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Teaching primary sources: Secondary in, Primary out, Flip it, Repeat

I was thinking of using this for high school students, but this exercise would also work well for undergrads.  Two main goals and two smaller goals:

  1. Construct a narrative history of some person, event, topic, etc. using primary and secondary sources.
  2. Explore what it means to have a written history of something — what are the biases that go into creating a history.
  3. (Exposure to working with primary source materials.)
  4. (General archives outreach and instruction.)

In the first part of the exercise, you use a secondary source’s source material to explore how the author(s) constructed a history:

  1. Find a book that has includes tons of citations, many of which are from a single repository (see example below).
  2. Identify an interesting 1-2 page passage from the book and retrieve all of the primary and secondary sources that the author used to build that history.
  3. Students read the passage first, then they work together to identify where the author found all the information by going through the body of records, books, and other materials you’ve pulled.  You could create a worksheet to guide the students through identifying each cited concept or quote.
  4. Discuss what the students found and where they found it.  Also talk about what else was in the source material that the author chose to not include — what do these extra details add to the story?
  5. Optional: It would be nice to also pull a couple documents that extend the story beyond the written passage.  The book should be helpful in identifying such material.  You can discuss what these other materials add to the story.

The second part of the exercise has students building histories from from scratch.

  1. Using a different passage in the book, again pull all the cited source material.
  2. Without showing the students the passage, have them use the materials to build a 1-3 paragraph history of the topic you’ve laid out for them.  This might be more effective if students are broken into manageable-sized groups.
  3. At the end, have the groups present their histories.  Optional: Create a more complete history using all groups’ histories.
  4. Give the students the author’s passage and discuss the differences.  Use this as a jumping off point to discuss things like:
    • What details had more focus in the book than in the students work?
    • How does background and point of view affect one’s understanding?
    • How can one person’s understanding of history differ from another person’s and why?
    • Who determine’s what is history? How do different types of biases play a role?
    • Are primary sources reliable and how do they related to secondary sources?
    • What if sources disagree with each other?
    • Is history the truth?


  • This exercise would also work online or as a packet of reproduced materials, which would also allow for cross-repository source material.  I think it would it have more impact and get students more engaged if they were dealing with the original documents in-house, but that means the expense of a field trip.
  • This would be a good National History Day small-group exercise.
  • When writing the grant proposal to support such a program, don’t forget to use phrases such as “introduce historiographical methods” and “interrogate sources.”
  • Transcriptions of tricky handwritten documents would help.
  • An example of a book that has includes tons of citations from a single repository is A New and Untried Course, Steven Peitzman’s book about the history of Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (1850-1998) which draws heavily from the collections at the Drexel University College of Medicine Legacy Center Archives.

This falls into “positive it’s been done before category” — I assume a number of teachers are using this approach.  So, as usual, I’d love to hear about any archivists, educators, whoever who have been doing this sort of thing at a repository or has struck up standing teacher-school-repository partnerships.

  1. July 29th, 2010 at 16:51 | #1

    When I was in college, we had to do something close to your second exercise for a class — basically, we had to take a chapter in a monograph or an article, read through the cited sources, and then write a paper about whether we believed that the author had enough evidence to make the argument she was making. This was a great exercise for a number of reasons:
    1. The same reasons that (I think) motivate your pedagogical activity — reminding students that history is produced by people, and people can make mistakes or come to different conclusions.
    2. Our instructor was setting the standard that history must involve an argument. You have to make a point, or else you’re reading a compendium of archival sources. Doing so is a lot of fun, but they don’t mean anything in and of themselves. Furthermore, I’m not certain that it’s possible to read through, pick through, and exclude historical information WITHOUT making some sort of implicit argument.

    Anyway, the instructor is Sharon Ullman, at Bryn Mawr, and she might be interested in working with you if you wanted to make this a reality.

  2. Alexis
    August 18th, 2010 at 10:29 | #2

    This is an amazing amount of work for students and I think that all of this is really some thing like a 3 credit college course. Smaller chunks would be good for high school students. Also, it really depends on the students you are working with. This requires a lot of logistics to come together, like students being near a well-used repository, and access to the sources the author used. All in all, though, it is the BEST way to teach students what history is and how it is constructed. I used to use similar assignments with students where I would have them compare primary sources about an event to a short textbook narrative of said event. It was the ONE way I could get introductory students, and non-history majors to “get it.” I used to send my students to the archives and ask them to construct narratives on a topic using a certain set of materials, and then we would compare narratives. I really think this prepares students to understand what historiography and history are. This is MUCH more difficult to teach than I initially imagined, and I want a chance to do it again some day, even better than the first few times I did it!!!

  3. Alexis
    August 18th, 2010 at 10:34 | #3

    Also, kudos to you for coming up with such thorough assignments that really challenge students and teach them about the value of understanding how history is constructed. Historiographical methods are the hardest part of history to teach, and perhaps why there is so little focus on this at the high school and undergraduate level.

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