Comparing Visual with Textual Primary Sources

Preparation time in class with students: 15 minutes
Student homework exercises: 1 hour or more (if sources have never before been studied); 15-30 minutes (if asking new questions of previously studied sources)

These exercises improve critical thinking by inviting students to learn about past civilizations using both visual and textual primary sources. Students will learn

  • to review close reading skills with both textual and visual primary sources
  • to evaluate the strengths and limitations of each sort of primary source
  • to look for and find common themes that allow for comparison
  • to compare themes within a civilization module using different sources

Primary sources, an advisor once told me, are like looking into a room through the keyhole of a closed door. Through that keyhole we can see some things very clearly. Others we can only just make out. And some parts of the room are entirely obscured to us (everything on the same wall as the door itself, e.g.). The job of the historian, though, is not to describe just what we can see but to describe and explain the whole room.

To do that, we need to critically evaluate what we can see, so that our guesses about the obscured and invisible bits are as informed as they can be. What follows are lessons to help students improve their abilities to describe what they can see and, based on those descriptions, to evaluate the whole room of past civilizations.

A secondary goal for these exercises is to begin to invite world history students to examine and problematize their own assumptions about certain kinds of sources. For example, students often assume that certain sorts of textual primary sources are more true, or real, or historical than others - a ready example might be government documents vs. fiction. At one level they're right. Government documents did record the events of actual people while fiction represents the imagination of only one author (or a long tradition of orally delivered fictive imaginings in the case of sagas or epic poetry).

At another level, both sorts of textual sources were created at a particular time and enjoyed by a particular culture and therefore necessarily now belie that culture. And students can examine each for the assumptions and values, options and constraints within which the people of that past world lived.

In a similar way, historians (professionals and students alike) often turn to visual images and representations merely to illustrate what they have already concluded from textual sources. These exercises can both unpack those assumptions we all seem to have and begin to problematize the process of source evaluation. By teaching students how to read closely both sorts of primary sources, students will learn to look for and analyze visual images and texts with greater sophistication and will begin to use critically all primary sources. Step-by-step instructions are below.

  1. Before the first assignment with each sort of primary source, instructors will want to ask students to run off and bring to class for next time the appropriate Web page: How to Prepare Visual Primary Sources and/or How to Prepare Textual Primary Sources.

  2. In class, review the guide(s) with students in detail. These guides direct student activities, thinking and note taking. In my class (see History 110B Syllabus), we reviewed How to Prepare Textual Primary Sources on the first day of class and, indeed because of the timing, I needed to present the guide on a photocopied sheet. Thereafter, students were directed to the guide on the Web site, or they could use the handout, whichever was most convenient

    As the syllabus indicates, we spent several class meetings discussing textual primary sources. I chose texts from different genres: religious texts and commentary, a travel account and fiction. I used a published primary-source reader, but access to a fine range of primary texts in translation from the medieval period may be accessed from this online link to Textual Sources (Fordham University's Internet Medieval Sourcebook). Then, once students had had some practice with textual primary sources, they were introduced to some visual primary sources. Once again, students were taken through a guide for preparing notes - this time for visuals: How to Prepare Visual Primary Sources.

    Instructors with classroom internet access might well want to take time to access the exercises site (Islamic Pictures or European Pictures, whichever is appropriate) and model the process of looking at the images and note taking using the first image. If students also can access the internet in class, a quick lesson on surfing protocols (how to type in URLs, use back buttons and the scroll bar, e.g.) is useful and, in my case, was necessary.

  3. After having worked with a series of visual and textual sources, student classroom time can profitably be turned over to a discussion of the strengths and limitations of the different types of sources. Instructors might want to develop a set of questions to direct discussion. Questions like the following are appropriate:

    • which told you more, the visuals or the textuals? what sorts of information can visuals most readily reveal what sorts of information can textual sources most readily reveal?
    • which sources expose fundamental and unspoken assumptions of a civilization's people more readily? which sort of source do you rely on more? Why?
    • did the visual primary sources seem to coordinate better with any particular textual source? Conversely, did they seem to contract any textual source?
    • what conclusions can you draw from the seeming contradictions you do find? How can we reconcile contradictory evidence?
  4. For comments on how this worked in practice and pedagogical considerations see my Reflective Essay.