Engaging with Primary Sources and Making Connections to Readings and Lectures

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Tania Martin, Architecture

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2002

When I was hired as a GSI for The American Forest: Its Ecology, History, and Representation the second semester it had ever been offered, I was given a challenge: to devise teaching strategies that would equip students with the skills needed to interpret primary sources. The analysis of primary sources was a requisite component of the term project, a task, I was told, the previous year’s students had ill-accomplished.

I determined that students unfamiliar with primary source research need models for conducting such research and hands-on practice. This became clear from my students’ paper abstracts, preliminary object analysis exercises, and from class discussions. It was not enough to lecture about paintings, photographs, buildings, and forests — the students needed to engage with the materials themselves, and to learn to read various kinds of sources against one another.

Working under the assumption that students really do learn better if they can make discoveries for themselves, I took my students to the Bancroft Library. There, we examined a selection of primary sources relevant to redwood forests, Yosemite, and logging that I had identified and organized with a librarian to be displayed. The items, arranged into three thematic groups, included geological surveys, stereoscopic views of Yosemite, an artist’s sketchbook, an advertisement, lumber company promotional photographs, a Sierra Club ledger, diary, and personal letters about shipping lumber. After giving the students a chance to look closely at the materials, I questioned them, guiding their engagement with the material, e.g. about how the intended use of these images, and other documents, affected their appearance, format, medium, style, and composition. I asked them to find common denominators in the group of items. What title would they give that group? What incongruities did they see? I also asked them to formulate an argument or thesis that explained the objects in this group. How would they use two or three of the images, texts, documents in this group as evidence to support a thesis? I hoped that by the end of section the students would start not only to see the ways that Yosemite (and other California forests) was more than a tourist site (rather, it was a refuge for a commune, a site of the logging industry as well as a cradle for conservation efforts, and that it had ties to the larger economy and national American identity) but also that they would have an opportunity to practice constructing an argument that stemmed from the interpretation of primary sources.

I assessed the outcome of my efforts in a variety of ways. I kept a teaching log. As I made my entry for the week, I realized that although I had succeeded in introducing my students to primary sources first-hand, that this activity remained an isolated experience. Could the students make the connection between the objects they had seen and the lessons taught in lecture and in their readings? I tested this out the following section by having students identify and explain how some of the primary sources they had seen were similar to the evidence that a particular author used to support her argument, and how other primary sources may have challenged the author’s perspective or argument. I also was able to determine the success of the outcome from direct feedback from the Professors (one of whom observed me that week) and the other GSI, and through informal discussions with the students in office hours. For example, students made reference to the primary sources they had seen in the Bancroft in “ah-ha” moments — you could see the light bulb go on in their heads — during subsequent section activities and during their field trip to Yosemite. The ultimate measure of success was registered in the quality of the students’ term papers.