Learning History by Doing History

Submitted by Alison Stankrauff

Archivists interested in establishing relationships and collaborations with history instructors to foster teaching with primary sources should assess their archive’s collections considering the following four criteria:

  1. Variety of sources. To what extent does a collection demonstrate a variety of kinds of sources (length, visual, production of doc, etc.)? The collection should introduce students to the scope and variety of primary sources. One of the main reasons history instructors are using more primary sources in their courses is to teach students to construct a coherent historical narrative. By drawing from primary sources disparate in type, created in different places and times, and rarely designed to be used in together, history instructors can emphasize just how constructed our narratives of the past really are and, therefore, the significance of interpretation in studying history.
  2. Topic coherence. Does the collection tell a historical story accessible to new historians? While history instructors want students to put work into constructing a historical narrative, we also need to recognize that undergrads (especially those taking an introductory course) have not developed the skills or expertise necessary to tie together sources too disparate in nature and content. The underlying thread needs to be easily apparent to students.
  3. Containment. Can a representative sample—10 to 15 documents, which we are calling “mini-collections”—be culled from the larger collection? One of the most significant challenges that instructors face when they archival sources in coursework is time. Instructors need to have access to enough sources that they can teach their desired lessons, but they also need to place a limit on the volume of sources such that they can expect students to meaningful, in-depth work during the duration of a semester or even a unit.
  4. Applicability. For which faculty/courses at my institution might this mini-collection be a useful teaching aid? This might be as easy as a casual email with a friend in the history department, or it might require requesting to present at a department meeting. [The thing we want to make clear is that once an archivist does this evaluation, the content of this promotional work is already focused into a direct pitch for interested faculty: you can quickly present what, exactly, is useful and why.

With these simple-but-specific questions, any archivist at any institution with at least one collection can promote their resources to any faculty interested in designing an archival-based assignment for history students. To show what we did and how we drew these conclusions, we’ll now briefly present some of the details of our collaboration.

Case Study: H106 (Intro to U.S. History, 1865 – Present): “Doing History” Assignment.

We created three mini collections from the collections of IUSB’s archives: Annie Bell Boss, IUSB student protests (following Nixon sending soldiers into Cambodia and Kent / Jackson State shootings), and the Torrington & Co.’s decision to close its South Bend plant to relocate in a right-to-work state in 1983. We will focus on examples from the IUSB Student Protest mini-collection in this presentation for the sake of simplicity.

Why did we undertake this collaboration? Kinnear wanted to teach the Intro course as an introduction to how U.S. historians do history, not just an intro to what they study. He built the course around parallel progressions: chronology (Reconstruction – Present) and what he calls “doing history,” or the series of skills historians use to produce historical research. Professional history at an introductory scale. Hence mini-collections, rather than full archival collections. Intro students only needed to see enough of the primary sources to practice the relevant skill: finding the “story,” or historical narrative, amid disparate, unrelated sources. The archival component came most of the way through the semester. It was the third of four major assignments. The first two assignments taught students how to analyze a source and compare the information in multiple sources, respectively. For the third assignment, the archival assignment, they studied the documents, found a narrative, and presented it in written form. The fourth assignment followed up on this archive-based historical research by requiring students to incorporate extensive revisions to help students understand just how important feedback, editing, and polishing are for any written work, from professional historians to undergrads.

How did we create the mini-collections at the heart of the archival research assignment? Kinnear contacted Stankrauff, Stankrauff provided consultation. Once Kinnear explained his goals for a highly-controlled archival experience for his students, Stankrauff recommended the three topics (Bell-Boss, IUSB Student Protest, and Torrington & Co.). This was a key moment for the recommendations we provided at the beginning of our talk, because it was through this conversation that we organically discovered the criteria listed above. These are criteria that an archivist can use to select the most teachable collections and the collections most “collapsable” into mini-collections.

With these recommendations, Kinnear viewed the documents in the suggested collections and selected the 10 − 15 documents for each mini-collection. This took about 1 − 2 hours per mini-collection. The archive scanned the mini-collections as PDFs for digital copies.

How did we manage making the mini-collections available to all of the students in Kinnear’s class? We agreed at the outset of this collaboration that it was worth it to bring students into the archive to view the mini-collections, especially considering Kinnear’s desire to teach the experience of doing history as much as the content itself. This might not be ideal in every situation—an archivist might not have the time or space to bring in 30+ students and an instructor might want to tie the content of the mini-collections into a larger lesson on historical events instead of the experience of doing history—in which case creating digital mini-collections in advance might be the end of the archivist-instructor collaboration. We believe that providing students the archival setting as much as the archival documents was worth the effort; many students had moments where the past came alive when they recognized a name, a street, or an event from their (or their family’s) past. That they had a classmate, an instructor, an archivist, or all three to share this moment with created the experience of “doing history” as a form of active engagement with the past via empirical evidence that no classroom or source book can duplicate.

We created this situation by communicating effectively and planning carefully. Stankrauff listed all of the openings in her schedule during the two-week window in which students would be viewing the mini-collections. Kinnear did the same. He combined our availabilities into a sign-up sheet. We collectively double-checked and agreed upon the sign-up sheet before Kinnear presented it to his class. From then on, Kinnear served as liaison between his students and Stankrauff.
What became of this archival assignment? In addition to the moments in which we saw the past came alive for students, Kinnear saw some tentative statistical evidence that this assignment boosted students’ grades from the grades they were on pace to receive as of mid-term. [Show Craig’s grade-improvement chart.] We believe that these stats correlate to similar findings by other researchers who found a statistical significance in students’ improved grades by working directly with primary sources [citations?]

We think that the ultimate payoff of our collaboration and the criteria we’ve suggested for other archivist/instructor collaborations is much more significant than the (likely) benefit to student grades. The creation and use of mini-collections for classroom use is something that any archive at any institution of any size can do. Most examples of similar collaborations are published by archivists or instructors at major research schools with extensive collections, staff, and funding. Smaller institutions with limited collections, staff, and budgets are less represented in the literature. An archivist with at least one collection that at least one history instructor might use in the classroom can apply these simple-yet-specific criteria we’ve outlined. In this way, schools with limited staff and funding can provide cutting-edge pedagogy on par with the most prestigious institutions. The investment comes in the form of communication and planning.

Downloadable Assignment Prompt

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