Teaching history through primary sources

Most of my recent posts have been about teaching Latin, so I wanted to share a thought about teaching about ancient history and cultures: it can be done very well through primary sources rather than secondary sources.

Instead of passively receiving information from a textbook, a lecture, or an article, students read actual ancient evidence, are introduced to that evidence (and maybe to the discipline’s conventions for transcribing inscriptions, for example), and engage with that evidence so that they develop their own understanding of the ancient world through a bit of analytical thinking. Now, we can (and should), of course, guide the students’ interpretation and synthesis of ancient sources through questions on assignments, class or group discussions, and contextualizing introductions. I do think it is important to provide a brief introduction saying at least who the author is, when s/he wrote, what genre s/he wrote, and where s/he lived, so the passage is not presented in a vacuum. My students have also appreciated when I provide not only this biographical context, but also a brief explanation of the historical background to a passage or an explanation of what happened in the larger text from which I took the passage they are to read.

Additionally, we are able to shape our students’ perception and interpretation of the ancient world through our choice of passages to read.  It may take a little bit of extra work to find the perfect representative passage, but you can also assign a passage or text that scholars often cite. When talking about the reign of Augustus, scholars usually refer to the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, so why not assign this?

There’s an added benefit to this: often when we assign a textbook reading alongside a lecture, students are getting the same information in two different ways and they opt out of doing at least one of those.  If you reinforce the value of doing the homework (i.e. it is the basis for in-class discussion or it provides the background for the primary source you read in class), then students have more motivations to actually do the homework.


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