Primary Sources in the Classroom

CLAH Newsletter, vol. 42, no. 1 (Spring 2006)

Teaching and Teaching Materials
Committee Roundtable: Primary Sources in the Classroom

The CLAH Teaching Committee held a roundtable at the AHA in Philadelphia on the use of primary sources in the classroom. A common problem that many instructors of Latin American history face is a relative paucity of such documents available in English translation for students in North American classrooms. Many students do not find standard textbooks engaging, and often became excited only through contact with the raw material available in primary sources. Presenters on the roundtable provided a series of fascinating and innovative pedagogical strategies to bring the voices and vibrancy of Latin Americans to students with rudimentary language skills.

Richard W. Slatta from North Carolina State University has been a leading innovator in translating and assembling documents into an online reader. Beginning in 1990, he now has 175 documents on his website. Slatta described how he builds assignments around sets of documents, having students provide their own analysis of a subject or event based entirely on their reading of these primary documents without the use of secondary sources. Students then compare their interpretations with those of professional historians by reading articles and other texts.

Ann Blum from the University of Massachusetts, Boston noted that visual material does not require the use of language but does draw on similar analytical skills as do written documents. As an example, she brought a photograph and had the audience read it for what it says about Latin American culture, race, class, gender, and technology. Images provide an excellent entry point to understand Latin America. With scanners and Powerpoint, it is increasingly easy to use visual material in the classroom. For more information, see:

Catherine Komisaruk from California State University, Long Beach described how she has students visit local historical sites in the borderlands region where she teaches to talk about Spanish colonial history. Linking this visit to broader themes leads to the best classroom discussions. The assignment works well where she teaches both because of her geographic location and because of the demographics of her students as commuters who can do the assignment on their own rather than as a group project. Nevertheless, she stressed that others may be able to do find obscure historical sites in their local areas by googling “spanish colonial <state>.” As an alternative, she has students review online marriage records from the local historical society, some of which are in English.

Ted Humphrey and Janet M. Burke from Arizona State University discussed a three-volume project which they are developing to create a highly contextualized anthology of intellectual history from the conquest to the twentieth century. Humphrey and Burke described their process for selecting pieces to include, and an attempt to establish geographic and thematic distribution, but frustration over being able to establish little gender balance. They noted that the documents engage students on a more fundamental level than in other classes, which matures and opens their minds. The first volume on the nineteenth century will soon come out, with the colonial and twentieth-century volumes to follow.

Erin O’Connor from Bridgewater State College described her use of book length novels and testimonials in an upper-level modern Latin American survey. Use of full length and diverse sources such as Ariel and I, Rigoberta Menchu in the same class makes it difficult to essentialize Latin American identities and allows a critique of how these change over time. O’Connor noted that the readings are more than a sum of their parts, as they help break through stereotypes of how students view Latin America. These full-length books are the readings that the students are most likely to remember, and hence provide maximum benefit from the one and only class that students are likely to take on Latin America.

Presenters noted that in recent years there is a growing number of readers available that package material in a fashion appropriate for classroom use, so hopefully in the future this will not be as large of a problem as it has been in the past. Curbstone Press sent several testimonials, novels, and collections of poetry from its book list to the roundtable as examples of the types of material it has available for classroom use. Scott Van Jacob at the University of Notre Dame has also assembled a list of primary documents from Latin America in English available in their Hesburgh Library. The list is an impressive resource that will be useful in thinking about currently available documents for classroom use.

Marc Becker

Truman State University

January 2006 H-Latam had an interesting thread on primary sources for Independence History Courses.