenger and his students invited members of the community to the library in October to see some of the books they studied. They included a copy of the Latin Vulgate of 1482, which was the first printed commentary on the Bible; a 1534 copy of the Book of Hours, a popular prayer book that was produced during the later Middle Ages and Renaissance; a 1685 copy of Aphorisms, which was one of Hippocrates most renowned works; and a book written by Martin Luther in 1539.

“One of the nice things about Southwestern is that our students can have access to books like these,” Saenger said. “In most universities, undergraduate students would never be allowed to get close to these books. This is something we can do that is really unique.”

Saenger said being exposed to books such as these has inspired some of his students to become interested in conducting research using primary sources. He recently published a book titled Shakespeare and the French Borders of English that cites several of his former students for their contributions.

Stallard said the library has acquired the materials in its archives and special collections from variety of sources. It acquired a lot of artifacts when it inherited the materials from the former Mood-Heritage Museum, which was housed in Mood Hall from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. That museum had collections ranging from pre-Columbian pottery to 19th century scientific equipment, many of which were assembled by former faculty members.

The Latin Vulgate of 1482 – which Stallard said is one of her favorite items in Special Collections – was a gift to the university from one of its former presidents, William C. Finch.

Many alumni have donated items to Special Collections, including famed Texas writer J. Frank Dobie, and his wife, Bertha.

Stallard said Southwestern frequently lends artifacts from its collection to other exhibits. For example, it has recently loaned two pieces from its Lizzie Johnson collection to the Texas Capitol Visitors Center in Austin, which is working on an exhibit about “Texas Cattle Queens” that will open in July 2014 and run through March 2015. The exhibit focuses on Texas women who defied 19th century gender stereotypes to become successful in the male-dominated Texas cattle business. Charlotte McDaniel, who graduated from Southwestern in December 2010, is now a gallery assistant at the Capitol Visitors Center and has been working on this exhibit. 

“I think I only visited Special Collections once while I was at Southwestern,” McDaniel said. “I wish that I had explored them more while I was there, but I am glad that I have the opportunity to do so now.”