Beyond the Archival Turn: The DALN as Heuristic

Launched in 2008, no other archival collection is quite like the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN). While other oral history compendia, digital collections and finding aids exist, the DALN is unique in its expansiveness (over 7000 distinct narratives to date), sustainable sponsorship (The Ohio State University and Georgia State University), and potential for comprehensive applicability within interdisciplinary classroom pedagogy. The Archive as Classroom lives up to the promise inherent in the DALN, an organic archive. This volume surpasses expectations by touching on salient issues in rhetoric and composition: storytelling, globalization, digital composition, building a vertical writing curriculum, allowing research subjects their own voices, literacy sponsorship, research methods, performance, and so on. Yet, this collection offers so much more. As a researcher with a long-time interest in archival research methods, I am struck by essays that focus on larger issues facing humanities scholars, pieces that highlight ways in which the DALN can mentor, encourage a sense of serendipity in primary research, foster student publishing, and ultimately bring archival research to life by offering beginning scholars ways to understand issues of positionality through embodied illustrations of how one might ethically connect academic work and personal interests.

Modelling Archival Collation

Readers will find that the publishing format of The Archive as Classroom renders this volume of materials itself to be a meta-collection; the project’s digital structure offers a model for ordering and collating archival materials. I like to get my hands dirty, bury myself in the bowels (sometimes literally) of special collections holdings, open boxes while wearing cotton gloves, peer at marginalia, hold my breath as I view fragile works bolstered by foam supports. However, the time comes, even for the most traditional of archival scholars, when one must organize findings (whether physical or digital) by creating a template for making sense of ephemera and artifacts. In Working in the Archives, Nan Johnson describes her methods for organizing her archival collection of 19th-Century materials in the literal shape of a wheel, one where she can physically rearrange and manipulate the spokes in her living room as her research questions shift. Of course, most researchers don’t have the resources to acquire and build their own archives—or the spaces in their homes to store and sort them—but in my courses, I’ve adopted Johnson’s organizational wheel template by printing out a simple grade-school graphic organizer, asking students to chart and develop emerging topics visually. This simple wheel serves as a gateway for students to create project-specific material/digital blueprints to organize and manipulate both their emerging research questions and findings, in much the same way that the structure and delivery of The Archive as Classroom invites readers to rethink organization schema for both archival curation and collation of primary research findings. Navigation among this collection’s digital contents is seamless, and yet the separate sections and entries of this electronic book also print out beautifully if readers want to somatically peruse or rearrange chapters or sections of this work.

Meaning Making in the DALN

As I worked my way through the digital collection of essays in this volume, I was impressed with the ease of the organizational structure, the engaging introductions to each section of the text, the chatty conversational tone of the editors’ signposts throughout the sections and explanations of how teachers might use the pieces collected herein. In the hands of this text’s editors and contributors, the potential of the DALN for classroom instruction is made clear. I’ll talk about the work in terms of the editors’ logical subsections (“Digital,” “Archives,” “Literacy,” “Narrative); however, the noteworthy “Alternate Paths” feature of the text, realized through tagging and a separate and annotated Table of Contents, savvily expands how readers might navigate this collection in unpredicated ways—and offers a model for future collections (digital and print). This alternate categorization itself suggests research questions for students, while the tagging respects individual teachers and students’ pedagogical needs, local (and sometimes mandated/fixed) course designs, and the archival and interdisciplinary nature of the collected essays, which shouldn’t be boxed in or limited by the editors’ TOC arrangement.

Within the four primary subdivisions, I applaud the guiding questions designed to help negotiate the contributions. The essays in the “Digital” section, for example, teach students how to engage in video production and activism, value a wide range of literacy skills, and revisit social media sites through a new lens. Furthermore, these essays offer ways to teach a global perspective on the significance of the DALN, as Mary Helen O’Connor, contributor to this first section, explains: “Literacy narratives of refugee students in the DALN live as evidence of the struggles, memories, and sacrifices of a massive portion of the global population.” Citing Syrian writer Lina Sergie Attar, O’Connor emphatically states that because “[s]o many people have disappeared, so many people are dead… That part of history will be erased unless we are all working to keep it recorded somewhere. That’s where I feel our work is, in between memory and history” (qtd in O’Conner).

Next, the “Archive” section encourages students to form their own research questions and develop investigative agendas. Throughout the text, readers find ways to blend qualitative and quantitative methods of inquiry, integrate primary and secondary research findings, and write personal narratives to explore researcher perspectives. I am particularly interested in the hands-on advice associated with curating archives that is embedded within this section—specifically practices reinforcing that the archives are not static (Schmertz); that archival research easily leads to publishable projects, often between students and teachers (FitzGerald & Kairis); and that archival research can foster thinking outside traditional (sometimes polarizing) concepts of composition courses (Kuzawa). The sections within The Archive as Classroom are not mutually exclusive; for example, the “Archive” section furthers discussions of erasure, disruption, and silencing (Selfe & Ulman) introduced in the first section of the work.

