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Gobsmacked: Professor Recounts Class’s Tour of the Ransom Center

By Elana Estrin

Jacket worn by Robert De Niro in 'Taxi Driver' from the Paul Schrader collection.
Jacket worn by Robert De Niro in 'Taxi Driver' from the Paul Schrader collection.

In October, University of Texas at Austin Psychology Professor Marc Lewis brought his freshman Plan II Honors class on a trip to the Ransom Center. Professor Lewis has won numerous teaching awards, including the Regents’ Outstanding
Teaching
Award and the President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award. Below, Professor Lewis writes about his class’s private tour of the Ransom Center, led by Director Thomas F. Staley.
 

Page from the Shakespeare First Folio.
Page from the Shakespeare First Folio.

Over 30 years of teaching, I can remember many occasions where students were excited and interested, but my Plan II Honors Signature class’s visit to the Ransom Center on October 4 marks the first time that I have heard audible gasps of astonishment. The class arrived with high expectations, knowing that even among the “gems of the university,” the Ransom Center is unique. They had ordered an eclectic collection of treasures to view: the original manuscript of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia,” a Shakespeare first folio, Robert De Niro’s jacket from Taxi Driver, Volume 1 of the 1609 Douay Old Testament, original notes from a Woodward and Bernstein interview with Deep Throat, Abraham Ortelius’s 500-year-old map of the New World, a set of original architectural drawings by Frank Lloyd Wright, and various other rare items. The students came expecting that those exhibits would be the highlight of the day; what they did not expect was that the real magic would be a talk by Director Tom Staley followed by a personal tour of the closed, nonpublic sections of the building.

These freshmen students knew what they experiencing. As one student wrote afterwards: “Walking through rooms filled with original movie posters, books filled with presidential autographs, and other priceless historical artifacts spread casually along shelves was incredible in and of itself, but the places and people Dr. Staley took us to were even more remarkable. Seemingly without ever planning to do so, he showed us the full scope of the Ransom Center’s activities and their significance, everything from the meticulous preservation of the cover from a first edition of The Great Gatsby to colorful sketches of Macy’s parade floats from 40 or 50 years ago.”

Another student was as struck by the excitement of the Center as fully as he was by the items: “Having a backstage pass with Director Tom Staley as guide was a spectacular experience. Simply observing his reactions to the artifacts we saw being restored revealed to me the passion that goes into maintaining this Center.”

Conservator Ken Grant works in the paper lab, consolidating the paint layer on designer Norman Bel Geddes’s 1926 drawing for floats and participants in Macy’s parade. The drawing will be included in an upcoming exhibition on Bel Geddes, with support generously provided by an FAIC/Tru Vue Optium® Conservation Grant. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Conservator Ken Grant works in the paper lab, consolidating the paint layer on designer Norman Bel Geddes’s 1926 drawing for floats and participants in Macy’s parade. The drawing will be included in an upcoming exhibition on Bel Geddes, with support generously provided by an FAIC/Tru Vue Optium® Conservation Grant. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.

And: “Around a corner, we encountered an original poster for the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird—you just don’t find this sort of thing anywhere else. Sometime later in the trip, we were taken to a room where an ancient map a dozen-and-a-half feet long was undergoing a preservation process. You see this sort of artifact on the Discovery Channel and think, ‘Oh, that’s neat!’ but it is only when you see it first-hand that you get a true appreciation for the talent, dedication, and effort that goes into it all.”

Other students commented on the way that the Ransom Center’s collections connect the dots to show artistic flows of thought: “The Ransom Center’s pursuit of an understanding of the creative process and the artistic mind made me completely rethink the process of bringing together collections of art and writing.”

These students had never seen anything like the Ransom Center, and I am pleased that they were wise enough to understand how rare an opportunity they were given. I understood that opportunity as well, and I am not embarrassed to admit that my own jaw dropped more than once during the visit. What an astounding afternoon.

Notes from the Undergrad: Signature Course delves into works, life of Russell Banks

By Harry Ransom Center

 

‘The Sweet Hereafter’ by Russell Banks.
‘The Sweet Hereafter’ by Russell Banks.

