How do you use Gale Primary Sources in your teaching?
So we've heard about your research now, we've heard about how you have personally been able to use the Gale archives. I'm interested now to talk about how you use the Gale platforms and collections in the classroom: how this relates to teaching and learning, how you convey this to your students in practice.
Just to set the scene a little bit on this. I am back on the road now, so I'm speaking with academics across the land about different platforms and archives, and I had an interesting conversation with an academic at Leeds last week. I asked him about doing sessions in classes, and what do you do in relation to talking to people about the platforms and everything else. His response was that the Gale Primary Sources--the collections themselves, and the platforms--are pretty indispensable to his work in teaching and learning; however, his point is that he keeps it out of the classroom. He'll send people through to links in the Virtual Learning Environment so that people can get access to the sources outside, in their own time; for example, instead of killing a rainforest to give people sheets of primary sources, he'll direct them to the V.L.E. so they can get it digitally. His view was that he doesn't want technology in the classroom because it means that people aren't talking, people aren't discussing the source material, people aren't discussing the historiography. So that's just a little bit of background for this question, but if we could maybe go around again, and again we'll keep the same model. So if we start with Jaap: how is it--it might be a bit different for you as I know that you're more interested in the macro--but how is it that you use Gale Primary Sources platforms and collections in the classroom?
Well, I have two answers to the question. First of all, the collections are ideal to give students small assignments, and to let them discover both the possibilities--but also the limitations--of digital research. For instance, an assignment could be to trace a person's name, and see how they developed. Of course, not Lyndon Johnson [for example], because he's too ubiquitous; but smaller figures, to see how--in newspapers--somebody is traced. They'll find that there are ambiguities in names, and that they will find terms that they hadn't expected. That's the starting point to the second issue that I always address with students, because I think it's essential that they always keep a critical perspective on the sources that they find.
So my aim is to teach them digital literacy: to be as critical of digital sources as they would be of normal primary sources. So as a historian I teach my students, from day one, a critical source attitude. If you have a source, a historian should ask the fundamental questions: Who wrote it? What was the audience? What's the platform? What is the intention of the author and writing? To have a conceptual idea of the context in which a source is produced and reused. What I find is one of the challenges, is that students tend to lose that critical attitude if they find a source in a digital collection; and I think that points at a huge challenge for the learning environments that we now have, because if they put a search string into the environment, they will find an individual--or a set of--results that are out of context. Especially if they use the Digital Scholar Lab: it will be able to find sources from different newspapers from archival collections, and the trick is always to make students aware of the context from which a source derives; and that's a little bit challenging but also brings in elemental detective work to their work. A few years ago I was coordinator over a large course on methods and methodologies for first-year history students, and we talked a lot about the way digital collections are formed. We had the great fortune to have Paul Gazzolo and Lena Gerle from [Gale] come to our class to discuss how [Gale] makes strategic decisions about forming the collection, selecting topics--for instance, why newspapers? Why that newspaper?--and the way [Gale] approaches the whole digitization process. I find that a wonderful opportunity, because that gives students the opportunity to look 'behind the scenes', so to speak, and to talk to the people that are responsible for the decisions that eventually lead to the collections that they use. And again, normally, if you send students into an archive, that's the question that they've all immediately asked: Who formed this archive? What's in there? What's not in there? What's the power structure that produced this archive? Whereas with digital collections, I find that it takes an extra effort to bring that critical attitude to students.
I love that answer Jaap, about the critical thinking skills in relation to what's digital, because sometimes people think that just because it's on the Internet, it's true: and this is a big problem that we have in relation to things like fake news as well, and misinformation that is spread. This seems to be a blind spot: maybe things look more 'official' because they're on a screen or because somebody typed it up and they've marketed it well. But there is, like you say, also that problem of context, and that issue of context. This has a big pedagogical implication in terms of how you introduce people to the archive, so it's not necessarily dusting off the cobwebs in the physical archives (although it will be, I'm sure you'll still use the physical archives); but it's when you're using the digital things: the digital things are convenient, but they're not the be-all and end-all, and there are caveats to be applied to them as well, and there are specific things that need to be looked at in terms of making them useful and in full context. Good stuff: Bob please.
I use digital archives a lot in all of my teaching. Sometimes I take the approach that you mentioned from that colleague at Leeds: just getting people to use them in advance as a way to prep for sessions. For the most part, I guess I've taken almost the exact opposite approach, which is to do all of my classes in computer labs. I initially used to just do one-off sessions where I would say, 'right, here's the week where we teach you how to use these archives'; and generally what happened is that students either forgot that they existed, or that they never really got to grips with the real detail involved in using the archives. For me, if I really want students to make these things integral to their practice as historians, then they have to be integral to the environment in which we teach. I prefer to teach in computer labs and what I can do, then, is really get students familiar with these resources. We use them every week, and sometimes it might just be a case of just doing a little bit of research in response to something that's happening that I've raised in the lecture; sometimes it might be just chasing up a question that we've looked at. A lot of time, it also allows me--over the course of, let's say, 12, or actually in the case of one module, 24 weeks--I can really build up their digital search skills.
What I realized was, if I was just leaving students to search these archives on their own, they were treating them the way they would search Google. Ultimately these are very different things: the search literacy that they've developed--with all the kind of bells and whistles that Google has that interpret what it thinks you mean--do not apply to the digital archives. What I have to do is really teach them, bit by bit by bit, how to select and approach keywords, how to combine them in effective ways, what will work, what won't, and all of that stuff. Some students will pick that up naturally over just experience using it; but in my experience, the vast majority of my students need that taught to them, and they need to have some guidance on how to fix problems when your search isn't working, how to deal with getting a million results. Those are skills that I feel it's my responsibility as a teacher to teach, not just assume they will acquire.
