Learning History Straight from the Source’s Mouth

The “wow” moment is what Dr. Thomas Bahde goes for in teaching history. That moment often comes when he can put an original primary source – something produced in the time period that is being studied – in front of his students. “It can be a newspaper, a diary, a piece of ephemera, such as […]

January 29, 2015

The “wow” moment is what Dr. Thomas Bahde goes for in teaching history.

That moment often comes when he can put an original primary source – something produced in the time period that is being studied – in front of his students. “It can be a newspaper, a diary, a piece of ephemera, such as a dance card…,” Bahde says. “You’re feeling something with your hands, smelling it, seeing how heavily or lightly a person wrote on the paper…. Anytime I am able to sit down with a historically rich primary document, I feel that ‘wow’ moment, and I want students to feel it too.”

Ryan Atwood

Thomas’s wife Anne Bahde shares this passion for teaching with original primary sources. In her position as an assistant professor and librarian in the Special Collections and Archives Research Center within Oregon State’s Valley Library, she works with faculty from all disciplines to help them integrate primary sources into their curricula. In the winter of 2014, the couple joined forces to develop an Honors History 202 course that brought introductory-level students, including non-history majors, into contact with original historical materials.

The two designed the course, which covers United States history from 1820 to 1920, hoping that students would use primary sources to make their own discoveries.

“The first day we went to Special Collections, Anne had filled each table with materials, with no information about any of them,” recalls Ryan Atwood, an HC engineering freshman when he took the class. “They gave us basic questions, such as ‘Who made this? Where? And for what purpose?’

“I was drawn to a map that looked like a classic landscape, but if you looked closer, you saw lines of x’s that didn’t seem to mean anything. And then I realized there were military markings, like German pillboxes, [concrete dug-in guard posts], and it was a battle map. I could figure out where it was; I was able to take this material and then create a story with it!

“History is stories. I’d worked with some primary materials before this class, but mostly just scans. Here I would hold something and feel how it was frail, how it had been moved a lot, wonder why it was all folded up…. Professor Bahde emphasized that you need to analyze the physical and the intellectual content to bring the story together.”

Thomas Bahde says that making connections with the past like the one Ryan describes is “why I do history.” He wants to inspire in his students a sense of empathy with the people of the past, while helping them build critical-thinking habits that can be applied to any sort of source material, historical or current.

Thomas Bahde and Anne Bahde

His own undergraduate education, he says, rarely included original material. It wasn’t until he was doing research for his dissertation, when he examined correspondence between a husband and wife during the Civil War, that he felt a sense of connection to the people of the past through the documents they produced. “Those letters were full of spelling mistakes and lacked punctuation entirely, but you could almost hear the couple speaking to each other,” he said. “Knowing how dearly each letter must have been cherished, it was a privilege to be able to hold them in my own hands, and in some small way, be a part of their connection to each other.”

The power of primary materials was reaffirmed for the Bahdes during a debate exercise they built into the course. The class was divided into two teams, each working with a different body of sources from the Progressive Era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

One team was given pamphlets, posters, and books covering topics such as personal hygiene, home economics, sanitary food production, and sexual health. The other team was given primary source materials promoting temperance, women in the workforce, and policies such as the sterilization of immigrants and the mentally ill (based on the then-popular science of eugenics). The first team used their sources to argue that the social reformers of the Progressive Era were doing good work to try and improve the world. The second team used their sources to contend that the reformers were meddling with people’s lives, including trying to literally shape the racial makeup of the nation.

The debate becoming “quite animated” as students found evidence to support their side’s argument in the different primary sources. Thomas Bahde is convinced that the reason the students became invested in proving their respective sides was “because they had the things right in front of them, reading straight from the horse’s – or source’s – mouth.”

He adds, “I could say in my lectures until I’m blue in the face that the Progressive Era was complex. But there was impact from the physical things staring them in the face and having to make an argument with them and account for that complexity.”

Anne Bahde has documented the impact of this kind of hands-on engagement with primary materials in a 2012 paper she co-authored, “Measuring the Magic: Assessment in the Special Collections and Archives Classroom,” and in a case study of the Honors College course, “The History Labs: Integrating Primary Source Literacy Skills into a History Survey Course.” The benefits are significant, and Thomas Bahde has already integrated this approach into his non-Honors history classes and is planning to expand the model to online teaching.

Ryan Atwood was so “wowed” by his experience in the class that he now has a job in Special Collections at the Valley Library, carrying out research on undocumented materials. His painstaking detective endeavors have fed his fascination with what original sources can reveal. Although Atwood has planned for a career in engineering since early in high school, he is now open to the possibility of switching to history.

And, ultimately, it is the student response and impact that encourages the Bahdes to continue refining their instructional approach. “I can’t imagine not getting survey-level undergrads into the Special Collections and Archives Research Center,” says Thomas Bahde. “It’s an incredible resource for teaching and learning in any discipline.”

By HC Staff


CATEGORIES: All Stories Features

One thought on “Learning History Straight from the Source’s Mouth

  1. To actually feel real documents from the past and accession them for a class assignment, especially for background in creating a story, would certainly inspire the student as did Ryan Atwood. Very interesting article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.