Creating directed and specific prompts for students in the archives is a central feature of our teaching philosophy.
Tailoring your students’ interaction with an original source is simply the best way to model the nuanced skill of document analysis. It is something that takes practice and time. The idiosyncrasies of document analysis are not intuitive, and they cannot be boiled down into a generic, cookie-cutter formula.
Many institutions, including the National Archives and Records Administration, advocate a series of general questions to guide student document analysis. In our experience, however, these generic questions can cause more confusion than clarity among students.
For example, a student studying a newspaper clipping in a 19th-century scrapbook might scratch his or her head when the first question she reads on her handout is “what is this document?” Does the question refer to the scrapbook itself or the clipping? A student examining a long list of generations of family births and deaths pressed into an even older Dutch bible may not be able to figure out how to answer the question, “when was this document made?” Flummoxed, a student might simply write down the earliest or latest date on the page.
(While discussing dates, it is worth pointing out to students the difference between date created and date covered. For example, this exercise uses two maps which portrays New York City at the time of the American Revolution – one is from the 19th century, the other from the 20th.)
When generic questions confuse students, opportunities are missed to instill in students the fundamental skills of document analysis. The frustration students feel in this moment also means that they feel less engaged in the archival experience.
Document analysis is incredibly difficult to model correctly because it is a nuanced, iterative experience in which a scholar seeks out and uses contextual information, and continually adjusts research questions based on his or her findings and knowledge. The best way to model analysis for students is to incorporate this tailored approach into in-archives handouts.
Handouts also create a more uniform experience for students. In most classes, it is impossible (and unfair) to rely on facilitation alone to guide students. Putting something down on paper gives every student the guidance they need, at their own pace.
Primary sources are sometimes infinitely interpretable. Teachers from different fields or those who employ different approaches might come at the same document from very different places. Instructors should have some kind of reading in mind when they select a document for students to analyze, and that approach should guide the specific questions in the handout.
Handouts should not only be tailored; they should also be clear and precise. Handouts should indicate whether students must read an entire document, or only a portion of it; if the latter, the excerpt should be clearly delineated. Handouts should clarify whether students should read a document together or on their own, aloud or to themselves. They can instruct students to transcribe a document or, in the case of oversized materials, they can indicate at what point students should get out of their chairs and walk around a document.
Handouts should also indicate whether they provide students with questions to guide discussion, or whether they are assignments that will be collected at the end of the visit (or in the subsequent class period). Handouts might also include a useful glossary of words or relevant excerpts from secondary sources.
Each of the exercises on this website feature handouts that faculty have tweaked and revised over time. The handout used in this exercise on gradual manumission in New York State gives students specific directives and includes a glossary. Secondary sources are integrated well into the handouts for this exercise on runaway slave ads.
Another professor using Civil War-era envelopes created different tailored handouts for an American Art course and a Civil War honors seminar. She recognized that even though the two classes would analyze the same primary sources, the different learning objectives for each course and each archives visit required her to tweak the handouts accordingly.
Julie Golia and Robin M. Katz, “Creating In-Archives Handouts,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/articles/creating-handouts/.