Processing and Interpretating the Mervyn M. Dymally Papers
Beginning in the fall of 2019, lecturer Dr. Dawn A. Dennis and Azalea Camacho, Archivist and Special Collections Librarian, developed a project-based, active-learning experience through teaching history, archival practice, and primary source analysis. Together we explored various options to engage undergraduate students beyond the classroom by embedding archival practice throughout an undergraduate race and ethnicity history course. The focus of this unique collaboration cultivates critical thinkers about history through the use of inquiry-based learning, information literacy, and research skills.
Two sections of the same history course, History 2050: Race and Ethnicity in the United States, met weekly in the college archives to process the Dymally papers. The collection, which includes over 300 boxes of materials, consists of legislative files, correspondence, committee and congressional files, press releases, speeches, and photographs.
Cal State LA students come from a working-class and commuter background, are majority first-generation, are ethnically and racially diverse, and represent a varied range of academic skills. As an original contribution to existing scholarship, this work distinguishes itself as these students represent the first two history courses at the college to process eighty-two out of the nearly three-hundred boxes that make up the Dymally collection. The History 2050 course focuses on race and ethnicity’s intersections with culture, gender and socio-economic class in American history. Most of the students enrolled in these classes were not history majors and represented a diverse cross-section of students studying at Cal State LA. Dymally’s papers are important to the study of race, immigration, and ethnicity in this nation, and the diaspora.
Equally important is equity of student access to learning distinct skills. Undergraduate, underrepresented, and/or first-generation students should learn research skills earlier in their college academic careers. As educators, we introduced students to the collection in the college archives in hopes of sparking inquiry and teaching specific skills outlined in the student-learning framework for this project:
- Acquire primary source, information, visual, and digital literacy skills.
- Learn about collective memory, cultural heritage, and individual/cultural perspectives.
- Understanding of archival processing and the importance of preservation.
- Develop historical thinking skills by learning about Dymally’s role in Los Angeles politics, and in the larger national landscape.
The use of primary sources found while processing encouraged curiosity and inquiry beyond the classroom setting. Select course readings that covered the origins, growth, and challenges of archives enhanced student understanding of race and ethnicity in the nation. Students constructed their own arguments based on evidence and connected primary sources into the context in which they were created. To prepare for the processing, students attended three workshops organized by the archivist and were given an archival processing guidebook. One section of the class, worked on processing photographs, while the other section, worked on correspondence. As students processed the collection, they developed their skills in analyzing primary sources by identifying items that related to the themes and subject areas that were covered in class.
Students also completed inventory worksheets for each box and submitted an exhibit worksheet at the end of the course. Special Collections and Archives staff compiled the data collected by students to include in the container list section of the finding aid, which will assist the archivist with the final arrangement of the collection.
Students that processed the collection represented majors that ranged from math, technological sciences, electrical and civil engineering, criminal justice, and biological and cognitive sciences. Students enhanced their information literacy skills and historical thinking skills through the use of primary sources. Students in both courses indicated that through archival processing they gained real-life skills, such as organizational methods, hierarchies, and various measures used in data collection, collaboration and teamwork, and close attention to project details.
Students in History 3450: Urban History created exhibition materials as labels that asked students to practice writing succinct and compelling content built on research and for a specific audience and purpose. These transferable writing skills are highly sought after by employers in diverse fields as communication shifts to writing for the web.
As we moved to virtual learning in Spring 2020, students in the fall sections of History 3450 continued to write exhibit label content and analysis of materials that are included in this exhibit.
Students in History 2050 and History 3450 courses became part of the collaborative process of building an archival collection from inception to an online exhibition that will create new knowledge, facilitate intentional dialogue, and produce research and scholarship opportunities for future students and faculty.