Teaching Faux Primary Sources

Emily Suzanne Clark

This semester I'm teaching one section of African American Religions and two sections of American Christianities. Like many of us, I try to come up with assignments that are both enjoyable (or at least not painful) for students and are also enjoyable (or at least not painful) for me to grade. And all of my courses fulfill a core curriculum requirement. In other words, I'm not teaching majors but rather students from across the whole University. Right now I've got a batch of take-home midterms from my African American Religions course where the students had to pick the most significant reading they've done so far in class and argue why it was the most significant. Just before that, my American Christianities course turned in faux primary sources.

In both courses we have a primary source reader, and we read a ton of primary sources. Before the end of the semester they have to do a handful of worksheets on primary source readings of their choice. The questions on the worksheets are: What is the author's main goal? And then: How does the historical context shape the document? The goal of these worksheets is to get them reading primary sources more critically (as opposed to just reading for basic content). In the case of the American Christianities course, these worksheets are complemented by the completion of two faux primary sources. Twice during the semester they turn in faux primary sources, which means they have to "channel" a real or fake person or group from American religious history and then come up with a document that s/he/they would have written.

The assignment requires that the students think about those questions posed in the worksheets they complete. It forces them to think about the perspective of the person/group they are "channeling" and how s/he would write about the topic. If you want to see if your students "get" primary sources, ask them to make one up. (And, if your university/college is like mine and wants you to use the language of assessment, it encourages students to "create".) There is a learning curve for assigning an assessment like this. This is the third semester I've used this assignment, and one thing I've learned is the importance of clear assignment guidelines and a more detailed rubric. And the clearer the assignment has become, the more students seem to enjoy it. Some students naturally thrive with a creative assignment but others feel lost at the beginning. Clear guidelines and vaguely referencing some previous student creations can help with this. It's also a great test on your own teaching skills. You get a sense of what topics/groups/ideas you taught well, and which ones you should have spent more time covering or need to go about in a different way.

The best thing though is the student successes. Some come up with new antebellum spiritual hothouse groups and turn in excerpts from the group's scripture or become a journalist reporting a story on the group or create an anti-whatever pamphlet. And there was the Mormon student who experienced gleeful fun by writing an anti-Mormon pamphlet. Many of the Catholic students enjoy writing from the perspective of their own great-great-great (and maybe one more great) grandparents who came to the U.S. in the 19th century. Abolitionists and pro-slavery Christians write letters to their cousins. Native Americans "write" journal entries about encountering Spanish conquistadors and French Jesuits. One of my favorites remains the theatre student who wrote a hymn as a Salvation Army lassie and then set it to parade music and turned in a recorded mp3 file (along with a letter sent from the lassie with the lyrics and why she wrote them).

I'm curious to hear from others. What are the more creative assignments you’ve come up with? How have they succeeded? What have you learned from teaching them?


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