Undergraduates Curate an Exhibit: ENGL 444 Imagining the U.S. Civil War

Written by Leslie McAbee, GRC and graduate student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature

For the past few days I’ve been looking back at the photos of the ENGL 444 students standing alongside their cases for the opening of their Civil War exhibit at the Wilson Library on April 24th. In nearly every photo, students are guiding visitors through the materials they have researched and curated. They wear smiles that show their sense of pride and accomplishment, but most of all they look full of stories to tell: about their forays into the Wilson Library archives, their quick transformation from a class to a tight-knit, energized community, and about the items they carefully selected and researched for the exhibit. I had the honor of contributing a small part as GRC to making this experiment in undergraduate experiential learning a tremendous success.

Courtesy of UNC Library. Photo by Kelly Creedon

Courtesy of UNC Library. Photo by Kelly Creedon

Dr. Eliza Richards’ course, Imagining the U.S. Civil War (ENGL 444), challenged students to shuck any expectations for a traditional literature class model. This meant taking reading and analysis to the next level by directly sharing it in a public exhibit of Civil War literature: stories, poems, diaries, letters, memoirs, photographs, and illustrations. With the help of research librarians, especially Emily Kader of the Rare Book Collection, students dove deep into Wilson library’s holdings of Civil War literature and textual materials. They discovered little-known texts and explored topics that provide a textured history of the Civil War that goes beyond the predominant cultural memory of the war, which focuses on mass-casualty battles and famous military leaders. After their thoughtful selection of texts for the exhibit cases, students researched the authors, content, and context of each piece. Tommy Nixon, a research librarian with Davis Library, steered students to relevant sources that might illuminate the histories of even the most obscure authors and poets.

Dr. Richards and I worked closely with students as they composed the labels for the items and the cases that had themes chosen by the students, like “Life on the Frontlines,” “Prisoners and Suffering,” “Confederate and Union Poetry,” and “Women in War.”  Though most students worked in groups or pairs, we mentored students on a one-on-one basis to discuss research strategies and how to incorporate their findings into their writings. Writing for a public exhibition provided a unique opportunity to teach students to write clearly, concisely, and engagingly, an achievement only made possible through extensive revision. I had the pleasure of working intensively with the pair of students mounting the case on children’s literature of the Civil War, Anna Spivey and Wan Ting Lin. Both students–one a foreign exchange student from Taiwan—dedicated themselves to the difficult task of revision. At each meeting, we read aloud the label drafts and talked through the changes that would make the writing and content appeal to a general audience. What was most wonderful to see was that with each meeting, these students became increasingly independent in practicing rigorous revision on their own.

Courtesy of UNC Library. Photo by Kelly Creedon

Courtesy of UNC Library. Photo by Kelly Creedon

On the night of the exhibit’s opening, the Saltarelli exhibition room hummed with the confident voices of students presenting new ways of understanding the Civil War in the year of its sesquicentennial anniversary. I am certain that as I develop my own teaching philosophy and course designs, my time working with this class, with its unique focus on experiential learning will prove invaluable.

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