SAA workshop: Teaching with Special Collections

Back in the beforetimes, I submitted a proposal to the Shakespeare Association of America to run a workshop in the planned spring 2021 annual meeting in Austin on “Teaching with Special Collections.” My hope was to do the same thing that drives much of what I do—to help demystify the types of teaching that can happen in collaboration between faculty and rare materials librarians.

And then came the plague. So I’m writing a note now about how things will look in the workshop in light of travel not feeling safe and universities and libraries not being open for in-person teaching as we’ve been used to it. If you’ve been considering this workshop but are unsure how it fits into the Covid world, please read on.

tl;dr Remote participation is ok; we will talk about remote/digital-first teaching; sign up for workshops/seminars by September 15th.

Here’s the official blurb that’s in the SAA Bulletin:

Do you want to teach with rare materials but feel unsure if your library has suitable texts? Are you scared of bibliography but want to be able to encourage students to think about the materiality of texts? By doing advance readings and exercises and then sharing assignments with the workshop, participants will develop approaches to teaching with special collections and tools to do so confidently, whether or not they are based at institutions with loads of early books.

I kept hearing from Shakespeareans (and librarians) that they wished they could teach with their institution’s special collections, but that they didn’t have the right collections—no early printed Shakespeare, no early printed books, no Shakespeare, no whatever it was that they thought was necessary. But none of that is needed! There are lots of great ways we can teach about Shakespeare with rare materials that are not Shakespeare or are not old. You can use 19th- or 20th-century Shakespeare to explore concepts of how a text’s appearance shapes readership and indicates cultural values; you can extrapolate back to how 17th- and 18th-century readers experienced Shakespeare in print. You could look at a bunch of different genres of older or newer texts to think about the ways in which different categories of text appear in different modes of print and manuscript and then think about putting early Shakespeare in that context or imagine creating the plays or poems in different material circumstances. I am not exaggerating when I say that I believe that there are endless ways to successfully teach Shakespeare or early modern courses with rare materials at any institution. And it is worth it to do so!


My goal in the workshop remains the same as it has always been: to create excitement around using libraries and rare materials in literature courses and to empower teachers and librarians to experiment and collaborate. Students who work with old stuff, however you want to define that, tend to come out of the experience feeling genuinely excited about themselves as researchers and investigators. That’s good for them, for teachers, and for libraries. It might feel scary to those of us who weren’t trained that way, but I promise we can all learn the techniques needed to succeed.

Now, with this new and shifting landscape we’re in, how are we going to create that sense of excitement and empowerment if we can no longer gather in groups in poorly ventilated rooms to look at texts together? This is the continuing and urgent question that many of us are wrestling with. And it will be part of the workshop, too. Digital collections are not the same as analog ones, but we can still make them effective and interesting. (As part of the online #SHARPinFocus week that substituted for the planned SHARP conference, I ran a session on “Teaching Material Texts without the Material” that had lots of discussion around this topic and some great ideas for those of you invested in materiality-heavy courses; the video was recorded and there were notes with links to resources and brainstorming in a google doc as well, all available now through the SHARP in Focus web page.)

Our workshop will do some brief readings about teaching with special collections, participants will do an exercise or two designed to build familiarity with their collections, and it will culminate in sharing syllabi or assignments that have been created for the workshop. There won’t be a paper, and there will be feedback and an opportunity to add to your pedagogical repertoire. It’s really a win-win situation. (Plus, as you can tell, I’m really enthusiastic about this and am looking forward to cheerleading for you and learning from you.)

A few other coronavirus logistics that are important: SAA has waived its usual requirement of in-person participation. I am anticipating that many of us will not feel safe or be able to travel to Austin for the meeting, and I building into the workshop structure the ability for it to work for remote participation. SAA has also created a “zero dollar” membership level for those experiencing financial hardship during this. (The details of this are on the front page of the June Bulletin; the full issue has information about the program and other logistics.)

If you’ve never done SAA before, make sure you read through the site to see how it works (you sign up for 4 ranked choices and get assigned to them as they are open; there’s no application or proposal; you do need to be a member to sign up, but, again, there’s a no-fee option this year). And feel free to ask me questions about this workshop or about SAA in general.

Thanks for reading my boosterish post and I hope I’ll see some of you there!