Dr Bruce Baker
School of History, Classics and Archaeology
Humanities and Social Sciences
What did you do?
Students seek out their own primary sources to use as the basis of class discussion.
Who is involved?
Students on a third-year special subject module.
How did you do it?
Here are the instructions for the weekly writing portfolio assignment:
“At the beginning of the semester, you will be assigned a particular town or county in the South. Each week, you should seek out a contemporary newspaper article from the digitized newspapers available at http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov that illustrates the week’s topic, write a brief paragraph (about 200 words or so) about it, and bring hard copies of the article and paragraph to the seminar to discuss.”
This has worked really well. We have set primary sources that everyone reads (the reading list and full module handbook is here: http://bruceebaker.com/HIS3212.htm), but having students seek out and bring in their own sources each week gives us a glimpse of the sort of variation that is important to understanding the region. The observations students make on the sources are usually quite insightful, often citing some of the secondary literature we have been reading. I take up copies of the paragraphs at the beginning of the seminar, and during a break I sort them into rough categories, and then we go through and discuss them in class. I also mark and provide brief feedback on the paragraphs the next week.
Why did you do it?
This module covers the American South, but one of the key things I try to get across to students is that there are important subregional variations in almost of the things we talk about. I also wanted a way of getting the students more engaged with the primary sources before the seminars and something that would work as a bit of a de facto attendance policy.
Does it work?
One of the best things about this assignment is that students find primary sources I never knew about and, to be honest, that sometimes pose questions I don’t really know the answer to. In fact, a student last year brought in a photograph that was so directly relevant to research I was doing that it is appearing as an illustration in a book chapter I have coming out soon (with acknowledgement, of course).