So, I asked my world history students to collect 4-6 primary sources into a thematic sourcebook, similar to a chapter of the one we are using in class. I wanted them to write a little preface introducing the theme and the historical context, and then provide either a comment or discussion questions for each sources, plus a citation. And I also asked for a title and table of contents, and a paragraph on process, what they thought of the assignment.

Short version: I’m really happy with how it turned out, and I’m totally going to do it again, and I would recommend other professors trying it. The student paragraphs ranged from “sure, fine” to “best project I’ve done”, except for the students who wanted more guidance on finding primary sources, and the student who thought I didn’t demand enough analysis. I stole the idea from a literature professor who has her students do an anthology at the end of the semester, but I had mine do it fairly early on, and graded largely on effort rather than sophistication.

So, a few aspects to the assignment here:

Historical Analysis

They picked their topic—I left it pretty wide open, anything from 1500 to the year of their birth. Some picked big topics—“medicine in the 19th century”, others went pretty narrow, e.g., on a particular individual. This was really tricky to evaluate, so I graded generously. There’s a lot of choices they could have made about what to say about the documents, and how to connect them. One student really assigned good titles, which was nice. I probably should have demanded more extensive historical context, and the best document presentations came from the students who wrote an introductory analytical paragraph, and then also followed up with discussion questions after. So I think I’ll require that next time.

I asked for sources that reflected a variety of perspectives, audiences, etc, and I think they did a very good job with this. I said as long as at least one source was textual, then using images, media, etc, was fine. I mostly got text sources—several students included images. No one went multimedia.

Most students provided more sources than the minimum four, and some went over six. I did ask for sources with some substance to them, more than just a short paragraph, so a lot of the projects came in at 15-20 pages. Good thing I didn’t print anything.

Research and Library Skills

I was pretty loose. I didn’t do a formal library workshop, but I gave them my library’s generic handout on primary sources and some tips in a few different classes. My only requirement was sources from at least three locations—eg, 3 separate books, or three different databases. No grabbing all your sources from the Library of Congress digital collections, or from a single Google Books search. But you could go into the stacks and grab all your sources from the same shelf (though the one who did that got dinged a wee bit for it). And honestly, if they just googled and grabbed the first few things that looked like they were from reputable sites (a point I discussed in class), I was okay with that. Part of what I wanted them to learn was exactly how much stuff is out there in unexpected places.

Some of them went into the college archives, or used microfilm, which was great.

I got some comments asking for more guidance here, but I’m inclined to continue giving them less guidance and force them to explore on their own, especially since I know that later they will do a research paper that will give them a more solid grounding.

Technology and Format

Nothing listed here was particularly a grading issue.

I told them it should be presentable, but didn’t make many special demands. Go ahead if they wanted to have fun with formatting it attractively, I said. I even suggested hypertext or Keynote/PPT might be appropriate, but I pretty much got linear text.

I did suggest that visual appearance should reflect the function of text—eg, their commentary should be formatted differently from the primary source text. Not everyone got this point, but most did.
My original intention had been for them to also create a poster that showed off their work, and we’d do a sort of poster session in class one day to share the projects, but I scrapped that part—I felt it would wind up requiring a lot of techie busywork. Instead they submitted them electronically, and I dumped them on Blackboard for the rest of the class to check out.

Presentable actually required a bit more hassle than I meant to demand. A lot of students copied text from the web into a Word doc, which meant re-formatting, which they didn’t always do well. Others scanned documents or grabbed images from the internet—some of these came out a bit messy and could have used some cropping skills. One set of pages got cut in half and half the text disappeared.

I’m happy to report that most of them figured out how to merge a scanned jpg and a page in Word into a single PDF file, so that’s a good skill to have. (I actually said I’d take it in paper if that was too much trouble.) Annotating in PDF sucks, though, so I wound up typing comments in a separate file.

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