What's Your Favorite Primary Source to Teach?



19 comments
Emily Suzanne Clark

Maybe it's because I'm at a teaching school, but a lot of my posts in recent months have been teaching-centered. I assign a lot of primary sources in my classes. I have students write their own faux primary sources. I take students into the archives. Today I want to think about the primary sources I love to teach and why. Reply in the comments about your favorite primary sources for teaching.

What makes a primary source a good teaching resource? I think primary sources are great readings on their own, but some are certainly richer than others for the classroom. Good teaching primary sources are ones that reflect their context. A good source prompt student reflection on how his/her own subjectivity is shaped by the culture around her/him. Primary sources illuminate conflict and show moments of creative tension in American history. They show how the past can be a foreign country and they reveal how the past is not so different from today.

King's mugshots provide good visual primary sources too. 
One of my favorite primary sources to teach has got to be MLK's Letter from Birmingham Jail. Students enjoy this reading, and for Gonzaga students, it speaks to the social justice mission of the university. To Zags (and many others), there is something timeless about it. Placing the document within the context of the Birmingham campaign and the subsequent bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church provide good conversation on the interplay between religion and culture. Excerpts from Frederick Douglass's autobiography (namely the excerpts printed in Milton Sernett's African American Religious History) do the same. When I taught some of the FBI files on the Moorish Science Temple the other week, I asked the students what it was like to read declassified FBI files. Many found the blacked-out parts frustrating. I agreed and used the opportunity to talk about the monitoring process and think out loud with them about what might be blacked out and why.

One of the original 38 engravings from The Awful Disclosures
of Maria Monk
Those first three choices were pretty African American Religions-centric, which makes sense because I'm teaching that right now (Oh! And Jarena Lee's autobiography! So make that four choices). I'll expand further out for the final three and then open it up for the comments. I frequently teach excerpts from James Mooney's Ghost-dance Religion. The brilliant Sarah Dees recently made a strong case for continuing to teach this topic, and I agree. Mooney's work is great because it's both a primary and a secondary source. We have an anthropologist examining and analyzing a movement, but the content and his own biases make it a primary source that requires a close read. Excerpts from The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk are also good for teaching. It opens up conversations about religious intolerance and hate literature. Students can see how words have real effects; the burning of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown makes that clear. They also enjoy TJeff's "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom," because the ideas both feel so familiar and strange. Then we play a game that day where I read out various 17th and 18th-century laws from around the colonies and they vote on whether or not they would work TJeff's views on religious freedom.

This is barely the tip of the iceberg. There are so many primary sources that are effective teaching tools. What are your favorites and why?

Also GO ZAGS! #DotheFew (sorrynotsorry)

19 comments:

Charlie McCrary at: March 25, 2016 at 9:02 AM said...

Thanks for this post, Emily! I'm teaching religion and American law this semester. I think the reading that has worked best and elicited the best discussion was Douglass's "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" We read it after A. Jackson's 1830 message to Congress on Indian removal. The students were really good at problematizing "American religious freedom" in a number of ways. Also, we recently read the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978) and the International Religious Freedom Act (1998), both of which have some really interesting language and intent.

esclark at: March 25, 2016 at 9:47 AM said...

Good choices! Law documents are especially great for making a case about why definitions of religion matter.

Lauren Turek at: March 25, 2016 at 10:59 AM said...

Such a great post! In the U.S. history survey I've gotten good responses from students when I assign the "Interview with President William McKinley," originally published in The Christian Advocate on January 22, 1903 (and reprinted in Major Problems in US Foreign Relations, Vol 1, but also available in its original form in online databases), wherein McKinley supposedly relates to a group of preachers the strategic and religious reasons for his decision to take the Philippines during the Spanish-American-Cuban-Philippine war. This is one of those documents that offers many routes for students to critique and problematize the use of religious rhetoric to justify foreign policy decisions, and even to question the veracity of the account.

Joseph Stuart at: March 25, 2016 at 11:16 AM said...

Great post, Emily. I love using the FBI docs on the Nation of Islam to look at the relationship of religion and the state after World War II. I also really enjoy using the Joseph Smith Papers Project (LDS Church) to look at the formation of a religion and the Salem Witch Trial Projects (University of Virginia) to examine gender in religion.

esclark at: March 25, 2016 at 11:22 AM said...

