When we designed our RM course, we very consciously included modules on finding primary and secondary sources. Of course, our students should already possess these skills. Nonetheless, we were often still surprised to read papers in which a student had missed a major author on a topic of interest or had used a wildly unreliable source as evidentiary basis for a research paper. While it’s quite easy for a university teacher to be appalled at reading such omissions or errors, we figured it would probably be more productive to offer students a refresher course in how to find high-quality and relevant primary and secondary sources.
Developing this curriculum meant also increasing our own understanding of how the current generation of students use the vast amount of online resources that are at our disposal. As someone who was introduced to the internet somewhat later in life (by which I mean, as a teenager) than my students were, I will find and use sources for my research in a much different way than many of my students – something I did not fully understand until watching videos like these. It’s a point that is also central to Andrew Abbott’s wonderful book Digital Paper, which translates the old skill of locating books in a brick-and-mortar library to the online environments in which we often work today. Celebrating the antiquated pastime of browsing through library stacks without being snobby or nostalgic about it, the book offers very practical advice on how to locate and use online resources. It’s a great book and I often assign chapters from it in my courses. It also shaped the development of some of the assignments I currently teach in Research Methods, one of which I will describe below.
Credit: Niki Odolphie from Frome, England (Longleat Maze) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
As part of the workshop for our module on “Working with documents,” students need to carry out an in-class assignment. The assignment is a simple one: go online and find primary sources that will help you write a research paper on a historic event. The students can find actual primary sources online or they may find the location of where these sources are kept (e.g. a historical archive). Seems easy, right? Here comes the catch: the historic event the students need to research predates the internet, reducing the odds that actual digital primary sources will be available. During the last few workshops, for instance, I chose the 1909 shirtwaist workers’ strike in New York City as topic for this assignment.
Students will need to do a focused search, using specialized search engines and databases to find the sources they need for this assignment. I don’t share this information with the students beforehand. After explaining the assignment, I give students some time (15 minutes or so) to find anything they deem relevant. I walk around the classroom, often a computer lab, looking at the students’ computer screens to see what they are searching for and how. The typical search looks something like this:
- The student googles the strike and reads basic information on Wikipedia.
- The student uses the university library’s catalogue and/or Google Scholar to search for secondary sources on the historic event.
- The student googles “skirtwaist workers’ strike 1909 sources” and checks the first few pages that come up.
This is a completely reasonable search strategy when your instructor confronts you with a historic event you have never heard of, you quickly need to find material related to this event, and you have no idea where to start. I do exactly the same when, for instance, I am asked to teach about a topic I know very little about (this happens sometimes unfortunately). The problem is that this search strategy very rarely results in sources, primary or secondary, that are relevant and reliable. In the case of the skirtwaist workers’ strike, for instance, most students will find a few photographs taken during the strike, a diary entry, and perhaps a New York Times article or two, but not enough sources to write an in-depth case study on the event.
Credit: Bain News Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Students generally reach this conclusion themselves. After their initial search, we discuss their findings with the entire group. I ask the students not only what they have found, but also how they found it. Since I have observed them doing the assignment, I can call on specific people to share specific search strategies. After discussing a few of these strategies, an inevitable question is raised: what could we have done better? We then spend the following 30 minutes or so discussing the alternatives. Often there is a student present during the workshop who has made good use of specialized databases. I often ask that student to show the others what they could have done better. On other occasions, I do this myself.
The central message of the assignment is this: 1) know which databases are available to use, for which purpose and what their limitations are; 2) know how to work with them. The graduate students in our program (a MSc in Public Administration) will be most familiar with LexisNexis, because it stores Dutch newspaper articles from the 1990s until today. Since our program is international in orientation and courses are taught in English, LexisNexis will not be of help for many of the cases we study. I therefore also make sure to mention other databases that Dutch students are often less familiar with, such as Delpher, ProQuest Historical or Factiva. Finally, we use WorldCat to locate archival collections around the world.
By the time students leave the workshop, we will have discussed a number of ways in which they could have found primary sources on the 1909 shirtwaist workers’ strike. I often carry out these searches on the instructor computer in the lab, which is connected to a projector and thus allows students to follow along. After the workshop, students need to repeat the skills we have practiced in class as part of a graded assignment.
While the in-class exercise has certainly been very useful to serve as a refresher course on one of the most basic academic skills students need to possess, it has also been incredibly useful for me as the course instructor. Seeing in class what students normally do at home has helped me better understand why some research papers draw ‘evidence’ from unreliable websites or grey literature and why others do not. It made me realize that simply dismissing students who produce such work as ‘incapable’ is doing them injustice. Ultimately, this is about habits and not about capacities, and that is something I can help them with.
If you would like to read more about this in-class exercise or use it for your courses, click here.
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