Category Archives: Teaching & Learning Course

Thinking about Historical Thinking

Before listing my questions about teaching history, I should explain the context in which I teach (and will teach in for the foreseeable future). As a research librarian, I teach library research to primarily undergraduate students but also graduate students. Each class I teach is designed to address the specific assignments in the course and I generally only see each class once, although students are able to make one-on-one appointments with me afterwards (students can do this without having a class with me, so I also do a lot of one-on-one teaching). I generally try to minimize me talking so that we can spend most of the class period actually conducting research. For some of the programs/departments I work with, I see majors multiple times but for others I don’t. Some programs/departments lack a designated methodology course and so I often only see students when they’re writing their senior theses.

I work with several different subject areas, but the largest is American and European history. Because of this, I often teach students how to find primary sources in all formats and in all European languages. I also teach how to find secondary sources, but they are generally much better at that (and in my opinion, it’s also much easier, although library catalogs and their controlled vocabulary can be tricky, so I do spend time on that). This might not be “teaching history” in the same sense as Calder, Levesque, and Wineburg, but I do think their insights can be used to inform my one-shot library instruction sessions.

The questions I would like to consider over this semester are:

How can I translate/incorporate techniques based on semester-long classes into one-shot sessions? I don’t expect to get *nearly* as much done in a one-shot and in general, my goals are fairly modest (show them the course guide, get them started, make sure they know they can contact me later with questions). At this point, I do work fairly closely with many teaching faculty, too, so I might be able to work with them to expand my session beyond the one class session in the library classroom. This is the most obvious answer to this question, but I would also like to think about how the one-shot itself can be made better.

In order to do this, I think I am going to need to spend some time thinking about the essential goals/questions/processes of library research instruction. Calder and Levesque both outline a series of fundamental modes of thinking/doing, and while the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education does this to some extent (and I do find it useful in this regard, so it will influence my eventual answer), it is also meant guide students’ development over their entire college experience. What are the essential goals/questions/processes of the one-shot? Of library research throughout the semester? How do these relate to the course’s larger goal of historical thinking?

My next two questions are related. Frequently, when students are asked to find primary sources or use library systems of any sort, they fall into what Wineburg calls presentism. They tend to think primary sources are easily available, usually digitized, and no matter the topic, that they exist in the first place. They also tend to view library systems (and really, technology more broadly) ahistorically, as something that always has been and always will be. How can I help students think about 1. finding and accessing primary sources and 2. library systems historically and contextually? I have done some thinking on this before, in conjunction with the Decoding the Disciplines/Thresholds project at Georgetown, but really only for a single class. These frameworks, along with Calder’s “uncoverage,” will likely inform my answer to these questions.


Teaching & Learning History in the Digital Age: Introductory Post

It’s a little hard to believe that this is the last course in the digital public humanities certificate (it’s been a long, but good, academic year for me for various reasons). In addition to being a certificate student, I’m a collections, research, and instruction librarian for African American studies, American history, American studies, European history, medieval studies, music, and women’s and gender studies at Georgetown University. This means I spend a good chunk of my time teaching primarily undergraduate students but also graduate students how to use library resources (and the omnipresent Google) to conduct research. Unofficially, I also spend a good chunk of my time talking with students about how to develop a research topic (especially when they’re not familiar with the subject matter), how to read and use primary sources as evidence, what counts as evidence in different disciplines (most of my subject areas overlap to some degree, but I also provide general reference help), how to integrate secondary sources effectively (no plopping in quotations where they fit!), what their professor means by scholarly books or peer-reviewed journals or academic press, and other things that I can’t recall at the moment (the semester just ended and we’re all burnt out). Many of the faculty I work with do cover these types of issues in class, but many otherwise lovely people assign “research papers” without describing what that looks like, even in general education courses filled with non-majors.

In this regard, I expect this course to be incredibly useful in reflecting on and revising how I talk to students about historical research. I have done some reading and thinking about this, and even worked with a faculty member on revamping her general education course and its assignments using the insights from Decoding the Disciplines, but I haven’t formally studied and worked on this. I have researched and written on critical library pedagogy and am also interested in how what I learn in this course will play into that, in terms of both research and practice. This includes working with the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy (my professional organization’s non-standard standards), which I both love and hate. I am also interested in thinking more about digital tools and the role they play in historical research, teaching, and learning, since these are the primary focus on my teaching and I constantly rethink how I talk about digital tools; the students I work with need to know how to use them, but I also want them to think critically about them and feel empowered in their use of these tools (de-naturalizing and historicizing technology is also something I have researched and written about). I do think digital projects (like those I did in the previous courses) can play some role in this, and I have a good sense as to the different project options I can talk with faculty about (since I don’t assign anything). The other aspect I am interested in exploring – some of my previous blog posts point to this – is how to get learners to think about uncomfortable or unpleasant topics, including histories they might be personally invested or implicated in. In “Righting Wrongs,” Gayatri Spivak has this great quote about teaching being the non-coercive rearrangment of desires and I would like to think through the tension/process more in this course.