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A retired lecturer's legacy: Student scrapbooks that reveal contemporary campus life

This year's Reunion Weekend visitors to the Cornell Library archives will get an unusual glimpse into university history in the Cornell Library's Rare and Manuscript Collections, where annotated cultural scrapbooks describe the lives, insights and experiences of students.

The scrapbooks were produced by Class of 2007 graduates of historian Carol Kammen's Knight Writing Seminar on the history of Cornell. Kammen recently retired as a senior lecturer after 24 years on the Cornell faculty.

The scrapbooks on display are just a few of the 400 in the library's collection that Kammen's classes have produced over the past two-and-a-half decades, illustrating recent shifts in student life including closer student-parent relationships thanks to cell phones and e-mail. Even though her students realized Kammen would read the scrapbooks, she says, "that was easily forgotten, so that the writing becomes tremendously personal and very interesting. These are conscious historical documents that discuss problems with roommates, terrible teachers and wonderful teachers, nonresponsiveness from Day Hall -- the Big Red Tape -- and they talk about how kind and helpful people are. They inadvertently reveal changes in student attitudes."

Other subjects covered include religion, racism, homophobia and the intense academic demands Cornell makes on its students. "They discuss growing up, although they don't always know they're talking about that," notes Kammen.

When Kammen came to Cornell in 1983, her writing seminar spent only two weeks on Cornell history. Kammen realized those were the two most interesting weeks of the course, and she also noticed a big gap in students' knowledge. "They knew little about the university," she says. "As much information as Cornell sends out to its students, it doesn't include much about why this is such a unique university."

Now, from the third year on, the course focuses on the history of Cornell. "My goal has always been that students learn about the university, discover the many surprises and joys that are here, including the staggeringly wonderful library system, and discuss the doing of history," says Kammen.

In addition to lectures, she had her students read books by Cornell historians Carl Becker and Morris Bishop and "My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student" by Rebekah Nathan, as well as conduct research projects on the university's past that sparked lively discussion. The class also reacted to such events on campus as outbreaks of racism, "anti-coedism," the appearance of the pumpkin on the top of McGraw Tower, the role of athletics and the Greek system. Another ongoing topic concerned Cornell's role as an innovative institution where what was considered academic was continually being redefined.

The scrapbooks come in many forms, from text-only to architecturally designed boxes, photography and watercolors. "Students put very meaningful things in the scrapbooks, things they wanted to have remembered because they thought they were significant," Kammen says.

"Students have always kept scrapbooks, but if you go into the archives and see them, they are tremendously frustrating as historical documents," Kammen says. "Nothing is explained. My students created explanations for everything they put in their scrapbooks."

All of the student scrapbooks are kept in the library archives and listed in its online catalog, and entries from 18 of them appear in Kammen's 2006 book, "First Person Cornell: Students' Diaries, Letters, Email and Blogs."

"From the perspective of the University Archives, these scrapbooks provide extraordinary documentation of what today's students are thinking and feeling, informative and always delightful," says University Archivist Elaine Engst. "They're a wonderful addition to our many collections relating to the student experience at Cornell."

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