Developing Historical Methods

By September 6, 2011

This morning was the initial class in the historical methods course I teach, made up of undergraduate history majors/minors. It will be an interesting mix this term; some are double majors with education heading for public school classrooms, and I have a handful of students with plans to go to graduate school in history. A few are older than traditional college age. I can already sense that this will be a good group for discussions, that’s a good sign.

My Day One activity looks like this: divide the class into three groups (I have about 15 students in the class; if it were going to be bigger, I’d create more groups). One group has people who have brought laptops to class. I give each group a set of documents or artifacts and a series of questions to start them off, and then I stand back and observe for about half an hour. I’m looking to see how they approach an unfamiliar set of sources, and I’m trying to get to know them as learners. What kinds of questions do they ask? How do they begin to make sense of what’s in front of them? Who emerges as a natural leader? How well are they listening to each other’s ideas?

Here’s what I gave them:

Group 1: a flash drive, or CD, of 8-10 digitized documents relating to the Chinese Exclusion Act (legal affadavits, the text of the act, photographs, letters, identification cards), from the American Memory collection “The Chinese in California, 1850-1925

Group 2: an envelope of reproduction documents from the British Imperial War Museum, relating to the evacuation and homefront experiences of British children from London during World War II. Without telling them that’s what they are.

Group 3: a shoebox of artifacts from my own house (an expired passport, a 1st grade school class photo, Christmas cards, the sort of things that I have stuck in a trunk in the attic).

The reason I like this exercise is because it immediately puts them in the investigative, detective, puzzle-solving mindset. It’s a reasonably good approximation of what you get when you open an archival collection or an old box (minus the finding aid). And it allows me to see what I might need to emphasize in my early instruction about research methods. Research isn’t only finding sources, it’s knowing what to do when you find them. What questions to ask of them. How to prioritize and organize them in time, space, and significance. How to take notes on them. How to document and cite them. What to do with those notes.

Here’s my question for you JI readers – and it relates to Mark Sample’s observation on ProfHacker today that scholars in the humanities probably could do much more to make our work more visible. How did you learn research methods? Is this being taught in your programs, at the undergraduate or graduate levels? Or is it picked up pretty much by trial and error and osmosis? What are the essential skills and questions – what should my students be learning from me?

You’re in the archives. You get a box. What do you do next? What’s your method?

(crossposted to my teaching blog)

Article filed under Methodology, Academic Issues Scholarly Inquiry


  1. May I join your class??

    In my case, it was trial and error, with watching and eavesdropping on people who did what I wanted to do (elists and now blogs are wonderful for that). I had some formal training in questioning texts and relating them to each other as literature, but nothing with other materials.

    Sometimes with budding genealogists I give them a document and ask them to figure out what it says about the people involved. After they’ve given it their best shot, I point out what they can also learn beyond the obvious text. Then I give them another document and they try again, almost always looking for the kinds of things I pointed out in the first record.

    I always read Robin Jensen’s comments here about the JSPP very carefully, because he quite often mentions something he’s learned by looking beyond the obvious. I worked on a brief project with Matt Grow and Paul Reeve a few years ago where I watched how they analyzed political cartoons and how they prodded students to question the materials we were using. I wish I could more often be around people doing that kind of thing, because I pick up ways of questioning that don’t occur to me on my own.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 6, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

  2. Brilliant opening activity for a class, Tona; I may have to steal this idea…

    I didn’t take my “Historian’s Craft” course until my senior year. I think the best lesson I learned–taught to me over and over again by the great history faculty at BYU–is coming up with an important and interesting question, which still drives how I approach my research. My Historian’s Craft teacher made us do several activities in that regard. For example, when we covered quantitative history, he gave us several sheets of the 1880 Utah Census, then our assignment was to come back to class with at least three different questions we could base a paper on. Then, for the final paper, we had to clear a series of questions with him before we could even start researching. (I still follow some of the research habits he taught: tomorrow I leave on a research trip, and I already have a paper with a dozen research questions that I’ll keep in mind with every document I look at.)

    But nothing has taught me more about historical methods than reading the works of those who have superior methodological talent. I think exposure to creatively interpretive historical works can have the largest impact–even if by osmosis–on our research. For instance, Annette Gordon-Reed’s Hemingses of Monticello and Laurel Ulrich’s Midwives Tale opened my eyes to completely new ways of looking at documents.

    I realize that this doesn’t speak specific skills when I have an archival box in front of me, but since this comment is already too long I’ll save that for later.

    Comment by Ben Park — September 6, 2011 @ 4:44 pm

  3. Dang, I wish I had taken that class at BYU, Ben. My “Historian’s Craft” course taught me essentially nothing about methodology, focusing instead on historiography and the “spooky postmodernists.” And the skills you describe were never really emphasized in any of the other classes I took as an undergrad or grad student. So what I did learn was just through doing my own research for class papers and working at the JSPP.

