Holding History in Their Hands

Students are researching life at Tufts in the tumultuous 1960s using archival materials to tell the stories
professor and two students examining archives materials at Tufts
Virginia Drachman, center, with Julia Bell, A18, left, as Emma Cook, G18, examines a yearbook. Photo: Anna Miller
December 4, 2017

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Emily Hoffman, A19, has long been intrigued by fashion history, so in September, when she started a new research seminar for history majors called Tufts in American History, she zeroed in on dress code rules at Jackson College for Women at Tufts. Surely, she thought, she’d find much ado about knee-length skirts and that sartorial rite of passage, the Jackson blazer, bestowed on seniors.

Delving into primary sources at Tufts Digital Collection and Archives, she was surprised to discover that the first clothing regulations weren’t, in fact, spelled out until 1950. In a telling example of those rules, she found that the Jackson Student Council, according to the student handbook, allowed casual Bermuda shorts on campus, but specifically banned them from dining halls, except during finals week and holidays.

How times change, said Hoffman. By 1967, any trace of a dress code had been abolished—for both men and women. “In the 1969 student handbook,” she said, grinning, “the only mention of dress is ‘shoes and socks are sometimes worn, especially when it snows.’” 

Hoffman’s eye-opening research—and her delight in hearing authentic student voices—is exactly what historian Virginia Drachman had in mind when she developed the research seminar along with Tufts archivists, the first course at Tufts to use Tufts Digital Collections and Archives as a weekly classroom.

Pam Hopkins, public services and outreach archivist, discussed topics and resources with Drachman before the class, introduced Drachman’s students to the archives, and worked with them each week and between classes. Students plumbed everything from yearbooks, student handbooks, and student council minutes to campus newspapers, student flyers, and typewritten letters, to research and write a paper on a Tufts historical topic of their choosing.

In addition to exposing students to the history of Tufts, archival research can help develop critical thinking and analytical and information literacy skills, said Daniel Santamaria, director of Digital Collections and Archives and university archivist. “The documents in archives don’t usually come with easily packaged narratives, so students really have analyze the material and form their own conclusions.”

Drachman, who holds the Arthur Stern Jr. Professorship in American History, has in recent years incorporated visits to the archives in her courses, but for this course wanted to make it the focus of the class. It helps students learn how to conduct independent research, she said. 

“I gave them free rein,” Drachman said, expecting each student might tunnel into different decades. It turns out that the 1960s captured the collective imagination. “I can understand that,” she said. “It is a time that is really interesting to young students.”   

That shared focus has had unexpected dividends. “They’re working like a research team,” she said during a November class session, as her students pored over materials in the archive reading room, as enthralled by a Tufts Weekly letter to the editor protesting the expulsion of ROTC from Tufts as by seeing, at last, a pristine Jackson blazer. “When they find materials that they know might interest another classmate, they know who to share it with,” she said. “They are building a research community.”

War Protests and Coed Living

Kerry Crowley, A18, is intrigued by student protests. Flipping through 1960s yearbooks, she noticed the expanding presence of the Tufts chapter of the activist group Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS. Narrowing her focus to 1968 to 1972, she used “the lens of the Tufts branch of SDS to illustrate the downfall of the national movement as anti-war protests start to die down,” she said. “It’s during this time that SDS begins to fracture and dissolve into separate groups.”

“We see the archives as a laboratory,” said Daniel Santamaria, director of Digital Collections and Archives and university archivist. “Students are working with raw material, analyzing evidence, drawing conclusions about Tufts’ past.” Photo: Anna MillerAccess to an abundance of primary sources, she said, “is a dream come true. It makes you realize the variety of sources that are available to you as you try to tell a story.” One of those sources is a copy of the Tufts SDS newsletter named The Third Floor because it was produced on the third floor of Curtis Hall. She studies its green pages, crammed with single-spaced political content, then her eyes fall on tiny ad. “We need typists!” she reads aloud and laughs.

Julia Bell, A18, is looking at the evolution of curfews between 1963 and 1973, years when women won permission to live off-campus and when coed dorms were first proposed, and finally implemented. She discovered a stash of typewritten letters between undergraduate Judy Brown and Dean of Jackson College Myra Herrick about women living off-campus. Brown made a strong case in its favor; she had mailed surveys directly to parents asking them if they would allow their daughters to live off campus. The majority said yes. Nevertheless, Herrick said no, but Bell admired Brown’s persistence. “She was sassy and funny, and as I read her letters I’m thinking: ‘Go Judy!’” she said.

The immediacy of primary sources makes Brown’s struggle more real, Bell said. “I’m so used to reading things on a screen,” she said. “But here I realize I am reading handwriting from a woman my age 50 years ago—that’s a really great experience,” she said.  

Hoffman said access to primary sources also has helped her “write stronger papers, and be more organized and focused.” It’s also changed how she thinks about archives. “I always knew that archives could be useful to supplement a paper, but now I know that, for the right topic, its fundamental; it’s extremely important part of a historian’s job. It’s amazing to hold Tufts history in our hands.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.