“Teaching and Learning with Primary Sources”: A New Module to Complement German History in Documents and Images

The Fashion Conscious Man [International Men's Fashion Week in Cologne, 1986]. Coutesy of Inter-Nationes and the German Information Center.
The Fashion Conscious Man [International Men’s Fashion Week in Cologne, 1986]. Courtesy of Inter-Nationes and the German Information Center.
The German Historical Institute’s flagship digital project, German History in Documents and Images (GHDI), is currently being revised and relaunched. Conceived in 2002, GHDI is an online anthology consisting of ten chronological volumes that cover German history from 1500 to the end of the first Merkel cabinet in 2009. The site is completely bilingual; it includes approximately 1,700 primary-source documents (in German and English translation) and 2,300 images, all of which are accompanied by introductory texts that aid in interpretation. One goal of the relaunch is to enhance GHDI’s utility as a teaching tool; another is to make it more interdisciplinary, so that it better serves colleagues in neighboring disciplines, including German studies. In light of these objectives, the combined seminar on digital resources and teaching with authentic historical sources promises to be an ideal forum for discussing ways of presenting primary source materials in a digital environment for optimal pedagogical use.

GHDI recently went through an external academic review. Many reviewers commented that the site needs a hands-on introductory section on teaching and learning with primary sources. In response, the Institute will design a new pedagogical module that will introduce some common rubrics for source analysis, including “The 6 C’s of Primary Source Analysis” (content, citation, context, connections, communication, and conclusion). The rubrics will then be applied to select textual and visual sources in GHDI. To name one example, the writings of nineteenth-century author and women’s advocate Hedwig Dohm (“What the Pastors Think of Women”) could provide the basis for a lively classroom discussion of “communication” and point of view. The module will also include recommended assignments and classroom activities. Again, on the topic of gender, it would be interesting for students to compare the views expressed in texts by Franz-Josef Wuermeling, FRG Minister of Family and Youth Affairs, and activist film director Helke Sander. Another exercise might involve examining texts by authors who advocate opposing stances on crucial issues, such as the introduction of free markets in land, labor, and capital, a hotly debated topic in Vormärz Germany. Lastly, it might be interesting to invite three of four contemporary scholars to interpret a single source from differing interpretative and methodological points of view.

Questions for GSA seminar participants might include: which types of sources and activities tend to work well in classroom teaching; and how can technology be employed both to enrich traditional approaches to primary source analysis (such as the assignments described above) and to create new ones? With respect to the latter question, it would be interesting to discuss the potential of annotation applications, such as Hypothes.Is and Annotation Studio, in the context of source analysis and pedagogy. Multi-textual annotation tools could facilitate comparative approaches to sources; social annotations tools would aid in small group and classroom discussion. Annotation applications also include features that would allow students to create small sub-collections of documents and images from GHDI; this would make it easier for them to create their own historical narratives with select source materials.

The analysis of images will be given equal – and perhaps even greater – weight in the planned module. Today’s students, as is commonly observed, grew up in a media-rich environment; and this fact has given rise to the general idea that they are more visually attuned than earlier generations. But is that really the case? And, if so, then what does that mean with respect to source analysis in the classroom? Are students well versed in the formal analysis of images, and how could this more art historical approach be applied to history and German studies curricula? While most students could likely identify an obviously staged photograph such as the one featured above (published by a German textile lobbying group on the occasion of International Men’s Fashion Week in 1986), they might not be able to do so in all cases. This could be problematic when they are confronted with propagandistic imagery. One relatively common criticism leveled at the GHDI website is that is includes too many portraits (the implication being that they are boring). In response, the Institute plans to author more comprehensive image captions to help point out the richness conveyed by some of these sources. But these criticisms also point to a larger question: what types of images do students and teachers expect to see represented in a large digital collection? Do teachers, for instance, want headshots of politicians and writers to use as basic illustrations – as opposed to “real sources” – in PowerPoint slides? And can images even be responsibly separated into these two categories? Should a site like GHDI feature photos that already appear in countless Germany history texts and websites (e.g. Menzel paintings)? Whereas some scholars regard such images as tired, others view them as iconic or reassuringly familiar. What sort of mixture of the familiar and the new should a site like GHDI strive for?

The GHDI relaunch will involve not only revisions and additions to the academic content, but also the creation of a new technical infrastructure and user interface. The content revisions and the technical relaunch are inseparable, not least because the types of multimedia source materials that need to be included in a revised GHDI (e.g. sound- and video-clips) cannot be published on the current platform. In addition to providing basic information on source analysis, the planned pedagogical module will also include recommendations and activities based on multimedia sources, especially postwar German films. While film and television have long been used in teaching, there are still relatively few pedagogical resources geared toward their classroom application (compared with the resources devoted to texts and images). For this and other reasons, the Institute may develop a blog and an online discussion forum to promote an informal, two-way discussion about teaching with primary sources, particularly film and audio materials. At the moment, it appears that many scholars share interesting tips about current multimedia sources – references to the television shows Deutschland 83 or Ku’damm 56 – through private Facebook or Twitter accounts. Unfortunately, these recommendations are usually limited to the scholar’s personal “friends” or “followers.” Creating a forum where members of the profession could share links and information would ensure that tips about new multimedia sources reached a larger audience and did not disappear in a sea of individual social media accounts.