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Teaching Primary Sources 3

6 November, 2009

Teaching Primary Sources 3 (NaSchoWriMo/NaBloPoMo 5)

Another short post, I’m afraid, but it’s been a long day. The fools who started NaNoWriMo clearly weren’t thinking about the fact that this is a hellaciously busy time of year for academics. I swear I don’t know what happened to my day, but I know I was busy and in my office from 8:30-7:00 with a couple of bathroom breaks and only two cups of tea — except for the time I was in class.

So anyway, I thought I’d address one subject that has come up in comments so far, and that is whether or not one uses excerpts. I mentioned in my last post that I agreed that full pieces were preferable to excerpts, but that one can’t always read the full thing. It depends on the course and the level of students, just for starters. Still, I understand the objections to excerpts, especially those in a reader. Often, they are chosen, as Jonathan Dresner pointed out, to put forth a certain didactic point. This is problematic at best — especially when the point of the editor is not the point you’d like to make!

Short passages also tend to reinforce the idea that one uses primary sources to illustrate ‘what we already know’ from the textbook, rather than what I am trying to teach, which is that we couldn’t have the textbook had historians not read primary sources. Even those document readers that have longer passages can annoy me because they often ask leading questions. At some level, I do understand. It’s good to give the students an idea of how other people have used sources in the past. But so often the questions are things like, “what kind of evidence is there that slaves were not thought of as fully human?” I don’t want that sort of question. I think such questions deaden the wit and encourage students to look no further. If the editor must offer questions, please, offer questions like, “What does this document tell you about the attitudes of slave traders towards the Africans? What specific examples can you find?”

It’s a pain, really, because there are readers out there with fantastic documents; for example, I love the choices in the Andrea and Overfield reader. But I hate the questions and I hate even more the long introductions, because the students invariably want to talk about what the editors say rather than what the documents say. They know the tone of authority, and to their ears, that tone is much more “reliable” than the voice of someone who lived in the past, and definitely more authoritative than anything they could come up with. So I’ve come up with a way of dealing with the didactic excerpt and over-edited and glossed collection: I make it part of the lesson. When I have only a short excerpt, or there are editorial comments or organization (for example, the introduction of headings in documents that have no such thing in the original), I wait till a student starts to head off in the direction the editor clearly wanted. And I tell them that they clearly got what the editor intended, and then raise the question of whether the document is an excerpt or the whole story. This works really well with law codes, by the way …

Sometimes, I don’t need to even go that far: occasionally students will ask about what an ellipse does, or why the numbers of laws skip around. Either way, it opens up a conversation about how translation and editing can make a difference, and how they add yet another layer of questions to the external criticism. Translations are fun, too. One of the things I wish I remembered to do more often is to bring in several translations of the same document, and see what students come up with. Of course, that often necessitates the use of … a dictionary! But that’s a post of a different type.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 9 November, 2009 11:03 pm

    Thanks for this series. I know your focus has been on teaching, but as a student working with primary sources, I've also found it very interesting. In this post, you've articulated all my frustrations with edited document collections, which usually give me the vague feeling I'm being led by the nose in a particular direction.

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