Dr. Jennifer Ritterhouse's spring 2016 class, "The 1920s and the Making of the Modern US," enjoyed an engaging field trip to the Library of Congress, where they had an opportunity to examine a range of primary documents–original sources or evidence created at the time under study. The course is not a standard history class: while it focuses on the history of 1920s US, it also prepares students to work as historians. They develop research questions, find and analyze primary and secondary sources, organize their analyses into arguments that are supported by evidence, and communicate those arguments through written essays and verbal presentations.
The trip afforded the students an opportunity to investigate primary resources first-hand with the help of staff archivist Bruce Kirby. One student remarked that “it was so exciting to hold the same pieces of paper that Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Earhart, King Jr., and Bell once touched.” However, beyond the novelty of shared experience, students were expected to not only read the documents but also integrate them into their papers. In fact, Prof. Ritterhouse stated that in addition to creating fascinating histories, thoughtfully interpreting primary sources “allows students to develop their critical thinking skills and learn to use evidence to support their analyses. By reading the work of established scholars, History majors learn what the experts have said on various subjects. But by taking research methods classes, they learn how to develop expertise on a topic themselves and express their findings in clear and carefully documented written work.”
A great number of resources are available in the Washington, DC metropolitan area to Mason students, form the Library of Congress, which both officially serves Congress and is also the largest library in the world, to the National Archives and Records Administration, which preserves and documents government and historical records. Furthermore, a number of smaller local archival repositories hold impressive jewels of American history. In 2015, Georgia Brown, an undergraduate history major, initiated a unique yet colossal undertaking at the Fairfax Circuit Court History Records Center during her internship to create an index of slaves mentioned in the county’s will and deed books.
April 26, 2016