How should we teach sources to aspiring historians and laypeople?

Thanks to my rapidly growing pregnant belly, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately watching the PBS series “Finding your Roots” and it’s got me thinking about how historians use sources and what the average person knows about them (and a lot about genealogy, which you can read my extended thoughts on here).

In “Finding your Roots”, which probably kicked off the recent DNA testing fad, Henry Louis Gates Jr. presents celebrities with their family histories, relying on a team of researchers and a production budget to do the kinds of in-depth genealogic research most people don’t have the time or money to do. I have strong feelings about the validity of this kind of research and its impact on how we see ourselves as individuals, so I think the value in this show is telling American history through these little vignettes that make the past more accessible. That is one of the threads that got me interested in history as a kid – I used to go rooting through my grandmother’s closet to find interesting objects that always unlocked a more interesting story. I once found a sexy orange dress my grandmother encouraged my mom to buy for some event when she was in high school that revealed a whole dynamic in their relationship I’d never known – I also found receipts my grandmother had kept from her scrap metal donations in WWII, which opened up an aspect of lived experience in the war I’d never thought about before. So these kinds of personal stories are great for launching us into the past. But when we do get a chance to look back, how do the sources that we use as windows direct what we see and how we see it?

“Finding your Roots” has a solidly formulaic approach to genealogy: they rely mostly on official public records such as census entries, ship manifests, and municipal certificates for things like birth and marriage to gather basic identifying information about specific individuals and create a family tree, and then they supplement this with DNA data to extrapolate the person’s ethnic makeup. This combination strikes me as extremely modernist and very much in line with how Americanist historians in particular work. Because Americanists work in a field that is so well documented, in which literacy was widespread and printed books were cheaply available, and, most importantly, in which governments had an interest in keeping track of their people because the populace as a concept granted power, they can rely on these kinds of documents to supply the framework for more in-depth analysis. As for DNA data, this is of course the hot new thing – we’ve sequenced the genome, we can now use this “objective” source to supplement all these lovely written records. But for me, as a pre-modernist and a Mediterraneanist, this combination of sources (and the way they’re used) is pretty foreign. I can’t use public records for the most part, not just because they don’t really exist as much, but because they reflect a way of thinking that came long after the period I study. And while DNA is a huge part of my field, pre-modernists have trouble using the same categories and answering the same questions because the population has moved so much since that time that our interpretations of the data are necessarily different than modernists’. What this disconnect in the use of sources tells me is not that my field is lacking in sources, but that pre-modernists need a different set of sources, one that better reflects what was going on in our time periods.

And indeed, this is what we do. But if your primary exposure to history as a field is through a modernist lens – say if you are American and your history curriculum is 50% American history – you would easily think that a field that doesn’t use those kinds of sources is lacking in some way, if you’re aware of sources at all. But this isn’t just a problem for high school or even college students – this bias around sources continues on into grad school and creates deep professional divides between modernists and pre-modernists, to the point that every time I’m in a room discussing sources or historiography or historical theory with a modernist, at some point they admit to me that they don’t understand how my field produces anything or why we’re even in the same discipline. I get the sense that modernists think pre-modernists just extrapolate from fewer sources and fabricate what we don’t know. I think that we need to address sources in a more systematic way in history curricula at every level. This isn’t just an issue of bridging the gap between modernists and pre-modernists, it’s a matter of reinforcing through the mechanical aspects of historical work what history IS. That history is not just facts and that what we know isn’t just hiding in a dusty record somewhere, but that all inquiry is as determined by the question being asked and the method of research as it is by the evidence.

In my teaching, I try to approach the issue of sources as early and often as I can. In Spring 2017 I started to set aside my first discussion section of the semester for a discussion on what history is, which always bridges into a conversation about sources – how we know what we know about the past. This is a great teaching tool because it engages students from the start of the semester and usually prompts their interest in a certain source or type of question that they can come back to later in the course. I hope at some point to write a module that high school teachers can use to similarly address sources, but for now, I’m thinking about an upper-level history major course or graduate course built entirely around teaching sources. It’s no coincidence that this is on my mind now, since I just spent a whole semester with my advisor and my cohort talking about just legalistic documents of the Middle Ages and the kinds of research tools available to read them – so, as always, I owe a lot to my adviser for thinking this way. But this is also something that’s always on my mind as I try to justify or even just explain the process around my interdisciplinary methodology. And when I think back to my most useful courses in grad school, on the top of my list is always the course on archives I took in my MA program. That class, like this legalistic documents course with my adviser, was designed as a practical tool for grad students about to embark on primary source research, with an undercurrent in critical theory and a lot of personal anecdotes to help smooth the way. The key to these classes was that even as they introduced me to types of sources they also problematized how these sources should be used and encouraged me to think critically about weighing the benefits and pitfalls in them based on other people’s experiences. This is what I have in mind, except as a broad survey of historical sources in general.

The aim of my sources course is to give grad students or advanced undergrads a critical introduction to the concept of sources in history, with a practical bent so that students will be able to leave the class able to start doing “real” research but also have the foundation to build out in the future and teach themselves about other kinds of sources. The underlying theoretical theme of the course is that sources are not “raw” but that they represent processes and activities in the lives of peoples of the past. I want to divide the course into three parts, each addressing a large branch of historical sources: documents, material culture, and data.

