There is a treasure trove of teaching materials on the Internet. Many of us populate our materials with images, film clips, and primary sources gleaned from sites of other historians, libraries, and image repositories. But one archive in particular has been a rich source of teaching inspiration — the archive of Roland Marchand, the renowned historian of advertising and American culture at the University of California Davis. My mentor, historian Bruce Schulman, introduced me to Marchand’s “bag of tricks” in graduate school, and I’ve been going back to it ever since.
Not only does the archive house over 8,600 images of advertising and American history, it also contains some of Marchand’s assignments, many of which I have updated and incorporated into my classroom. These assignments are his documentary source problems, which ask students to engage with (sometimes a plethora) of primary source documents to reconstruct and analyze historical events. The topics range from Catherine of Cleves to the Ideology of the New Left.
I recently incorporated discussions based on the problem sets into my online course, pulling out and highlighting for students the kinds of historical thinking being asked of them. For example, in analyzing documents relating to the 1919 Chicago riots, I’m asking them to come up with a causality argument, one that takes into account the complex short and long-term contextual developments that informed the situation on the ground in Chicago. I selected eight of these discussions, beginning with a brief analysis of immigration cartoons from the late nineteenth century and ending with an interpretation of the events of Watergate.
The Meaning of Suburbia – A Documentary Source Problem as Classroom Discussion
One successful in class use of these source sets was in my US survey (the second half). In class, I divided students into four or five groups of four students. I gave them the sources relating to the suburbs in the 1950s to peruse, along with a few advertisements from the era and an excerpt from Richard Polenberg’s One Nation, Divisible to help them interpret the context.
Their task is simple: using the documents, answer the question — In the 1950s, did suburban Americans have the “good life?” To explain their answer to the question, I ask them to highlight three examples from the document that prove their point.
The students work for around 15-20 minutes on their problems, during which time I serve as an “on-call” adviser for their arguments. After the time has completed, each group presents their argument and documents, and I take notes on the board.
I’ve done this in three sections of the survey, and the balance of arguments is always different. In one class I had an even balance of “Yes” and “No” — but for entirely different reasons. In another class they all argued “Yes,” but one group then changed their answer after realizing that they had failed to take the perspectives and experiences of black Americans into account. In grappling with the powerful cultural images of the suburbs, particularly when employing the lens of race, students were able to complicate their definition of life in the suburbs.
A few notably conversations tend to take place — all classes, for example, had a general discussion about the benefits of the availability of interior plumbing (we had to revisit what communal toilets were like in urban neighborhoods). After taking notes based on the group findings, conversation usually ensued naturally. Many students were incredulous that other groups did not take into account the threat of nuclear war (I usually include an advertisement about home bomb shelters) and how that shaped the meaning of suburbia, whereas others emphasized the transition from inner-city neighborhoods to suburban lawns. These conversations often expanded beyond the historical moment of the 1950s and touched on students’ own experiences and upbringings, with them thinking about the role of media and politics in shaping their own understandings of place and family in a broader historical context.
At the end of the discussion, after comparing arguments and raising pieces of evidence to challenge interpretations, I ask students if we began with the right question. I’m happy to report that they hated my interpretive question. They found it too difficult to answer yes or no, and that it was too leading. I spend the last few minutes of class crafting with them a more effective question, such as “Given the rising Cold War tensions, how did gender roles in American suburbs take on new meaning?” or “With the demographic shift to the suburbs, how were these new spaces structured by race, class, and media imagery?”
In short, the documentary source problems are a great way to engage students with the kind of investigatory work we do as historians, as well as introduce complex categories of analysis to interrogate structures and experiences that they often take for granted. This semester, in the online class, I will be having students develop a research paper based off of one of the discussions from the semester, and I anticipate a level and range of creative thinking not often found in papers where the source base is more limited.