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History Comes to Life for Students on Archive Field Trip
Jen Paull, Interim Director, Nueva Center for the Humanities
Students examining book in special collections


“History is alive!” exclaimed twelfth grader Maya M. as she returned from a school field trip to the Cecil H. Green Library at Stanford University. On October 7, Upper School history teacher Tom Dorrance brought students from his "Capitalism and the Apocalypse" class to explore the stacks and special collections of the university’s largest library — an experience that became a cornerstone of this new elective.

In his course on American capitalism, Dorrance emphasizes independent historical research, and he wanted to introduce his students to archival work. He hoped to spur questions about interpreting primary sources, and to convince them with tangible evidence that “this old thing is giving you something new to say.” While brainstorming for Nueva’s upcoming Humanities Center, Dorrance raised his idea with Ann Green, a Humanities Task Force member, and luckily Green knew just whom to contact.

Tim Noakes, Public Services Manager for Special Collections at Stanford, worked with Dorrance to select a tantalizing range of material to share with students. To showcase how archives preserve many types of media, Noakes pulled together items ranging from a 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablet to an original manuscript of Allen Ginsberg's classic Beat poem "Howl." “He created a space for discovery,” Dorrance said. “There was such giddiness, the oooh and ahhhs … everyone was invited into that.”

“It was an amazing experience, seeing documents from so long ago, and being able to physically touch and hold them!” recalls Zach S. As a result, he felt “a much more visceral connection to the past and to research.”

Chelsea Denlow, an Upper School history teacher who joined the trip, saw that transformative moment in student after student. “There’s something about touching primary sources that is just magical,” she believes.

Green wholeheartedly agrees: “Special Collection visits make history real to our students in a way no internet search can.”

Students also relished visiting the library stacks, with access to a vast number of books. They came prepared with research topics of interest and started rummaging. Dorrance happily recalls “walking down an aisle, seeing students sitting in the middle of a stack row, pulling books off the shelves … they were so energized about it!”

Willow Y. gravitated to the library’s lower floors, where she loved the feeling of “being surrounded by books, and being comfortably solitary while researching something you're super-interested in ... the calming feeling in a normal library, but times a thousand.”

Dorrance credits Noakes with instilling this sense of welcome. “Tim did a great job of making it accessible. He was welcoming and made it seem like this is something [students] could do, rather than something they didn’t have the right to do.”

Noakes was equally pleased by the visit. “I have been telling everyone how great and interested the students were,” he said. “They were all so mature and it was just a wonderful experience overall!”

Student looking at a book

Dorrance noticed that after their stacks-exposure, his students felt a new validity as scholars. “Their interests were in legitimate conversation with other historians who had similar interests. It felt like more of a collective project,” he notes. While he hadn’t anticipated the impact of this sense of legitimacy before the trip, he quickly realized its importance in empowering his students.

In the weeks since their visit, several students adapted their research questions and started to explore new possibilities about what they can do with archival research. Now Dorrance sees students making connections in new ways, or clarifying their research focus based more firmly on evidence.

“A lot of us simply didn't understand what archives were, how accessible they were, and how much they have to offer for research purposes,” said Tyler G. “Our hosts at Stanford were so friendly and ... made the archives feel very accessible to us as high school students.” He and a few other classmates independently returned to the archive soon after their first visit, to keep pursuing their research.

Facilitating such experiences is one model for how the future Humanities Center could support Nueva’s students, faculty, and curricula. Upper School history teacher Arta Khakpour avers, “This is what we should be doing more of in the humanities: authentically searching in archival collections. Tom did a gigantic mitzvah in pioneering this work in his research class, and I hope we develop more classes around this approach.”

Photos by student Willow T. C. Y. '20.


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