Primary Sources and the End Game

Since the midterm, I have noticed that several of my students are continuing to struggle with primary sources. Of course, they know what primary sources are, and to a pretty good degree, how to extract information from such documents. Nevertheless, it is apparent that a great number simply prefer to deal with and to use primary sources one at a time. This defines not only examinations and paper writing, but also our class time together.

For instance, during lectures or discussions, I may inquire about a document that we read a couple of weeks earlier as way to discuss parallels or differences. Most often, the referenced source is one that generated a lot of really good conversation when we discussed it then. Later though, most are simply unable to recall what they read, or worse, what they thought about what they read. Often if we wait long enough, one or two students are able to offer something from their notes. Most times though it is clear that there simply are no notes. Consequently, I then have to lead us to the point where I hoped we would all arrive together.

Since the midterm, I have been rolling this issue over in my head, trying to determine what the problem may be, if indeed there is one, and how it might be solved. This exercise has led to me to ponder the real role of primary sources in survey courses. By this, I mean more than the go-to explanation that these are the raw materials for historical research and that through their use students can begin to understand how history is written and the historian’s craft. On one hand, that is fine and good enough. I can wrap my mind around it and, on some level, so can many of the students. On the other hand, I continue to contemplate the exact set of skills that these documents are supposed to test or develop and how we know for sure that our students have them. Even more, what does it mean/look like to truly have them?

This led me to thinking. If I consider my class’s coverage of primary sources on a singular basis then I could very easily say that most students are doing fine and that, in fact, several are excelling. However, if understanding and using primary sources in a manner that relates to a grander narrative (and not just the current theme) is a key consideration, then there is still work to do. In attempting to resolve this, I talked to several colleagues, researched articles on the matter, and reflected on my past experience as a teaching assistant and grader. In so doing, I have come to the realization that there is little consensus on the actual end game of primary sources.

A number (beyond the obvious syllabus requirement, of course) assign primary sources chiefly as a way of peaking student interests, supplying additional information, covering material that is not addressed in a textbook, and spurring conversation. Sometimes, this information is covered on an exam and sometimes it is not. Others see primary sources as playing a different perhaps even grander role. By the semester’s end, the common expectation here is that students will be able not only be able to identity and read primary sources, but that they will also be capable of interrogating and combining this information in final paper or examination essay form.

Although diverse in emphases and in outcomes, all of this brought me back to my main concern that my students seemed to be tucking away primary sources and forgetting about them. For the aims of our time together, I determined that this would not work. To modify this, within a week of the exam, we repeated an in-class primary source workshop that enabled students to work in small groups. Together, they read and analyzed primary sources. They also answered a set of prompts about these sources, which included broader inquiries about how these documents related to other primary source material as well as to larger themes in the class. I then made this document available on the online learning management system to encourage them to continue to answer such questions when reading primary sources on their own. Another method that I am trying involves deliberately threading primary sources into lectures. In this way, as a unit we are constantly  discussing and combining the primary sources across weeks.

I am hoping that these approaches are paying off. Yet, I am still very much contemplating the end game. I am considering whether it is enough when students in survey classes are able to draw information from the primary source at the point of consideration? Or, should they be expected to pull together these resources in discussions, papers, and exams and point to a grander narrative? If so, to what degree and in what forms is this best tested or observed?

As I am preparing to wrap-up this class and to teach the same in the spring, I am interested in continuing the conversation that we all (Andrew, Drew, Emily, Nicole, and many others) seem to be having about sources in our courses, their overall purposes, and desired and even unexpected outcomes. Additionally, I am eager to hear from those who have assigned book-length primary sources as standing ones throughout the semester and what the benefits and drawbacks of this approach might be.

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