Teaching Students What Historians Do: The Archives and the History Survey
Teaching Students What Historians Do: The Archives and the History Survey

My experience teaching in the archives has led me to re-frame my U.S. history survey course around the question, “what do historians do?”

Many students at my college will only take one history course – a required survey – in their entire academic career. One of the essential goals of such a course, then, should be to provide students with a sense of history as a discipline, not just as a set of facts. An introductory history course should model critical thinking, research, writing, and contextualization skills. The rules and methods historians use to conduct research give students a foundation for acquiring valuable, widely transferable skills.

I have found that that going to the archives accomplishes these aims. Students demonstrate an improved ability to pose analytical questions; to frame a thesis; to assess available material for breadth, depth, and holes; and to situate an event, individual, organization, or concept in its social, political, and cultural context.

But how, you might ask, do you fit a visit to the archives into a survey course which needs to cover so much material in such a short amount of time? I have found ways to pare down content in the survey without sacrificing important information to make room in the semester for this experience.

I place less emphasis on the coverage of content and put more focus on regular, intensive, critical document analysis. I break the survey down by period, and each week provide a brief, interactive lecture to supplement the assigned textbook reading. In class, students also conduct extensive document analyses that zero in on a particular theme.

Of course, there are challenges to this approach. Changing the course’s emphasis to close reading, critical thinking, and contextualization can be difficult when students enter college-level history courses with limited background knowledge. While substantial content instruction is both necessary and useful, document analysis provides students with the skills to think broadly about what a document does and does not tell them. It also empowers them to find answers to their questions.

The archives offers an ideal setting for teaching students the practice of history. In my scaffolded document analysis exercise, students explore a set of connected documents and build a story and argument about those documents.

They learn that historians craft various narratives based on their interpretations of this messy record, and that different historians will arrive at different conclusions. Through this assignment, students have the opportunity to do what historians do themselves.

In my class, the exercise functions as a capstone on the semester. Students move from a single document to multiple documents to a full archival folder. They refine the skills of analysis and contextualization. They get their feet wet in archival research, which reveals to them the complexity and challenges of history. When students have the primary sources at their fingertips in an archives, they see right in front of them that an archival collection might not hold all the information they want and that there are inevitable holes in the historical record.

Because students learn in the archives that history is an evolving story, not facts set in stone, they learn to question and critique the content they are presented with in lectures and discussions in class. Students carry this experience with them to other classes where they ideally continue to develop this critical approach to learning. Researching in the archives helps students become well-educated citizens who possess a critical capacity to appreciate and assess the role the past plays in their everyday lives.

To cite this page:
Sara R. Haviland, “Teaching Students What Historians Do: The Archives and the History Survey,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/articles/what-historians-do/.


Sara R. Haviland
Assistant Professor of History
St. Francis College
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