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A Novel Approach: Teaching Research through Narrative

The Dartmouth College Archives are full of great stories. With a history as long and varied as ours, there is always something interesting to uncover.

Charles "Stubbie" Pearson '42
Charles "Stubbie" Pearson '42

We tend to get most excited when we find a story with good teaching or research potential. A favorite is the life of Charles "Stubbie" Pearson '42, a tragic hero in the history of Dartmouth College. He was the 1942 valedictorian, captain of the football and basketball teams, a poet, scholar, and inspirational leader on campus. Along with dozens of his classmates, he joined the Navy upon graduation and became a Navy pilot. In 1944 he was killed in action in the Pacific while dive-bombing an enemy ship.

Several years ago, Special Collections Librarian Jay Satterfield worked with Stephanie Boone in the Writing program to develop a class session where students puzzled out Stubbie’s life history as a way to help them understand the construction of narrative and to highlight the use of primary sources in building research projects.

The exercise grew out of Stephanie’s request to find primary sources that would help her students understand the cultural milieu of World War II, the setting of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, to show them a new way to read the novel, and to show them the use of primary sources in understanding and constructing narratives. Importantly, it demonstrated how finding the story in sources leads to exciting research questions that students do not anticipate.  They begin to see how the gaps in narratives generate some of the most compelling research experiences. In fact, over the six years that we’ve used this exercise, students experience this trip to Special Collections as literally their first experience in using primary sources. Coming face to face with Stubbie’s story allows students to identify with Stubbie and to understand the cultural context of Dartmouth, common ground on which both Stubbie and the students stand.

Importantly, this exercise underscores the value of the collaboration between librarians and professors, one that creates a new kind of space for intellectual enrichment. Out of this particular collaboration, Stephanie and Jay recently wrote up the experience, which has been published in Past or Portal?: Enhancing Undergraduate Learning through Special Collections and Archives (New York: ACRL, 2012).

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