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Teaching Primary Sources

3 November, 2009

Teaching Primary Sources (NaSchoWriMo/NaBloPoMo 2)

Over at A Corner of Tenth Century Europe yesterday, Jonathan Jarrett wrote bemusedly about troubles teaching primary sources. I’d like to say I have the answer, but I don’t. I have lots of answers, and on days like today, I wonder if they’re any good at all. The thing is, I’m having trouble teaching them this semester, too. I’m honestly not sure why, and part of it may be that I have not put as much energy into enforcing my policies on preparedness as I would like. Part of it is that, in my survey classes, students are *thinking* about the sources, or at least their comments on Blackboard indicate that they are. It’s just that they are having more trouble than I expected. It’s a different thing with my upper-division students. Despite many of them having taken classes with me before, and knowing that I expect the courses to run as the seminars they are, they just seem unwilling to actually do the necessary work to make them fun and interesting places. Honestly, I’m not sure what the answer is to “how do I get the students to actually do the reading if they don’t feel like it and are perfectly happy with Bs and Cs?” So if you have the answer to that one, let me know. I’ve tried explaining that this is kind of fundamental, and that this is actually what historians do. I may have to reiterate that this is also something that goes into the thesis…

So anyway, I’m going to start posting on how to teach primary sources, based on what I’ve done before and how I’m thinking about facing the challenges I’ve got at the moment. It may take me several days to get through it, but here’s roughly what to expect:

  • Why do we read primary sources and why should we use them?
  • How do we use primary sources?
  • When we look at primary sources, what are we looking at?
  • What are our assumptions about primary sources and reading them, and how do they clash with our students’ assumptions?
  • How can I teach them better?

I can’t guarantee that these things won’t bleed over into each other, but I didn’t promise you all polished posts, just posts.

So first and foremost, “Why primary sources?”

This seems pretty much self-explanatory to most of us history folk, and to a lot of the lit folk as well. They’re primary sources. They are artefacts of their periods. They are often the closest thing to being there. It’s an historian’s job to interpret them, analyze them, use them to create arguments and narrative. They are at the very heart of what we do. For some of us, they may be too much at the heart. I know my own research sometimes suffers because I tend to focus far more on the primary sources than the scholarship, and this can mean I miss things out in my interpretations, even if it’s to reject other interpretations. This was true when I wrote my senior thesis at Beachy U, and is often true even now. But still, for me and most of my pre-modernist friends, the bulk of our work rests on primary sources. For Classicists and Medievalists especially, I think that there is a much clearer canon of primary source material as well. There are just lots of things we are supposed to have read at least once, even if they’re only in translation. Not every medievalist will have read the Annales Fuldensis or the Annales Bertiniani, but we’ve all read Einhard and Notker, for example.

I’m not sure when I realised this for the first time. I know it wasn’t clear to me when I began at university. I wasn’t planning on studying history then, though. Surprisingly, it was my desire to focus on the actual sources rather than the scholarship that turned me to history: I was an English major, but had a very hard time getting my head ’round criticism unless it was of the historicist type. Every time the professor said something that seemed anachronistic to me, I’d have to point it out. As LDW said to me once, I couldn’t help it — I read like an historian. But I certainly didn’t understand that about myself at the time. The primary sources assigned for my classes were just illustrations of what was in the textbook. I read them, but they served to flesh out the pictures drawn by Mortimer Chambers et al. in what was probably the 2nd edition.

This is one of the things I have been trying to address in my own teaching: really getting the students to “do” history from the first day of class, when I have them interpret a coin or picture. I generally use textual sources, but I think it’s important to get across the idea of using different types of sources as well. I spend a day talking about external and internal criticism, and bring it up again in classes throughout the term. This might be something I need to figure out a bit more — how to make those lessons a little more effective. One thing I’m thinking is to use more recent examples for analogy. More importantly, though, I think I might need to reinforce the idea of interrogating our sources a bit more.

The interrogating the sources, and addressing the external criticism, are things I think are very important, yet we may overlook them. The thing is, most of our students come in knowing something about reading and talking about what they read. What they expect is that they will read, and we will ask them what happened, and they will summarize and perhaps paraphrase the reading. Honestly, there are days when I’d kill for that much! They might even get as far as picking up a writer’s tone. Most of them will get as far as thinking about the kind of document they are looking at, if you’ve told them it’s important, and maybe even figure that into their interpretation. But they often don’t connect them to other things they’ve read, nor do they put them into any sort of context. Guess what? They’re not alone! Most of your non-historian colleagues won’t do that, either. That’s something that had never occurred to me until I read one of those essays on the back page of the Chronicle of Higher Education in about 2004ish. Sam Wineburg wrote about an experiment he’d done where he gave faculty from different disciplines a couple of passages to read, and described how very few of them looked for contextual clues like information on the author, place and date of writing, type of document and whether it was excerpted … these aren’t necessarily important in other fields. Wineburg also talks about a similar experiment in one of the essays in Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, which I think is really a useful book. The point of this is, of course, that some of us probably do think like historians naturally, but for others it’s a learned skill, and even people who do naturally tend to consider the source (as it were), many of us don’t really think about what we are doing. It’s sort of like being a native speaker of a language, and an avid reader — you can get along really well in that language, but if you’re asked to parse a sentence, you might be screwed, because the rules are so well internalized you’ve never really had to articulate them or thing why they exist.

