This post was written by Heidi Painter, a Social Science instructor and AP Program Coordinator at Folsom High School in Folsom, California. Heidi participated in one of our 2013 Summer Teacher Institutes and this post was inspired by an activity she developed during the institute.
Primary sources are for history teachers, right? I taught U.S. history and American government for years and knew the value of using primary sources — how they engage students in the story of history and ask them to examine the multiple points-of-view and varied experiences that are the fabric of any historical event. So when I was selected to participate in the Library of Congress’ Summer Teacher Institute last summer I expected to be reintroduced to them and perhaps gain some new strategies for using them in my government classes. The Summer Institute, however, taught me a new and surprising lesson about what primary sources offer to any curriculum, including my AP Psychology classes.
AP Psychology, after all, is about theories and therapies, not analyzing documents. The class is designed more like a science class than a traditional social science course, and the items I normally ask my students to analyze are pieces from scientific journals documenting research studies. In the five years I have taught the course I never considered using primary sources, until last summer. With the help of the staff at the Library of Congress, I discovered an exhibition on Carl Jung – The Red Book of Carl G. Jung: Its Origins and Influence. My students and I study Jung and the Neo-Freudians, exploring Jung’s theories on archetypes and personality. We also study how psychology has moved away from those theories towards a more empirical exploration of the human condition. As I examined The Red Book exhibition, however, I realized that I had been neglecting an exploration of how Jung’s theories, although rejected by modern psychology, have shaped the 20th century, and I wanted my students to grapple with this iconic figure and his complex legacy.
My students and I began with the entire class examining a Star Wars film poster and watching the film’s original trailer from the 1970’s, which led to a discussion on how the film’s themes represent Jungian ideas or concepts. I then provided each group with a set of other primary sources from the exhibition including: a photograph of Martha Graham’s Myth of Oedipus, a page from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces , and an image from Jorge Luis Borges’s short story, “La Biblioteca de Babel.” Groups analyzed and discussed the primary sources making note of evidence of Jung’s legacy, and we concluded the primary source analysis with the entire class examining a postcard sent by Jung to a colleague expressing his fear that the field of psychology considered him a mystic and not a serious theorist.
With this engaging material and all they discovered in investigating it, my students were ready to express their understanding about Jung’s legacy in an essay, and their writing was rich with detail from the primary sources. Being exposed to a variety of different items allowed them to clearly see the range of influence Jung had on culture and 20th century thinking. They cited specific aspects of several of the items as support for their assertions on Jung’s legacy, and their writing reflected that they understood that although the ideas of Jung and the other Freudians do not dominate the field of psychology today, they still had a deep influence on how we see ourselves and how we express our culture through literature, art, music, and dance. As a teacher of psychology I want my students to understand psychology’s reach and appreciate it not just as a science that studies and attempts to explain human behavior and mental processes but also as a social and cultural force that influences how we define ourselves. Their writing reflected that the primary sources they explored helped them see this.
My experience at the Library of Congress’ Summer Institute taught me that primary sources are not just for history teachers. No matter what your academic discipline, primary sources will enrich your students’ understanding of the concepts you teach and challenge them to see those concepts in new and exciting ways.