Publication Date

May 1, 2011


  • Middle East
  • United States


Digital Methods, Political, Research Methods, Teaching Methods

Teaching students to locate, read, and analyze primary sources is a critical challenge in any history class. The challenge is compounded in courses with transnational dimensions, because most sources are in languages other than English, university library collections are more limited, and fewer foreign sources are available in electronic collections. An approach to teaching political history that uses digital resources can address these limitations by guiding students to research materials offering new perspectives on United States relations with the world.

This article draws upon the experience of teaching a research seminar for history majors on United States policy in the Middle East. The main assignment was the completion of a term research paper. Students chose topics that ranged (chronologically) from U.S. policies toward Iran and Lebanon in the 1950s through the “global war of terrorism” following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

As historians know all too well, the digital revolution has profoundly transformed student approaches to research assignments, because of the seeming totality of information available through Google or the easy summaries available on Wikipedia. Requiring students to use primary sources is one strategy to push students past these easily accessible, yet often superficial, ephemeral, or simply incorrect, materials in order to read texts created at the time by individuals or institutions involved in significant processes. As I observed students struggling with their research, I found, somewhat to my surprise, that the digital revolution can be embraced (if cautiously) rather than resisted or repudiated, as long as students are trained to engage more intensively with a more extensive range of source materials.

An important source for studying U.S. policy towards the Middle East is the words of presidents, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. Excerpts from key presidential statements, such as Dwight Eisenhower’s comments on the Suez crisis, Jimmy Carter’s remarks on the Camp David negotiations, or George W. Bush’s statements on September 11, are available in some document collections. Although these remarks are vital for understanding U.S. policy, they are not sufficient for a research paper. An online database, the American Presidency Project hosted by the University of California at Santa Barbara (, offers instant access to the complete presidential papers. The search function allows students to define the chronological parameters and locate key terms. Most importantly, the comprehensive nature of the online resource allows students to examine an expanded range of texts in which presidents discussed the Middle East. To take an obvious example (and a topic that several students researched), a search for the word “Iran” during the two weeks before and after the seizure of the embassy on November 4, 1979, yields just 25 “hits.” Perhaps surprisingly, in our age of the immediate news cycle, the first reference to Americans being held captive came only five days later, on November 9, 1979, in a carefully worded White House statement, declaring that “the most important concern for all Americans at this moment is safety [sic] of our fellow citizens held in Tehran…The President knows that no matter how deeply we may feel, none of us would want to do anything that would worsen the danger in which our fellow Americans have been placed.” For students who grew up in the post-9/11 era, Carter’s cautious response may seem misguided and even pitiful, whereas a careful reading of presidential statements reveals the limited options and incomplete information available to policy-makers. The easy availability of presidential papers thus has the potential to encourage students to read more broadly and more deeply for their research.

A second major source for researching U.S. policy in the Middle East, the multi-volumeForeign Relations of the United States, is available electronically from the United States Department of State ( and the University of Wisconsin library ( The annual editions include sections on most Middle Eastern countries, as well as entire volumes devoted to significant topics. For students researching the Eisenhower administration’s response to the Suez crisis, for example, the complete volume is available online, all 1,000 plus pages of diplomatic notes, reports, speeches, and more. Although print versions of these documents should be available in university libraries, using the online version means that a researcher, from any location with an internet connection, can read, and easily download, the entire text in a pdf file. This access is especially helpful when advising students, because the instructor can easily reference the materials and guide the student through key themes and challenging interpretations.

More intriguing, however, is the question of how the full text search capacity can actually enhance research strategies. Searching the electronic version of the volume on Iran (covering the period 1952–1954), for obvious key words (Shah, Mossadeq, oil, or majlis) generates thousands of records, thus illustrating the significance of these terms for United States policymakers. At the same time, a search for the word “democratic” in this volume yields just six records. For students accustomed to the American claims to wage war in the Middle East in the name of democracy, the relative infrequency of this term can be cause for curiosity and informed conjecture. In contrast, the words “communism” and “communist” generate nearly 200 hits, thus suggesting that fear of Soviet influence was probably a larger factor in motivating American intervention. Perhaps most surprisingly, “Islam” and “Moslem” produced fewer than 10 records. The conclusions drawn from key word searches—that the United States government prioritized the struggle against communism, while neither democracy nor Islam received significant attention—are consistent with historians’ interpretations, but can now be rendered visible to students by the familiar methods of digital searching. The challenge for the instructor, as discussed below, is getting students to see the “hits” as a starting point, a guide to further reading and intensive study, rather than an end point.

