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  • PeepShow & Tell: Sex in Archives Blog Post #5 - with Professor Karen Herland - Queer Theory and Archives: An exploration of opportunities for archives and archivists in undergraduate education with Professor Karen Herland

PeepShow & Tell: Sex in Archives Blog Post #5 - with Professor Karen Herland - Queer Theory and Archives: An exploration of opportunities for archives and archivists in undergraduate education with Professor Karen Herland

21 Apr 2022 8:00 AM | Anonymous

The ACA McGill University Student Chapter invites you to join us for an immersive series of blog posts titled PeepShow and Tell: Sex in Archives. Through interviews with researchers and professionals working firsthand with explicit materials, we hope to illuminate the intrinsic value of sex and sexuality within the field of archiving and why these materials deserve to be preserved. 

Jay Bossé, the co-author for this piece, is a graduate student with the School of Information Studies at McGill University and Co-Coordinator of the ACA McGill University Student Chapter Blog Series Peepshow & Tell: Sex in Archives. 

For this post, we spoke with Karen Herland, a part-time faculty member in Concordia University’s Major in Interdisciplinary Studies in Sexuality (offered across the Arts and Science and Fine Arts Faculties). Herland is currently teaching an undergraduate course in Queer Theory.   

Jay: In her article Working as an Embedded Archivist in an Undergraduate Course”, Fic presents how her work as an embedded archivist in an undergraduate history course taught students the foundation of archival research. In collaboration with the course professor and their lectures, she conducted a workshop series over the first half of the semester. She states that by the end of the semester, "Students demonstrated their ability to conduct archival and primary source research, analyze secondary literature, and conduct original research projects on their own”(Fic, 2018, p. 299).While she notes that being an embedded archivist is a very time-intensive project and would not be sustainable to take part in every undergraduate history course, it is clear that her role in this course was extremely beneficial for students(Fic, 2018, p. 299). 

Through correspondence with Professor Herland about her undergraduate Queer theory course, I investigate other potential ways to include archives and archivists in undergraduate courses other than embedded archivists. More specifically, I reflect on how Herland’s undergraduate Queer Theory course presents the ways archives as institutions can greatly benefit undergraduate learning and further develop critical thinking skills.  

In her semester-long course, Herland works collaboratively with her students to define, understand, and apply "Queer" as a theoretical concept, methodology, and approach to activism and organizing. Through reading, discussion and assignments, they become familiar with the interdisciplinary field of queer theory, focusing on its emergence through poststructuralist, critical race, lesbian, gay, cultural and feminist studies to its current articulations (Herland, 2022). The course looks to archives to reflect on concepts of authority, preservation, and erasure within the broader theme of Queer theory. The course's final project is broken down into three parts: an analysis of a text about Queer Archival practice, a proposal for a research project (either analyzing an existing collection or considering the creation of your own), and finally, a research paper, digital archive, or another project on queer archival practices (Herland, 2022). The final project asks students to reflect on practical matters like what should be part of a queer archive, who would have access, and who the intended users are (Herland, 2022). It also challenges students to think more broadly about the role of queer archives, their relation to community and their place as intergenerational projects (Herland, 2022). 

Jay: Could you tell me a little more about the development of this course?  

Herland: I have long wanted to teach Queer Theory and was thrilled when the opportunity arose. Through teaching a different course on HIV/AIDS, I am very familiar with translating key moments, events, elements of my own experience into terms that students who grew up in a very different context can relate to (teaching about HIV in the time of COVID has markedly changed that, though that’s a story for another time). I wanted to approach Queer Theory in the same spirit. 

Jay: For you, what did the focus on archives bring to the course that a simple introduction to Queer theory could not?   

Herland: For me, archives speak to memory, history, community-building and connection. The very act of archiving renders something ephemeral important – it is named, catalogued and retrievable. As a field/concept, Queer Theory is a bridge between activism and thought. So as the students are learning about Queer Theory, archives demonstrate a tangible example of the actualization of thought and action.  

How do you create/transmit knowledge? Who is/isn’t included in knowledge production? Are there ways to acknowledge changes in perception, terminology, tone, parameters? How do you balance access, resources and autonomy? How can you account for what has been left out, and how do you transmit that forward?None of these questions are unique to the archive, but the archive provides a crucible for considering these questions. 

Jay: How is the course going, and do students seem excited by the course content and archival focus of the course and final project?  

HerlandI feel really lucky to be working with such a smart, engaged, cooperative group of students. They have taken this challenge/opportunity up in ways I could not have imagined. From the micro of exploring a specific interaction or relationship and the meanings layered into it initially and overtime to the broader role of clothing, place and memory in the building of community and connection. The range of ways they have developed this basic idea of an archive in/of/for community is extraordinary. 

Jay: You mentioned in our earlier correspondence that COVID kept the course from fully engaging with archival materials and archivists. If you had the opportunity to teach this course without the restraints of COVID (or even budget, time *perfect world scenario*), how would you like to incorporate archives and archivists more into the course? 

Herland: We haven’t been able to visit or work with archives directly – COVID, staffing, resources, etc., make that almost impossible. But I have had people involved in archival creation talk to the students through Zoom. As well, Lucas LaRochelle was able to present not just their Queering the Map project but the decision-making on the back end that allowed the project to be queered in form as well as function. Those exchanges inspired the students to think about how they approach the question and what could/should be preserved for the future. 

Jay: This course is a great example of when students might not gain the most from an embedded archivist in a course focussing on archives. As mentioned by Fic, embedded archivists is a time-consuming role (Fic, 2018, p. 299).It is not realistic or sustainable for university archivists to continuously take on co-teaching positions alongside their other duties. Moreover, as demonstrated through the development of this course and its critical engagement with archives, it might not be beneficial necessarily for students to only work with one archive or a single archivist. As this course demonstrates, students’ ability to find, research, investigate and critique the conceptual elements of archives as they relate to queer theory is more relevant than learning traditional research skills. Thus, this course comes to be a great example of how non-university archives and archivists might have an opportunity to add to undergraduate student learning. It demonstrates why projects and initiatives such as tours, guest lecturing, or even digital exhibitions coming from archives can be essential teaching tools and great outreach opportunities.   


Fic, C. (2018). Working as an Embedded Archivist in an Undergraduate Course: Transforming Students into Scholars through an Archival Workshop Series. The American Archivist, 81(2), 290–309. 

Herland, K. (2022). FASS 392 Queer Theory [Syllabus]. Location: Major in Interdisciplinary Studies in Sexuality Concordia University.

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