Primary sources: Teaching humanity in history

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Catherine Brekus
Catherine Brekus, Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America, worked with Schlesinger Research Librarian Amanda Strauss this semester to design a session for her freshman seminar on Christianity and slavery: “When I arrived for our meeting, there was a table full of materials for me to look at—Amanda did so much work.”

The benefits: Handling primary source material connects students to humanity: “these were real people, with real lives, concerns, joys, and sorrows.” She and Strauss created four stations of 19th century sourcesillustrating perspectives on slavery, including Harriett Beecher Stowe’s personal copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a diary with no mention of the Civil War or slavery—Strauss’s idea, to round out the variety of human experiences of the era.

The challenges: It’s a balancing act to help students comprehend old-fashioned language and composition. “You have to have a certain degree of patience and let them figure it out,” an approach that Brekus finds works best in her smaller freshman seminar and graduate Divinity School courses. Larger courses might have to visit the library in groups outside of class time. 

Takeaways and best practices

  • Take a multimodal approach to object learning. Strauss provided an ink well and pen station where students could practice writing. “It’s one thing to read a 19th century manuscript. It’s another to hold a pen in your hand as though you’re writing one yourself,” Brekus said.
  • Have a back-up plan. The libraries can devise course guides and questions for students working with collections, which Brekus was glad to have in case students got stuck.
  • Expand the opportunity beyond one day. Strauss leveraged the occasion to enroll students in the Schlesinger system and show them the research reading room, letting them know they are welcome back, and is keeping the selected sources on reserve all semester for students to revisit.

Bottom line: Brekus plans to leverage the University’s library collections again. “Students learn in different ways and you never know who you have in your classroom. The more avenues you can provide to engage with the material, the more opportunity to connect with each student.”