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Teaching with Special Collections and University Archives

Examples of Course Projects Using A Single Document

Developing projects across different disciplines using a single document

The following examples demonstrate how a single archival document can be used to create innovative and fascinating research projects in multiple disciplines.

About the Collection: The Samuel Leyens Switzer Collection contains the correspondence, publications, photographs, maps, and memorability of Samuel Switzer, a college student who left school to serve as a soldier in World War I. Because Samuel was in college when he went to war, students tend to engage on a more personal level with this collection. We selected the following document from this collection to use in a variety of example research projects.

Selected Document: A Letter Home for the Holidays: On December 24th, 1918 Samuel wrote a letter to his mother about how he and his fellow soldiers were celebrating the Christmas holiday in France during World World I. Samuel was Jewish, but his division and the locals they were staying with observed Christmas or "X-Mas" as he refers to it.

In the letter, Sam provides detailed information about how he and his fellow soldiers celebrated Christmas in an Old Opera House after spending months on the front lines of the war. Sam describes how they chopped down a tree and strung it with tinsel and "strange" holiday decorations including Zeppelins and U-Boats. Sam also tells his mother that they will receive small gifts from the YMCA, but expresses his frustration that he and his fellow soldiers have not received more support during the war and are "strapped" for money and provisions.

Social Sciences and Humanities

Research Paper Topic Ideas:

  • Write a research paper about how Sam and his fellow soldiers observed holiday traditions during WWI, and how those traditions were affected by the war. Research secondary sources about how soldiers on both sides of the war observed Christmas, and how it changed over the course of the war.
  • Write an essay about the YMCA's involvement during World War I, including their role in providing provisions and support to Sam's troop on the front line. Research secondary sources about food and provisions during the war, and the role of the YMCA in the war effort.
  • Explore what it meant for Sam Switzer to serve as Jewish American soldier during World War I. Research secondary sources about religion in America and the military during World War I, and think about how Sam's personal experience can add to the discussion and understanding of the topic.
  • In his letter, Sam mentions the "Lady of the House" provided Christmas decorations to the troops. Look at the context clues in the letter to identify who the lady might be, and read secondary sources about the role women and families of America's allies played in housing and supporting soldiers during the war.


Health Sciences, Mental Health, and Medicine

  • Read through Sam's letters about the food, medicine, and medical treatment soldiers experienced during the war. Write a paper about the impacts of nutrition, disease, injury, and/or hygiene on soldiers during World War I. 
  • Research the impacts of injuries or biological warfare on troops during World War I and the impacts it had on soldiers. 
  • Analyze how Sam talks about injuries and illness to his mother and the mental health implications of returning from war.

Data Sciences, Geographic Information System (GIS) Project

  • Combine this letter with other letters and maps in the Switzer Collection to track and create a map of Sam's troop movement during the war. Contribute to existing data about American troop movements to help provide a better understanding of World War I.

Modeling and Simulation Engineering

  • Create a 3-D printed model of the Old Opera House, including the tree, decorations, and other details mentioned in the letter. Try to make everything to scale as described by Sam. 

Visual and Performing Arts

Visual Arts 

  • Create a work of art (painting, drawing, etc.) depicting the solider's Christmas observance in the Old Opera House, including the tree, people, and decorations.
  • Create a work of art that captures the emotions Sam expresses in his letters

Performing Arts

  • Write and stage a play or short video of the Christmas observance, including details you discovered in the letter
  • Turn Sam's letter into an acting monologue 
  • Compose a poem or spoken word composition about Sam's experiences, focusing on the emotions and frustration Sam feels on the front line.

Creative Writing​​​​​ 

  • Write a play or short story depicting the Christmas celebration, including details provided by Sam's letter. 
  • Compose a response to Sam's letter form his mother
  • Compose a series of letters as yourself responding from a future perspective 

Traditional Research Paper


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