Part Three: Summarizing and Making Sense of Sources
By this point, my students already have some idea of what they want to write about for our class project. Last week, I asked them to gather five secondary sources for their Instagram post––a task designed to reinforce the information-gathering methods we worked through in class.
This week, I wanted my students to work on summarizing and making sense of secondary sources––but I also wanted to cover other ground in the process. In particular, I wanted to have students encounter the history of Liberia, which I felt went unnoticed in our course textbook and which really underscores some core themes and questions in modern world history. I had to devise an in-class activity that allowed us to approach new content while also honing certain skills and methods.
To satisfy all of these needs, I developed a small-groups activity in which students worked both individually and collaboratively to make sense of secondary sources:
I asked my students to break into small groups, and provided each group with a list of four articles about some facet of Liberian history. Two of the sources were pieces of journalism accessible through a basic search engine query, while the other two were brief (3-5 page) scholarly articles housed in JSTOR. Each member of the group was responsible for finding, reading, and summarizing one of these four articles. (My tech policy is, more or less, “Just Don’t Be A Shithead”––so students accessed these readings through their laptops, tablets, or phones.) I asked each student to summarize their article in no more than two sentences, and to write their blurb in such a way that someone wouldn’t need to read their article in order to make sense of it.
This part of the activity hit a few snags. Although I took a great deal of time searching for sources about Liberia that were general enough for an undergraduate classroom and brief enough for an in-class activity, I forgot to consider that a couple of the articles would nonetheless be much easier to work through than the others. The students who picked the New York Times or Smithsonian Magazine articles typically finished much quicker than the students who picked the sources from The World Today or OAH Magazine of History. I plugged up this problem in the moment by workshopping the summaries written by those who finished early, discussing how they could make their writing leaner or more robust.
After nearly everyone had finished writing summaries of their articles, I had my students discuss what they had read to their other members of their respective groups. I then asked each group to synthesize what their members shared into one collaboratively-written 5-sentence paragraph.
Checking in with each group, I realized most students had a keen grasp on what they had read––and some were particularly eager to discuss the key points of their article. What each group needed additional help with, however, was conveying why a reader should care about the topic at-hand. Put another way: I care to learn more about Liberia––but why should a random reader? What sense of stakes have they built into their prose? How can they conclude with a daring, provocative invitation to learn more about a topic––to invest time in understanding an idea more deeply?
Although my students likely won’t become historians, they will have many moments in which they have to convince other people––community members, colleagues and coworkers, friends and family, neighbors and strangers alike––to care about something. It may be about the direction of a project, or the need for workplace rights, or a proposal to improve neighborhood conditions. The work of persuasion is in combining what you know about a topic with what you know about an audience in order to convince them to give a shit. This week’s exercise, though small, was a way to reinforce the idea that thinking historically also means making an argument about why people should care about the relationship between past and present.
After troubleshooting each group’s collaborative writing struggles, we discussed as a class the difficulties in synthesizing multiple sources. Although my students found chronology a rather useful narrative device, they still had some trouble finding a theme or concept that would serve as the genuine through-line for their work. In other words, they understand “change over time” quite well, but they are still grappling with the actual concepts or structures to observe. That said, several students were able to identify several possible ways to answer “So What?” when it came to the history of Liberia. Knowing my students can make sense of the relationship between race, religion, and empire–or the convoluted logic of white supremacy–makes me feel more confident that they can draw out the significance of their own research topics.
We also determined together what would be an appropriate assignment for this week. Nearly all of my students had found 5 secondary sources when completing last week’s assignment––and, talking to one of the students who hadn’t after class, I became confident it would not be an insurmountable task for the remaining students. We decided to essentially replicate the in-class activity on an individual level. I asked students to write tight 2-sentence summaries for each of their sources, making sure they composed them in a way a reader could understand the summary on its own terms. I also assigned students to compose a 5-sentence blurb based on their summaries––stressing that they should save space to address the crucial “So What?”
Oddly, this week turned out to be the least Instagram-focused thus far––and, thinking ahead, will likely remain the least tethered to the platform overall. I am realizing that, although this project takes place on Instagram, not every lesson has to directly relate to it. In fact, there are some fundamentals for solid historical thinking––like reading and synthesizing sources––that transcend the peculiarities of any specific medium. In turn, students seem to trust when I say certain skills and ideas are more important beyond this experiment. It’s a reminder for me to clearly and continually underline the “So What?” of this class.
My clearest mistake this week was failing to account for the different difficulty levels among the four articles I assigned. By giving some students pieces of journalism while giving others pieces of scholarship, I risked derailing this activity with uneven flow. My approach left a couple students with nothing to do after a few minutes while unintentionally encouraging others to rush through their material. If I revise this assignment, I will most likely find a couple extra periodical pieces on Liberia, and require students to summarize two pieces of journalism rather than one. Although the journalists’ writing may still be easier to approach, it would at least balance out the time each student spent on their share of work.
I would also preface the activity with a brief discussion on how to gut a secondary source. We talked about how to do during our recap, but my students would have benefitted more from knowing this in advance. (I usually use a gross gutted fish metaphor when discussing how to approach secondary sources, but I don’t know a more useful image to employ. I suppose I am a vegetarian in deed but not word.) In a longer course––one that runs fifteen weeks rather than six––I may also include an earlier activity where students discover how to gut a standard-length history article; this would make students more surefooted when asked to quickly work through a secondary source on their own.