Why do you use primary source documents in class? In my case I'm interested in students understanding where historical interpretations originate. I don't like the God-like detachment of most textbooks, telling us exactly what happened without an inch of doubt. Introducing primary sources and explaining their exact relationship to historical events is one way to raise the issues associated with doing history rather than just learning what happened.
Unfortunately, a single document is not always enough to achieve this goal. After all, primary sources have their own shortcomings. The text of a law offers no context. An eyewitness to events can offer only their perspective. Good secondary sources benefit from a wide range of primary sources, so why can't students gain a similar perspective?
That's why as we begin to expand the supply of sources in the Milestone Documents U.S. History II collection—our newest documents include the Gay Liberation Front Platform Statement and Warren Harding's “Return to Normalcy” speech—I've begun working on document pairs. The idea is to add perspective by bringing documents on similar subjects together in order to raise issues that one document alone could never offer.
While three documents can be better than two and four documents can be better than three, the idea behind pairs is to offer enough additional information to improve discussion, but not so much that the additional document provides diminishing returns. While there are always far more than two sides to every story, the idea is to hint at a multiplicity of perspectives without bogging a discussion down with so much unnecessary theory that it would confuse anyone in an introductory U.S, History class.
While I haven't quite picked every document for what will eventually be an X document, I've already faced a number of interesting problems when trying to choose what issues to tackle. Of course, the easiest pairs to imagine would be documents from different sides of a single struggle: Republicans versus Democrats, reformers versus the establishment, etc.
However, what happens if you don't want to highlight views that are racist or otherwise wildly out of date? In these instances, I've leaned towards multiple perspectives on reform. Like nearly all Milestone Documents, these perspectives will be introduced and followed by discussion questions. The nature of those questions run more along the lines of “Which approach do you think was most successful?” or “How might those approaches have complemented one another?” rather than turning every controversy into a debate about two equivalent sides.
Another thing that pairs allows teachers to do that can't be done in a single document is hint at the geographical diversity of a historical phenomenon. “How did segregation in the North compare to segregation in the South?” is one question I wrote recently. “Was the Depression different for people in the East than in the West?” is another question I'd like to ask if I can find the right documents to support that kind of analysis.
Since primary sources are what historians use to create their interpretations, how can we as teachers use them to get students to do the same? If one primary source is good for promoting one kind of historical thinking, multiple primary sources can be even better since they suggest even more sophisticated kinds of thought.
For me, this whole exercise is a follow-up to the kind of bounded research exercise I've used for many semesters now. The more students can make connections between documents to draw conclusions about the past, the more they'll understand what historians do, because they'll be doing it themselves in class.
As always, please feel free to send suggestions for documents or textbook articles directly to me at Jonathan.Rees@csupueblo.edu.
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