Special Collections and University Archives

by Erin Lawrimore

As with all other work at UNCG (and elsewhere), our instructional work in SCUA has adapted to current restrictions in place to stem the spread of COVID-19. We are unable to host class visits in our reading room, thus limiting our ability to provide students with the ability to physically handle materials in our collection during instructional sessions. But we view our instructional work as critical to our overall mission in SCUA, and this work has continued – in new or adapted ways – throughout Fall 2020.

In early June, we were contacted by Dr. Lisa Levenstein, Director of UNCG’s Center for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, about a graduate-level course she was planning for Fall that would focus on the history of women and sport in the United States. Our University Archives contains a significant amount of material related to the history of physical education and sport on our campus, and we frequently work with faculty across campus to help students better understand the historical importance of activity, sport, and fitness in UNCG’s curriculum and in other campus programs. In these sessions, we typically introduce students to this history through a presentation as well as a “pop up” exhibit of interesting and important items that help illustrate the story.

In these sessions, students are often particularly enthralled by these items – particularly the historic gym suits in our collection. Seeing a black wool gym suit from the early 1900s in person helps personalize the history we are sharing. Unfortunately, COVID restrictions meant that we were unable to open the reading room and allow the class to see these fascinating materials in person. So, with Dr. Levenstein’s class in mind, we needed to figure out how we might provide both the informational content typically provided in our “history of physical education and sport” presentation and an adapted sense of the physicality of our collection holdings in an online instructional session. 

To do this, I adapted my existing presentation about the history of campus physical education and sport to include significantly more photographs, both digitized photographs from our collection and photographs of the historic gym suits we hold. Additionally, I incorporated more descriptive language into my talk to help students understand the physical elements of the materials that could not adequately be conveyed in an online setting. For example, I talked not about the activities but about the gym suits and how they feel. Finally, I sought to personalize the virtual presentation by searching our oral history collection for interview quotes from former faculty and alumni who spoke about elements of physical activity on campus.

I delivered this instructional session to the 10 graduate students in Dr. Levenstein’s course on September 21st via Zoom. After the presentation, we had a robust discussion of UNCG’s history, the history of women’s health and fitness, and my own past experience working as a woman in a major college athletics department (a career before graduate school and a career transition to archival enterprise). After the session Dr. Levenstein wrote to express her thanks for my presentation, saying “I was watching the students and they were totally hooked, thanks to the engaging way that you presented the materials and the insight you brought to the conversation. I’m sad we couldn’t visit the archives in person as I had originally hoped, but you more than made up for it.”

This course is one of many that we have adapted for Fall 2020. We anticipate that by the end of this semester, SCUA faculty and staff will have taught over 50 instructional sessions for both undergraduate and graduate courses across the curriculum. Personally, my work to adapt this presentation to an online setting will prove particularly helpful as I continue to adapt my own course (an undergraduate Honors College course focused on UNCG history and digital storytelling) to an online setting for Spring 2021. While our instructional practice – and indeed much of our work as archivists – is often centered around providing students with a hands-on research experience, these online instructional sessions continue to allow us to make an impact on student success through instruction while also providing us with the skills and knowledge needed to effectively grow our practice in the online environment.

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