Digital Pedagogy Roundtable, Part 1: Students’ Access to Sources

This week, The Junto will feature a roundtable on digital pedagogy, in which we discuss our different approaches to using digital sources in the classroom. Today, Rachel Herrmann talks about the challenge of access. Jessica Parr, Joseph Adelman, and Ken Owen will also contribute.

A Wordle made from sources my undergraduates located for our in-class source-finding competition

A Wordle made from sources my undergraduates located for our in-class source-finding competition

Let me preface this post by saying that I’d hesitate to call myself a digital humanist; I don’t code or map or mine texts. As Lincoln Mullen pointed out a while back, however, digital practices exist on a spectrum. There are some things I do for my own research and in the classroom—tweeting, running my department’s social media accounts, using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to chase up a footnote so as not to use up one of my precious Interlibrary Loan requests, and of course, blogging for The Junto—that digital humanists also do. These approaches have been helpful in my teaching for three problems related to access to sources.

The first problem is that it is difficult at my university to ask students to buy books. Some of them are first generation students, and many of them are working through university. A lot of students receive only a certain amount of money per semester to purchase books, and those funds need to cover all of their classes. I can get away with asking students to purchase one, maybe two texts for a class, but some of them will still rely on the one or two copies on reserve at the library—which is an issue when I have 40 students. The second problem is that some students, especially first-year students, just don’t know where to look to find sources in the first place; they don’t know how to locate journal articles or relevant library books, and they’re not capable of assessing the validity of online primary source repositories. The third, related problem of access is that we’re based in the UK, which makes archival research more challenging for my graduate students. The British Library and National Archives are tremendous resources for students working on the colonial period and Native American history, but doing research on the early republic becomes more difficult.

I’ve dealt with these three problems using two separate approaches: for my undergraduates, an in-class source-finding competition, and for my graduate students, a database exploration exercise for each week the class meets.

The source-finding competition requires a little bit of legwork, but is helpful for addressing the first two problems, and is easily adaptable to just about any week in which you teach a book chapter or journal article. The week of the source-finding competition, I remind students to bring the text to class, along with their laptops and a copy of our class handbook. At the start of class, I pose a simple question based on the article, along the lines of “The author argues X. What have other historians argued about X?” Then I walk students through the process of beginning to answer that question by finding books and journal articles. I go through our library’s search feature, through JSTOR, and through targeted keyword searches in field-specific journals (for my Revolutionary America class I introduce them to Early American Studies, the William and Mary Quarterly, and the Journal of the Early Republic). Once I’ve done that I model some relevant keyword searches in Finally, I draw their attention to our handbook, in which I’ve compiled a list of acceptable primary source repositories.

The second part of the lesson is left in students’ hands. Each week I assign student discussion leaders, who are not really required to lead discussion, but who are required to come to class with one to two questions to pose to their peers. Once I’ve discussed how to locate primary and secondary sources, I write the students’ questions on the board. I divide students into teams. Then, I lay out the rules for the source-finding competition:

1) Students may “count” a secondary source if they can get access to it through the library, through’s or’s “Look Inside” feature, or through Google Books.

2) Students may “count” a primary source if they can get access to it through the library, through or’s “Look Inside” feature, through Google Books, through or HathiTrust, through the list of databases in the handbook, or through any website that ends in .edu.

3) Students must use the questions on the board to determine how they go about looking for sources.

4) For each secondary source, students get one point. For each primary source, students get two points. Whichever team gets the most points gets a prize.

The prize is usually that the team that wins gets to show up to our final exam review without having to do the prep work that I asked students to do beforehand. The prize is basically irrelevant; it’s the source-finding exercise that matters. At the end of this class session I try to emphasize that although writing essays should be done on one’s own, research can be very fruitful when it’s collaborative. Students can and should work together to find and share sources. I also reassure them that finding sources depends on asking good questions, but is actually less intimidating than it appears. Students leave the class feeling more relaxed about doing research, and better prepared to complete the annotated bibliography assignment that I’ve blogged about in my historiographical intervention post. Once they’ve turned in this assignment, I compile and send out their list of sources so that they have an additional repository of sources to consult for their final essays.

The problem of access to archival sources is a bit trickier. Graduate students know how to find books and articles, though the fact that some of them haven’t done any American history means I still spend time talking about the most relevant journals for our class. Most of our digital time, however, is spent exploring different online databases. In addition to set readings each week, I also ask students to spend about fifteen minutes formulating a research question based on the week’s primary and secondary source readings, and then “playing” around in the assigned database to try to answer that question. Instead of assigning discussion leaders, I assign a weekly database tour guide, whose job is to explore the database in even greater detail, and then to model for her peers how she used the database to answer the question. The database tour guide is also expected to discuss any challenges to using the website, and any workarounds that they’ve discovered. Some databases, such as the Papers of the War Department, are designed to tie very closely to the week’s reading (as in the week when we do the Western Confederacy War). The War Department database also offers the opportunity to discuss paleography, problems of interpretation, and the absence of sources. I’ll update the handbook for this class each year (and am planning to implement a similar exercise for my third-year undergraduate class), but you can see the handbook I used this last year with the corresponding databases for each week here. Going through all of these databases lets graduate students know that being based in England is not an excuse for avoiding primary source research.

So, two disparate assignments, two different ways of dealing with gaps in students’ knowledge. It’s just about August, which means that it’s almost time to start thinking about those fall syllabi–as we’ll continue to do during the remainder of this roundtable. Feel free to share your thoughts on how you help students find sources, and I hope you enjoy the upcoming posts by Jess, Joe, and Ken.

11 responses

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  2. Out of interest, does the Library at Southampton offer any training on searching for sources (beyond how to use its catalogue)?

    • Rachel has suggested that somebody from the Library might wish to reply. I’m Nick Graffy the History Subject Librarian.
      I deliver the training that the History department asks me to as part of the curriculum in the form of a lecture and workshops . When you refer to sources I’m assuming you mean both primary and secondary. Most of the UG training is early in the first year. It covers our catalogue (Webcat) and our Discovery search tool (Delphis). This includes finding books, finding specific journal articles, finding journal articles on a topic, an introduction to some primary source databases and some online reference books (as an alternative to Wikipedia and which they can use in their essays). In the second year I run a two hour workshop where students can consult me about sources to support their Group project topics. I also run some “bespoke” sessions for third year special subjects at the request of tutors.
      All this is supported by information on the Web – the history subject page and our information skills pages. I am a member of a library strategy group on information literacy which sets up sign up sessions on topics such as “finding books and journal articles” and “preparing for your dissertation” which act as a “safety net” for students who have missed sessions are struggling etc and some of these have been attended by history students.
      On the other points that Rachel makes in the blog I feel the two issues i.e. not having enough copies of books and not having subscriptions for particular primary source databases, are both down to budgetary restraint. All libraries have to juggle their spending between a huge range of competing interests. One thing that could help would be for the History department to set aside some money each session for the purchase of duplicate copies or better still multi-use ebooks which are extremely expensive and can’t always be afforded from the standard history book budget. I think this would reflect well in student questionnaires and have a positive knock on effect in recruitment.

      • Thanks for this detailed response, Nick.

        With respect to databases, I didn’t mean to imply that Southampton has a major problem with access to databases; we have a lot of good ones! I simply wanted to emphasize that there are also a lot of free, open-access databases related to early American history, but that students might not be able to differentiate the reliable ones from random websites.

        Certainly the point about the history budget is well-taken, and worth thinking about in the future.

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