Tona Hangen

Developing Historical Methods

This morning was the initial class in the Fall 2011 historical methods course, made up of undergraduate history majors/minors. It will be an interesting mix this term; some are double majors with education heading for public school classrooms, and I have a handful of students with plans to go to graduate school in history. A few are older than traditional college age. I can already sense that this will be a good group for discussions, that’s a good sign.

My Day One activity looks like this: divide the class into three groups (I have about 15 students in the class; if it were going to be bigger, I’d create more groups). One group has people who have brought laptops to class. I give each group a set of documents or artifacts and a series of questions to start them off, and then I stand back and observe for about half an hour. I’m looking to see how they approach an unfamiliar set of sources, and I’m trying to get to know them as learners. What kinds of questions do they ask? How do they begin to make sense of what’s in front of them? Who emerges as a natural leader? How well are they listening to each other’s ideas?

Here’s what I gave them:

Group 1: a flash drive, or CD, of 8-10 digitized documents relating to the Chinese Exclusion Act (legal affadavits, the text of the act, photographs, letters, identification cards), from the American Memory collection “The Chinese in California, 1850-1925

Group 2: an envelope of reproduction documents from the British Imperial War Museum, relating to the evacuation and homefront experiences of British children from London during World War II. Without telling them that’s what they are.

Group 3: a shoebox of artifacts from my own house (an expired passport, a 1st grade school class photo, Christmas cards, the sort of things that I have stuck in a trunk in the attic).

The reason I like this exercise is because it immediately puts them in the investigative, detective, puzzle-solving mindset. It’s a reasonably good approximation of what you get when you open an archival collection or an old box (minus the finding aid). And it allows me to see what I might need to emphasize in my early instruction about research methods. Research isn’t only finding sources, it’s knowing what to do when you find them. What questions to ask of them. How to prioritize and organize them in time, space, and significance. How to take notes on them. How to document and cite them. What to do with those notes.

Here’s my question for you JI readers – and it relates to Mark Sample’s observation on ProfHacker today that scholars in the humanities probably could do much more to make our work more visible. How did you learn research methods? Is this being taught in your programs, at the undergraduate or graduate levels? Or is it picked up pretty much by trial and error and osmosis? What are the essential skills and questions – what should my students be learning from me?

You’re in the archives. You get a box. What do you do next? What’s your method?

(crossposted to Juvenile Instructor)

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Header Image: Adapted from Niki Feijens

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