The first part of this essay, "Real Work, Not Busy Work: The Place Paper," appeared in the fall 2003 issue of Teaching History (92-96). Here in Part II, "The Primary Source Paper," I explore ways in which research papers can become "real work" rather than "busy work."
The Primary Source Paper
"Real work" has relevance to people's lives, or the lives they imagine themselves leading. Some history majors envision themselves as professional historians upon graduation, so assignments that train them to do what historians do in those future jobs will be seen as "realwork." Yet many of our students, even in upper-level classes, will not become professional historians. When the skills acquired in "doing" history--i.e., finding information, weighing evidence, examining interpretations critically, and communicating effectively to nonspecialists--can be made relevant to other jobs, then assignments that sharpen those skills will also be seen as "real work." Still other students have no clear idea what they want to do. These individuals, feeling a bit lost and adrift, often respond well to activities that help them feel empowered. My Primary Source Paper assignment provides one way to address each of these sets of students.
We all know well the usual "research paper" assignment: The student must review the secondary literature, analyze primary sources, and formulate an argument on a specific topic or question. Many quite justifiably call this "real work" because professional historians follow these steps. I take a slightly different approach. My students begin by reading their assigned textbook or monograph carefully, then find a primary source the author did not use, and finally consider how the author's interpretations would be affected had s/he used that source. Would the argument be reinforced, revised, or refuted? The next step provides the twist that makes this assignment different: Students actually send their papers to the author, framed along the lines of "If you were to write a new edition of your book, you might consider this source because...." And the authors reply with substantive comments, much to the students' surprise and delight ("I can't believe he actually read my paper! He said I was right!").
The Primary Source Paper constitutes "real work" not just because students do what historians do or because they can follow their individual tastes and select something from the full spectrum of primary sources that suits their interests (poems, photographs, music, paintings, letters, diaries, oral history interviews, architecture, and more). Students get a different kind of "real work" experience by sending their papers to the author. They become more sensitive writers when their audience includes someone from outside the class. Perhaps most importantly, this assignment establishes a dialogue between the students and a professional historian. Ideas first tried out in class among one's peers are reworked and then placed before an expert in the field. We professional historians understand this process we write a draft, show it to peers and colleagues for advice, then revise, and eventually send it to the referees who decide about publication or funding--but students...