Fitting It All In: Incorporating Archival Materials into a World History Survey Course
Fitting It All In: Incorporating Archival Materials into a World History Survey Course

One of the major challenges educators face in a world history course is covering a lot of information in a short time while still creating a meaningful learning experience for students. In my class, I have one semester to cover the history of world civilizations from 1500 to the present.

This includes European voyages of exploration, European colonization of the Americas, slavery in the Americas, various revolutions, nationalism, the creation of global empires and decolonization. How does one present students with such a large amount of information while also exposing them to the human details that make history so compelling?

I organize my survey course around units that are both thematic and chronological. Inevitably, some historical moments will be glossed over, but it is more important for students to have a solid understanding of larger trends.

With this approach, I am able to include primary source analysis in my curriculum to make big historical ideas come alive. Primary sources introduce students to the central documents that form the foundation of world events and to the voices of historical actors known and unknown. To me, this is more essential than covering events and dates ad nauseum.

I have typically assigned primary source documents from a published reader as homework. This does allow students to “hear the voices” from the past, but when they tackle these readings on their own, they do not necessarily engage in close reading, analysis, and contextualization. Coming to the archives in person with my students, however, allows me to model these skills in a more focused manner and to make my students push themselves.

Because the themes of labor, inequality, and the quest for justice run through the entire semester, I use archival documents which connect to these central ideas. One of the topics we cover in the course is black enslavement in the Americas. The archives we visit has several runaway slave ads that we can examine in person. By seeing evidence of individual people’s lives, students are able to connect a broad course theme to an examination of the experiences of specific historical actors.

In addition, secondary sources provide students with the interpretive tools to place the specific documents into a broader context. Before coming to the archives, my students read chapter 9, “Profile of a Runaway,” from John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger’s Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation.

In our in-archives wrap up, students observed that running away was a unique but significant form of resistance and protest. Teaching in the archives has taught me how to move seamlessly between the “big” picture to the specific one in my world history curriculum. With careful planning, I was able to successfully integrate a visit to the archives into a course with a lot of ground to cover.

To cite this page:
Kimberly Faith Jones, “Fitting It All In: Incorporating Archival Materials into a World History Survey Course,”, accessed [insert date here],