This is one reason why I ask my students to answer some questions about the documents I assign for discussion: I want them to have at least some of the basic information down on paper. Usually, they are supposed to bring in a list of things about each document — the initial steps in external criticism. They need to know when, where, what sort of document, the intended audience, and who the author was. Sometimes, it’s a little difficult to get them to remember that asking who the author is does not mean asking the name of the author. We need to know as much as we can about him (or her), in order to identify a possible point of view (I’d use ‘biases’, but I’m trying to break that one — or at least remember to ask students to identify the bias the students want the authors to show). We need to think about what is going on at the time.

Only then, after getting the external information and forming a nice little nest of context, do we go on to the internal criticism, which often cannot be explained without the external.

Next time: Getting students to think about what’s in the documents, and getting them to start looking at groups of documents together, external evidence/criticism first.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 November, 2009 3:14 pm

    I'm actually going to take a step back from your analysis here, because I use primary sources a little differently in most of my classes. Primary sources are messy, and that's the beauty of them. Well-chosen materials give students a flavor — or texture, which is the metaphor I use more often — of the milieu in ways that most secondary literature does not (there are exceptions, and I use those when they exist for the time/place in question), and also say puzzling and intriguing things without explaining them. The mystery of primary sources gives me a way to talk about what historians do — the internal/external criticism thing isn't a theme I've used, but I like it — by way of investigating, confirming, making sense of the material we have. And they often raise issues — lifestyle, relationships — that have only recently come to the notice of academic historians, but which students find quite fascinating.

  2. 3 November, 2009 3:27 pm

    Jonathan, I agree with that. And the flavor is something that's wonderful. It would be nice to hear how you use sources in class and how it differs at different levels. Also, I sometimes wonder if it varies from sub-field to sub-field. I have a very strong feeling that two of my Americanist colleagues treat them differently than I do. On the other hand, this is the sort of thing that GCSE students in England are supposed to be doing. So if 15-16 year-olds are supposed to be thinking about such questions as usefulness of sources, particularly *how* sources can be useful, I feel much better expecting that my college students should be able to learn these things.Since most of what I do is social history, I am all for using things like laws to tell us about society, for example. But my students seem to be stuck at the "these laws treat different sorts of people differently" or "these laws are unfair to women" level, while I'm trying to get them to look at things like payments to guildmasters to take on apprentices, and laws that imply that women are in control of their household finances…

  3. 3 November, 2009 5:13 pm

    I'm sure you're right about different fields using sources differently: the kinds of sources that are most translated and available and pedagogically profitable vary from field to field. (And don't get me started on the Americanist advantage: no translation necessary, nothing pre-early modern, large public domain sources, etc.) I don't think I actually address different questions with regard to the sources, though: As I've said before, sources lie, but they're all we have. Once you get beyond basic understanding of the text, we all have to talk about context, about utility and omissions, about authorship and perspective. (e.g., from this semester)Perhaps the most distinctive thing I do is prefer complete sources to excerpts. Not that I don't use source readers: I actually do, quite heavily, and they're great for legal and political documents, and for intellectual, philosophical, religious texts that needed an editor the first time. But outside of that I'm much more likely to assign a fairly complete work — and this is true of monographs as well as primary sources — than a short excerpt. I have a theory, as yet untested by anyone, including myself, that it gives students more depth, and a better sense of how history is really done, to wrestle with a complete argument, to try to make sense of a complete work.

  4. 3 November, 2009 5:20 pm

    I think I may re-think some of what I do, based on your assignments. Maybe. I think I'll have to post more about my actual assignments first, and see what people think. The questions I ask are much harder in some ways, because they give the students far more freedom. But they are also meant to gradually build skills. Hmmm.

  5. 4 November, 2009 3:28 am

    Actually a useful discussion, as I'm trying to think through a new course for the spring, where I'll do lots of work with primary sources. I'm with Jonathan in preferring complete sources, because then students really have to deal with the messiness; the excerpts are usually very didactically chosen.

  6. 5 November, 2009 12:32 pm

    I have been struggling a lot this course with incomplete extracts of sources, so I'm also with Jonathan; too often have I found myself saying, "Ah, yes, but you don't know what's in the bit you don't have", which is unfair on the students. Secondary reading yes, they need to do, but they ought to be able to rely on what we actually give them. (No, I didn't get involved in this course early enough to set the readings.)My guys are beginning to wake up now but the lack of response I was getting may be explained by one student in my less wakeful group who keeps asking, "what are you looking for?" when I ask a question. And my answer is, "Well, what have you noticed?" but they don't like it, they want the authoritative answer and only slowly are they beginning to enjoy the possibility that there might not be one. Of course, that they don't appear to *read* enough to know whether there's an answer or not doesn't help… But again, this too is improving.One thing I have considered and may yet try is to hand them out a passage of some significant sort – a chunk of law-code, a simoniacal succession agreement or similar – and just getting them to go through and circle the words or phrases they think are significant, have them explain why and then play knock-out and give points Boggle-style to unique findings. Some small prize to the winner maybe. It was one thought I had when I was still thinking I might have to try and teach them source criticism from the ground up (which, as ADM says, shouldn't be necessary in the UK, but…).

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