Wednesday, March 11, 2015

My First History Lab Assignment, or the Disappointments and Triumphs in Discussing Kansas Homesteaders and What Exactly it is that Historians Do

We are roughly halfway through the spring semester and I have now done two different “history lab” assignments with my survey classes, with another one to come on Friday. I will write about my experiences with each of these assignments in three different posts. The first history lab asked students to consider the experiences of homesteaders in Kansas in the 1870s and 1880s. I wish I could say I was very original and creative in the way I approached this history lab, but I wasn’t. I basically modeled my assignment on this one, developed by the Center for Historical Education. But I did add a few unique components.

One, I first had the students read an excerpt from Sod and Stubble, about the lives of the Ise family in Osborne, Kansas. The Ises endure many hardships, but their lives aren’t all bad. On the day of the history lab, I explained that we were going to spend the class period pretending to be professional historians, and I explained that this meant using historical sources to answer a historical question. I explained that the first task of the historian is to come up with a historical question and then to figure out what sources will be needed to answer it and where to find these sources. This approach led to a little side discussion about how historians are constantly thinking of new questions to ask about the past, and the contemporary factors that influence the questions historians ask. We also talked briefly about archives.

I next told the students that, for the purposes of this assignment, I had gone ahead and come up with a historical question(s) for them: In what ways did homesteaders’ expectations of their lives on the plains measure up to the realities they faced there and in what ways did their expectations not measure up. We brainstormed for a while about historical sources we could use to establish homesteaders’ expectations and sources we could use to understand their realities. Then I told them that, in this case, I had gone ahead and gathered up some historical sources for them to use. No archival travel required.

At this point, I divided up the class (roughly 30 students) into groups of 3-4 and passed out the sources. Each group received a different packet of sources. I made sure there were at least one textual source and one image per group. Each group was asked to fill out the chart below. Before turning them loose to work, we went over the definitions of text, context, and subtext as they relate to interpreting documents.

For the remainder of the 50-minute class period, I went around and talked with each group as they worked. I found that the students really did need help not just in interpreting the document, but also in being attuned to the fine details of each source. I had some good conversations with each group, but I left the class feeling disappointed in how the history lab had gone. It felt too “high school” to me (perhaps not a surprise as the Center for History Education originally developed the project for history students). 

I had planned two days for the history lab activity. On day 2, we reconvened as a class. I projected images of the various documents and each group filled us in on how they had interpreted the document. I began to feel better about the assignment as the class discussion progressed. With each document, students raised additional questions they had about it, questions that often we could not answer. For example, in one image showing 16 people standing outside a small house, the students wanted to know, did all of the people live in that one house? Could any of them be neighbors or visitors? We talked about other historical sources we might consult to try and answer this and other questions they had. I thought this was a really productive way to talk about the work historians do and the process of historical inquiry. During this discussion, students also made some important connections between the documents, a lecture I had given on farm technology on the Great Plains, and Sod and Stubble.

With about ten minutes left in the class period, I asked students to write a thesis statement answering the question I had posed at the start of the history lab assignment. They were required to list specific evidence in their thesis statement that supported their answer, and then list the sources they would use to prove their thesis statement were they required to do so. Finally, I asked them to come up with another historical question related to the history of the Great Plains or the Homestead Act and list several ideas of sources they might consult to try and answer it.

In short, I don’t think there was anything groundbreaking here. But the assignment as a whole was a useful way to get students thinking about the process of “doing” history. We also started the processes of learning to write good, specific thesis statements, something that often takes students quite a while to master. In some ways, it was agonizing to spend two full days on this activity. I couldn’t help but think of all the additional material I was sacrificing. But if I had limited it to just one day, we would not have had the productive class discussion on the second day. And I do think that giving students one day to talk in their groups made them more willing to share their ideas later to the entire class. 

1 comment:

  1. After hearing Anne Hawkins's presentation on women and work in Kansas, I think I'll amend this assignment to focus specifically on women in the west and include Native American women as well.