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Dealing with Difficult Subjects in Primary Sources

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During a recent discussion on writing for blogs at the Library of Congress, one of the topics discussed was the importance of avoiding controversial topics. I found myself remembering presentations I made about the Library’s digital collections early in my career at the Library. I would say that these online primary sources included material that would shock, anger, disgust, stun, frustrate or annoy nearly everyone in the room. Showing the 1562 Map of America by Diego Gutiérrez, I would focus in on a section of South America where there are graphic depictions of cannibalism and note that some children would be fascinated but some would be horrified and that teachers should be aware of the possible negative reactions.

The 1562 Map of America by Diego Gutiérrez

After this social media discussion, I expressed my concern about avoiding difficult topics and noted that it was very important for teachers to be aware of some of the issues involved in using primary sources–especially those involving difficult topics. One thing that makes teaching with primary sources deeply engaging is that they document what was happening at the time being studied. However, this is also why they can be problematic. These sources depict beliefs and perspectives of previous eras, sometimes including negative stereotypes of women, minorities and ethnic groups, for example, or insulting and offensive language that was once commonplace.

What should teachers do when they want to use potentially difficult primary sources in classroom activities? First and most important, teachers should review any content to identify items that might be considered objectionable. If the objectionable nature of those items would derail the lesson from its intended purpose, teachers might want to consider replacing them. However, engaging with the difficult aspects of these historical primary sources might also enrich the students’ exploration of the topic at hand.

Remind students that primary sources reflect attitudes from the time when they were created, and that beliefs and values–as well as commonly-accepted ways of expressing them–may have changed. Here are some additional suggestions for helping students respond to troubling aspects of primary sources:

  • Help students learn more about the time period when the materials were created and think about why these stereotypes and beliefs existed at this time. Which values, stereotypes or negative images are used? Ask them to what extent these beliefs exist now.
  • Ask students why they think these primary sources were created.
  • Have students express their responses to these the items. Have them also think about how people living at the time these items were created felt. Were they angry? Frustrated? Did they accept these depictions as normal?
  • Have students create materials that avoid the stereotypes depicted but still meet the needs of those who commissioned these items. How would they encourage audiences at the time to use the item they created instead of the one expressing the stereotypical point of view?

How have you addressed difficult topics presented by primary sources in your classroom?

Comments (8)

  1. I teach a law curriculum to an almost exclusively African-American student body. I teach the Intro to Constitutional Principles course to sophomores and teach it almost exclusively with the primary sources of US Reports. Each year we deal with Dred Scott v Sanford to introduce the due process/equal protection units. As you can imagine, during that time my classroom is a volcano of barely suppressed anger. Have I mentioned that my skin is nearly as white as my hair?

    Get aggressive with the material! Challenge your children to assess and analyze the changes they perceive in 2011 from 1857, even if they argue there are none. The dialog is difficult to manage but not impossible and invariably gives light, not heat.

    I do the same with the Terrorism cases with my seniors. Analyze the cases in the context of the times. What is/was going on? What does it tell us about the American experience, politically, morally, ethically and/or socially.

    If education was easy, everyone would do it.

  2. One of the best guides I’ve ever read about teaching sensitive content is found on the Wisconsin Historical Society “American Journeys” website . Each section (racism, vocabulary, sex, slavery, violence, and sexism) ends with advice about how teachers might respond. The advice dovetails nicely with the questions in your excellent post.

    I never shy away from sensitive content because I believe we need to promote critical thinking around primary sources, no matter how ugly. That said, we should be aware of the age and maturity levels of our particular students when selecting primary sources.

    Another approach I’ve used is to search historical newspapers such as those in the Chronicling America collection to discover what language appeared to be “politically correct” in earlier periods. For example, students learn powerful lessons about attitudes toward specific groups when they find articles about redskins and savages but cannot find the same articles when they search on Native Americans.

  3. Very interesting article Danna. Very good advice for teachers and very good advice for parents or any adult discussing this sort of material with children. Thank you!

  4. This can then be extended to other current-day materials students use. Great way to start teaching critical evaluation of any/all sources.

  5. when you begining to teach difficult sbject ,please ,first to make impact of mine of subject and continue and add many concept to subject for example i want to teaching about information literacy ,first i say about information what is information what is difference between information with nowledge or science andcontinue explaniation about secound subject :lieracy ,what is literacy after i explained this matter i want show many documents about information literacy and ask all student search about new documents about information literacy

  6. Interesting post, short and full of content.
    I agree with ACPalvino’s comment that we need to participate in these discussions with our students. Students and society will benefit from being critically challenged, however, Mary J Johnson is right when she says that the age and maturity level of students must be taken into consideration.

  7. Several years ago I read the book,
    Nigger: The strange career of a troublesome word.
    It took a very OED point of view on the latin origin of the word and the historical transformations from label to insult to racial epithet. I particularly liked the discussion of modern pop culture assuming control of the word and possible motives for doing so.

  8. I would recommend that teachers guide their students into expressing their differing perspectives about what they’ve observed with the primary resources and how they have changed today.

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