Published: Oct. 28, 2020

Students pore over special collections materials

During a non-remote semester, Magnanini's students engage with materials from CU Libraries' Special Collections and the CU Art Museum.

When CU courses abruptly went remote in spring 2020, Italian professor Suzanne Magnanini didn’t skip a beat. As students left campus unsure of how they would complete their course projects without access to library materials, Magnanini called on colleagues to put their heads together for a solution. Working with Sean Babbs from Special Collections and Hope Saska from the CU Art Museum, Magnanini’s students not only completed their projects but were able to accomplish so much more.

In spring 2020, Magnanini taught two courses: ITAL 3160, Literary and Artistic Cultures in Italy, 1200-1800, a history course taught in the Italian language; and ITAL 4600, Once Upon a Time in Italy, a general education course focused on the genre of Italian fairy tales. Both courses used historical texts, literature, and visual and performing art forms to explore the people and ideas of the past. Magnanini’s focus on digital humanities connected students to scholarship in the field by working with historical texts and images using digital research tools and resources.

To complement the digital humanities approach, Magnanini chose project-based learning as a hands-on strategy to promote increased engagement in the subject. She believes that real-world projects help students think about their coursework as having a "life beyond their backpack," something that could live on and make real contributions to the field. As a high-impact practice, inquiry-based projects guide students to apply concepts to address problems in their fields and enhance skills in communication, teamwork, problem-solving, and leadership.

Initially, the course projects were planned around texts from CU’s Special Collections. At the start of the semester, Saska met students at the museum to teach them how to examine visual material using visual thinking strategies. Students examined an original piece of art and then returned to the museum to deliver presentations of their work. Students in ITAL 3160 met in the CU Art Museum study space and learned how to observe the exhibited artwork. The plan was to use these skills to become museum docents for a day by creating bilingual presentations on materials in Special Collections for a community audience. After already having done this preliminary work in the museum at the beginning of the semester, students had been looking forward to sharing their work publicly.

Although the students’ projects were planned from the start to have digital elements, the research materials were in paper and print. When the campus shut down, so did the library and their source materials. What to do when a hands-on project suddenly needs to go hands-off? That’s where Babbs leaped into action and located texts that had been digitized and made available online. They were also able to quickly digitize a small number of books through the digitization lab as the university shutdown date approached. Then, the team adapted the course projects to work in the online environment.

While neither students nor professor found it to be an ideal situation, they made the best of what they had and even had some fun. Students in ITAL 3160 used their language skills to research and translate texts and present their work to classmates via Zoom instead of the public presentations they had originally planned. Using the online texts that Babbs curated, students in ITAL 4600 created annotations of fairy tale texts and artifacts, contributing to a searchable archive of the holdings in CU’s Special Collections. The annotations are now available to other researchers along with the source materials in the Fairy Tales Repository.

Magnanini, Babbs, and Saska knew that this semester would be difficult for their students. They all witnessed the toll that increased computer time took on students’ mental health and motivation. But this teaching team also noted the students who spoke of a sense of accomplishment. Not only did the students finish an interesting and complex project, but they felt pride in contributing to a public archive that other researchers can use. Many students found their work to be meaningful, and taking the time to focus on the project work helped some of them get through an otherwise stressful time.

Magnanini praised her colleagues for all they were able to accomplish together last spring. The easy collegiality that the team had with each other not only gave energy to the course but has also fostered collaboration on new research projects. The team has continued to work on the fairy tale repository with a group of undergraduate research students, and this semester’s advanced Italian students are working on translations of rare Italian texts and manuscripts. Saska is collaborating with English professor Thora Brylowe on an exhibit entitled "The Art that Made Medicine," which will hopefully be displayed in late 2021. The exhibit will be a medical history of anatomical texts using a rare books collection from CU Anschutz, material from the CU Boulder Art Museum, and CU Special Collections. 

Manganini hopes that more faculty will take advantage of the rich resources at the CU Boulder Libraries and the CU Art Museum—and not just the materials in the collections but the substantial expertise of the librarians and curators. She notes that scholarly work in the humanities can be a "lonely pursuit" and working collaboratively not only produces more interesting work but also fosters well-being for the scholar. Manganini finds that engaging with other experts builds a supportive community and generates more knowledge. That greater understanding comes through conversation with others may be an old idea1 but one that is crucial for all of us during this time of physical isolation.

The collaboration has not just benefited students but has been important for the museum as well. "[Manganini] does incredible work to support CU students and promote campus resources," Saska noted. "[She has been] instrumental in amplifying the museum's pedagogical mission. She is truly a gem among faculty."


 Stefano Guazzo, Civil Conversation (1574)

Further reading & resources:

 To learn more about Magnanini’s courses and the shift to remote projects, check out the article that Magnanini and Babbs published in the online Electronic Sixteenth Century Journal. Access source materials and student work from ITAL 4600 in the CU Boulder Fairy Tales Repository.

 Faculty are encouraged to partner with Norlin Library’s Special Collections, Archives & Preservation librarians to support course projects, instruction, and research. 

 The CU Art Museum offers innovative teaching resources through its Collection Study Center. The Museum invites faculty to collaborate on course driven exhibitions to be installed in the Curricular Wall gallery.