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The Novice in The Valley of the Shadow Archive:
Using Computer Technology to Help Teach
the United States History Survey

Carl R. Schulkin
Pembroke Hill School


        Eager to find a way to introduce the students in my United States History survey to the World Wide Web in a meaningful way, I chose The Valley of the Shadow Web site as the focus for my first lesson in historical research.  Of all the Web sites we had evaluated during the first New Media Classroom workshop, The Valley of the Shadow contained the best primary source materials that fit comfortably into the framework of the course I was already teaching.  In particular, I had always regretted that I was unable to devote more time to discussing the lives of free blacks during the antebellum period.  When I discovered that The Valley of the Shadow Web site contained registers of free blacks for both Augusta County, Virginia and the City of Staunton, I decided to build a lesson around those primary sources.

         The first year that I tried this lesson I decided that it was most important to KEEP IT SIMPLE (sometimes referred to as the KISS principle -- Keep It Simple Stupid).  Having little time to research the topic thoroughly, I chose to make the lesson an exercise in drawing important conclusions from collections of primary sources.  Accordingly, I gave my students a choice of examining any one of the three files of free black registers: Augusta County, 1803-1845, Augusta County, 1846-1865, or the City of Staunton, 1803-1865.  I required each student to write an extended essay of between 750 and 1000 words explaining what important conclusions regarding free blacks in the antebellum South they were able to draw from examining the registers.

         I was very gratified with the results.  Although many students complained about the difficulty of drawing any firm conclusions, I was delighted to see so many students trying to formulate and/or wrestling with significant historical questions.  Whether the students recognized it or not, they had learned a valuable lesson about the way in which historians go about the work of making sense of primary sources.  Not surprisingly, many of the most enthusiastic students were of African American descent.  They joined others in expressing excitement at the feeling that they were somehow directly touching the lives of ordinary historical actors rather than reading about such people in a textbook.  That lesson marked my conversion to the teaching technique that Professor Randy Bass has labeled "The Novice in the Archive," a technique that was largely unavailable until we and our students could easily gain access to a real archive via the World Wide Web.

         When I demonstrated this lesson for my colleagues at the second summer workshop of the New Media Classroom, I received a host of constructive criticisms that I am still trying to assimilate.   Among the most important of those criticisms was that I had paid insufficient intention to the attitudes and actions of African Americans themselves and that I had placed insufficient emphasis on the fact that these primary sources had a strong built-in bias.  My colleagues also urged me to do some additional research on the history of free African Americans, especially in regard to the difference in legal status between those classified as black and those classified as mulatto.

         Taking these criticisms and those of my students into account, I thoroughly revised the assignment and tried it again with a new group of students during the first semester of the current school year.   Although many students asked for even more guidance, especially in regard to formulating significant historical questions, the papers I received were more detailed, more sophisticated and showed a greater understanding of the plight of free African Americans.  Students made use of a wider variety of sources, including sources they found themselves both in libraries and on the World Wide Web.   In addition to looking at the situation from the point of African Americans as well as that of whites, most students learned a great deal about a specific aspect of the lives of African Americans in the antebellum South.   Whether they focused on employment opportunities, ownership of property, the differing experiences of males and females, or the proportion of African Americans known to be of mixed racial ancestry, my students learned a good amount about the plight of African Americans while also learning the same valuable lessons about how to go about conducting research in primary sources.   Equally important, the overwhelming majority of my students this year came away believing that the World Wide Web could be a valuable tool for doing historical research in primary sources.   As one of my most perceptive Advanced Placement students expressed it in his evaluation of this unit: "The Valley of the Shadow research paper brought together all of the main themes of historical research that we've learned in class up to now. In the project we did research out of original texts. We were forced to think critically about the historical value and significance of direct evidence. We also had to work with this evidence, come to our own conclusions, and write about our own ideas."

         I don't want to underestimate the extent of the further revision this assignment will require before it is in polished, final form.   Nevertheless, my students seem pleased with the progress I have made and I continue to work on revising it. In addition to doing a better job of teaching students how to navigate and search the Web and evaluate Web sites before giving them this research assignment, I am working on achieving a greater mastery of the sources and devising specific historical questions for the less adventurous students to choose from.

         For those of you who are interested in knowing more about exactly what instructions I provided to my students this year, I have linked a copy of my assignment sheet to this draft.   In an effort to make this assignment sheet more helpful to those of you who may wish to try something similar, I have made it interactive, that is, I have provided active links to the Web sites that I required or recommended that my students visit.   Links to other examples not listed above but referred to orally during my actual presentation can be found at  http://schulkin.org.

          Please address any inquiries or comments to carl@schulkin.org .

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