by Amy McDonald, Assistant University Archivist, with extensive contributions from Kate Collins, Research Services Librarian
For the past several years, the Duke University Archives has welcomed students from an introductory writing course, “Sports and Social Inequality.” The course provides some preparation for engaging with archival documents—such as photographs of members of a 1930s honorary athletic society dressed in blackface, and stereotypical media descriptions of Asian-American athletes. But confronting those materials in an instruction session can still be a shock. When University Archives staff checked with other Rubenstein Library instructors, we realized that teaching with difficult materials was a challenge we all struggled with.
The Rubenstein Library’s collections document a wide range of history, including some of the ugliest parts, such as racist and anti-Semitic language and imagery, as well as graphic descriptions and depictions of violence. As a group, we began to work toward a shared way of framing these materials in our instruction and were able to introduce our code of ethics—called “Our Approach to Instruction”—in January 2019.
For each course that visits the Rubenstein Library, we often have only one class session to reach all of the students as a group. With such a limited amount of time to make an impression, our code of ethics needed to state our values up-front and clearly, and in a way that demonstrated a commitment to centering students.
At the heart of “Our Approach to Instruction” is a recognition of both the academic knowledge and lived experiences students bring to our classrooms, as these inform and shape their understanding of and emotional reactions to history and primary sources. For this reason, our code of ethics is intended to be used in all classes, not just those with obviously uncomfortable or upsetting material.
It’s been a pleasant surprise to see widespread support for our code of ethics. During instruction sessions, we’ve observed students absorbing and applying it through the questions they ask and the interpretations they bring to the materials in front of them. Faculty members have reinforced its messages over the course of their students’ interactions with primary sources. Instruction librarians across the country have gotten in touch via email and social media with questions and suggestions, as well as the news that they’ve adapted this approach in their own instruction sessions.
We’ve brought the code of ethics along with us as we’ve shifted into online or asynchronous teaching for the 2020-2021 academic year. With our time “in front of” students further limited, our code of ethics has helped us to quickly establish a shared foundation for exploration and discussion. Even our new instruction modules—lesson plans incorporating digitized Rubenstein Library materials that provide an alternative to face-to-face instruction sessions—incorporate the code of ethics. A case in point: the Exploring the Chanticleer module, in which students might encounter offensive images in Duke’s yearbook. Or The Eugenics in North Carolina module, which introduces students to this still-contested and upsetting chapter in North Carolina’s history.
When the Rubenstein Library’s instructors created “Our Approach to Instruction,” we did so with the understanding that it would be a living document, open to frequent reassessment and revision. We commit to keeping it a central and evolving part of our teaching toolkit. And we encourage you to share your thoughts about it with us!