Starting the Collaboration

--by Joel Tannenbaum, CCP History Professor

Students at Community College of Philadelphia are an extremely heterodox group. They arrive in the classroom with a wide range of experiences, skills, and aptitudes. This is never more clear to me than when I assign a research paper to a group of students. Some have been writing research papers since their sophomore year of high school. Others arrive at CCP having never been asked to draft more than a paragraph, let alone a paper that requires archival research.  

Research (finding material) and interpretation (determining what the material means) are distinct skills. Teaching one of them effectively in a single semester at an open-access institution is a tall order, let alone both. At an expensive liberal arts school, students often learn the research side with the aid of librarians and archivists who are on-hand to show them the ins-and-outs of navigating a well-funded and well-maintained university library. This frees their professor (already enjoying the benefits of smaller class sizes) to focus on interpretation. Students in a history class at a community college do not enjoy such advantages.  

Joel Tannenbaum and class in PHS reading room
Joel Tannenbaum and class in PHS reading room, Fall 2017

These were the sorts of thoughts going through my head when I first met with Fred and Jenny from the Presbyterian Historical Society to hammer out the details of a proposed collaboration. PHS employs a staff of highly skilled archivists who collectively maintain a huge repository of historical materials. PHS was also interested in becoming more accessible to the community at large. 

In other words, PHS had resources but needed students. I had students but needed resources. These mutual needs became the basis for what I believe to have been a remarkable relationship, one that can serve as a model for future collaborations between public educational institutions and private libraries, archives and museums.  

Based on the range of paper topics and thematics in my syllabus, Jenny took the lead in creating document sets drawn from the PHS archives. A typical document set was organized around a theme related to nineteenth century American history (temperance, the colonization movement, the intersection of abolition and the women’s suffrage movement). Each set would contain a series of archival documents related to that theme (an editorial, a sermon, a political cartoon) and a brief “secondary” source, usually written by a historian, for context.  

PHS had resources but needed students. I had students but needed resources. These mutual needs became the basis for what I believe to have been a remarkable relationship.  

After a series of scaffolding activities conducted by the instructor, PHS staff, or both, students arrived at the PHS archives with a topic in mind and were given the document set related to that topic. This “some assembly required” approach asked the students to take the sources in the document set and carefully build them into a thesis supported by evidence, aided throughout the process by both the instructor and the PHS staff. Eventually, Hannah was brought on to create “context” documents designed to situate each archival item in time and space for the user. The results of this project were 1) the truly excellent source sets that can be downloaded on this website and 2) a carefully calibrated approach to teaching interpretive skills while simultaneously promoting familiarity with the archival environment.  

There is a tacit assumption throughout American higher education that, while community colleges are valuable institutions, community college students should nonetheless be expected to “fly coach”—settling for larger class sizes, more meager resources, and less institutional support. Building Knowledge and Breaking Barriers proves that this needn’t be the case. With a bit of imagination and dedication, public institutions like Community College of Philadelphia and private institutions like the Presbyterian Historical Society can combine forces to provide community college students with the first-class learning environments they deserve instead of the economy class ones for which they have traditionally been asked to settle.

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