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Course Assignments

In addition to in-class use of special collections, the department's reading rooms also serve as humanities research labs as students complete course assignments by engaging with primary resources. Below are examples of course assignments designed specifically towards enhancing learning through special collections research.

HIS 374: History of the American West 

Professor Martha Sandweiss's undergraduate course, History of the American West, asks students to engage with primary resources in two assignments.  The first, a transcription assignment, requires students to think and write like a historian as they try to make sense of an original nineteenth-century western manuscript.  The second assignment asks students to select a photograph from the twentienth-century American West and approach the image as a historian approaches literary documents, requiring them to think about the special challenges of visual evidence.

Assignment One: Transcribing the West

Example of Student Work: Transcription Website

Assignment Two: Photographs as Historical Documents

Example of Student Paper: Reading Family and Community Histories

ENG 350:  Literature of the American Renaissance, 1820-1860

An assignment for Professor Joshua Kotin's undergraduate course challenged students to think about canon formation by identifying a poem, story, or essay, from the mid-nineteenth century, that has not been reprinted since 1900.  The assignment led to fascinating discoveries -- in this case, to a chemistry textbook owned by Edgar Allan Poe and a poem written in Poe's hand on the first free end paper.    

Rare Books Assignment: What's Remembered, What's Forgotten

       Example of Student Paper: The Purloined Poet

HIS 401 / ART491: Artifacts, Images and History: The American Southwest

In the fall of 2011, Bryan R. Just, Curator and Lecturer in the Art of the Ancient Americas, and Martha Sandwiess, Professor of History, co-taught a course that focused on the close analysis of a collection of objects and images from the American Southwest in the collections of the Princeton University Art Museum, the Department of Geosciences and Special Collections, and Firestone Library. The materials ranged from Mimbres ceramics (1000-1150 C.E.) to Hopi kachinas, Pueblo ceramics and Navajo textiles from the 19th and 20th centuries; and from early 19th century exploration prints to photographs produced for the tourist trade in the mid-twentieth century. Through the careful study of these selected materials as primary source objects, the students exploreed larger questions relating to the American acquisition of the Southwest, the history of American archeology, the image of the Southwest and its Native peoples in the popular American imagination, and Princeton‘s institutional involvement with the region and its peoples.  The research done by students as a part of this course will contribute to a future exhibition to be mounted at the Princeton University Art Museum.

Assignment: Write a 5-7 page research paper about an object in the University’s collections of material objects from the American Southwest. Your paper should describe the object and place it an historical context by addressing issues related to its creation, use, and provenance.

Example of Student Paper: Tin-Framed Photograph