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Spotlight on First Year Composition: Jill Fennell’s English 102 Class Visits McClung Museum to Learn about Museum Archives and Collections

Jill Fennell’s English 102 Class Visits McClung Museum to Learn about Museum Archives and Collections

Fennell's English 102Students in English 102 learn to do qualitative, archival, and secondary-source research and to use that research in their writing. While all three types of research projects must be taught in every section of the course, different instructors approach the assignment in a variety of ways. We want to spotlight some of these teachers and the original approaches they have to their courses and the compelling work they and their students do.

Jill Fennell is a PhD student in the Department of English. She has worked closely with McClung Museum to develop and teach archival research, and her 102 course “Inquiry into the South” and students were recently mentioned in the museum’s February newsletter. They had visited to learn more about the museum’s collections and how to do archival research, one of the types of research and projects all English 102 students must complete.

The Composition Office recently talked with Ms. Fennell to find out more about her course and the incredible work she does teaching students to move beyond the classroom and to access academic resources and spaces to create projects with real-world impact.


Our interview follows:


Why did you propose a course centered on this theme?

I choose the theme “Inquiry into the South” because I knew students could use it to explore a number of different, more specified topics. I also think that it is a great topic for teaching research methods and research writing in the humanities. I always start the semester by asking the students to define the humanities, and to think about how one “does” humanities research. Having a topic of inquiry such as “the South” allows the students many avenues to do research that align with the goals of humanities studies.


What led you to create digital humanities assignments, particularly for the archival research unit?

 I started this assignment as a traditional paper, and then I realized that the actual execution of the assignment could reach a better fruition in a digital format because of more possibilities of artifact representation and a more public audience. Changing the assignment to a digital humanities project helps to give the experience an immediacy and makes the process of writing a paper for a composition class less simulated.

By asking my students to conceptualize their historical research as digital and public, it helps with discussions of the “so what” question because students can imagine real people visiting their sites, and they actually want those visitors to understand something new and special that their collection shows. And, yes, I do think that making the archival assignment a digital humanities project makes it a bit harder because I am asking the students to do something new and to think about argumentation and representation in new ways. However, I also think our students are really smart, and the more we respect their intelligence and challenge their creativity, the better we work together to produce good work.


How has using the McClung Museum’s archives made a difference in your class or allowed you and your students to do something that you wouldn’t have been able to do with other archives

 Working with McClung Museum has made a huge difference. The staff is great! Going to the museum allows students to see what professional exhibits look like, and ask questions about the process and decisions that make up a finished exhibit.

I started thinking about going to the museum the summer after I first taught the assignment. I wanted to find a way to get students to see that the work I was asking them to do was real research that real people could appreciate. In this project, I put a lot of emphasis on their “collection” as opposed to the three artifacts because I want the students to practice the synthesis of putting these objects in relation to one another to create unique meaning.


What else would you like people to know about your course? 

 As much as possible, I try to make my course (and the digital humanities project) reflect the goals of the composition program and my personal teaching philosophy. In class, I try to emphasize transfer as much as possible. I think the digital project, specifically, helps with this because when they learn WordPress, they are learning a platform that 25% of the world’s websites run on.

The foundation of my teaching philosophy boils down to trying to get the students to identify with our academic space, to identify as academics, and to think of academic research and writing as something they “do.” This is why working with the archives on campus is so important to me, and why I am so grateful to the museum and the library’s special collections for pulling objects for my students. I want them to feel like they are a part of our community. I don’t want each project to just be something for a grade in a required class, but something they want to show their friends and family.

Ms. Fennell also wanted to recognize Assistant Professor and Digital Humanities Librarian Ashley Maynor.  The work Ms. Maynor has done to facilitate digital humanities work on campus has helped instructors and students create projects like the ones Ms. Fennell’s students do. The Digital Humanities Research Guide Ms. Maynor created is a terrific resource.

You can find Ms. Fennell’s archival assignment and some of her students’ work on her WordPress site.

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