Friday, February 22, 2019

Archive Fever, part 2: Make Your Students Do It!

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, I teach a research seminar on African legal history to undergraduate students.  We read a range of secondary sources, but the bulk of the course involves working through a set of court cases from a customary civil court in early twentieth-century South Africa (these are the records of the Tamacha Special Magistrate’s court, for the three people out there who would know what that is).  I’m sharing the basic structure of the course here because I’ve enjoyed teaching it immensely, and perhaps it will spark inspiration for other—and, selfishly, because perhaps you will send me suggestions for things to do with these records that I haven’t thought of yet!

I designed this court because I wanted students to have the experience of doing primary-source research in African history, one that took them beyond carefully selected sources available in classic collections such as From Protest to Challenge (a set of documents from the South African liberation struggle).  I wanted them to get a sense of what historians actually do.  I don’t think my students should become historians themselves, but I do think that knowing how the sausage is made helps them to read, understand, and evaluate historical research—and, by extension, to engage critically with the way that writers in many genres use evidence to support their claims.  To me, that’s the point of a liberal arts education.

To really achieve that goal, I wanted students to work with sources in a relatively unprocessed form.   By the same token, I knew that I couldn’t just throw them in at the deep end—I needed to help them work through these sources, step by step.  This is particularly important because, although most of the students in the class are history or Africana Studies majors, they don’t necessarily have any background in African history.  I decided it would make sense to work with a set of sources I already knew from my own research, so that I would understand them well enough to guide my students in their research.  On my next research trip to Cape Town, I returned to the records of one of the civil courts I’d looked at for Colonizing Consent, and took pictures of the complete records for the period from 1902-1912.  

The seminar meets twice weekly, and we roughly alternate between reading secondary source material and working with the court records.  I have students read some of the classics on customary law, as well as some background material on the Eastern Cape and turn of the century South Africa.  For the primary source assignments, each student gets one volume of court records, containing roughly 300 cases.  Assignments are (in brief summary):

1. Transcribe five cases in full, and share with class [cases are 1-2 handwritten pages]
2. Take notes on another ten cases, and share with class
3. Informal writing assignment identifying themes in the cases we’ve looked at so far
4. After a collective brainstorming session to identify important types of data, code 25 cases into a spreadsheet [I use the result of the brainstorming session to come up with a coding system]
5. After a class discussion of the first round of coding, we tweak the coding system, adjust the coding to the first 25 cases as necessary, and code another 25 cases.
6. Informal writing assignment on patterns we’ve noticed so far
7. Research question for final paper
8. Research plan for final paper [identifying cases that they will use, and any additional primary or secondary source research.  Often this step includes things such as taking notes on more cases of a particular type]
9. First draft of research paper for peer review
10. Final draft of research paper

In addition to these assignments, I also set aside several class periods to work through the material together.  We catch up on previous assignments, and brainstorm directions for research papers.   

I’m not going to lie - it’s a lot of work to teach.  In order to make the results of the transcriptions and coding useful for the class, I have to do a lot of quality control.  Students have trouble reading the handwriting at first, and there’s a fair amount of idiomatic English that twenty-first century American college students have never heard before.  The first time I taught this, I forgot that students wouldn’t know what at kraal (homestead/cattle pen) was.  Now I give them a glossary to help, but there are always new terms to explain.  I do a lot of trouble-shooting with students; and while I block out time in class for this, inevitably it also consumes a lot of time outside of class.  I tell students not to beat their heads against the wall; if it takes them more than four hours for any of the note-taking/transcription/coding assignments, they should stop.  In practice, I end up finishing those up too. 

Despite the work, though, the class is incredibly fun to teach—and, I think, for the students to take.  Although I hear many complaints about handwriting, I think there’s a thrill in seeing the raw material of historical research in all its dirty, messy, illegible splendor; and in making something out of it.  After teaching the class once, I wondered whether I really needed to force the next set of students to transcribe cases that had already been transcribed by a previous group; the answer, I decided, was yes.