Recently, we’ve been working closely with Historical Thinking Skills, discussing the ways in which Sourcing and Contextualization especially are super important for historians to consider when considering any given document.
With Sourcing, we’ve been focusing on closely analyzing documents for the extent to which we can find them credible or useful to answer particular historical questions. It’s important to note that sourcing doesn’t have much to do with your actual liking or agreeing with a source or its author, but its usefulness. This is especially important when looking at sources that may reflect racist points of views that rightfully trigger students. Even these sources can be useful, especially if we are trying to examine a particular set of attitudes that produced a particular set of outcomes during a specific historical period. When Sourcing, I push students to consider the following:
“This 1853 magazine was written by contributor N.B. Cloud. It is somewhat credible because even though it features an expert opinion on how to manage a successful cotton plantation, also reflects bias against the actual enslaved people whose labor was exploited to make the cotton plantation possible.”
In contextualization, we are aiming to situate sources within the particular time period in which they were created. This is not to “excuse” the nature of a given source or to minimize the impact it might have had, especially on marginalized communities, but to understand the wider context in which it was created. One again, students consider HIPP but also Little C (Local Context) and Big C (Global Context) using a graphic organizer made of concentric circles. In this way, they are able to compare and contrast “old” documents with “new information” in order to determine the extent to which a historian’s understanding of the original document might have changed, if at all. Students, once again, use language from the historical credibility spectrum to support their answers. The CFS is as follows:
"While Document A talks about how the soil and climate are different in the North and South (and that’s why the North didn’t rely on slavery), Documents B and C actually reveal that people in the North didn’t “own slaves” because they could earn a bigger profit if they hired people, rather than “own” them and take care of them for life. In the South, “owning” enslaved people was the only way to make a profit if they had a cotton plantation because it was such hard work and you could not pay people to do it. This new information completely changes my understanding of Document A because they did not include this information, which shows the author might have had a bias or a limited perspective on what actually produced labor differences in the North and South."
Though this is undoubtedly a regional academic initiative of ours, this focus has nonetheless produced meaningful conversations among students, leading them to question the narratives they see in the news and other media sources, as well as the narratives they share amongst each others (for example, the extent to which a student can be considered credible in telling their “side” of the story in a fight). Pushing these historical thinking skills has elevated academic and informal language, student writing and thinking, and given us a wider and deeper lens into the past that goes beyond the rote and useless memorization of historical facts. I am excited to see how we continue to develop these skills and the ways in which students continue to interrogate not only the world of the past, but also the world we currently live in.
I’ve attached some resources for reference and welcome any questions and/or feedback that you may have!