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McCarthy-Era Political Diatribes Inspire Undergraduate Research Projects

More than 900 first-year UCI undergraduates came face to face with the rhetoric of McCarthyism and the Cold War era when librarians visited their classrooms carrying boxes of rare pamphlets. The context was the Humanities Core course in spring 2004, for which librarians collaborated with Core faculty and lecturers, utilizing the evocative power of original research materials to actively engage students in planning their research projects. In forty-two sessions, librarians placed rare and fragile Special Collections and Archives research material from the 1940s to 1960s into the hands of students for analysis and discussion.

This collaboration was led by Prof. Elizabeth Losh, Humanities Core Writing Director, and Manuscripts Librarian William Landis, who together had experimented with various methods of introducing Core students to primary research resources over the past two years.

Class sessions focused on each student’s examination of a political pamphlet as part of a guided exercise designed to help them engage with the item’s rhetorical stance and its broader sociopolitical context. The pamphlets represented a wide variety of perspectives on the issues of the day, ranging from conservative religious perspectives on “the communist threat” and detailed articulations of communist or socialist party platforms, to transcripts of the McCarthy hearings and Clark Kerr’s testimony on the University of California controversy regarding loyalty oaths.

Students contemplated questions such as these: Who wrote and distributed the pamphlet? For what purpose was it produced? What was the author’s point of view? What biases are evident? What about its content or presentation intrigues you? What is a research question for which the pamphlet might be a good primary source?

The subsequent round-robin discussion of each pamphlet revealed a high level of engagement on the students’ part, fueled by their fascination with both the survival of ephemeral 50-year-old documents and the unfettered opinions expressed by the authors. Student and faculty response to the sessions was uniformly enthusiastic and was noted as a highlight on many course evaluations. The sessions also stimulated hundreds of trips to Special Collections and Archives by students seeking primary source material for their documentary research papers, dramatically elevating the department’s reading room traffic throughout spring quarter.

UCI librarians are actively interested in exploring opportunities for more such teaching partnerships designed to teach lower-division undergraduates to find, understand, and effectively use primary sources in their research and writing projects.

For more information, contact Jackie Dooley, (jmdooley@uci.edu or x44935).


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