Newspapers represent a third major primary source for studying U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. The digital revolution has vastly expanded access to American newspapers, including those with extensive international coverage. The “advanced search” function of the online New York Times ( allows students to select a “custom date range.” For students researching U.S. policies toward Iran from the Clinton administration until September 11, a search for the key words “Iran reformers” generates nearly two hundred results. One article easily located through this search is a November 7, 1999 editorial, “Conflicting Voices from Iran,” which situates statements by the reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, in relation to persistent disputes about sanctions, terrorism, and nuclear weapons. Although the same article could be found using a print index and microfilmed articles, the online format makes it much easier for students to find relevant, as well as substantive, primary sources.

Yet the easy and extensive access to these kinds of sources only compounds the challenge of locating sources from outside the United States. My assignment specifically requires that students use primary sources representing “non-American” points of view. Although students now have access to online newspapers and other media from the Middle East, including many English-language materials, the “archives” for these materials usually only extend back a few years. Students may have luck with Google searches, locating, for example, translated speeches by Ayatollah Khomeini on the web site of the Iranian radio service ( Although these online materials are actually more extensive than the books available in our library, the lack of contextual information makes this source questionable for a research project.

More reliable sources for exploring Middle Eastern perspectives are the series of Daily Reports issued by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service of the Central Intelligence Agency. Many university libraries have the weekly editions on microfiche from the 1970s through the 1990s, which provide English translations of articles and broadcasts from world regions. On November 1, 1978, for example, theNear East Daily Report provided more than 100 translated articles, editorials, and cartoons illustrating responses to the Camp David negotiations from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and 10 other Arab countries. These sources are very important for courses on diplomatic history, because they document perspectives of other countries—or at least other governments—to regional and international disputes. Unfortunately, because there is no cumulative index, the table of contents for each edition must be searched separately, which becomes a tedious and inconsistent process, given the microfiche format. The recent development of a full-text database should provide greater accessibility, but high subscription costs may limit access to the electronic version.

The capacity to do full-text searching of primary sources creates great possibilities, as well as complications, for research projects. Students can easily pin-point the location of key words; a broader challenge is teaching critical reading skills, so that the complexity of the contextual meaning of key words can be understood. Because I am curious about the implications of the digital age for learning strategies and outcomes, I asked my class to complete a brief anonymous survey at the end of semester. When asked whether they used sources in electronic or print form, the answer was resoundingly clear: most students preferred the electronic form.

But the more interesting responses came to an open-ended question which attempted to gauge not just access, but actual use: “Did having access to an electronic version of the source, with the capacity for full-text searching, lead you to either (A) readmore or less of the source (by using searches to find only the pages or sections that you needed), or (B) read the source at greater or lesser depth (skimming vs. reading thoroughly)?” Student responses are suggestive of the possible advantages of embracing (critically) the digital age. One student described how the electronic sources encouraged a sequential approach: “Full-text searching allowed me to sift through greater amounts of information. It allowed me to read less (skimming) of the source initially to determine its relevance, then read in greater depth after determining its relevance.” In a similar manner, another student wrote: “Full-text searching helped me find sources that were much more relevant to my subject than others. I read documents with more hits more thoroughly, and skimmed the ones that appeared to be less relevant due to less hits on key words.” Several students observed that full-text searching allowed them to “find only the pages or sections that I need,” “read more or less using only what I needed,” or this terse, yet somehow encouraging, response: “read more, greater depth.”

What does this sample of responses reveal about teaching political history in a digital age? Expanded access to electronic materials may actually encourage students to do more research, if in fact they “read more” and at “greater depth” by focusing on the most “important” and “relevant” sources. The task of the instructor is thus to ensure that easy access is accompanied by depth of analysis. The real challenge of the digital age, ironically, may be to keep reminding students to slow down in their research, and to think more thoroughly about connections and context in order to understand the complex meanings of key words.

E. Thomas Ewing is associate professor of history at Virginia Tech. An earlier version of this article was presented at the symposium, Close Reading and Pedagogy in a Digital Age, at the University of Virginia, in April 2010. He teaches courses in world, Russian, Middle Eastern and gender history, and his research examines changes in communication technology and information networks, 1870s–1910s.

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