Julie Thomas, Special Collections and Manuscripts Librarian California State University, Sacramento 2016-01-19 18:12:38
Unexpected Opportunities for Primary Source Instruction Nearly ten years ago a history professor walked into the archives and invited me to visit his History 100 class to speak “a little bit about archives in general.” I gave my first presentation on primary sources at California State University, Sacramento, in September 2006 to 30 students. In the last academic year, I delivered primary source instruction to 931 students, and I’m currently on track to break that record this year. This exponential increase can be attributed to two factors: word-of-mouth recommendations spread among faculty colleagues and the initiative I take each semester to examine the course schedule to identify classes that have a research component in the curriculum. In addition, the scope of disciplines to which I provide primary source instruction has broadened from traditional fields such as history and ethnic studies to nontraditional fields like music and family and consumer services. My instruction focuses on primary source research skills for upper-division classes. The one-time presentations include “Introduction to Primary Source Resource Skills” for students who are required to use one or two primary sources in a format of their choosing, “Introduction to Archives” for courses that necessitate the use of archival material, and “Advanced Primary Source Research Skills,” most often needed for seniors or master’s students in advanced research courses. Engaging First-Year Students A new and unexpected avenue for primary source instruction materialized when I performed research in summer 2014 for Bridget Parsh, director of Sacramento State’s recently created First Year Experience program (FYE). The First Year Seminar component of the FYE program “addresses the practical, theoretical, and self-reflective requirements and outcomes of becoming an educated person.”(1) I proposed the creation of a presentation entitled “The History of Sacramento State” and Parsh agreed to disseminate the description of my talk to the instructors of the twenty FYE seminars offered in the fall 2014 semester. My email asserted: I offer a one-shot lecture entitled “History of Sacramento State University,” and I believe my presentation to First Year Experience students can foster pride and enthusiasm in being enrolled in our institution. I engage students using historic photographs from the University Photograph collection, informing them of the University’s milestones, and illustrating our history of innovation and record of success. I received only one response that semester. But that number doubled in spring 2015. And it doubled again this past semester. Doing the math, it only adds up to four sections. But, if the trend continues, it is not outside the realm of possibility that I will be giving the presentation to sixteen sections in fall 2016. After that first presentation in fall 2014, I noted the significant effects I could have on incoming freshmen. First, I immediately observed that first-year students were considerably more relaxed and delighted with my description and display of archival material than upper-division students. This phenomenon resulted because students who must utilize primary sources in class assignments are obliged to conquer the complexity, comprehension, and correct use of archival material to receive good grades. Conversely, the only requirement of the FYE students is to enjoy learning about how cool and exciting primary sources can be. Second, the extensive Q&A session revealed their interest in a deeper understanding of primary sources and how they influence critical thinking skills and facilitate lifelong learning. Last, some students were stimulated enough by my presentation to visit the archives on their own volition. Most recently, I revamped my presentation to make it more engaging for students. The history of the university is presented in quiz form and the students utilize voting cards to play along. I incorporate more diversity of primary sources from the University Archives than photographs alone. Formats include correspondence from the Office of the President, artifacts, and the student newspaper, the intent being to expose young scholars to a wide variety of formats that are not ordinarily thought of as primary sources. I also describe parallels between historic and contemporary events. I immediately noticed the increase in their awareness of how primary sources promote critical thinking and directly affect their interpretation of current events. An Unexpected Pairing I was afforded another unanticipated opportunity to educate students about the value of primary sources in developing lifelong learning skills when Amber Ward, a newly hired faculty member, asked to bring her Art 133 class to the archives. Like the FYE program, this class curriculum does not compel students to use archival sources in their assignments. Per the course description: ART 133 is intended for students who are preparing to become elementary school teachers in California, providing subject matter study in art appropriate for grades 1-6. Students will learn the components and strands of visual arts education found in the California Visual and Performing Arts Framework.(2) Professor Ward used a teaching method involving Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), which is a “rigorous group ‘problem-solving’ process, [wherein] students cultivate a willingness and ability to present their own ideas, while respecting and learning from the perspectives of their peers... Learning to use what they already know to figure out what they don’t.”(3) The strategy entailed Professor Ward facilitating student dialogue on their observations and ideas about a work of art selected from our collection. After the discussion period, I was to identify the artist and disclose the circumstances under which the artwork was created. I chose a painting by an internee created while he was held in a WWII Japanese American incarceration center. I was taken by complete surprise as I listened to the students’ interpretation of the artwork. I recognized that the students were employing the same skills and techniques used by researchers to interpret primary sources to support a hypothesis. Some students associated the painting with a German concentration camp; others saw “elements of pride,” “racism,” a “ghetto” and “low-income neighborhood,” and a reflection of “daily life.” I surprised the students, Professor Ward, and even myself when I informed them that their interpretations were all correct. The Japanese American incarceration centers were undeniably poorly constructed concentration camps in desolate areas. The racism was officially documented when the 1983 investigation by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians determined the Internment was the result of war hysteria, racism, and a failure of political leadership. The pride observed by a student was a reflection of the Japanese philosophy of gaman, which means “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.”(4) Gratifying Results I was gratified by the unexpected similarity between the analysis of the art students and that of student researchers who routinely formulate a hypothesis and interpret primary sources to support their theory. I spontaneously modified the central focus of my presentation to recognize that the art students had successfully employed the cognitive skills needed to interpret primary sources. In a card I received the next week, some students conveyed the following comments: “Thank you for all the information provided us. It enlightened me.” “Thank you for presenting to us! I really enjoyed your VTS style.” “Thank you! It was so much fun!” And in a letter Professor Ward sent to my Dean, she wrote: [O]ne student surprised me by participating in the class discussion, and later confessed to feeling “validated” by Thomas’s comments. This is especially noteworthy, as the student has had a chronic fear of public speaking due to being an English Language Learner and nontraditional student. I will continue to expand my outreach efforts to cross-curricular educational partners so as to deliver presentations that incorporate primary source literacy to classes that do not require a research component. I never thought the thrill of seeing that “aha!” moment on students’ faces when they grasp the complexity and nuance of primary source research had an equal. But I now experience that same joyfulness myself when I inspire students to “go to the source” to broaden their critical thinking skills. Notes (1) “First Year Experience Programs,” Sacramento State, http://www.csus.edu/schedule/Fall2012Spring2013/fye.html#seminar. (2) Special Topics in Art Group, “Sacramento State University Catalog,” Sacramento State, http://catalog.csus.edu/15-16/programs/art.html. (3) “What Is VTS?,” Visual Thinking Strategies, http://www.vtshome.org. (4) Delphine Hirasuna, The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942–1946 (Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 2005): [i].
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