Building a Rickety Bridge Part III: Primary Sources in the Sections

My posts seem to be getting more and more specific as I continue down the path of trying to articulate a plan to redesign the undergraduate survey. This will certainly be my most specific post yet as I take the ideas that I’ve developed over the last few weeks and try to give shape to the classroom that I’m imagining. Building on my previous two posts, this week I want to bring in primary and secondary source documents into one of the thematic sections that I’ve imagined as part of the post-Civil War undergraduate survey.

As I discussed in previous posts, each TA would lead a section and each section would have a theme (agreed upon by the TA and the professor before the semester started). For the purposes of this post, let’s imagine a section titled something like “Contesting the Narrative: Native Voices in Post-Civil War America,” or it could be more broad, perhaps exploring multiple groups whose voices have often been missed in the traditional “coverage” style of the undergraduate lecture. Regardless of the title, the section would pay careful attention to teaching students that history is much more than the decided, removed, third-party perspective of a textbook.

Let’s dive in.

In lecture that week, the students would have learned about the years directly following the Civil War and, based on the professor’s decision, they might have focused on Reconstruction in the South, the Second Industrial Revolution in the North, or the Indian Wars in the West. With a basic framework of the time period in mind, the thematic section (as detailed above) would use the Camp Grant Massacre of 1871 as a way to further explore what was happening in the West, particularly in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands where Grant’s “peace policy” found little resonance and the U.S. military was often thwarted by Native peoples. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the episode, the briefest possible description is to say that the Camp Grant Massacre occurred on April 30, 1871 and saw a combined force of Anglo Americans, Mexican Americans, and Tohono O’odham (commonly known as the Papago) attack a group of Apache peoples who had surrendered to the U.S. army and were camped in Aravaipa Canyon in Arizona.

In order to explore this episode, Karl Jacoby’s book Shadows at Dawn: An Apache Massacre and the Violence of History would be used as the guiding framework and as background knowledge of the event. In it, Jacoby tells the story of the massacre from the perspective of the four participants to illustrate the fraught nature of historical documents and narratives, and to invite the reader into the historical enterprise and allow them the opportunity to draw their own conclusions. The book is accessibly written, concise, and presents each perspective in distinct chapters that could stand alone as histories of a specific group leading up to the event. In addition to the book, Jacoby also oversaw the creation of a website that includes many of the key documents (most are transcribed, no less) that he uses in his book. More than simply presenting documents, however, the site puts them into context as it provides an abbreviated history of the massacre, trial, people, places, and cultural memory of the event with documents that support each of the sections. The site provides a manageable number of documents and, better yet, it’s user-friendly and well organized.

So, what exactly would students do with this valuable resource?  Before section that week, the class would be divided into four groups and the section leader would assign each group a chapter (and the brief 7-page intro) from Jacoby’s book – one group would read the chapter on the Apache, another on the Mexican Americans, and so forth. In class, students would break into their groups and be given the primary sources from the website (either hard copy or they can view them digitally) that correspond to specific people detailed in the chapter that they read. They would spend part of class reviewing these documents and discussing the motivations of the people that they read about to participate in the massacre, the outcome of the Camp Grant Massacre on that particular group of people, and the lasting cultural memory of the event.  After spending fifteen minutes or so in break-out sessions, each group would then explain to the class why the people that they read about chose to be involved in the massacre and how they framed/justified/explained/remember their role in it. Ideally, students would bring in the primary documents as well as Jacoby’s analysis.

After each group had spoken on their chapter and documents, the section leader would reconvene the class as a whole to foster a conversation about the historical enterprise, the troubled nature of documents, and how historians strive to weigh each side of the story, but often, one narrative is privileged over another. This exercise fits the theme of contested narratives, and it allow students to grapple with the historical process while gaining exposure to primary and secondary sources in a focused, specific way. Students would be engaging more deeply with something that is related to lecture, but wasn’t explicitly discussed. Ideally, they would use this knowledge to conceptualize American history as less of a single, decided narrative, and instead view it as a fragmented and contentious cacophony of voices in which outcomes were anything but decided.

As excited as I am about this idea, I still see a few issues. First of all, it’d be tough to pull off in fifty minutes. Moreover, the section reading would likely conflict with the lecture reading, and might be too much if it was piled on top of what was already assigned for lecture. I don’t see an immediate solution to this issue since it seems problematic to have sections assigning the reading. Perhaps if the students were just expected to look at the website for background information, that might cut down on the reading overload. I’ll keep thinking about this, and see where it takes me for next week.

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