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One of my favorite assignments to do with my US Women’s History students offers them a hands-on experience with primary sources in a research library. I started doing this assignment after attending a professional conference where an historical society director lamented that college history professors very rarely engage their students with local historical organizations. I returned to my institution determined to find a way for my students to learn more about the work of our state’s largest historical organization, the Rhode Island Historical Society.


To start I contacted the RIHS director who connected myself and a colleague with the organization’s educational outreach coordinator. Together the three of us  brainstormed ways that CCRI students could explore the RIHS collections. We needed to be realistic: our US Women’s History course is a second-year history course that many students take to fill an elective and not because they want to be historians. Professionally I recognized that I could not allow my students to invade the RIHS research room without a clear plan of action. In spite of all the questions I had about whether this idea could work, I was guided by my belief that the research skills that we gain as students of history can be utilized in nearly any occupation. 


With the thoughtful guidance of the RIHS staff we developed a list of topics that would enable students to interact with primary sources in a short period of time. Our goal was that each student would spend approximately two-hours at the RIHS research library (ie, one visit). RIHS sent a representative to meet with our students in the classroom on the day I assigned the project and she was able to introduce them to the policies and procedures of their visit (ie, use of pencils, the need for a picture identification, etc). Here is the assignment we developed: Click here to read the assignment.


Every local historical institution is unique. At RIHS there exists a large collection of women’s diaries that suited the needs of this assignment. Wherever you may be teaching, however, there is likely an organization holding a collection of sources that could provide an introduction to library-based primary source research -- maps, letters, newspapers, speeches, etc. The archivist will be able to determine what makes the most sense. While students were initially resistant to the logistics of doing research at an off-campus location, the RIHS is easily reached via public transportation and was, therefore, accessible to all students. Our students were not charged a fee for use of the archives so there were no financial impediments to their conducting research. These are important factors to consider when identifying a partner organization.


As much as I enjoyed reading the students’ final papers, even more exciting (and useful) was their engaged discussion of the process. Sending my students off campus to do archival research opened their eyes to the work that historians do in a way that in-class coverage of textbook content cannot. If you’re looking for an adventure in research with your students, give this assignment a try!

      President Trump’s derogatory references to Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as “Pocahontas” are a provocative topic for class discussion. Since it is March -- Women’s History Month -- it’s a great time to think about how we can incorporate more women’s history into our survey courses. The Pocahontas/Warren/Trump controversy offers a space for discussion of gender in an historical context, and a starting point for students to consider what they know and don’t know about native women.


When I asked my United States History I students to explain the most recent Pocahontas reference they knew it had something to do with Warren’s controversial claim to Native American heritage, which has been widely criticized. Their knowledge of Pocahontas, however, was limited to the Walt Disney-version. The reality is that for many students in a survey-level US history course Pocahontas is the only Native American women about whom they think they know anything. Their knowledge, in turn, is largely based on Englishman John Smith’s version of events. When the president used her name to attack a political foe he offered another example of a white male claiming ownership of Pocahontas’s story.


We can begin to demystify the story of Pocahontas -- and other Native American women -- by encouraging students to learn some basic facts. The National Women’s History Museum offers a brief introduction to Pocahontas that sets straight some of the commonly-held myths about her brief life and suggests resources for learning more. Asking students to compare recent documentary films such as Pocahontas: Beyond the Myth (Smithsonian Channel) to the popular culture interpretations can be an informative way to evaluate sources while considering how our public understanding of native women in our nation’s history, including Pocahontas, has been shaped by cultural misinterpretations. Once the students have a better sense of who historians believe she was, ask them to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of a modern-day politician invoking her name in public discourse.


Suggest to students that they continue to look for women’s history in the news. While it is difficult to incorporate every topic of interest into our US history survey each semester, the daily newspaper can provide prompts for informal discussion that can be quite fruitful. Discussing the Pocahontas reference in class helped to provoke the natural curiosity of some of these students who told me later that they had spent considerable time after class trying to better understand her historical significance. Inevitably their informal research led them to the stories of other native women with whom they were previously unfamiliar. Most importantly, the students were forced to grapple with how twenty-first-century historians can tell accurate stories of seventeenth-century native women’s lives and how politicians can shape those stories to fit their needs. In this era of “fake news,” encouraging student engagement with women’s history may be more meaningful than ever before.

