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Inviting Students to Consider Possible Research Paths Suggested by Three Sources from the Late 19th Century

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This post is by Lee Ann Potter, Director of Educational Outreach at the Library of Congress.

In the March/April 2014 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article described the invention of the phonograph and how it was used by the 19th century American ethnologists, Alice Cunningham Fletcher and Francis La Flesche, to record music and interviews with Omaha Indians.

We suggested that providing students with seemingly unrelated sources–a newspaper article about the invention of the phonograph, photographs of Fletcher and La Flesche, and an Omaha recording–might serve as invitations for students to consider a wide variety of possible research paths. Telling students that the invention described in the article, the individuals featured in the photographs, and the recordings are connected to one another, then asking them to hypothesize possible connections can set up a puzzle of sorts to encourage creative inquiry and lead to meaningful, student generated, research topics.

Francis La Flesche
Francis La Flesche

Phonograph article
The Cincinnati daily star., November 06, 1877

Alice Cunningham Fletcher at her writing desk
Alice Cunningham Fletcher at her writing desk

Before telling students what the actual connections were, we suggested providing students with citation information about the sources, asking them to adjust their hypotheses based on the new information, and inviting them to share their ideas.

Finally, we suggested that students brainstorm a list of possible research topics based on the three sources. Such lists might include: Inventions of the late 19th century and their many uses, the Bureau of Ethnology, Thomas Edison, Alice Fletcher, Francis La Flesche, Omaha Indians, American Indian Music, the phonograph, wax cylinders, anthropological research methods, newspaper reporting in the late 19th century, the impact of technology on research, and much more, including the social significance of being recorded at the turn of the 20th century, when audio recordings were very rare, as compared to the present day.

Have you used a similar strategy with your students? How did you use seemingly unrelated sources to generate meaningful research topics?

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