Hacking the research paper assignment.

25 05 2010

I’ve had this idea kicking around my head for a while now. Thanks to Dan Cohen for giving me the incentive to actually write this up and get feedback before I give it a try myself.

Have you ever seen Iron Chef America? It’s a kind-of game show on the Food Network based on a similar Japanese show where two chefs duel it out inside a two-kitchen “stadium” making different dishes based on the same “secret ingredient.” Suppose we turn the chefs into historians and the ingredient into a research topic and maybe turn the competitive element into collaboration…

For those of us who teach at universities with small libraries, Google Books has been a Godsend. Instead of waiting weeks for books to arrive, our students can have access to a practically limitless supply of primary sources from the best libraries around the world at their fingertips. Those primary sources are even searchable (yet perhaps still advisable) to teach them how to skim.

Granted, due to copyright restrictions, the vast majority of sources that Google makes available in full view mode are from before 1923. However, as most of American history pre-dates 1923, that shouldn’t bother most of us. Indeed, the problem I face if I turn students loose on Google Books or Gale’s database of nineteenth century newspapers or the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America site of newspapers around the nation is that they have too much information rather than too little.

In an age where so many fantastic primary sources are available on the computer, it is the height of stupidity to privilege written secondary sources over the stuff that historians have been using to write history forever. Nevertheless, to me, information overload is the biggest problem with research paper assignments in the digital age. And despite the ready availability of excellent books, time is always a problem with today’s college students.

So suppose we guide students through the information that’s out there and see what they make of it. The contestants on Iron Chef America submit shopping lists based on potential mystery ingredients. Suppose we do the students’ shopping for them. What would that look like?

The mystery ingredient – oh, sorry – the mystery topic is:

The Progressive Movement.

What principles united the most important strands of the Progressive Movement at the turn of the twentieth century? Which one was most important and why?

Rather than just set students loose on the library or even their computers, here are the only sources that they’re allowed to use:

1. Ida Tarbell, The History of the Standard Oil Company.

2. Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House.

3. Lincoln Steffens, The Shame of the Cities. [Interestingly enough, this one isn’t on Google Books in full view format and I wonder why. Luckily, it’s elsewhere.]

4. W.E.B DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk.

5. Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography.

As much as I like primary sources, it strikes me that there should be at least one historiographic piece thrown into a question like this for general guidance. Luckily, Reviews in American History is on J-Store. So here’s a classic:

6. Daniel T. Rodgers, “In Search of Progressivism,” Reviews in American History 10 (Dec. 1982): 113-32.

[Obviously this one is subscription only.]

7. 8. and 9. Might be particular newspaper articles coming from Chronicling America.

While still recognizably a research paper, the fact that students have equal access to each source at the same time allows for interesting twists on the traditional research paper assignment. For example, you could assign everyone to discuss the reading in teams. You can compare and contrast the uses of particular sources in each paper once they’re done, thereby illustrating how historians interpret the same sources differently. And since the only time they’d need is the time to read the books (as opposed to waiting for them to arrive) , I can imagine doing this research exercise more than once during the semester.

Now I just have to wait for a class where I can try this. Which sources might you use for this assignment in a course on American Slavery? That’s what I’m teaching this fall. I guess if I had any sense I would have used that for my example here, but the sources for Progressivism just came to me faster.



One response

11 08 2010
Slave suicide assignment. « More or Less Bunk

[…] just finished implementing the framework I set up in this post for an assignment in my graduate research class on American slavery. The topic is slave suicide. […]

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