Assigning reading is easy, getting students to actually read the assigned work – well, that’s a bit of a bugger. Some of my colleagues create multiple-choice quizzes to ensure students glanced at the readings. But if I had assigned eight primary documents, I now have the unenviable task of crafting exam style queries for all of them: besides, a multiple-choice quiz on readings seems somehow punitive. I want students to think, not practice rote memorization.

A cure may be found in the UK. As a post-graduate student at the University of Bristol, I accompanied my supervisor from time to time when he taught a lower division coarse in Modern British History. I was struck by two things: the size of the class (only twenty students), and the pedagogy. The former was a function of room space (as in one large conference table centered in a small room). But this class size made it possible for Richard to teach the course “seminar” style.

That may need some explaining.

Each week Richard prepared several primary documents with one or two supporting secondary sources for his students. So, for example, he may have assigned E. P. Thompson’s famed essay, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Awesome secondary source, by the way! To support the essay, Richard provided seven primary pieces ranging from the food riots of 1756-1757, to Manchester’s Peterloo Massacre in 1819. Since the seminar class met on a single day of the week, the class took a couple of hours to go through each document. Two of the twenty students led the discussions handing out a paper of printed questions they themselves created. Richard moderated the conversation where needed and would emphasize key points just in case. At the end of the day, students turned in a small essay about how all of the documents connected to a larger theme. In this pedagogical approach students actively attacked each assigned document through discussion. The essay forced students to critically analyze document contents and synthesize their thoughts about the complexities of the past, the stories they tell, and how the past matters in our everyday lives.

I must state the class sessions were amazing. The level of conversation and the depth unto which students explored the contents of both primary and secondary materials impressed me. The essays were so-so, but Richard stated that they’ve been improving and that by the end of the course they’d be even better.

Still, upon my return to the USA and my teaching gigs (post Ph.D.), I questioned how Richard’s seminar approach could be applied to class sizes bigger than twenty. How could I incorporate a seminar-style approach to a class of 40 or more?

It took some tinkering, but here’s what I came up with: Interactive Primaries.

Here’s how it works. I assign seven primary documents, plus an essay from a leading journal (you could substitute a chapter or an important section from a chapter). For me, the essay is centerstage thus there is an associated online discussion board where students are required to post a question and reply to two questions posted by their peers (but that’s for a different blog post).

As for the primary documents, I ask students to write one paragraph per document with the following guideline:

Synthesize a brief four to six sentence paragraph for each document that contains…

  1. Who wrote the document,
  2. Who was the intended audience
  3. Why was it written and…
  4. Bottom line, what’s really going on?

In addition to the primary document paragraphs and the online discussion board, students are to craft a “Connections Essay.”

Connections Essay?

Yes. Students must connect the assigned journal article and the seven primary documents… somehow. In my guidelines, I let them in on a couple of possible ways to do this.

  • First, think big! Try some of that outside the box kind of stuff.
  • Second, where and how do all the documents connect to current events?
  • Third, how do all the documents connect to the larger theme of the week, or theme/project assigned to the course?
primary assignment

Groups are named after 18th Century Bristol merchants involved in the Atlantic slave trade (part of our class focus). Thus the Edmund “Saunders” group will report on an 1833 primary document written by Thomas Babington Macaulay concerning Britain’s imperial beliefs colonizing India. Each group is assigned a different document and will have their five minutes of fame.

When all this is done, the documents – and the students – are ready to participate in historical interactivity.

By dividing the class up into groups, the bones of the “seminar” remain and make class engagement possible (instead of 32 individual students, I can now call on eight groups). Nearly all the students hungry for a decent grade show up with their paragraphs and their connections essay stapled together. Right at the beginning of the class, I ask students to exchange them within their group. They have now become peer reviewers. I ask them perform three tasks –

  • if the student did the connections essay, on the upper left hand corner of the front page write the word “YES” and circle it.
  • Did the student also turn in the required paragraphs per primary and secondary sources? Normally I have about eight total docs for the week. If there are eight paragraphs then on the front make an “8/8” and circle it.
  • Concerning the “Connections Essay,” choose one connection you deem the best, and write a note somewhere on the front sheet alerting me to the connection. Something simple such as – “Hey, Dr. K, check out the connection between food and Karl Marx.”

This peer review process should take no more than five minutes. When all is done the notes and essays are returned to the originating student. Those notes and markups are, in actuality, their analysis.

Now is the time to kick off the interactive portion of the show, the time where students report their findings to the class. Only thing is… groups will present, and the groups don’t know which primary they are to report on until I tell them.

The night before, at random, I link groups to a single document, but the students won’t see this attachment until the day of when I flash it up on a PowerPoint.

When groups are assigned their document, they then work together to answer the five questions in Figure 1. Students are given ten minutes to discuss their primary at the end of which they will present their findings.

What happens next occurs rather fast. So for example: Charles Denby’s 1898 document that argued that the United States should retain possession of the Philippines, a “prize” gained after winning the Spanish-American War.

  • Students came up with #HaveACigar (Denby owned a cigar company).
  • Their one screaming sentence: Commerce, not politics, is king.”
  • That one golden word: “China.”

What we just witnessed in this less-than-30-second presentation is a cavalcade of critical analysis. I even had one class member come up to me and state, “I’m not sure I like this assignment. Finding that one sentence makes me think. I gotta analyze the whole document.” Indeed they do, and it’s rewarding to walk about the room and here student’s debate.

“The word should be China,” one said, “that’s the market Denby wanted to sell his cigars to.”

“But I think it should be indifference,” said another.

“Indifference?” some in the group asked.

“Yeah. Denby is indifferent to the Filipino people.”

“True,” said another.

While one group works on Denby, other groups are working on their assigned document. They too are coming up with witty hashtags, screaming sentences, and words made of gold.

The next set of prompts ask students to synthesize. How does the Denby document connect to imperialism in the late nineteenth century? This group would have to answer that question connecting what they have learned about American beliefs in global participation to what the Denby document has to offer. The group would then have to articulate their conclusions to the class.

primary interactiveSo too would they have to make explicit what else may be said about the document at hand, in other words, are there any other connections we should make that have yet to be considered. I will often elicit responses from the rest of the class: after all, the document was assigned for reading and students walk into class not knowing which primary they’ll be assigned. They may have read the Denby document and really wanted to say something about it but their group was assigned another. Thus, the last question allows me to open the conversation about Charles Denby and his position on the Philippines to the entire class. The last prompt also allows me to add in my own commentary or cover something important that students have yet to touch upon.

Eight groups, each armed with presenting eight documents, will take about a half-hour of class time: ten minutes to study and prepare a presentation, and twenty-minutes for all groups to discuss.

It’s not at all complicated, and students really enjoy the digging in. This, and… at least I know students are reading.