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All Places > History Community > Blog > 2017 > May

            In previous blogs (May 3rd and May 18th) I shared my thoughts about conducting research with first and second-year students in history classes. This week I’d like to offer suggestions as to what students need to gain from library instruction and what faculty can do to be part of this learning process.


          Let’s be honest: the average first or second-year undergraduate is not generally excited about doing research in a library even when I tell them we are taking a "field trip." Most, in fact, believe that research can be conducted just as effectively through a Google search. Helping our students to learn the value of evaluating academic sources versus web “hits” is critical. Here are some steps faculty can follow, in partnership with your college’s library professionals, to make class time in the library both efficient and productive.  


Step One: start with a discussion of what makes a source appropriate for a college-level history paper. While there are countless resources available to students via web searches  students do not always effectively discern the good versus the bad source. Thankfully, there are many publications available on the web for faculty to share with students as they learn to evaluate sources. Your college librarians may have already created such a document but if not, check out these resources from the University of California Berkeley and the University Libraries at Virginia Tech. Bottom line: I tell my students that we would not be spending our limited time in the library if the best sources for their work were just a Google-search away. Library instruction is the perfect time to provide students with concrete examples of the countless academic resources not readily available on the web.


Step Two: address the basics first. Do not assume that the students know how to conduct even the most basic search. With the help of a knowledgeable librarian the basics can be covered quickly, enabling students to move on to the tougher questions such as what steps to take if the book is not available on campus or what to do if he/she has never borrowed a book from any library. Every time I go to the college library with a class a student comes to me with the latter quandary. The first few times I brought a class to the library for research I (wrongly) assumed that everyone had patronized their public library from their earliest days of schooling as I did. In my experience many students arrive at college having never located a book on library shelf. College students are not alone in this behavior and while there are many reasons (see, for example, this article in The Atlantic) whatever the cause we as faculty must remedy the situation early on in college students’ academic careers if they are to successfully complete their degrees.


Step Three: be part of the process, literally. I am fortunate that my college has a classroom designated for library instruction. Before the semester starts I reserve the room and schedule instruction time with a library professional. I make it clear to the students that the time spent in library instruction is class time: attendance will be taken, assignments will be explained and started there and then, and students will be responsible for the materials covered. As part of this planning I discuss with our librarian how much time the students will need to conduct their research and I make sure that we allot time for them to get to work independently and ask questions. Some of the most meaningful minutes I spend with students during the semester takes place in these library meetings. Often it is the first time that I am able to speak one-on-one with individual students. I ask them to show me what they have uncovered so far with their research and what kinds of challenges they are facing in the early stages. Facial expressions and body language often reveal to me who in the room has never conducted research before this class meeting. I also encourage students to help each other. Without fail there are members of every class who have had some library instruction in the past. Encouraging students to speak to their neighbors helps to break down the feelings of isolation and intimidation present as students begin their projects.


          Final Step: keep a sense of humor. Watching undergraduates struggle through the early phases of library research can be frustrating. I always hope that my assignment will make perfect sense to the students but sometimes, try as I might, my vision falls short. Being flexible with the realization that something I intended for them to do might not work as planned is critical to the process.


So, after all of this thinking and planning, do my students think that research is “fun”? Probably not. They do, however, share with me throughout the semester their gratitude for the time we spent in the library because they recognize that in their history class they have learned valuable skills that will translate into future academic success no matter what subjects they choose to study. And at the end of the day, this gratitude is enough for me.

    I’ve only recently emerged from what felt like an avalanche of exams and essays. I dislike the frantic rush to finish the academic year: students are universally stressed about grades and at my community college many are trying to make critical decisions about transferring to four-year colleges.


The end, however, is a great time to reflect on what did and did not work during the semester. In my previous blog I offered some tips for conducting library research with first and second year undergraduates. This week I’d like to share a favorite research-based project that I assign to all students in introductory-level United States history classes. My next blog will explore the ways in which the reference librarians and I support the students in their research during library instruction.


The goals of my favorite assignment are two-fold.  First, I want students to conduct research using the library catalog, including books and databases of electronic resources. Having a general understanding of how these resources work will enable the students to successfully complete not only this assignment but also prepare them for research in other college-level courses.  Second, I use this project as a way to supplement the course with content that is not directly addressed in the course syllabus. Click here to read the assignment.


Now that you’ve read the assignment pause for a moment and imagine the most iconic photographs from the last one-hundred years of United States history.   


Perhaps Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” comes to mind or Alfred Eisenstaedt’s Times Square shot of a sailor kissing a woman in celebration of World War II’s end. Or maybe the haunting image of a naked Vietnamese child running from napalm captured by Nick Ut in 1972. Each of these images are so famous that they have become representative of the eras from which they originated. But what about the millions of photographs with which we are not familiar: native children dressed in the clothes of white men; a black man racing a bicycle; teenage girls standing outside a textile mill. What can these stories tell us about the history of the United States? And, how can these images provide a window through which we can help our students conduct library research in survey-level courses?


