Mundane to Extraordinary: Working with Primary Sources and Identifying Research Topics

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Katherine Bruhn, South and Southeast Asian Studies

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2021

A key learning outcome in Reading & Composition courses is the ability to identify original research topics. For most students this can be daunting. In order to structure this task, I require my students to center their research around a primary source – but, they ask, what is that? 

As a student in the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies who researches the activities of visual artists, my own work is rooted in an ongoing analysis of materials – paintings, newspaper clippings, exhibition catalogues, etc. – that are all first-person accounts of an event or topic. Over time, I have come to value the task of poring over both written and visual sources, in particular those that at first glance appear completely mundane. As my late advisor Jeffrey Hadler stressed time and again, this is where the best research questions are hidden; that is, in the simplest details brought to life through careful research and thoughtful analysis. Keeping this advice in mind, I wanted to design an activity that would not only build my students’ confidence and inspire their creative thinking but also allow them to identify and differentiate between primary and secondary sources. In order to make this process more manageable I divided the skills I wanted students to acquire into two modules. The first module focused on developing an understanding of what constitutes primary and secondary sources and how to ask questions of these sources, while the second module allowed students to apply this understanding in a lower-stakes environment than the final research paper that would constitute a major portion of their grades.

We began the first module by looking at an array of tangible examples. We examined a short story written during Indonesia’s revolution (c. 1945), a painting created in the 1970s by a Thai artist, a newspaper article from the Asian Financial Crisis (c. 1997), and a contemporary spoken word poem on YouTube by a Filipina-American poet. First and foremost, I encouraged students to consider what they got from the source itself. What was the message portrayed? Were there any details that stuck out more than others? Next we considered what other types of information they might look for to provide context and shape an analysis of the source’s significance. From these questions we then moved to a discussion of how to look for answers in secondary sources, focusing on how to find and identify credible books and peer-reviewed journal articles using our library’s catalogue. 

In the second module, students were divided into small groups and assigned a photograph – their own primary source – accompanied by a short caption. With only this information they had to work together to collect secondary sources and draft a short analysis of the assigned image that answered five basic questions: who was in the photo, what were they doing, when was it taken, where was it taken, and of greatest note, why was it relevant to our course’s focus on the history and culture of Southeast Asia? Before students began, I made clear that there was no correct answer for any of these questions. Rather, it was their job to craft an argument that was grounded in research, utilizing proper citations, that demonstrated how they had arrived at their assessment of the image. 

As a means to assess the work that each group did we concluded the second module with short presentations that required the entire class to provide thoughtful input and constructive critique. This was intended to help students consider whether they could have framed their analysis of a given photograph differently and what other sorts of secondary sources they could have sought out in order to answer their questions about that image. Rather than assigning grades myself, this collective assessment worked to remind students that when conducting research in the humanities there is never a single argument. Instead, it is our goal to look for new ways to think about a given topic, grounded in the information we have at hand. Ultimately, students came to see how, as first-person accounts, primary sources are especially valuable. While at first glance they might appear mundane, through careful research and thoughtful analysis they can be brought to life, providing a new way of thinking about historical events and contemporary issues.