Digital Archives and Curation: Assignment Construction


How can we help students engage the stories of the past in their own moments and modes? This question has guided much of my pedagogy, including my work for this digital fellowship. My project for this semester: to design a digital curation project for a future course in Native American literature. This course aims to survey major themes and authors in indigenous writing, while also teaching students how to ethically use and build content surrounding digital archives. In this way, the course’s goals (and those of this project) are two-fold: to help students learn about Native American literature and digital literacy.

My focus on bringing these two components together stems from what I have learned from prior experiences with digital archives and writing. In graduate school, I worked for the Our Americas Archive Partnership, where I created a series of teaching modules to help high school AP teachers integrate the archive’s digitized documents into their classes. A few years later, I built on this experience with digital platforms by integrating blogging into my courses; there, students responded to prompts and commented on each other’s writing with the goal of learning more about the course content through online discussion. While students’ experiences seemed positive in both instances, I came to realize that my use of these tools and practices primarily focused on helping students engage course content. What it did not do is conscientiously teach students about the tools and practices they were using.

More intentionally integrating these two parts has been my main goal this semester. I set out to design a project in which students will digitally curate a selection of digitized documents about indigenous history for a broader audience of their choosing. More specifically, the proposed learning objectives for this assignment are: 1.) to provide mentored research experience; 2.) to train students in digital communication, literacy, and content construction; 3.) and to introduce students to the ethics of digital creation. My work this semester has been about coming up with the structure that would achieve these goals.


Because my project was part of the preparation for a future course, its implementation focused on assignment design and the necessary research behind it. I needed to (re)learn the tools and resources available for building a digital curation project and also to build the course’s assignment scaffolds and supporting materials based on what I learned. This process occurred in three major phases across the spring of 2023.

First, I began research on digital archive possibilities as well as platforms for digital curation and writing. My original plan had been to use and digitize documents from the Norbertine archives and somehow make them part of SNC’s digital repository. My research process began with a meeting with Mulva librarians/archivists Sarah Titus and Jenny Patton. My meeting with them crystalized two things: 1.) the best direction for my first section of this course will be to work with existing digitized early American archives and indigenous archives. The Norbertine archives, while housing some fascinating materials, include few documents from an indigenous perspective. Since this perspective is key to my course, indigenous-focused archives, such as the Indigenous Digital Archive and indigenous collections at the Library of Congress, as suggested by Sarah and Jenny, are most likely to provide relevant materials. 2.) I needed to change my expectations about the interface through which students would create projects. The digital repository (while doing some great work!) is limited in its capabilities when it comes to different genres of digital writing.

These realizations led to my second implementation phase: choosing a different, more flexible platform. As one of their suggestions, Sarah and Jenny suggested taking a look at SNC’s Knight Domains and WordPress. In my previous experience with student blogging, I had utilized WordPress for student writing; however, the platform has changed in considerable ways since that time. To get a refresher about its capabilities, I met with Annicka Rabida, who introduced me to new tools in WordPress, different ways current SNC faculty are using them, and WordPress support resources. I took some time to play around with this updated version of WordPress to see how easily it would allow for the range of projects I am hoping students will create for online publishing. After talking with Annika and conducting my own research, I selected WordPress for my pilot run at the course and its main project.

Finally, my third phase was to draft the assignment instructions and supporting documents for this project. Prior to proposing this digital curation assignment, I had completed initial research on different digital humanities projects and specifically archival projects. At this final phase, though, I had the knowledge in place to backwards design the assignment scaffold through which students will produce a project that engages both the content (indigenous history and literature) and the skills (digital writing) that this course aims to teach. The general description of the assignment I developed states:

This project asks you to analyze, curate, and present 1-3 archival documents related to Native history and literature. The development of this project will take place across the course of the semester in conversation with our course readings as well as through our discussions with the Mulva librarians and SNC IT. It will include a series of project workshops during which we will focus on developing the skills needed to complete this project.

Clawson, ENGL 389 Digital Curation Project

By “curate,” I mean that students will identify a target audience and create a blog post with a clear purpose and goal for that identified audience. The “project workshops” will include classroom discussions with Sarah and Jenny, both of whom have generously agreed to partner with me in introducing students to topics such as “Introduction to Archives,” “The Politics of the Archive,” and “Archives in Digital Environments.” Additionally, I will also conduct workshops that entail discussions of digital writing as well as a classroom visit from an IT representative, who will introduce students to WordPress as a platform.  

Each of these workshops will be scaffolded around drafting components of the project (initial document analysis, a proposal, annotated bibliography, rough draft, final draft, presentation), all of which will help students work toward a polished final blog post. Following our discussion of digital archives, for example, students will be asked to analyze a digitized document from an indigenous archive as well as the interface and curation of these documents within their current digital environment – to examine the presentation of the documents in addition to the documents themselves. The aim with this sort of workshop/drafting coordination is to help students recognize the relationship between content and form/mode, a relationship that is always important in literary studies but even more so when we are engaging with indigenous culture and literature that has so often been either erased or relegated to the past.

As part of the construction of this assignment scaffold and materials, I also began building the supporting materials for this project. For instance, I created an initial list of digital archives that students can investigate and select from for their projects. I also created a brief WordPress “How-to Guide” that takes students through the basic steps for creating a post, integrating images, and adding hyperlinks. I integrated images into this document, but I will also draw from SNC’s Knowledge Base to integrate videos that walk students through these steps. Finally, I have begun identifying prototype posts/sites that students can view to brainstorm what sort of post they want to build based on their self-selected target audience and purpose. (Here are examples of teaching “modules” from my previous work with digitized archives that I plan to provide as one among three examples. While in this current form they are linked PDFs, they were originally posted on the archive’s website.)  

Evaluation and Next Steps

My evaluation process occurred throughout the process of building this assignment. For example, my discussions with Sarah and Jenny provided one source of evaluation on the initially proposed idea. Their comments helped me assess the scope and objectives of the assignment. In response, I narrowed the focus to an existing and finite set of already digitized archives and a more flexible digital writing platform. Similarly, I evaluated and adapted the project while constructing the actual assignment scaffold. Originally, I had imagined two or three project workshops, for instance. After crafting the first draft of the instructions, however, I realized that the logistical steps and learning objectives did not align. In response, I added more workshops and drafting steps.

The final layers of my evaluation and the next steps will occur when the course actually runs. In the month prior to the course’s beginning, for example, I plan to share my documents with Sarah and Jenny as well as some colleagues in English and History to garner their feedback. (I am hesitant to gather this feedback now because some of the instructions will change according to how many students register for the course.) Then, when I actually run this course, students’ work and feedback will also constitute a key part of the assessment. I plan to design surveys, for instance, that capture students’ experience at the midterm and final with the hope of strengthening the design for future sections.

I am excited to take on this work in the future. Teaching students how to critically engage digital tools and literacy is something I think is important for us to take on as a college, especially when it comes to engaging stories from marginalized voices. Stay tuned for more as the process unfolds!

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