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Constructing Narratives in the Digital Age: Teaching Undergraduate Research Methods in Early Modern European History

Michael J. Galgano, James Madison University

This paper will examine how several readily accessible digitized sources are used to design and teach undergraduate research methods in early modern European history. It addresses the desirability of requiring a special course in research methods at the undergraduate level and offers a successful model especially for faculty in small or middle level institutions with limited library holdings. The new technologies make possible instruction in reflective historical research techniques and can help studen ts become better practitioners.

I have developed and taught undergraduate research methods for more than three decades at two institutions. The courses teach students to use print and digitized finding aids to identify historical evidence, to evaluate primary and secondary sources, and to shape their findings into crafted article-length essays. More recently, greater attention has been paid to teaching students how to use the internet, CD-ROM, and other technologies as they learn to do history.

The proposed paper will examine a variety of digitized sources to illustrate how students can be taught how to be better researchers and writers. The course focuses on constructing narratives of English villages in the seventeenth century. The first sec tion of the paper will analyze a range of web and CD resources currently used in the seminar. To introduce students to historical demography and family reconstitution for example, I blend the five-diskette series of English birth, marriage, and death rec ords with printed parish registers and secondary interpretations. Students work in small groups to first comprehend the demographic dynamics of small villages. They then study digitized images of the physical structures and characteristics of villages b efore locating and identifying other written records for them. The work concentrates on Lancashire, Westmorland, and Cumberland and draws upon ecclesiastical, parochial, court, and estate records. Some of the materials are my own and some are placed on a private web site for ease of access and use. Others are on microform to remind students that other technologies continue to exist. The first half of the course emphasizes finding, reading, and interpreting the various types of primary and secondary mat erials. It also includes a crash course in seventeenth-century script.

The second part of the paper (and the course) addresses writing sound historical narratives. The course examines the characteristics of good narrative history and students write a number of short exercises connected to their final papers. These papers f ocus on description, narration, and exposition. Drafts are reviewed on line and in tutorials. Their readings also include the works of Natalie Davis, Robert Darnton, Carlo Ginzburg, and others. Class discussions emphasize developing narratives from the points of view of different persons in the village community and these discussions are continued on e-mail out of class. Some will focus on children, others on women or particular individuals found among the sources. Others may center on a particular ev ent or festival like the meeting of the Quarter Sessions or a village market or feast. Students do develop a deeper understanding for daily customs in the seventeenth century and learn to become effective recorders.

Final papers are presented to the classes, reviewed by a peer and by me. In addition to the copy submitted for grading and comment, students submit a second copy on diskette. That copy is placed on the class web site into one of several folders. The pa pers serve as the final examination in the course and all students are asked to evaluate their classmate's work on the several measures of research, evaluating evidence, and writing that form the core of the course. The purpose is to make certain that st udents can recognize and describe good research and writing techniques in the work of others.

The course offers an illustration of teaching students to develop better technological, critical, analytical, and writing skills. At the same time, it helps them to improve their narrative techniques.