Today’s emergent access to a deeper, wider, and unendingly interesting field of archival materials-made-digital warrants the stewards of our cultural institutions a pat on the back from lifelong learners. This same exciting mass of primary resources presents educations with an embarrassment of riches and some important questions: What to teach with so much stuff? And how?
For one Canadian scholar and teacher, this problem of information becomes a development opportunity: to build skills of intimacy between student researchers and historical content, and to upend pedagogical models that might rely too easily upon canon and disciplinary expertise. David Stymeist of Carleton University details in a case study of his own English literature classroom the means and effects of using the education model of LdL ("lernen durch lehren", or "teaching by learning") to amplify unique learning opportunities that primary source documents offer students (in this case, for learning about crime in early modern England). In doing so he aims to empower students to make historical choices, to participate actively in their education, and to think critically and individually about their own original research.
How does he do it? Building off of research that suggests a lecture may not be the most effective learning environment for students, Stymeist does not describe a classroom given up entirely to the appetites of his students, but one where a research scholar orients them toward building their own disciplinary knowledge. This requires a range of skills: navigating digital archives, judiciously sifting through primary texts, identifying and interpreting a source’s purpose or historical value, analyzing source text and context, and building critical arguments for representing original documents to a classroom group in a meaningful way.
For Stymeist, the real effects of this primary source research model are significant. Not only does it help students to build relationships with texts, with epochs, and with historical characters in newfound ways - or to become familiar with the process of doing this in a digital environment - but it also poses a critical threat to calcified pedagogical models whose lessons might stifle, rather than engender, the critical thinking so necessary to students in an age of information. While a case like Stymeist’s might also negatively influence a student’s mastery of content along a broad base, he nevertheless advocates for the exploratory ethic, the clear communication, and the directed expertise that his students successfully developed with his support.
Image: archive_w_7295 by Aureusbay via Flickr