Language, Power, and the College Archives

This is a post about how I partnered with the college archives to help my students interrogate language and power as part of “culturally sustaining” pedagogy. I didn’t do an IRB or plan an official study of the class, so this is a somewhat vague, but hopefully interesting/helpful, description of what what I did, what went well, and what I would do differently next time.

Courtesy of the College and Lutheran Archives at Gustavus Adolphus College

Short version:

For an “academic success” class designed for multilingual students at Gustavus Adolphus College that is supposed to, among other things, improve students’ academic communication skills, I used the archives to enact a culturally sustaining pedagogy approach by theming the class as an investigation into the multilingual and international history of the college which was supposed to result in a Wikipedia Editing Project as the final outcome. Part of the goal with this themes was to unseat the idea of one, necessary “academic” language by interrogating the complicated linguistic/cultural history of the college. Our research questions were: Who were the first international students? Who were the first multilingual students? What languages were used for instruction and when/why? We read a lot, but also turned to the college archives for answers. We never made it to the Wikipedia editing part (thanks COVID), but students did seem to learn a lot about their college, their place within it, and why archives are important, in addition to practicing the academic skills we were after, like discussion, reading/writing, critical thinking, etc., and interrogating the power-laden and shifting notions of “academic language.”

What was the class?

This was an “academic success” course designed for multilingual and international students designed to help new students adjust, and to help continuing students re-establish their footing. It was much like a tiny first-year seminar, but students could take it any time. The course is meant to help multilingual students find community together, articulate their academic goals, and practice common academic skills like class discussion, critical reading, writing for revision, presentation skills, etc. It did bear credit, but not towards any major or particular general education designation. It bore half the credit of a usual class because it was only half a semester. We ran it twice a semester every semester.

The class was capped at 10, and usually had between 8-12 students. The class was open to any “multilingual” student, which they could define in any way they wanted. The class was usually split roughly down the middle between international (studying on a visa) and domestic students (often either born here or came to U.S. some time between 3-13 years old). Most were first year or second year students. Sometimes a junior or two would take in. In some cases a few seniors would take it to get a boost in their GPA and a nice re-set of their academic goals/strategies as they looked towards grad school. I did some differentiated instruction in which some assignments had slightly different expectations/grading rubrics/scaffolding between the first and second year students vs. the third and fourth year students.

As I started teaching this course at Gustavus, I quickly realized that it worked better when we had something specific to discuss, read, write, and present about. So I started coming up with a new theme every 1-2 semesters. For the iteration I’m talking about here, the theme was the international/multilingual history of the college. Our class readings were personal essays from international and multilingual Minnesotans, history excerpts about the college, the college Wikipedia page, relevant news, etc. We used those readings as a basis for our reading, writing, discussion activities. We moved from secondary sources to primary sources as we got deeper into the history of the college, which is when we turned to the archives to look at photos and documents. Students were going to make a group edit on the college’s Wikipedia page and do presentations about what edit they made and why, when COVID hit and half-semester classes like mine simply ended early as the college took a pause and decided what to do.

Why this assignment theme?

I did this theme because I thought it would be a good way to enact culturally sustaining pedagogy. Here is the founding text for CSP, but the way I understand it for myself is to 1) acknowledge/affirm/center the students’ existing literacies, languages, and cultures; 2) use those to backgrounds to leverage into the thing you’re supposed to be teaching them (let them have a substantial role in identifying and articulating those learning objectives or else you will undo some of #1); and 3) model and teach them to be critical of the institutions in which they find themselves. (For this context that means institutions of higher education, “academic English” as an institutional project, institutional definitions of “success,” etc.) These three things are not necessarily chronological steps, although I find that #1 comes early, #2 is iterative, and #3 begins later and crescendos towards the end of my courses.

I knew a little about the history of the college, and as I learned more, I thought it might lend itself well to CSP methods. Gustavus Adolphus College is a small, private liberal arts college about an hour drive South of Minneapolis, Minnesota. As you may already know, parts of the Midwest were populated heavily by immigrants from Norway and Sweden, displacing much of the native population. You can read here about the Dakota War, the concentration camp at Fort Snelling, and mass execution of Dakota warriors at Mankato.

Gustavus embraces its Swedish Lutheran heritage and is proud of its history. The flag of the college is the three crowns. The college offers robust, high quality study away programs to Sweden, and also brings in a steady stream of international and exchange students from Sweden each academic year. The Scandinavian Studies program is well-known, and the college regularly draws on Swedish traditions and aesthetics in various college-wide events, ceremonies, signage, etc.

While Gustavus is proud of its Swedish, Lutheran heritage, the college has a tradition of trying to be sure every student feels they belong and has opportunities to embrace and share their own various cultural and linguistic backgrounds. For example, International Festival and Africa Night are among the most highly anticipated events on campus. There are a wealth of student cultural organizations, and there is a robust International Friendship Family program. (Does it sound like I’m talking them up and I loved it there? Well, it’s true! I loved it there!)

