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Past Interactions: Deepening Understanding Through Archival Research

Tim Cain

By Tim Cain, Associate Professor of Higher Education

Fifteen minutes into the first meeting of EDHI 8000: History of American Higher Education, students are confronted with an artifact from the University of Georgia’s past—a notebook from a member of the class of 1804, for example, or a satirical pamphlet about the new college in Auburn, Alabama. Working in pairs, the students try to make sense of their objects and what they might tell us about this history of colleges and universities. After a few minutes without guidance, students are provided additional context and a list of questions to ask of the item (e.g., What is it? Who created and why? Is it internally coherent?). They eventually present their items to the class and then examine additional artifacts that are related to the one that they first considered.


The items that students consider in those opening minutes and hours introduce them to the larger themes of the course. Mary Frances Early’s diary detailing her opening week as one of the first African American students at UGA, for example, highlights key issues of access, inequity, and student experience. A course schedule documenting the disruption caused by World War I emphasizes the effects of societal change on the college curriculum. That content is important, but so is the process of handling and analyzing the items. It begins the semester-long engagement with thinking about history in a different way than many of the class members previously had. Rather than revealing an understood and static past, the class asks students to think of history as an argument based on incomplete (and often misleading) evidence. It is a history open for constant revision.


Multiple class visits to the archives and additional activities designed to promote historical thinking resulted from associate professor Tim Cain’s participation in the UGA Libraries Special Collections Faculty Teaching Fellow program. As a 2017-2018 Fellow, he worked with special collections librarians and other fellows (who were working on their own courses) to redesign the existing history of higher education course to make it archive-centric. As Dr. Cain described it: “I have always brought primary sources into my teaching and have tried to emphasize historical methods but getting students in the archives is fundamentally different than providing a digital copy of a 200-year-old letter or report.” He continued, “The program provided both a pedagogical community and the opportunity to dig deeply into materials from across the university’s three special collections libraries.”


The class examines the successes and triumphs of higher education but also considers its more difficult and trying past—ties to slavery and to Native American land dispossession, for example—always with an eye on its place in larger society. And it questions the celebratory stories that we tell about higher education to generate more complicated understandings for things such as the Morrill Land Grant Act and the GI Bill.


Students explore these and other issues through the rich secondary literature that they read and the archival items that they examine, such as the “rat caps” presented to a pair of students at the opening of this year’s class. The hats, which first-year students were expected to wear, were a campus tradition at UGA and elsewhere for decades. From one perspective, they point to the frivolity of campus life and importance of class activities but the changes in their appearance highlight aspects of student culture requiring additional consideration. In the mid-1950s, the caps were redesigned to mimic Confederate kepi hats as a sign of resistance to desegregation. Wrestling with of multiple aspects and meanings of such items helps students understand the complexity of the past and the importance of interrogating it in different ways.

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Professor of Higher Education

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