Using digital tools to teach primary source analysis in the history classroom

Michelle Moravec
Jan 22, 2019 · 4 min read

For almost five decades now, history pedagogy has emphasized the need to bring primary source documents into the history classroom. Teaching students to read these sources is sometimes a daunting task. One approach I’ve found fruitful is to visualize aspects of historical sources using different digital interfaces. The affordances of software literally highlight features of the text for students, which is helpful in pointing them to where they might read.

One tool I’ve used quite effectively is Juxta. Originally created as a collation tool to aid in the production of scholarly editions, Juxta is easily repurposed for use in the classroom. It runs on the web and can process sources in a wide range of formats. In 2016 I used Juxta to explore Sojourner Truth’s famed 1851 speech, best known as “Ain’t I A Woman,” but which exists in various transcriptions since Truth herself could not write.[1] This lesson does not begin with introducing the challenges of analyzing Truth’s famous speech, but rather gives students the various versions and asks them to start analyzing through close reading.

In Juxta, the “heat view” (figure 1) allows one source to be set as the “base” against which all others are compared. In the view below, that is the 1851 version included in Marcus Robinson’s Anti-Slavery Bugle.

figure 1 Heat view in Juxta

This simple visualization reveals a great deal, primarily that Robinson’s version, although temporally closest to the date Truth made her speech, is the outlier in the various versions that circulated. Students see this in the large amount of highlighted text, which indicates a difference from the other versions, as well as in the blue bars next to the comparison documents, which give a numerical value to the degree of divergence from the base text.

The Juxta side-by-side view (figure 2) allows students to track precisely what changes occurred between two documents and explore those changes in depth. The screenshot below compares the most popular historical version, Frances Dana Barker Gage’s 1863 account which is reprinted in the 1881 History of Woman Suffrage, with the version circulating on the web in 2016, on sites of the National Park Service and the Modern History Sourcebook. Students might note, for example that the “n-word” has been replaced with “Negroes.”

figure 2. Side by side view in Juxta

A histogram illustrates locations in the text where the variations occur, here a comparison of Gage’s version and that reprinted in the 1875 edition of The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, which while relatively similar (difference is the slightest at .17 between these two version), show the greatest variation toward the end of the source.

Finally, students can click on a portion of highlighted text in the heat map view to see what has been added to or removed from the base text. Here students might note that the famed line attributed to Truth “Ain’t I A Woman” is not present in all four versions of the speech. There is a space to annotate each of the differences (figure 4). This is a wonderful assignment that done collaboratively could then lead to a larger project or to an assignment in which students utilize their own annotations and others to interpret the variations in the text.

Figure 4 annotation box in Juxta

Utilizing Juxta also leads back to the larger questions that initially motivated teachers to bring historical sources into the classroom. Whose voices are dominant? How did Gage’s account become the definitive version of Truth’s speech and why is Gage’s version the one that appears in Truth’s Narrative in 1875? What does this case study of one primary source document tell us about the idea of history as “facts”? What methodological challenges do historians face when they try to write about anyone but elites in a society? Students could then be introduced to Nell Painter’s biography, or this fabulous student project, The Sojourner Truth Project.

[1] The versions I used were the best known, Frances Dana Barker Gage’s 1863 account which is reprinted in slightly modified form the 1881 History of Woman Suffrage, the version included in the 1875 edition of The Narrative of Sojourner Truth which also incorporates additional texts and was published after her death, and then the version circulation on the web in 2016 by the National Park Service and the Modern History Sourcebook.

Michelle Moravec

Written by

Historian doing corpus linguistics, Feminist writing about politics of women's culture, historying digitally #writinginpublic http://michellemoravec.com

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