Contextualising Sources on the First Day

Dr Jennifer Sessions

 This is a reposting of a blog that first appeared on Cate Denial’s website on 16 January 2020. It is reposted here with permission and thanks.

I am a big fan of Cate Denial’s “Telling a Story from Documents” (TSD) exercise for the first day of class, which I’ve used in everything from discussion sections for big Gen. Ed. classes to specialized upper-level courses and capstone seminars. It’s become my go-to pedagogy trick for breaking the ice, setting a positive tone, and getting students engaged in substantive historical work from the start of a new semester.

When I sat down to plan the intro-level seminar I’m teaching this semester, I definitely planned to include TSD on the first day. But this time I had a couple of more specific goals I didn’t think the original version would achieve.

First, I needed to introduce a particular event: the 2015 terrorist attacks that inspired this particular seminar on the history of immigration, race, and Islam in modern Paris. I didn’t want to devote take-home reading to detailed, fetishizing accounts of the violence, but wanted to make sure students had a basic understanding of what happened.

Second, I wanted to foreground contextualization, rather than primary source analysis. Because this course serves mostly non-majors fulfilling a distribution or writing requirement, I had decided to organize the seminar around learning to read and use secondary sources effectively. Practically speaking, since I teach non-Anglophone histories to mostly Anglophone students, a traditional research paper assignment is frustrating for everyone. And philosophically, I think contextualization is one of the critical historical thinking skills most desperately needed by non-historians.

a pile of older-looking books in a bookshop or library

Being able to identify relevant contexts is the first key step in this process, but I’ve always struggled to teach it. It was only when I started thinking about the first day of class that it occurred to me TSD could help.

I still wanted to give students an idea of how historians compose narratives and arguments, but I also wanted to show them how the choice of context shapes those narratives and arguments. Here’s what I ended up doing:

Rather than distributing identical document packets, with one additional source, [I made up three packets of different sources about the same event]—the attacks of November 13, 2015. All three packets contained a map showing attack sites, but otherwise there were only a few overlaps: Packet 1 gave students profiles of suspected attackers and maps showing urban growth, average incomes, housing prices, and Islamophobic incidents in the Paris region. Packet 2 had profiles of attackers and victims, eyewitness accounts, and interviews with Muslim Parisians, as well as images of memorials at attack sites. The last packet set profiles of attackers alongside infographics about ISIS networks in Europe and an excerpt from a speech by President François Hollande to the French parliament.

As in TSD 1.0, groups’ first task was to order their sources. Then, instead of asking them to tell the story the sources provide, I gave them a more specific question: “What happened in Paris on November 13, 2015?” After 30-40 minutes of discussion, each group shared their answer, with the presenter using the document camera in the classroom to show the sources as “slides.” The presentations weren’t very polished—I forgot to tell them about the slides part ahead of time. Oops!—but the results were still really striking.

When asked to just “tell the story,” my students have tended to default to strict chronology in organizing their sources, which means their stories follow a similar narrative trajectory.

This time around, ordering the sources was much more challenging. Groups struggled with the explanatory and narrative implications of different options. Some went back to reorder their sources to fit their explanation of what happened. Chronology remained tempting, but even groups that went that route debated which chronology to use: when the events described took place or when the sources were produced?

At the same time, the groups’ narratives varied much more widely. Groups that got the maps emphasized the role of socio-economic inequalities in motivating the attackers. Those with eyewitness accounts focused on personal stories, after spending planning time discussing the emotional impact of starting or ending with a given source. Packet 3, with the sources about ISIS, led to a very forensic discussion focused on who knew what when and whether the attacks could have been prevented.

After all the presentations, I opened up discussion as usual by asking the class to talk about the differences between the presentations. The question “What happened?” seems simple, factual, so why were the answers so dramatically different?

In the discussion, students were able to easily identify different thematic emphases and interpretive contexts. Where sources overlapped, seeing the “slides” clearly showed how changing the surrounding documents pushed different groups to focus on different aspects of the same source. Groups that had the same packets noticed how even small changes in the order of documents made a difference in their overall explanations.

One student suggested their group’s presentation was like a sequel to another, which inspired me to ask spontaneously how all of the presentations might fit together if we thought of them as chapters in the same book. This prompted a really interesting discussion about affect, purpose, and audience: what would grab readers, where would you leave them, what was the book’s ultimate goal: to explain why the attacks happened or to tell the stories of those who experienced them?

I am delighted with this new version of Telling-Stories-from-Documents. TSD 2.0 retained my favorite things about the exercise: the room hummed with conversation, everyone participated, and students dug into some real historical work. But it also achieved my goal of bringing the question of context to the fore even better than I had hoped.

I expect we’ll refer back to different parts this first-day discussion as we move forward into learning to read and use secondary literature. I hope it will help students to recognize historians’ choice of sources and contexts as acts of interpretation. They will be better able to identify those choices and imagine alternative possibilities. But ideally, it will also help them develop a key habit of historical thinking they can take with them when the seminar is over.

Jennifer Sessions is Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia. She can be followed on twitter @Laprofmme.

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