Examining Immigrant America: the Library’s Contribution to College Writing 2 Courses

by Alexandra de Luise
Associate Professor & Coordinator of Instructional Services, Bibliographer for French, Italian, Modern Greek, and Italian American Studies
Benjamin S Rosenthal Library, Queens College

The prospect of teaching students about the immigrant American experience as expressed through various types of writing is an exciting one, both as a librarian and the daughter of Italian immigrants. Immigrant writing as a field of interest came to me late in life, but once taken by the compelling stories, I could not turn away from what I was reading and hearing. I uncovered a new world of writing and expression that spoke to me in a very particular way. Every immigrant’s experience to America presents a unique story. I hope we will uncover many stories during the spring semester, and that my enthusiasm will be conveyed to students in the course.

LIB170: immigrant America

This course, LIB170, is the Library Department’s newest and first 3-credit course and fulfills the College Writing 2 requirement. The course was conceived with a focus on research and writing in one specific area. As my first time teaching the course, the variable topic I have chosen is Immigrant America. It is based on my own interest in Italian immigration, particularly the mass migration period of the 1880s-1920s. QueensCollege_PhotoI have written in this area with a published article on an early immigrant library in the Italian enclave of Mulberry Street[1]. While others had known of this Italian ethnic library’s existence, I was the first to uncover an 1896 catalog to the library’s book collection. It indicated an early interest in reading and debunked the often-heard remark that Italian immigrants didn’t read. I presented my findings in 2010 at the Italian American Studies Association conference. Since then, I have been presenting yearly on different topics at this organization’s conferences. They provide me with the impetus to continue writing and researching and serve as a stimulus for my ideas.

the immigrant story and immigrant writing culture

Many ethnic groups define themselves in the context of the American experience. The immigrant story is often told in the following sequence: there is the personal, internal struggle in deciding to immigrate to America, then the shock once here, the hardship caused by assimilating, the loneliness and perhaps hostility by other groups, culminating in the will to survive and succeed.statue-309467_1280-1

Most immigrant groups share a common writing culture that includes creative writing (memoirs, fiction, poetry), essay writing, and formal research papers. We will look at Immigrant America from the point of view of the immigrants themselves and their writings, but also hear from the second, third and fourth generations, who write about and analyze their experiences.

course focus

The Library course focus will be on research and writing, and the points where they intersect. In the words of the previous instructor of LIB170, Professor Nancy Foasberg;

The idea is that research and writing are deeply intertwined. In a course like (LIB170), what you’re doing is not demoing different library resources to the students. Rather, you are teaching them to engage sources in conversation, understand the different reasons that sources might be used; form and adjust scholarly research questions, and perceive research as something more than the gathering of sources.  (N. Foasberg, personal communication, Aug. 20, 2014).

immigrant writers’ works and written assignments

In the written assignments, we will take our examples from the library’s holdings of books, both print and electronic, and primary and secondary source material. Several of our databases are rich in primary sources on the immigrant experience. There will likely be a review, either of a book or of a video that we will watch in class. An interview assignment may follow, where students write the transcript of an interview conducted with an actual immigrant. There will be an annotated bibliography and research paper. Another assignment might ask students to transform one primary document (for example, a play, diary or letters) into another primary document (for example, a newspaper article).

A handful of immigrant writers’ works and critiques on them will be selected, but hardly representative of the vast number out there. They will only serve as a springboard for further exploration. I expect that the students will take the examples I choose to uncover their own interests for the final project, and to hopefully look at other groups in a new light. It is my intention that the final project will allow students to write in areas related to immigrant America of most interest to them.

I anticipate much sharing, learning and respect, a classroom environment where we can hear and learn from each other’s experiences and enrich our understanding together of Immigrant America.

[1] de Luise, Alexandra. “The Italian Immigrant Reads: Evidence of Reading for Learning and Reading for Pleasure, 1890s-1920s.” Italian Americana 30.1 (2012): 33-43.

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