For this assignment I gather an assortment of images from the time period of the course; some are photographs, many are images of artwork. I print the images in black and white on standard paper. I provide students with a web address so that they can easily bring up the image on a screen. Illustrations of colonial America, political cartoons, and paintings by John Singleton Copley are among the images assigned to students in United States History I. For United States History II the images cover everything from post-Reconstruction race relations to the counterculture of the 1960s. The shared characteristic in each class is that the students are not allowed to choose their image. Usually I get to the classroom ahead of time to randomly place the images at workstations in the classroom.


I want the students to be challenged to learn about something new while engaging in hands-on research. “Migrant Mother,” therefore, is not a desirable image for this project because it is so recognizable as a depression-era image. I also want the students -- as much as possible -- to become excited about their topics. Admittedly, this goal is easier to achieve in US History II. In my experience a student who has not been particularly engaged in the course to this point in the semester will become notably more interested when assigned an image of an athlete or entertainer.


Can you think of topics that might excite your students to think about historical research in a new light? Play around on the internet now that the semester is over and there is time to reflect on what has and has not worked in the past.  Enter phrases such as “Native Americans and sports history” and “Black Panthers breakfast” into a search engine for images.  Then, try to imagine the sparks these images may ignite as students discover that each image truly has its own story to tell -- one that they had likely never considered before this moment in your class.  

If you are a budding history-enthusiast like myself, you may also find yourself asking questions while watching the evening news. Questions such as: "has this ever happened before?" or "is this setting a new precedent in U.S. history?"


Yesterday, the evening news of former FBI director, James Comey's abrupt dismissal from his post circulated. Pundits were interviewed-- all sharing a sense of befuddlement and confusion. Again, I asked, has this ever happened before? [As an aside, I will sheepishly admit that, as someone in my early thirties, I did not live through the Nixon presidency.] Quickly and eagerly, I started reading into the 'Saturday Night Massacre' and further parallels were drawn for me between Trump and Nixon.


For example, this Op-Ed piece in the L.A. Times and its political cartoon was particularly helpful to me:


And so, it got me wondering:

What questions are your students asking about Comey's dismissal? How do you handle political discussions contextualized in historical events in your classroom? What assignments, readings, or research would you recommend to better understand presidential precedent -- or the departure from presidential precedent?

My students’ expressions were blank when I asked how the research projects were coming along. The class, an upper-level hybrid course, meets face to face only once a week. Our limited time together has led to my wanting each meeting to be chalk full of content to prepare students for the readings, films, and independent work that follows online. On this day, however, I prodded them with questions about an assignment they were working on independently: have you found adequate primary and secondary sources? Have you met with the reference librarian? Are you comfortable with the assigned method of citation? A painful silence met each of my queries.


    As an historian, I love research. I enjoy even the most general search of a library’s digital catalog -- all the better when I encounter an old-fashioned card catalog. Sometimes I will do a search “just to see” what the library has on a topic to satisfy my curiosity. My students, I’ve discovered, do not share my sense of excitement and wonder in the library. For a history professor this reluctance on the part of students to engage in research can be quite challenging.


    In general, my students are very uncomfortable in the library. When I taught at a residential four-year college I could safely assume that the students had been through a library introduction as part of freshman orientation. At a community college, however, the students’ level of preparedness is dramatically uneven. As a result I have incorporated library instruction into every one of my survey-level courses. The knowledgeable reference librarians work with me to plan the class time. I share with them the goals of the assignment and together we brainstorm the kinds of questions and challenges the students might face as they begin their work.


Critical to this class time in the library is my participation alongside the students. As they follow along with the librarian, I do as well. The benefit of my participation is that students see that I value what is being taught to them. If I leave them with the librarian and hang out in my office during their instruction then I lose the opportunity to share the experience and, more importantly, to watch them squirm in their library-induced discomfort; both are critical to my understanding of who they are as students.


The students in this particular course should have had sufficient academic training to conduct the research projects on their own. Their silent response to my questions, however, told me otherwise. With only a couple weeks left in the semester I had to take a drastic step: for the following week’s meeting we would abandon content and conduct research in the library together.


In future blogs for Macmillan Community I will offer suggestions as to what has worked and not worked as short research projects with my students. For now, however, I’ll end with this friendly reminder: research, like everything else we do, takes practice. I have come to accept that I cannot expect students in their early years of college to successfully (and comfortably) conduct research without a lot practice. To even the brightest first or second-year college student, a research project that comprises a large percentage of the final course grade can be incredibly overwhelming. With manageable assignments, patient instruction, and guidance, however, all students can learn to successfully navigate library research without fear.