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Teaching Primary Sources 2

5 November, 2009

Teaching Primary Sources, pt.2 (NaSchoWriMo/NaBloPoMo 4)

This is going to be a short post, because I’ve been transcribing excerpts of sources by hand (i.e., typing, because I haven’t been able to get the scanner to work) for the past couple of hours. Why? Fair use.

In response to Jonathan’s and Susan’s comments on the last post regarding excerpts: for me, it depends entirely on the level of the class and the point of the assignment. If what I want is primarily for the students to get a really good overall view for a period or place, or if the reading is relatively short anyway, I’m all for the whole thing. But say I want to show something about Roman provincial administration — do I really need them to read all of Pliny’s correspondence to Trajan? Or (heaven forfend) more than the pertinent pages of Civitas Dei to give them an idea of Augustine’s response to the sack of Rome?

What about when I am trying to teach the students to pick apart a document? how much do I need?

I’m not really arguing against more reading or the value of reading entire works or substantially longer excerpts. I’m just saying that I’m not sure that shorter passages are any more problematic, if what one is trying to teach is how to read a source and/or how to construct an argument and write an essay around it.

Speaking of which, I’m going to have to do some modification of a series of assignments I use in my surveys. For a couple of years, I’ve given three papers, each worth a bit more than the one before, as part of the course grade. Each paper is successively more difficult, and they are meant to build on things we discuss regarding primary sources. The first essay is simply two or three paragraphs in which they have to identify things: author, audience, type of document, etc., and then one piece of historical evidence in the document and how a historian might use it. The second paper is longer, and asks them to look at one document and write an essay that shows that they can use that document to tell us what it reveals about [a specific theme, e.g., gender relationships or trade] the time and place. The third paper requires them to consider 2-3 documents (usually from different time periods and/or cultures) and compare and contrast a couple of themes evident in the documents in ways that show that they can not only identify themes and create arguments, but also show that they are considering how all the external criticism stuff comes into play. Just assigned such a paper. Am thinking I may have to re-think and tighten it up.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 5 November, 2009 8:07 pm

    I find this whole discussion of primary sources fascinating–since I teach New Testament and Preaching… Therefore I'm *all about* having my students read and engage the primary sources. Furthermore, most seminarians are not use to seeing the NT as a set of historical documents and history becomes a means of *problematizing* the text to get them to look at it more clearly (i.e., engage what's actually on the page rather than what Sunday School taught you was there…).

  2. 8 November, 2009 6:09 am

    I'm not sure that shorter passages are any more problematic, if what one is trying to teach is how to read a source and/or how to construct an argument and write an essay around it.Oddly, perhaps, I agree. I use shorter pieces all the time, abridged longer pieces (ever read the 54 chapter The Tale of Genji? I'd never be able to assign anything else!), and source readers. Often it isn't necessary to give students everything to make a point. And, frankly, these are undergraduate courses we're talking about: we're never (in a single semester, or even a full-bore undergrad program) going to get them to the point where we're not saying "what you don't know about this is…" I like your structured assignments, actually. I suppose I'm trying to do something similar to your last one with my essay tests, but it would probably help them if I was a bit more explicit about the method.

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