Published Date

January 1, 2004

From Teaching Difficult Legal or Political Concepts: Using Online Primary Sources in Writing Assignments (2004)

The results of my experiment using on-line documents as a teaching tool have varied depending on which documents were used. The main variable appears to have been how easy or hard the students found the documents to read. (I admit that two of the documents were hard for me to read, so they must have been very challenging to the students.) The more arcane the language in the document, the less students were able to draw from it. Many students simply quit trying to read the document when it was difficult. Instead of taking extra time to puzzle out the meanings or seeking help from me, they tried to write their essays based on the bits of a document they could understand. Hence, in some cases the writing assignments became a measurement of reading skills rather than helping to teach the students either the content or the skills I had hoped they would learn. This was obvious from the factual errors they made in the papers. Details follow.

I asked two sections of the U.S. survey to 1865 to examine the constitutions of 1776 for Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Virginia (Avalon Project) and then (in essay form) to compare and contrast their actual contents to the summary provided in Faragher and others. In this case I was pleased with the results. Students seem to have gotten the gist of the constitutions in spite of some legalistic language and they were able to recognize the constitutions as basic or primary sources from which historians construct an interpretation. They generally did a good job pointing out the kinds of the things the Faragher summary overlooked, and they walked away with a much better grounding in what constitutions actually do. All this, and I didn’t have to spend much class time on it either.

For the two sections of the U.S. survey since 1865, I directed students to a complete copy of the Dawes Act of 1887 on-line at the Yale Law School Avalon Project. Then I asked them to write an essay comparing and contrasting the provisions of the act from the web site with the summary of it given in Faragher and others 575-576. I had selected the Dawes Act because I do not think that the textbook does a good job summarizing the act. Its description implies that the act created the boarding schools and started a process of attacking native religions rather than making clear that assimilation was a goal that was carried out by the Dawes Act, the schools, and the missionaries in different ways. This assignment did not live up to my expectations. All students had trouble reading the Dawes Act because of its legalistic language and extremely long, complicated sentences. In this case a majority of students simply gave up rather than try to figure it out. Some of those seemed to think that the document was a secondary source, a site or article written after the fact. Perhaps 1/4 of the students were able to puzzle out what every part of the act said and then write a good paper comparing the act to the book. Another few were able to read enough to realize that the law only covered land policy. Hence, of 45 students in two sections, perhaps one-third realized that the only requirement for assimilation in the law other than the allotment of land was that Indians had to be “civilized” to become U.S. citizens. Since only one-third concluded that the textbook was somewhat misleading in its description, which is what I had hoped for since it would show clearly that they understood the difference between fact and interpretation, I would rate this assignment a failure.

I asked my Western civilization to the Renaissance section to examine the Salic Law and Anglo-Saxon Laws available at the Avalon Project and then (in essay form) to compare and contrast their actual contents to the summary provided in McKay and others. I was partially pleased with the results. Students did not have a difficult time with the Salic Law, understanding the content of the code and showing how it meshed with the textbook. They also seemed to understand the difference between primary and secondary sources. However, the Anglo-Saxon Laws used a lot of words that were not translated in the text and the meanings of which were not obvious from the context. Translations were available only by clicking on the word. Since most of the students had printed out the laws, when they tried to read them later, they were baffled. Also, McKay says very little about Anglo-Saxon law, but implies it was basically the same as Salic Law (which is actually a bit misleading). It was because of McKay’s inadequacy on the subject that I had wanted students to look at Anglo-Saxon law, but almost no student managed to pick up on the difference between fact and McKay’s interpretation.

For the second half of the Western civilization survey, I asked students to read several documents found at the Internet Archive of Texts and Documents on Early Modern Europe: France and then write an essay to compare and contrast the information in the documents with the discussion of French absolutism found in McKay and others (500-513). The documents located at that address at the time of the assignment were excerpts from Richelieu’s Political Testament, the Royal Edict of 1626 ordering the demolition of feudal castles, excerpts from the Letters Patent Establishing the French Academy, excerpts from Bossuet’s Political Treatise, excerpts from Colbert’s Memoirs, two firsthand accounts of Louis XIV, and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Students received a clear definition of absolutism and a significant amount of information about its application in France from the textbook and class discussion. It was therefore fairly easy for them to look at documents, such as the one ordering the end of fortified castles, and understand where they fit into the textbook’s description of events. Most students did well with the content of this paper, showing a firm understanding of absolutism in France and of the difference between primary and secondary sources. The biggest content problem was getting the students to pick and choose comparisons and contrasts that would support their thesis and would permit them to stay under the word maximum, showing that they needed more practice in understanding how to construct an argument using historical evidence.

As for the future, I intend to use the assignments that worked well again. I’d like to compare results across semesters based on small changes that I make during classroom time.

I’m still trying to make up my mind about whether I’ll try to use those that didn’t work well again. In the case of the Dawes Act, it truly is difficult to read. It might be worthwhile to spend a few minutes in class helping students to read modern legal jargon, but it might also be better to find a different source or series of documents that wouldn’t frustrate the students so greatly.

In the case of the Germanic law codes, I think I’ll need to make some modifications in the assignment. I want to use the Salic Law again since it seemed to work well. I believe I have three options. I could drop Anglo-Saxon law and just use the Salic Law. I could drop Anglo-Saxon law and use another legal code from roughly the same time period (such as a section of Justinian’s code), or I could spend more time in class warning the students about the need for translating the Anglo-Saxon words.

Finally, I believe the use of technology was important. In general, students printed out the documents from the web and used the printed versions to do their papers. Since our campus does not charge students a per-page fee for use of printers in the computer labs, I could have saved the campus a lot of money if I had printed one copy and had it copied on two sides of a page for all the students. However, I don’t think that approach is a good one for two reasons. First, a few students have never used the Internet before. Such knowledge is becoming increasingly important for advancement in American society and business. Any assignment that forces students to use the Internet has value for that reason. Second, students at smaller campuses may not have access to large numbers of documents in print form. The Internet makes available far more documents than could be put into any reader. Third, familiarizing students with some sites that have documents will help them to recognize primary versus secondary sources in electronic formats. I believe that skill becomes even more vital as more people turn to the web as a resource.

However, I believe the AHA web site would make even better use of technology if the documents mounted by the AHA were searchable. Then the use of the web to provide primary sources would be self-evident. No reader I know of has a good index of concepts or topics and few even have an index of proper names. However, the technology exists that would allow students and teachers to search a long list of documents for words or phrases in common. Only then would the AHA truly be using the capabilities of the Internet to its fullest, and I think many people would be grateful.

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