    This semester I’m trying out the “uncoverage” model in my US history to 1877 survey. I have the students read documents from a reader each week and then they complete an assignment that helps them develop some cognitive skill, such as moving from a research topic to a question, conceptualizing a hypothesis to answer the question, answering their question/supporting their thesis with the documents, and constructing arguments based on reasons and evidence. I also have them write short essays putting into practice these skills. I’m using Booth, Colomb, and Williams’ The Craft of Research as I design these assignments.

    Like Ben, this doesn’t necessarily explain my own methods in the archives, but it gives a sense of what I’m trying to teach in my classroom.

    Comment by David G. — September 6, 2011 @ 5:06 pm

  4. I have not had any real training, learning what I know only from reading examples of others. [Yes, Ardis, blogs are great for this. But they are highly focused.] When I find a cache of documents I am usually lost when it comes to prioritizing my efforts. If I have a specific question, which usually led me to the documents in the first place, I find what I need, but then I get into a line of thought that is best described by the phrase “Ooh, shiny”. Two years ago I was going through the John H. Gibbs papers at BYU. It was an event because I live in Tennessee. Even with a finding aid I was having a hard time deciding what I wanted to focus on. Two years later, I still wish I could go back and do that over again. I would do it soooo differently.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — September 6, 2011 @ 5:19 pm

  5. Anyone use Zotero in the archives? If laptops are permitted, that is – which is not always the case. To me, it’s indispensable in the library stacks & while researching online.

    Comment by Tona H — September 6, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

  6. Of course, that’s more of a *tool* than a method. But it sure helps with note-taking and retrieval later. Otherwise I find I have a sheaf of pages scrawled in pencil and I can’t make much sense of them later.

    Comment by Tona H — September 6, 2011 @ 5:26 pm

  7. For those who use an iPad, I’ve found Evernote to be a fantastic note-taking device on research trips, especially because of its ability to file documents according to categories and tags. Highly recommended.

    Comment by Ben Park — September 6, 2011 @ 5:35 pm

  8. It is not my practice to go to the archives without knowing exactly what I want to see. I begin my projects with an annotated bibliography and have already started writing. This helps focus my research and keeps me on track. Even if I’m only after one item, I have a tendency to rummage through most boxes or microfilms I get. But if I get a box where the folders are labeled and not just numbered, I read through them first. If it’s an important box, I will take one folder at a time and catalogue it—that is, if a catalogue doesn’t already exist.

    Comment by Dan Vogel — September 6, 2011 @ 8:44 pm

  9. I’m only indirectly a historian, and any skills I have were not from my coursework. I took Historian’s Craft during a summer at BYU and it didn’t leave any kind of mark. None of my graduate coursework addressed historical methods, even though much of our data and interpretation was historical in nature.

    It sounds like a great class.

    I’ll second Ben Park on the usefulness of Evernote.

    Comment by Ben S — September 6, 2011 @ 9:47 pm

  10. Just please tell me you don’t give them any of your correspondence from college 🙂

    And I’m with everybody wishing to be in your class!

    Comment by Kristine — September 6, 2011 @ 10:09 pm

  11. Sounds like great fun. Your students are fortunate.

    Comment by smb — September 8, 2011 @ 8:04 am

  12. I’m finally catching up on blog reading for the week. This is great, Tona, and I may borrow the idea if and when I teach such a class. Great stuff. It seems to me that you could do this activity even in a regular seminar class. There’s an abundance of documents and items you could use from Mormon history and culture that would be fun.

    Comment by Christopher — September 9, 2011 @ 11:32 am

  13. That seems like an excellent exercise to me! I have always found that I learn much more in my theory/method classes than in my other history courses (which is not to say that I don’t love them all the same). In my case I was taught almost purely methodology in my undergraduate courses (BYU-Idaho) which was nice but I found myself ill-prepared when I entered graduate school. Unfortunately, I think this really limited the quality of my writing and interpretations.
    I currently work in the National Archives and am amazed at the differences in how people go about researching. I personally do a quick (which is obviously relative) run through all the hollingers on my cart, then go back and try to hit the boxes which are the most promising. Anyways this is a really long post. To sum it up, I think it’s important to have a nice balance of method and theory as you teach these courses unless of course there is a seperate course on theory so that students are not ill-prepared for graduate school (at least those planning on going).

    Comment by Jack Ply — September 9, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

  14. I use Zotero.

    Comment by mmiles — September 10, 2011 @ 1:19 am

  15. And your class sounds wonderful.

    Comment by mmiles — September 10, 2011 @ 1:19 am


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