I saw the following exchange on Twitter between @GregWiker and @Chris_Levesque_ and had to jump in.
Here was my response:
As I indicate in the tweet, writing and the study of history go hand-in-hand. It can be difficult for students to come up with interesting content to write about, particularly when they are young and don’t have a lifetime of experience to expound upon. Meanwhile, historians have more topics to write about than they could possibly ever tackle within a lifetime. Why not have history and writing teachers work together to teach the skills of both disciplines in a blended way?
Not only can history provide plenty of topics on which to draw for writing essays, it can also teach writing students how to engage in critical thinking and the use of primary research resources. These are skills that are applicable to many situations.
One of the disturbing trends I’ve seen within the last five years is the decline in the use of my museum’s archives. Perhaps researchers are visiting other archives, but what I suspect is happening is that people are assuming that everything is online because so much is available online.
While the Library of Congress, Minnesota Historical Society, and Minnesota Digital Library have posted searchable past newspapers online, they do not have all of the past newspapers online. If you pay attention to the cut-off date for most online historic newspapers, they end at 1923. That’s because all material published prior to 1923 is now in the public domain and can be freely uploaded by anyone. Past that date, there are still copyright issues to work out, which is a major hassle. Because there is so much material available before 1923, large public history institutions are concentrating on digitizing what’s easy to digitize in terms of intellectual property rights.
People can also find loads of family information online through Family Search and Ancestry and similar sites. Most people studying their genealogy are satisfied with what they can find online, which is great, but they may be missing some gems if certain resources are sitting within the archives of a museum that doesn’t have the time, money or equipment to digitize its collections. And, let me tell you, the majority of small museums are in no position to take on large-scale digitization projects, which means their archives are not online.
So, I would encourage writing and history teachers who are working together to take their students to local archives and walk them through the process of looking up and requesting information sources there. Let’s not keep archives and how to use them a neglected secret merely because the internet is so convenient.
Here is a wonderful example of a teacher helping students learn history in a hands-on way by using local archives: How to Teach the Civil War in the Deep South. Because the students have to create a program that they perform for the community, writing is incorporated into this exercise.
If you are a history or writing teacher, have you worked with teachers of other disciplines on projects? If so, what was your experience? Have you taken your students to a local archive?