Ida B. Wells. Sylvia Plath. Diane Arbus. Henrietta Lacks. Madhubula.


What do these women have in common? They were all remarkable women that were overlooked in the NYT obituaries. In honor of Women's History Month, I'd like to share the article: Overlooked, where these women finally get their stories shared in the manner they deserve.

This article was originally posted and written by Katherine Jewell on on March 4, 2018.

In an April 9, 2017, article in Salon, Martin Harris explored the potential implications of the rise of social reading and story creation. He proposed, “Our stories are going social and, as new platform technologies remake the reading experience into something increasingly interactive, we now must ask what we’re giving up in the bargain.”

With crowdsourcing of books and other social interactions regarding reading changing the creation of stories, the “quiet empathy of solitary styles,” he explains, could disappear. Social networks and the ever-present possibility of sharing over a text could reshape the reading experience fundamentally, with other audiences or connections always present.

Harris raises this cautionary tale that points to issues that also arise in the college classroom. I am not alone among my colleagues to remark upon students’ difficulty with engaging with long texts. Without any strong evidence base we nevertheless speculate about whether social media platforms are creating different expectations for textual engagement, perhaps even weakening students’ abilities to concentrate in solitude over long, technical readings.

But social reading may also present possibilities for the college classroom. By catering to how students are accustomed to engaging over texts, social reading has the potential to identify areas of student confusion; help students prepare more effectively for class; learn how to read textbooks, dissect primary sources, and identify arguments; and create engaged online spaces. In this post, the first of two, after reviewing a few tools that are available, I’ll explore how I’ve been using social reading in my online survey. In the next, I’ll discuss my use of social reading in an in-person elective.

Social reading could be performed using any number of existing tools. File-sharing in real time via Google Docs or Dropbox would allow multiple students to read and comment on (or edit) a document simultaneously. Uploading a pdf with an attached discussion would allow students to engage with the text and others as they read, with students submitting questions for discussion in class. Crowdsourced tools such as Padlet enable students to share their own links, images, documents, and summaries and comment, enabling for conversation over documents and images in multiple ways.

In my own courses, I’ve used the Padlet method above, particularly to facilitate informal conversations about books read. (I’ve had students “cast” with modern actors the characters and historical figures of various memoirs and historical novels we’ve read). It provides students with a familiar-feeling space to engage over texts that are sometimes hard to parse or connect to their own lives.

Most recently, I’ve been using the tool Perusall in my online and in-person classes. Perusall allows students to converse over a text in the side bar, ask questions (and upvote questions and useful answers). Unlike the other tools, it also provides useful algorithms and rubric-based auto grading to assess the quality and quantity of student contributions.

In my online US survey class, I went through the textbook and insert discussion questions to have students put the events into their own words. I’ve also incorporated short Bedford Document collections to help students read and analyze primary sources and create historical analysis. I’ve been gratified to be able to have this glimpse into how students are processing these historical questions. I am still trying to figure out how to identify particular areas of confusion that might not come though their questioning while also allowing space for students to figure out the information in their own words, informally. But the algorithms for evaluation have been useful in assessing student understanding, and I see the potential for the tool to not only replicate the in-person classroom, but also better identify student learning and improvement.

In the online survey, I see the social reading area as a stand-in for the in-person classroom. They receive information (the lecture/textbook), and discussion questions to help them process the information. They then apply their knowledge to primary source discussions. For longer, formal assessments, I ask reflective and thematic questions to tie the information they looked at across chapters. They also write a creative paper that uses three documents from the various readers to construct a narrative of change over time about some aspect of American life. I’m still reflecting on how I can craft these assignments to take best advantage of the social reading platform and connect to the conversations had there — that’s the next step!


Be sure to check out Part II of Katherine's post, Social Reading and Identifying the Argument (Part II of II).