Now, if someone else were teaching this, they would probably make 90% of the course about documents. But my point here is that documents, especially in the traditional sense, only represent a portion of human history, and that even if a student somehow intends at this point never to use either data or material culture, they need to at least understand how these other types of sources work. I don’t expect to be able to give an overview of every type of document a historian might use – after all, I only have 3-5 weeks to present this material. Instead, I want to have students create a tree of document types that they can consider from above. In “Finding your Roots” Gates often says that unless a person has noble ancestry it’s hard to find any documentary record of their lineage, and this is something we take as a given when we talk about historical documents. But the classed nature of sources is more complicated than just “rich people show up in historical writings and poor people don’t” and it’s worth interrogating that broadly. The content for this section of the course will revolve around what kinds of social functions produced documents and how that might dictate or complicate how we use them – going beyond just reading with or against the grain, I want students to consider the choices that resulted in entire genres of documentary evidence existing, and particularly to challenge the assumption that writing is how people communicate. This segment of the course will also address how sources of this kind are preserved – personal writings vs official records, published vs archival sources, issues with digitization, issues with translation, etc.

The material culture portion of the course presents two major challenges for me personally: 1) I am trying to introduce the concept of objects as sources to people who don’t think they are and 2) I am essentially condensing the entire fields of archaeology, art history, and anthropology into a single 3-5 week overview. These are problems only in that I want to offer enough depth that students would feel these sources are approachable in the future, but in a condensed enough package that the content fits within the larger course. So while I’ll probably structure this section around some core material culture theory, I think the most important work will be practical exercises – students actually trying to write narratives based on objects so that they can experiment with the methodology for themselves.

Finally, I think in this day and age it is essential that such a class include a significant module on data. In part this is because historians are really uncomfortable with using data and don’t really have a sense of the kinds of questions they can answer with them. But it’s also in recognition of the fact that the current generation of college students, the first wave of people who could be my grad students, simply expect data to exist – they have the opposite problem of the older generations, in that they are totally unquestioning of data as a concept and a tool. I ran into this as a problem last semester when some of my students were working on mapping projects based on census data – a lot of them assumed that the questions they wanted to ask were right there in the data, and didn’t realize that collection methods, variables, even the definitions of the same variables, had all changed. So answering even simple questions like “what was the ethnic makeup of New York City in the 19th century” required combing through the data to standardize the definition of what it meant to be black or white, or how to account for Asians. They thought the data were “raw”, that information simply is and that numbers are unimpeachable, but didn’t realize that even this kind of “scientific” source comes with a lot of bias and analytical context. So this section of my course is sort of an introduction to data science and statistics. But what I think will be especially helpful about presenting this material alongside these more “traditional” historical sources is that it will emphasize how much culture dictates how we record things, and that there is more in common between these different types of sources than there is different. While I want students familiar and comfortable with data to scrutinize the concept a bit more, I also want to offer this segment of the course as a workshop for how historians can create data out of other kinds of sources that we don’t typically think of this way. For instance, registers are already a kind of data, because they present information in formulaic and typically non-narrative modes. But a lot of historical registers don’t appear to be so formulaic in the past because they aren’t organized into tables – they’re written in plain text. Similarly, some kinds of writings record factual information in the midst of narratives, like the weather or the number of people present at an event. Finally, historians might be interested in quantifying information that appears across many sources, like what I’ve been doing to track merchant voyages to Sicily. These data are hiding in plain sight and historians don’t use them because they aren’t primed to see them. Finally, this part of the course would engage with issues surrounding “digital humanities” – what kinds of projects have been defined in that set and the extent to which they reveal new information that wasn’t available before.

The last piece of this course is how to structure the work to build practical skills from the material (because I’m expecting more advanced students to take the class I’m less concerned with assignment that force students to pay attention to the point of the readings). While I could have all of these topics building up to some kind of seminar paper or historiographic paper about sources that would be useful to the student, I think this kind of assignment is actually a waste of time – students have to start preparing them too far in advance to take the last few weeks of content into account, and it encourages them to only engage with what already seems most useful. Instead, I want to give students a mix of short reflective essays and practical exercises that they can complete alongside each week’s readings so that they have to engage with the material throughout. I’ve already mentioned practical exercises like constructing a tree of documentary sources or writing a narrative from a written sources – I would also add practicing creating a dataset, or perhaps even an extended project throughout the data portion of the course that would require them to create and then manipulate a dataset in response to issues and methods introduced in the readings. I imagine that the practical exercises would force the kind of direct engagement from students that they can build into real skills, while the reading responses (designed as mini historiographic essays) would encourage them to be critical of all of these sources. I do think some kind of culminating project would be useful – students will essentially have created a textbook about historical sources between their readings and writings/practical exercises for the class, but I still want them to come away with their own individual burgeoning methodology. So rather than having them write a large research/historiography paper, I think it would be useful for them to put together a short paper on sources in their field that briefly addresses what sources are most used and why, and then focuses on what sources are not used and whether/how they could be. I would encourage them to draw on historiographies from other fields for the second part, rather than trying to concoct an explanation from negative evidence.

I feel very good about putting together this kind of course – I think it offers a lot of opportunity for methodological consistency and development within a discipline that often doesn’t see itself as all one thing. I’m curious now how to integrate these lessons into lower level courses, but I think I might not know how to do that until I’ve at least put together the syllabus for this course, much less taught it once.


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