Teaching the Historian’s Craft at the American Antiquarian Society

So far I am thoroughly enjoying teaching my research seminar at the American Antiquarian Society. I have a really nice group of students from four different colleges in the Worcester area. They come with varying backgrounds and interests, but they all seem to be motivated. Tomorrow will be our third meeting. As I’ve mentioned before, the class is divided between a reading list and work in the archives itself. The readings are of course important, but what the students are primarily interested in is learning how to use the archives. In short, they want to get their hands dirty.

AAS Students Working With Archival Sources

AAS Students Working With Archival Sources

It’s been an interesting challenge in thinking through the steps it takes to familiarize students with the research process. Last week we discussed Louis Masur’s brief history of the Civil War before giving students their first exposure to actual documents. I had an AAS curator pull together six documents from their graphic arts collection and talk briefly with the group about how to think about these sources. I then divided the group into pairs to work with a single source. Students used the document analysis worksheets provided by the National Archives to explore their assigned source. We discussed the purpose of each source and tried to identify as many motifs and themes as possible. It’s a start.

Tomorrow we will discuss Gary Gallagher’s The Union War for the first half of class before working on the second part of the document-based exercise discussed above. I didn’t notice this until I re-read it, but Gallagher’s book is ideal for this class. His argument is easy to identify and his organization of chapters and use of primary sources ought to help us with how historians construct their interpretations. Gallagher tends to explore primary sources by category. He explores the relationship between union and emancipation by examining newspapers, soldiers letters and regimental histories. Civil War postcards are used to flesh out how the loyal citizenry of the North understood secession and the purpose of the war. The result is that students get a sense of how each type of source can be utilized in a research project. Finally, Gallagher’s decision to explore the historiography in the narrative, rather than the endnotes, highlights how an interpretation is constructed in response to what others have already said.

For the second half of class tomorrow students will begin to think about connections between different documents. Each student will be required to explore three additional sources from the collection presented last week plus one new source that will be added to the group. Students will identify the motifs and themes in these additional sources, but will then have to make a claim about the documents surveyed. What do they tell us about this early phase of the conflict as soldiers volunteered and civilians reconciled themselves to war?  My hope is that the group ends up with some diversity in their interpretation of these sources.

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