Primary sources and getting some context

In its most basic sense, this is what history is: the stories we tell about our prior selves or that others tell about us.  In writing these stories, however, historians do not discover a past as much as they create it; they choose the events and people that they think constitute the past, and they decide what about them they need to know. . .

The above quote is excerpted from the book, From Reliable Sources, An introduction to historical methods, part of a slightly longer quote I use on the very first day of each class—right after a slide that eads: “What is history?”  Last night in my opening class of a once-a-week Thursday night-er (Western Civ. 101) I received a certain amount of concern and doubt from my students:

“Well, he seems to be saying— well, ‘the stories we tell about our prior selves or that others tell about us’— that is, I hope it means historical fact.”

“It’s kind of disturbing that they say ‘stories.'”

To their consternation, I wrote the following up on the board: PAST ≠ HISTORY!

The second slide they read was a little longer than the sentence below, but it ended with the following:

Seen from this point of view, the historian’s basic task is to choose reliable sources, to read them reliably, and to put them together in ways that provide reliable narratives about the past.

While interpretations of past events differ, the historian seeks to gain the most accurate account of the past that he/she can, I explained.  To do this the historian must seek reliable sources.  Borrowing from some of the back-to-school ideas posted at the end of this summer, I asked the students what they would choose to include if I asked them to tell me about their day.  At various points they would leave things out as irrelevant and this prioritization is something that historians do, too, when constructing their narratives of the past.  It is at this point that I introduce the concept of the historian functioning like a detective and a prosecutor in his/her research (detective investigation) and written argument (prosecutor’s court case) based on found evidence.  Roughly, the next thing I did with my students this semester was introduce documents that students had brought in and were, through scanning and magic marker application, rendered anonymous.  Having divided the class into small groups, each group got its own set of documents and was tasked with trying to establish 1) what they knew about the individual from the documents (and why?) and 2) what could they infer about the individual from the documents (and why?).  This week was the first time I had attempted this and below I want to share some of the results.

The assignment, given to my Monday/Wednesday/Friday class, required each student to bring in three documents due on the first Wednesday.  They understood that these would be read by their classmates and that they should not bring in anything inappropriate, i.e. anything referencing sexual behavior, illegal activity or other inappropriate behavior.  (The students were good about this, although, one student did bring in a summons to court for driving 80-something in a 50 mph zone and a ticket from the NJ turnpike authority for not having any money to pay the toll, both of which prompted the group to infer that the individual was male because, and I paraphrase: males are more frequently guilty of aggressive driving and not going through the proper planning to show up at a toll with the necessary funds!)  Because the  class brought them in on a Wednesday, I could select some for use in both my Thursday night class and my Tuesday/Thursday class.

On the xeroxed copies of the card, pictured above, the recipient’s name was blacked out.  With this card also came a 21st birthday card from “Grandmom” and a lifeguard training and first aid card from the American Red Cross, Central Maryland Chapter, completed May 23, 2008.    This individual’s documents were used in all three classes with some interesting results.  First of all, students were told that all the cards and non-electronic correspondence were received by the individuals—not written by them.  While I made this clear, students seemed to have a difficult time recalling that fact when they read the card shown here and seemed determined (all three groups!) to infer that he was female.  Part of this was also due to the birthday card from his grandmother which students decided looked like a card one would pick out for a girl, not a boy.

Aside from the gender confusion, however, there were some perceptive conclusions and inferences made.  For example, one group had a lifeguard in it and (correctly) assessed that he was probably also CPR-certified if he was still a lifeguard.  And, furthermore, he had probably earned it recently, because while the lifeguard certification was already two years old, it was good for three years, and a CPR certification is only good for one year.  As the date was in May, most groups reasoned it was probably for a summer job, in particular, though there were likely other opportunities for using it.  I pointed out that one person’s knowledge about lifeguarding provided more context which enabled the group to make inferences based on his familiarity and experiences leading them to reason more, even if they could not state more facts.  (I also pointed out that working together expanded their ability to evaluate the material.)  Finally, looking at the card shown above, the groups were able to correctly surmise that he was in his first semester at Mount St. Mary’s college when he received the card, based on the opening reference to “the Mount” leading into a description of freshman life in college.

Another student brought in a letter about his father’s death (for heavy reading), a tag from the hospital in conjunction with a birth (1987) and the shown postcard.  While the postcard is from Turkey, the stamp on the back was an Italian stamp, which led one student to infer that the sender was in the Navy (as it turns out the sender was the individual’s father and he was a merchant marine).  In another class we talked about this student’s choices in his documents that led the group to infer that his father’s absence was a defining aspect in his life.

One student brought in a picture, a Chanukah card from “Grandma & Poppop” and a Placement/Academic Planning form for our college.  From the card all groups (correctly) identified that the student was Jewish.  From the placement form they were confident that student was strong in English and that it was not his second language as the there was no ESOL placement requirements filled in.  (Although, the former point prompted some interesting conversations about whether test scores were evidence of a fact or an inference, most groups settling on fact in the end.)   Also, the groups inferred that the student was currently taking classes at the college as the form had been filled out the previous fall (2009).

One group, knowing that students 25+ years are not required to show previous college experience or SAT/ACT scores, inferred that the student must be twenty-five or older because these boxes were left blank, which, while not actually the case, was nonetheless well-reasoned.  In fact, I used that as an opportunity to demonstrate  how a perfectly well-reasoned inference can still be wrong.  This further showed students how a historian’s conclusions can be based on perfectly reasonable interpretations of available sources and still be off the mark.  Again: past ≠ history, or maybe: past ≈ history.

In general, I was really pleased with this activity.  Students were free to take risks in their attempts to interpret the information they had available without worrying about losing points for mistakes.  Also, even though I used the documents from one class with student-groups from all three classes, as students tapped into their own knowledge banks the enterprise facilitated students getting to know each other better in their small groups which are now set for the whole semester.

In the past, I have noticed students struggle to look at a document and find clues.  The hope in doing this activity with students’ documents was twofold:

In the first place, it allowed me to show how many more documents we have today even though the electronic medium may make it more difficult to access documents for future historians.

Secondly, and more importantly, it gave them practice looking for evidence in documents with known or more familiar contexts.

We concluded with a discussion about what Sam Wineburg has to say about engaging with the unfamiliar:

To realize history’s humanizing qualities fully, to draw on history’s ability to, in the words of Carl Degler, “expand our conception and understanding of what it means to be human,” we need to encounter the distant past—a past less distant from us in time than in its modes of thought and social organization.  It is this past, one that initially leaves us befuddled or, worse, just plain bored, that we need most if we are to achieve the understanding that each of us is more than the handful of labels ascribed to us at birth.  The sustained encounter with this less-familiar past teaches us the limitations of our brief sojourn on the planet and allows us to take membership in the entire human race.  Paradoxically, the relevance of the past may lie precisely in what strikes us as its initial irrelevance.

I expressed that this concept of humanizing us is an important goal for all of us this semester.

I would really appreciate comments and questions, so fire away!

Decorative relief from the Basilica of St. John, Ephesus, Turkey



Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

3 responses to “Primary sources and getting some context

  1. Pingback: Facing the challenges of the high school pastime of dehumanizing your peers « Brush off the dust! History now!

  2. Pingback: What do you want to see?? Give me feedback about the blog! « Brush off the dust! History now!

  3. Pingback: Teaching history without a history degree | Brush off the dust! History now!

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