Teaching with collections: Students in French renaissance seminar visit early printing exhibition

Katie Chenoweth, associate professor of French at Princeton University, recently led students in her graduate seminar, “French Literature of the Renaissance: Language Technologies,” through the unprecedented exhibition in Firestone Library’s Milberg Gallery, “Gutenberg & After: Europe’s First Printers 1450-1470.” Chenoweth, whose latest book examines printing technology and the rise of the French language, has studied many of the books on display: “To have them all in one place and set up intelligently, designed by people who know more about this than any others in the world is mind blowing.” 

Gutenberg Bible of 1455 held in the Scheide Library. Photo by Shelley Szwast, Princeton University Library

Eric White, curator of rare books at Princeton University Library and a curator of the exhibition, provided Chenoweth and her students a private tour of the gallery, elaborating on the 15th-century world treasures on display, including the first printed book in France and an early printing type, the letter “p,” discovered in the mud of the Saône’s riverbank. “I can tell students all day long about moveable type,” Chenoweth said, “but nothing compares to being able to see the materials.”  

For White, guiding classes through the primary evidence of western history and the great texts – Cicero, Dante, St. Augustine – “validates the reason we do the exhibition.” 

Given the University’s extensive resources and collections, Chenoweth nearly always designs courses that involve teaching with collections and views it almost as an obligation. “It’s so enormously productive to get out of the classroom space and actually work with objects and materials,” she said. “It opens a whole new dimension of thought and promotes different discussions and thinking.” Chenoweth has worked with Special Collections for eight semesters.“Everyone is so inviting and eager for me and the students to come and use the collections and get our hands on things," she said. "My teaching would look completely different without them.” Most importantly, the materials make a difference on the students. "Students always talk about the experience in the evaluations," she said. "Some even say it’s part of the reason they sign up for the course in the first place.”

According to Gabriel Swift, reference librarian for Special Collections, the Special Collections classrooms host roughly 300 class visits each year. 

Earlier this year, Princeton University Library, the Princeton University Art Museum, and the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning launched Teach with Collections, an initiative that supports the use of the University’s rich collections to enhance undergraduate and graduate-level teaching. Faculty and graduate students interested in learning more about Teach with Collections are invited to an open house on Sept. 26 at 4:30 p.m. in Special Collections, located on Firestone Library's C floor.

Written by Emily Judd, Library Communications Coordinator

Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Director, Library Communications