Tona Hangen

On the Level

I have the good fortune to be teaching a graduate class this semester, to a cohort of Worcester Public Schools high school teachers. It’s a course in Constitutional History since 1877 for a local TAH grant called “Securing the Blessings of Liberty.” Last night we had a really productive discussion that got me thinking.

The day’s topic was civil liberties and free speech during World War I, including the cases of Schenk, Abrams and In Re Debs. The assigned reading included excerpts from the case decisions so I thought I’d augment that with the original pamphlets & speech that brought these men before the courts in the first place. And as we wound our discussion down I also wanted to use these documents to consider what we as history educators ask our students to do when we teach from primary sources, so I asked for some meta-reflection:

Level Tripod?
What would you expect a high school student to be able to do with this document? What questions would you ask? What would you have your students look for?

Answers included: What is it? What’s it related to? Why am I looking at it today, in other words why did my teacher/professor choose this particular document? Who’s the source/creator, when is the date, what’s the “fine print” or the framing details like prefatory material? Does it seem to have an agenda? Who’s the intended audience? Identify any key terms that show up more than once, or which need to be defined. What are the important parts of this text?

Now… what would it mean to take historical thinking up a level? What would be a “college level” analysis of a primary source document?

What would you expect a college student to be able to do with this document? What questions would you ask? What would I have my students look for?

We agreed we’d expect all of the above, plus: creator’s motivation or the background/context of the text’s creation, and the ability to make connections to other documents like it. Not just identify but define the key terms, understand them in historical context & what they meant at the time. What’s the significance, i.e. not just “what does it say” but “what does it mean” or “why is it important”? Can it be related to something now or connected to something prior? What else was happening at the time? In other words, do you see it as part of a fluid story of the past? Don’t jump to conclusions using your 21st century values & terminology – retain the pastness of the past.

Now… what would a “graduate level” analysis of a document include that would take the historical thinking up yet another level?

What would you expect a graduate student to be able to do with this document? What questions should graduate students be asking or what should they be doing differently/above & beyond what a college student would do?

Our answers, plus a few of my own I thought of while driving home: Have a sense of not just pastness but also contingency – and what the inflection points or turning points might have been around this document. Be able to evaluate typicality and representativeness (i.e. does this represent mainstream or extreme ideas?) and think about larger categories of sources this one might stand for. Rhetorical analysis: read it closely, watching for inconsistencies, gaps, loaded words, structure, specialized language, and symbolic meaning. What does it NOT say; what silences does it suggest? What does “the literature” say about it – in other words, not just how it fits into a dynamic story about the past, but – how does it fit into the dynamic story of historical scholarship? Who else has written about this document, and what have they made of it? Are there competing interpretations? Can you add something new? Why does it matter? What use can we make of this document as a tool to think with about the past and/or about the current state of historiography on this topic?

These aren’t just levels of increasing cognitive sophistication; these are also quite divergent tasks with very different goals. Primary sources are like Leatherman tools. You can use them for vastly different purposes, depending on the complexity of the task and the user’s critical analysis skills.

What else do you think does (or should) distinguish a “high school” approach to a primary source from a “college-level” one from a “graduate level” one?

[Photo, used under Creative Commons license, from jpstanley]

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One thought on “On the Level

  1. Angela

    At the grad. level I think we can also expect a student to find supporting documents that add different interpretations, speak in the same or different voice and leave out something. Yet these other documents support the point or argument of the document we are disecting. That is a bit more of a challenge and goes a bit beyond the average compare/contrast but I think high school and college students are capable given or directed towards the appropriate materials. I am not sure I have explained this the way I am thinking about it. . .

Header Image: Adapted from Niki Feijens

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