So they're really central to all of my teaching, to the point where I build assessments around them. There's one 24 week module I teach on the history of crime in the 18th and 19th centuries, which uses a lot of digital archives because it's a very well provided for area. But the second design for that module is for them to critically review an existing digital archive, which requires them to think about: How was it built? What search tools does it have? How might that affect the research we do using it? I've really built that sort of criticality that Jaap was talking about--about really understanding how these things are built and why that matters--into my assessments now, so that it's not just a thing that crops up in discussion, I've formalized the thinking about it. So that's for one module, which is very much a kind of a 'research methods' module that I've snuck into a history module. In other more conventional history modules, when students are familiar with this stuff, maybe later down the line, you can use them a little bit more in-and-out, you can use them for prep. But I do think students need more than just that one-off session, just that one-off bit of training; they need to really live in the archive, and to do that you've got be using it week after week.
Yes, it's a very interesting point. It takes me back to my undergrad days, particularly in the first year when I was doing modules on primary sources. For example, we did a module on primary sources just to drill us on the value and the limitations, as well as using primary sources period, never mind digital archives. It strikes me now that, maybe, it would be useful to have something like that in a digital context, whether that's appended to the teaching that is done in relation to the more broad primary sources things.
One of the things I talk to students about when I do front of class sessions with them is particularly--and it seems like such a banal point, but it's so important in terms of the actual home screen when you go into Gale Primary Sources--they're confronted with a screen that looks like Google, but it does not work like Google. That's what I say to them, I just use that phrase and say 'this looks like Google, but it does not work like Google'. You ask Google or Siri or Alexa or whatever, and it will give you an answer to a question: it doesn't work like that. I taught them a little bit about how the archives are digitized, just so that they know at least how that goes on - it still doesn't answer the question of how the archives are put together and who's making decisions about what goes in and what doesn't, but at least--from a methodological point of view--they can then get more information out of it. So great points Bob, thank you - on to Tom then please.
Bob's given me a lot to think about in terms of how I use resources with my students. I think a lot of what we're trying to do with our students, starting from the first year and where we are doing these basic skills courses, I think we often do more at that level around the concept of the primary source and those kind of key critical thinking skills. In some ways you're building on what they might have done at A-Level, but often we are trying to get them to think about sources, and I don't think we necessarily do a huge amount of that, about how to find the source: I think it's often quite generic across different approaches - a medievalist might be teaching the same approach as we are, so I think it's probably true that we probably need to think a little bit more about those actual platforms they seem to be using and how they look at them. In terms of how I use them in teaching, I think I try and progress from an early stage in the first year, and the second is often setting more specific documents; so I use the Gale collections to then be setting more specific tasks in advance of seminars. I think I should probably do a bit more about really working through the platforms with them. But what I try and do for guidance on those instances, and what having these collections allows me to do, is to set the particular preparation tasks; ask them to do particular things which get them thinking about how to look at particular sources, and also then use those different search criteria and filters. One example would be that we do a crisis simulation on the Cuban missile crisis, where different people in the class are assigned to different perspectives and roles to take on. I'm asking them, ‘your group is representing the CIA’, so you need to know: what is the context here? What are the kind of arguments that are put forward? Who is making them? I try and drive them in a way that isn't necessarily just thinking 'go and get this information and stick it in an essay'; I use them in a way where I try and ask them to think of specific questions, specific uses, throughout the course. I can't do that and just say 'and go and find whatever you want on the Internet'. So that is where it's really helpful to be able to point them towards it, to say 'you've seen this platform, using it in your dissertation research and elsewhere, and I want you to ask the specific questions of the sources'; and I find that really helpful in preparation. I'm not going as far as Bob in that I don't try and do this in a class as much, and we're always going to express time constraints or what we want our class time to be, how much time you want to dedicate to these things in class - and I think maybe I might rethink a little bit of that balance.
So I try and set very specific tasks--using what I know is in those archives myself, from having done searches myself--set them for these specific locations. One of the ways I would use them--building on what other people have talked about--is setting a specific path, asking them, with me knowing what's in there, to go and develop these things. Then at the end of the module all my assignments--certainly in my third-year courses--require the use of primary source research in there. I don't set any annual assignments that don't require that. There is that emphasis on them there, and throughout the course of the modules, work on constantly telling you: this is how you build this, this is what needs to be in there, because this will be part of final assignment. Nothing focuses student's minds in terms of doing a particular task like them knowing they're going to be assessed on it at the end of the module.
But I do think one thing I will do now is probably --going back to my first class--talk them through some of the different platforms. Actually going and doing a bit more work in terms of showing them and working through them, that is something that would be really useful. And maybe looking more to do what you have done, Tom [English], in terms of giving those samples and those introductions.
Good stuff, definitely happy to help with that, and that's something that we do--and something that I'm quite keen on doing as well--because I've done sessions all over the place, and I know other colleagues have as well. What strikes me is that--probably none of you three, maybe not so relevant to the three of you, but certainly in other academic's classrooms--I've been doing stuff and answering what I think are fairly simple questions, fairly basic ways of going through the archives, and the academic said to me afterwards, ‘actually, that was really useful for me, I didn't know about those things myself’. So always happy to help. The platform is always changing as well, they're iterative, they're not static platforms, they're being added to and refined all the time, so that's great.