Section Three, “Literacy,” highlights fluid spaces between academia and everyday life that are ripe for literacy research and archival investigation: religion (Bahl), undergraduate research (Alexander), scientific literacy (Anderson), and mentoring (Myatt & Kreuger). Welcoming students to academia, “The DALN as Mentor Text: Empowering Students as Literacy Agents” calls to mind Nancy Myers’s earlier claim that “in disciplines with pedagogical traditions, a text can provide that personal and professional access that is often viewed as the role of a human mentor” (2008, p. 229-230). She envisions academic texts having the power to serve as “illustrators, guides, and providers,” ones that specifically can “mentor individual pedagogies” (p. 233). The Archive as Classroom certainly does just that.

The focus of the “Narrative” section is fittingly on storytelling—since personal stories are at the heart of the DALN. The essays here demonstrate how narratives can become pathways for understanding a greater swath of people and cultures, defining literacy in broader strokes, and building awareness. As in the other sections, “Narrative” takes up issues of globalization (Mina), socially responsible pedagogies (Rodríguez), and undergraduate research methods (Smith). Storytelling is central to archival methodology. Katherine Adams claims that ultimately “[d]ocuments must grow into storytelling or they are not really worth writing about. But the path of document to story is a treacherous one, with inferences made by the writer, often based on her own prejudices, and thus her own story” (personal interview qtd in Gaillet, 2012, p. 51). Essays in the “Narrative” section of this volume address Adams’s concerns by breathing life into literacy narratives, asking students to become ethical interviewers, and teaching reflective research practices.

Incorporating Primary Research in Writing Instruction

Most fittingly, The Archive as Classroom concludes with, well… an archive. Appended to this collection, readers will find a treasure trove of practical pedagogical materials (syllabi, assignments, reading lists, etc.) to adopt, manipulate, and use as inspiration for teaching with primary sources. I’ve found throughout the years that teachers are initially quite enthusiastic about adopting archival research methods in writing classes, but when the rubber meets the road, they aren’t sure how to practically redesign their pedagogy to accommodate this shift; interest in archival research pedagogy often gets translated into an add-on assignment within traditional course designs. In writing Primary Research: People, Places, and Spaces, a primer for grounding composition classes in archival research methods, Michelle Eble and I (2016) made sure to include as many primary research specific pre- and post-reading questions, in-class assignments, writing prompts, and examples of student work as possible to help teachers glean ways to incorporate archives fully into course (re)designs. We went so far as to adopt all archival references in the citation examples of the MLA and APA style guide chapters. While issues of archival research are ubiquitous in rhetoric and composition scholarship, we are just now at a moment when practical materials and adoptable course plans are becoming available. This appendix, along with the referenced website, invites teachers to imagine ways they might shift existing pedagogy to include teaching with primary resources. I suggest that the editors adopt the tagging/annotation features found in the collection as they add supplemental web materials, using the framing of the alternate pathways as both an organizational tool and a kind of finding aid for what I hope will be an organic companion website.

The Archive as Classroom is bold, resistant, and generative in its commitment to blurring boundaries within course designs. Embedded within each essay, contributors imply future directions for curriculum revision in general and adoption of archival research methods specifically. I applaud the editors first for fostering the impressive and sustainable archive housed in the DALN and now for compiling a rich collection of pedagogical advice and materials for navigating it. Oral histories are necessary to understanding a particular cultural moment and local communities, to preserving the past and ensuring that the present endures, to capturing voices across race, culture, gender, and socioeconomic demographics. The DALN addresses this need in its commitment to literacy, and the contributors to The Archive as Classroom map ways first to encourage students to recognize the value of oral histories (research subjects speaking in their own voices) and then to train students to both access and do this research. How might other researchers take up this call? What other oral history projects might The Archive as Classroom model suggest for gathering diverse primary materials and providing pedagogical guides for teaching ways to research and write about community artifacts? And how can we sustain digitally archived collections or oral history projects in a time of rapid technological change and decreased funding for humanities projects? The editors and contributors to this volume provide inspiration, heuristics, and a model to help us address these questions. When viewed together, the organic nature of the DALN along with this scholarly volume make clear that archives are not static receptacles of known information, but rather spaces for democratic archival collection and meaning making.


Gaillet, L. L. (2012). Performing archival research methodologies. College Composition and Communication, 64(1), p. 35-58.

Gaillet, L. L. & Eble, M. (2016). Primary research: People, places, and spaces. New York: Routledge.

Johnson, N. (2010). Autobiography of an archivist. In A. Ramsey, W.B. Sharer, B. L’Eplattenier, & L. Mastrangelo (Eds.), Working in the archives: Practical research methods for rhetoric and composition (pp. 290-300). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Univerity Press.

Myers, N. (2008). Textual mentors: Twenty-five years with The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook.In Eble, M.F. & Gaillet, L.L. (Eds.), Stories of mentoring: Theory and praxis, (pp. 229-234). West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press.