Home > Teaching > Teaching Thursday: Teaching in the Field

Teaching Thursday: Teaching in the Field

Some of the most valuable experiences that I have had as an archaeologist have come when my advisor, Tim Gregory, or another senior or more experienced colleague (here I am thinking of David Pettegrew, Tom Tartaron, Richard Rothaus, Sarah Lepinski, and others) took the time to show me how to do something or study an object in the field.  This taught me more about the archaeological process and the techniques and methods of archaeological research than any seminar or book.  Over the past year or so, I’ve been thinking about how to replicate this process in the field of history.  While mindful of Mommsen’s famous observation:

“It is moreover a dangerous and harmful illusion for the professor of history to believe that historians can be trained at the University in the same way as philologists or mathematicians most assuredly can be. One can say with more justification of the historian than of the mathematician or the philologist that he is not trained but born, not educated but self-educated.”  (From his Rectorial Address at the University of Berlin in 1874).

I couldn’t help but think that my Historian’s Craft class relied fairly heavily on teaching the students techniques in the abstract and doing very little to help them implement these techniques is a practice, real-world way.  Telling them how to perform a Google search or look up a book review in J-stor is different from actually walking them through the process.  The same goes for archival work.  Telling them how to get boxes and files from the archives is different from being on hand to help them understand how particular sources could work to advance particular arguments.

So, I have tried something new this semester: supervised archival work.  Instead of just sending the students over the archives to rely on their own devices, I am running four classes this semester in the archives themselves.  I leave over an hour for the students to get down to work with their materials and then circulate to trouble shoot specific issues, talk to the students about their successes and struggles in the research process, and make myself available for more broad reaching and spontaneous issues related to working in actual archives.  I’ve been lucky to have to complete support of the university archivist and his staff.  They’ve made our small (<15) class feel at home in the archives and gives them ample space to pull their materials.

Talking with the students while they are conducting their research has exposed me to the various frustrations of the students in ways that talking with them in office hours does not make as visible.  It also makes visible their successes at the moment of discovery and allows students to share the enthusiasm and energy that more solitary research environments keeps hidden away.  And this seems to be particularly an issue here at the University of North Dakota where, at least according to what my students tell me, they don’t tend to study together or even necessarily see any value in it.  (This may be tied to the myth of the solitary, self-sufficient farmer making their own way on the Northern Plains which in some ways has superceded the myth of the progressive, community oriented farmers who band together to succeed in an inhospitable environment.)

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Categories: Teaching
  1. Rangar Cline
    February 19, 2009 at 9:29 am

    As someone who has benefited (I hope) from the Gregory and Rothaus (as well as Sanders and Camp) methods of on-site instruction, I’ve also wondered if historians can be trained through a similar methodology. For undergraduates in Roman history courses, I’ve tried using documents or inscriptions like Diocletian’s Price Edict, or the parts of the Theodosian Code, or photographs of archeological sites and material. Then I ask some version of the question, “what does this tell the historian?” Although students might be acquainted with these sources, often they have not had to examine them very carefully. To ask questions about the sources of our knowledge seems to me to be in the spirit of on-site archaeological instruction as exhibited by the best teachers.
    Also, I’m sure Mommsen would be dismayed, but in class I usually do compare such document and primary source analysis, and student research papers, to the lab/practicum that accompanies many science classes.
    I hope your students thank you for showing them to the archives!

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