01 August 2023 Blogs, Academic, Faculty

How primary sources help students challenge conventional thinking

Letters and documents that reflect diverse perspectives can provide new points of view and spark deeper understanding of complex issues

In a 2023 survey of U.S. undergraduate students, Inside Higher Ed found that less than half of students surveyed felt their professors chose course materials that reflect a variety of voices and perspectives. About 11 percent felt their professors chose materials that lacked diversity and the remaining half of the respondents didn’t have an opinion one way or the other. Clearly, there’s work to be done to bring campus diversity, equity and inclusion efforts into the classroom.

Beyond creating a sense of belonging for students of all backgrounds, there’s mounting evidence that diversity in the classroom leads to better student outcomes. A 2022 report from the Student Experience Project (SEP) provides compelling evidence that equitable content, methodologies, and policies have a positive effect on student success.

The challenge for educators can be finding the appropriate materials that not only reflect diverse perspectives but engage students. One answer may be adding primary sources – letters, records, files, pictures – that reflect alternative viewpoints, enabling students to think critically about what they’ve learned in the past.

Teaching hard history

At the Ohio State University, associate professor of history Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries teaches courses on the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, topics which often include “hard history” – the ugly parts of our collective past. He uses primary sources that reflect typically marginalized perspectives to help students think more creatively and challenge conventional histories – what he calls “disrupting the normative narrative” of these sensitive topics. By incorporating a range of historical documents, Dr. Jeffries creates a learning environment that cultivates a deeper appreciation for the complexities of human history.

Dr. Jeffries shared valuable insights on how he uses primary sources to help students challenge themselves in a webinar. This blog explores some of the strategies he shared.

Challenging prevailing narratives

Dr. Jeffries relies on primary sources to open new avenues for students to challenge standard thinking about past events. For example, he confronts the conventional portrayal of the enslaved as powerless victims by introducing students to historical documents that reveal their agency, creativity and resistance. Consider a Louisiana court document from 1829. Medee Davis, a free woman of color, petitioned the court to secure the freedom of George, her child purchased from slavery. She highlights George's exceptional skills as a shoemaker to describe his value and potential – a creative strategy in her fight to win his freedom. Other documents tell the story of Benjamin Hoard, who armed himself with deeds of emancipation and navigated the legal system to stay in Virginia as a free man, where he could use his skills as a blacksmith to support his enslaved wife and children.

These documents, found in ProQuest History Vault Southern Life, Slavery, and the Civil War: Slavery and the Law, reveal the agency of African Americans during times of enslavement, presenting acts of resistance, humanizing individuals and providing insights into their lives. Furthermore, the petitions shed light on the intricate dynamics between enslavers and the enslaved, offering a deeper understanding of the complex power dynamics embedded within the institution of slavery.

For courses exploring the civil rights movement, Dr. Jefferies points his students to records from the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, where they can see first-hand the pivotal role women played in the movement. Among the documents he directs them to is a letter from Thurgood Marshall, seeking help in investigating police violence against the Black community. The typist? Rosa Parks. The letter offers a different perspective on her historical significance, network of influence and testifies to her lifelong activism.

"Teachers increasingly are turning to primary resources because they provide their students with such rich opportunities to go beyond what is in the textbook, and what is in the textbook too often has been too narrowly conceived," said Dr. Jeffries.

Encouraging interdisciplinary engagement

In addition to challenging prevailing narratives, Dr. Jeffries emphasizes the interdisciplinary nature of primary sources and encourages educators to foster cross-disciplinary engagement when exploring historical materials. For example, letters penned by black residents in rural counties addressed to the NAACP during the late 1930s and 1940s offer not only historical insights but also socio-economic and psychological perspectives. Sociology students can scrutinize these documents to gain a deeper understanding of the community's institutional framework and socio-economic conditions, while psychology students can explore the emotional states and psychological impact of these historical events.

While Dr. Jeffries' work primarily focuses on hard history within the context of Black Studies, the strategies he advocates are applicable across many disciplines. Incorporating primary sources from diverse communities, such as Indigenous peoples, Latinx, Asian Americans, LGBTQ+ individuals, and more, can provide students with a broader, more inclusive perspective and spur critical thinking on various topics.

ProQuest, a leader in representing a spectrum of voices

ProQuest, part of Clarivate, stands at the forefront with its vast collections of primary sources that represent diverse communities, marginalized groups and alternative viewpoints. ProQuest resources include archives of alternative newspapers, minority presses and magazines, like ProQuest Black Newspapers, Ethnic NewsWatch, GenderWatch and Alt-Press Watch. Primary source document projects like Queer Pasts and Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000 preserve diverse voices and providing valuable insights into lesser-known stories and perspectives. Together, these collections create an unparalleled and comprehensive array of primary sources, empowering students and researchers to transcend traditional narratives to think critically and inclusively.

Explore the complete catalog of diverse primary source collections from ProQuest to see how you can enrich courses and challenge students with insights into alternative viewpoints and lesser-known stories, delivering a more impactful learning experience.

Jodi Johnson

Jodi Johnson

Product Marketing Manager for History and Social Change, Social Science and Performing Arts portfolios. With a profound appreciation for history and a background steeped in the arts, she fuses creativity and scholarly insight to offer compelling narratives and to delve into the historical significance behind them.

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