More good choices! While it may be obvious to point out, another trend many of our chosen documents reflect is moments of conflict in American history wherein attention to religion is important. I suspect that for many of our students they don't always think about religion being a major influence in American history; this is certainly the case for many of my students coming in at the beginning of the semester. Moments of conflict (be it war, civil rights, law, or Salem) can make that case particularly well.

Mark T. Edwards at: March 25, 2016 at 12:33 PM said...

Great post! In the early US survey, I use Madison's Federalist Paper #10. While not a typical "religious" primary source, if you read the last paragraph, you see Madison's concern about politicized religion. It's useful for students to see the variety of opinion about religion in the revolutionary era--that some saw religion as essential to good order while others saw it as a threat.

Paul Harvey at: March 25, 2016 at 2:30 PM said...

Emily, I want a companion primary source doc book to accompany your forthcoming (fantastic) book A Luminous Brotherhood, so they can read some awesome primary sources (helpfully translated by you of course). Even an accompanying website would be great.

In lieu of that, love to have them go to Freedmen's Bureau and/or Slave Narratives collection online, do a little keyword searching around "religion," and see what they find (most often violent attacks on black churches and ministers, etc.). Never fails to communicate importance of anti-democratic violence during Reconstruction.

Also like to use Richard Pratt's speech, best known for the phrase kill the Indian and save the man, from 1892: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/4929/. Makes my point that religious idealists during slavery struggle and REconstruction (whom we often, rightly, admire) were also authors of the disastrous policies towards Native Americans in the late 19th century. Painful paradox of American history.

Finally, if I get a class where I get to go back far enough, the Lawes Divine Morall and Martiall from 1612 Virginia are always a hit, as long as you preselect the juiciest ones ahead of time. And so many others from 17th/early 18th century, throw a dart and you'll hit something great.

Adam Park at: March 25, 2016 at 2:47 PM said...

Don't forget South Park!

esclark at: March 25, 2016 at 3:08 PM said...

Perhaps RiAH needs to create a digital database of good teaching primary sources ...

esclark at: March 25, 2016 at 3:14 PM said...

And to Paul - While I was writing the dissertation, John Corrigan made a case for that idea. If nothing else, I plan on making a webpage.

Lauren Turek at: March 25, 2016 at 3:46 PM said...

I love the idea of an RiAH database of primary sources for teaching...maybe an Omeka site?

Paul Harvey at: March 25, 2016 at 3:50 PM said...

Adam Park -- South Park is a bit rough for classtime due to language, but classic Simpsons episode where LIsa becomes a Buddhist after objecting to her local congregation becoming a megachurch outlet but gets bribed back to Christianity with a pony for Christmas works. Every. time.

esclark at: March 25, 2016 at 4:22 PM said...

I think if we crowd-sourced the work between RiAH contributors and readers, we could build an Omeka database of teaching primary sources pretty easily. I think this is something to seriously consider.

Lauren Turek at: March 25, 2016 at 6:30 PM said...

I'm in! I love Omeka and would love to work on a crowd-sourced project like this.

esclark at: March 25, 2016 at 8:49 PM said...

Let's do it ... after the spring semester ends.

John Fea at: March 25, 2016 at 9:11 PM said...

Paine, Common Sense; Franklin's Autobiography; Douglass's Narrative. Also love Birmingham Jail, but I don't get to teach it that much anymore.

Erin Bartram at: March 25, 2016 at 9:29 PM said...

In both History of Women in America and the History of Sexuality in America, I use excerpts from the LDS women's "Great Indignation Meeting" from 1870 - religious liberty, suffrage, and interesting arguments about sexual morality in defense of plural marriage, all in one awesome source.

Matthew Cressler at: March 28, 2016 at 10:45 AM said...

Love the post and the invitation! My favorites include: David Walker's Appeal, Lincoln's Second Inaugural, Autobiography of Malcolm X, and anything James Baldwin... clearly there's a theme.

Frank Bellizzi at: April 9, 2016 at 11:22 AM said...

I don't teach yet. But I think Barton W. Stone's classic description of the Cane Ridge Revival would still work. Before leading a discussion about this passage, the instructor could also read Leigh Eric Schmidt's survey of interpretations of camp-meeting phenomena. It's in the 2nd edition of his book, Holy Fairs.

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