I just finished the first week of the new school year and have now gotten everything up and running in my social media-based class with my sophomores World History students. In addition to wrapping up the first week, we’ve also finished our introductory discussions about history as a discipline, what purposes it serves, what ethics govern historical research and writing, and what type of sources historians draw on. Today marked our discussion about the types of sources historians draw on and the considerations that we need to keep in mind as we explore tertiary, secondary, and primary sources.
In my first few years of teaching I addressed this issue in what in retrospect was a pretty banal manner. Dealing with definitions, abstract examples, and a list of types of sources that would fall into each category generally bored students. In my third year teaching I had a masterstroke (well, a masterstroke of very small scale) of brilliance and realized that I can effectively convey this very point in a much more interesting manner — through music!
Now, I have colleagues that are far better at incorporating the study of music into their lectures and class work on a consistent basis, which is something I’ve yet found a way to do authentically (I’m much better with art; unsurprising, I suppose, given my art history background.) However, for this particular issue I realized that one song could effectively help me convey this otherwise challenging (and slightly dry, yet important) concept. I don’t remember precisely when this idea occurred to me, or whether hearing the song on the radio spurred me into creative thought, but for whatever reason Bowling For Soup’s song “1985” struck me as a great example of a secondary source.
So, in order to provide an accompanying primary source, I scoured the Billboard Charts from 1985 and selected one of the most popular songs from that year, George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.” (Or was the song officially performed by WHAM! I can never figure it out as some sites say that it’s WHAM! and others that it’s Michael. Better file this mystery with how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop.) The instrumentation, production, and overall aesthetic of the song is so thoroughly eighties, so I thought it constituted a good primary source in its ability to capture much of the music from the decade. Lamentably, I’m now realizing that I might have to exhume a different song from that year as students will now likely assume that George Michael’s version is some campy simulacrum of Seether’s song “Careless Whisper.” Sigh…the tyranny of the contemporary.
I provide students with the lyrics for both songs (gotta have something to actively read!) and then after having listened to both songs (starting with Michael/WHAM! and then moving onto Bowling For Soup) I then pose the question:
“Which of these two songs is the more accurate representation of the year 1985?”
Every year students debate this issue heatedly (or as heatedly as any conversation involving WHAM! can possibly be) and inevitably waver back and forth between the primary source and the secondary source. Typically students find the Bowling For Soup song more representative of the year because it is more encompassing and covers so many names, events, films, and other minutiae from that year. However, other students lobby on behalf of “Careless Whisper” because it is from the year in question. Eventually, the students catch onto the point I’m trying to make and we end up addressing the way in which Bowling For Soup’s song is the 2004 vision of what most defined the year 1985, but that in and of itself, the song “1985” does not — and cannot — fully capture the essence of the past.
I suppose this activity could be similarly extended with other songs that deal with historical subject matter (of which there are so many, right?) and songs from the era in question. Though I don’t teach American History, I’ve thought that something similar could be done with They Might Be Giants’ song “James K. Polk” and a recording of one of Polk’s campaign songs (which I can’t find on Lala.com, unsurprisingly. Actually, Lala.com doesn’t allow me to embed the TMBG’s song, so I’ll just embed all other songs that they have involving James K. Polk.) Hopefully this might provide some ideas about how to convey the surprisingly unenticing topic of historical sources. Enjoy!