By Blake Spitz
Teaching primary source analysis is a major component of my job as an archivist and educator and often the focus of one-shot instruction for undergraduate students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I love discussing analytic and emotional frameworks for engaging primary sources because I believe those encounters are potent moments, as each new person’s reaction and dialogue with a source is unique to them. Primary source activation allows students to bring their experiences and identities into the work of historical interpretation and meaning-making. For me, teaching primary source analysis is about explaining and honoring that process, while guiding students with skills and frameworks that they may use when doing that work.
I introduce primary source analysis with a method I call “ORQI/E,” based on the Library of Congress’s Primary Source Analysis Tool, which moves students between the modes of Observe, Reflect, and Question, to which I have added a fourth mode, Imagine/Empathize. In pre-pandemic face-to-face classes we would spend 2-3 activities interrogating and practicing these interpretive techniques. Students enjoy and understand these interpretive modes and are especially engaged and open during reflection and when using their historical imaginations to place themselves in the location of the source’s subject, creator, or audience.
As the pandemic hit, I, like many TPS professionals, was concerned about leading impactful primary source analysis activities remotely. Embedded within a classroom, I feel confident helping students formulate interpretations. Without as many “live action” clues, I worried if primary source analysis would be as energizing and moving for students in my fully remote classes.
My planning started with asynchronous instruction, as I was most concerned about that mode and had several classes request asynchronous lessons and activities. My quest for a digestible but robust primary source analysis activity was fulfilled when I learned about a framework called a “Zoom-In,” which I will refer to as “Close Looking,” or “CL,” so as not to confuse it with the meeting software Zoom.
A CL activity is a slow reveal, often within a questionnaire, where students are given open-ended questions along with small parts of, and then finally the whole document or image. This format is highly modifiable and adds specific guidance and reflection space into an activity. This piecemeal design was a major modification for me, making explicit many steps I normally teased out naturally facilitating a face-to-face class. Learning about CLs made with Google Forms provided both the structured format and technology solutions I was seeking.
For my virtual CLs, I combined revealing portions of a scanned primary source with my ORQI/E primary source analysis prompts, instructing students to carefully observe, reflect, question, and use their imaginations in response to portions of and then the whole source. A publicly accessible version of this asynchronous activity is available (you do not have to fill it out to click through): https://forms.gle/WY2L3ZYbHsx9XU57A
This activity method was a great success. For asynchronous classes, I easily created new copies of the form in Google Drive, embedded the activity into my asynchronous class presentations, and then later downloaded spreadsheets of student responses to share with professors. Student engagement with the CL activity was excellent, and many responses showed discerning analysis and emotional reflection. With instructions moving students through analytic frames multiple times, they were able to review and respond to a new primary source in great depth even with no instructor present.
This activity was perhaps even more successful once modified for Zoom synchronous classes. In a communal, editable Google Document, I reused the same questions and images from my asynchronous CL questionnaire, separating each question to leave room for in-class answers. In class, I screen-shared the CL Google Document after sharing a link to it in chat. I instructed students to follow along with me on their own screens, or mine, as we slowly went through the portions of the activity together, with students writing responses in real-time, either directly in the Google Document, in chat, or in chat to their professor if they desired anonymity. As responses flowed onto the visible screenshared Google Document, I would make comments, and then help students move onto next sections of the exercise. This activity could translate to other collaborative spaces, such as Padlet.
Synchronous student responses were wonderful, and it was exciting to see the class do primary source analysis together, while apart. Embedding these Google Documents into shared class slides later allowed students and professors to review the activity. Turning my previous face-to-face discussion-based activity into one with much more structure improved it immensely. My modifications not only made it possible to offer a robust primary source analysis activity remotely, both asynchronously and synchronously, but pushed me to formalize my teaching methodology with more purposeful design, a lesson I will carry forward!
 “Primary Source Analysis Tool,” Getting Started with Primary Sources, Library of Congress, accessed January 21, 2021, https://www.loc.gov/programs/teachers/getting-started-with-primary-sources/guides/
 Sara Conyers, “Tech Tool: Creating a Google Form Zoom-in Activity,” Primary Source Nexus (blog), Citizen U, March 29, 2017, https://primarysourcenexus.org/2017/03/tech-tool-creating-google-form-zoom-activity/; Alissa Oginsky, “Teaching Now: Zooming In on the Benefits of Primary Source Analysis Using Google Forms,” Primary Source Nexus (blog), Citizen U, March 19, 2017, https://primarysourcenexus.org/2017/03/teaching-now-zooming-benefits-primary-source-analysis-using-google-forms/; and Patti Winch, “Integrating Tech: Zoom-in to Primary Source Analysis,” Primary Source Nexus (blog), Citizen U, March 15, 2017, https://primarysourcenexus.org/2017/03/integrating-tech-zoom-primary-source-analysis/
Blake Spitz is an archivist in Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA), at the UMass Amherst Libraries. She is the lead instructor and creator for SCUA’s educational programming.