However, Gustavus has historically struggled with the same challenges that all predominantly white, monolingual institutions of higher education face—how to go beyond surface-level diversity/inclusion and move towards equity? How can the college both identify the particular needs/concerns of particular groups, like international students, without othering them? How do you know when DEI is “working”—enrollment? retention? grades? where/how students arrange themselves in groups in the cafeteria? which students speak up in class? This was the context for the creation of the position I was in, and the creation of the course we created.

My theory here was that the pressures to assimilate, the fraught expectations of “academic” English, the raciolinguistic profiling of the multilingual/international students could be resisted by centering immigration/multilingualism in the college’s history, within the context of Minnesota’s settler/colonial history. What does it mean to be asked to achieve “academic success” using “academic English” at a college begun in Swedish by Swedish immigrants on land where Dakota speakers were forcibly removed and some placed in English-only boarding schools?

Some more specific/logistical info about what we did:

I had at least two meetings with the archive staff before the class began. One to just pitch my idea and discuss with them what I was thinking. Professor and archivist Jeff Jenson and Adrianna Darden, the archives collections and record manager, were enthusiastic and helpful, and really helped me shape a thoughtful journey for my students. After our first meeting, Jeff and Adrianna took some time to identify and select items that would be useful for the critical thinking, discussion, and writing I wanted to see from the students. They previewed these items in a second follow up meeting to make our plans more concrete.

Jeff and I scheduled two class “field trips” to the archives. The first trip was after the students were oriented to the course, knew each other fairly well, and had read a fair amount about the history of the college already, and had discussed it a bit together. This first trip was an orientation to the archives, and a hands-on tour. The orientation/tour day included a very helpful activity Jeff prepared to help students reflect on what archives are and why they matter. The second visit was scheduled soon after, and was an exploration visit. Jeff and Adrianna had the most relevant boxes selected and set out on tables. By now the students knew what to do and what they wanted to know—so they dug in! We started that visit reviewing our research questions, then explored in the boxes, and then finished our visit with a reflection/wrap up.

What went well:

Students participated in engaging discussions about the college and what it means to them to be there. Students actually care about their college and what their place is within it, and this investigation into the history of the college helped them see their place in the bigger, albeit complicated, picture. It was much easier to coax discussion, reading, and writing out of students when the topic felt real and relevant.

Just having students in the archives at all was a win! I learned that most students have no idea what “archives” are or why they are important. Students reported that they had walked by that part of the library before but did not ever realize/investigate what it was—they were really surprised and very enthusiastic about it. They loved looking at old photos and old maps of how the college used to be laid out.

Students noticed how changes in power result in different language policies on institutions of learning, like English in the residential Indian schools, but Swedish in the college. Later, as English became more dominant among immigrant groups at the college, rules had to be put in place to enforce Swedish use on campus (including a rule for Swedish in the dorms). They noticed how the curriculum changed when the instruction shifted from Swedish to English. As I’d hoped, they critically engaged with what “academic English/language” means and to whom.

The students declared that the college had always been multilingual and international, so to ask “who were the first international/multilingual students” was the wrong question.

The students engaged critically with the history around student organizations at the college. One student was a member of the “Pan African” Student Organization (PASO), and got interested in its history as the “Black” Student Organization. Another student was interested in the history of the “International Cultures Club,” which used to be called the “Foreign Students” Club. We had good discussion about the change in terms and why, and, with a little prodding, students noticed that the two clubs started around the same time, and roughly coincided with the Civil Rights Movement. One student discovered that there used to be a “Spanish House”—a residential space in which only Spanish is spoken—and asked good questions about why it doesn’t exist anymore, but Swedish House still does. She eventually proclaimed her intention to try to get the college to reinstate it.

What could have gone better:

COVID hit and so our class, which was only a seven week class, ended two weeks early, before students were able to make their chosen Wikipedia edits or do final presentations.

The course may have had too many moving parts for such a small span of time, even without COVID. Students had to learn about Wikipedia, read about the history of the college, learn what archives were and how to use them, etc.—sometimes it felt like a lot for just 7 weeks.

I’d like to have prepared more guiding worksheets/materials for archive visit days just to help structure the time and help the students keep a record of what they found/learned to use for their writing/discussion/presentation assignments. It seemed to be a bit of stimulation overload at times and it was not always easy for them (or me) to know what the specific take-aways should be.

For the future:

I will absolutely be experimenting with archives collaboration again. I’m still getting my footing at my new institution, and the context is very different. Different student population, different type of institution, different department, etc., but I’m playing around with the idea of using the digital archives here at Oakland University for a project about the history of college slang for my introductory linguistics courses I teach. Not sure yet what I’ll do yet, but I will blog about it once I do!