 

Dillon Welch is an undergraduate student studying violin performance at the Butler School of Music. He researched the Ransom Center’s Russell Banks archive for a class devoted to the author’s works. During the course, Banks was on campus for an event at the Ransom Center, and Welch was given the opportunity to meet Banks in person.

 

For the spring 2011 semester, as part of the new Signature Course program at The University of Texas at Austin, I took a class on the works of Russell Banks. I’d never heard of him before. But I soon got to know him through both his characters and themes. After we had thoroughly delved into the depths of Banks’s mind on the page, we got to do the same with the man. To me, this was the highlight of the course: a small group of people sitting around a table having an intimate conversation with the author that ranged from deep political questions on his frequent use of racial themes in his novels, to why his characters like to drink Canadian Club. It was an enlightening 90 minutes, for which I could scarcely stop asking questions. To know that we were learning things about Banks that few people actually knew was fascinating. We spent a semester reading close to half of his novels and several short stories. In addition, we spent time studying his archive at the Ransom Center, setting our eyes on rarely seen items. At the beginning of the semester, our professor, Evan Carton, said, “When you leave this course, you will be some of the foremost scholars on Russell Banks.” He was so right.

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Signature Courses offer freshmen opportunity to experience primary materials and archival research
Russell Banks signs the authors’ door at the Ransom Center.
In the Galleries: Russell Banks adapts to a word processor

Signature Courses offer freshmen opportunity to experience primary materials and archival research

By Bibiana Gattozzi

Fifteenth-century Dominican Processional featuring square musical notation on 4-line red staves.
Fifteenth-century Dominican Processional featuring square musical notation on 4-line red staves.

Bibiana Gattozzi recently graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a Masters in Musicology. Last year, she was a Teaching Assistant for a Signature Course entitled “Music, Art, and Ritual in Mexican Catholicism.” Designed for first-year undergraduates, Signature Courses are interdisciplinary seminars taught by professors from across the university. Gattozzi took her students to the Ransom Center to view medieval and Renaissance liturgical/musical manuscripts.

After the first few class periods of my semester as a teaching assistant (TA) for a first-year Signature Course at The University of Texas at Austin, I realized that the Harry Ransom Center would provide the ideal opportunity for meeting three of the major goals of the Signature Courses: sparking the academic interest of first-year students toward a particular subject and toward the academic goals of a major research institution; fostering interdisciplinary intellectual curiosity; and introducing students to the resources of the University to encourage the effective and frequent use of these resources.

For this particular course, the students were required to read a scholarly monograph on a Renaissance chant manuscript from Toledo, Spain. Remembering from previous visits to the Center that it contained a collection of liturgical chant manuscripts from the same time period, the other TAs and I proceeded to arrange for our classes to meet at the Ransom Center. This was accomplished swiftly and effectively thanks to the kindness and efficiency of the staff members of the Center who explained the policies for classroom use of archival materials. The Ransom Center’s website and research account system was also very helpful. I was soon delighted to learn the following:

1. The Ransom Center indeed contains an extensive collection of medieval and Renaissance liturgical/musical manuscripts of many different sizes, shapes, and kinds, originating from many different countries (i.e., Italy, Germany, France, Spain) and representing many different states of conservation. It is easy to find and request these items through the online catalog and research account system.

2. Researchers are allowed to request up to 15 items at a time for instructional use in a classroom adjoining the reading room.

3. It is relatively easy to schedule a time with the Center’s staff for using the classroom, and the staff sets up all the items on display beforehand.

4. Explaining course content and sparking the interest of students who have no background in archival research is a simple task through the guided exploration of the Ransom Center’s treasures.

A visit to the Harry Ransom Center allowed students to see the Renaissance liturgical manuscripts in person—including one from Toledo that closely matched the manuscript about which they were reading. University of Texas students and instructors will find the Ransom Center a most precious resource for stimulating intellectual curiosity beyond the content of a course.

Guidance for faculty planning signature course visits to the Ransom Center is available.