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HIS1101 : Historical Sources and Methods

  • Offered for Year: 2020/21
  • Module Leader(s): Dr Benjamin Houston
  • Lecturer: Dr Robert Dale, Dr Shane McCorristine
  • Owning School: History, Classics and Archaeology
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
Semester 2 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0


This module seeks to introduce students to the raw materials upon which historical research is based, namely primary sources produced at the time, to encourage critical engagement with these sources, and familiarise students with a range of methods and techniques necessary to examine and interpret primary sources as historical evidence.

While historical research frequently draws on the ideas, arguments and interpretations of other scholars, it ultimately rests on a deep and critical engagement with primary materials. Original documents take a wide variety of forms, ranging from texts (like letters, diaries, legislation, and official reports), to visual sources (such as paintings, posters, photographs, satirical cartoons), to the material traces of the past (objects, buildings and landscapes).

The approach is not intended to be exhaustive, the rich array of primary evidence is one of the many things that makes history such a dynamic and interesting discipline, but aims to ground students in the types of source they will most commonly encounter over the course of an undergraduate degree, and to equip them with the analytical tools to critically evaluate primary sources. We recognise that many students (although not all) will have some basic introduction to basic source analysis skills (perhaps based on thinking on who, what, when and why was produced), but this module aims to deepen and consolidate these approaches.

On successful completion of the module students will have a more critical and nuanced understanding of the circumstances in which particular sources were produced, as well as how, when, and with what purposes historians might turn to them. Most importantly, students will appreciate that primary sources, irrespective of the forms they take, are far from transparent windows on the past. Indeed, the primary documents available to us are a very imperfect historical record. They are often highly mediated and selective records, shaped by decisions at the time as to what information was important, and how to record it, as well as subsequent decisions taken by archivists and other gatekeepers about what records to preserve, and how to organise that material. Evidence then rarely, if ever, speaks for itself. Yet with careful examination, contextualisation, and interpretation they can form the basis for research. This module will give students the knowledge, methods, skills, experience and confidence to draw more fully on primary evidence in their work at this and subsequent stages of the degree.

Specifically, the module will
•       introduce students in a supported way to some of the basic typologies of primary source materials, most notably, archival/textual, visual, aural/oral, material, and particular forms of source material within these categories.
•       Develop the critical source analysis skills required at undergraduate level, including how to identify the key features and provenance of sources
•       Introduce students to a variety of techniques in engaging with primary sources e.g. reading against the grain, placing sources into context, triangulation between sources.
•       Give students experience of how to find and access primary materials, particularly in online / digitised resources freely available, and the resources hosted and subscribed to by the university.
•       Be introduced to the University’s Special Collections & Archives team and their collections as a key resource for their three years at Newcastle;
•       teach students how to reference different types of primary sources, and where to look for information about specific referencing practices
•       Develop the students’ abilities and confidence in writing a research essay based on primary sources.
•       link the content and approach of this module to Evidence & Argument, complementing its focus on historiography through an examination of the methodologies required to work with particular forms of source material.

Outline Of Syllabus

The module will be taught via a mixture of lectures, seminars, workshops and essay surgeries.

A lecture series of twelve one-hour lectures will run throughout the module, on the basis of one per week. These lectures will focus on exploring the most common types of primary sources, what kinds of historical evidence they contain, and the methodologies that historians employ when working with these kinds of material. The intention is that lectures will not focus on purely technical issues relating to particular sources, but case-studies of how a particular type of sources has been used by historians of a particular field, for example, how have historians of the English Civil War used political tracts, or how have letters of petition written to the Stalinist party-state been used by historians of the Soviet Union.

Lectures may include the following topics:

1.       Introduction – Distinguishing between Primary and Secondary Sources
2.       What are archives? Who are archivists? and how do they shape our understanding of history?
3.       Official sources generated by states and institutions
4.       Newspapers and how to read them
5.       Ego-documents (letters, diaries, memoirs)
6.       Private institutions and organisations (businesses; charities etc)
7.       Visual Sources, visual languages and “Eye-witnessing”
8.       Political tracts and ideological texts
9.       Material Culture and its role as evidence (Objects, buildings, landscapes)
10.       Oral Histories and Listening the past
11.       How to research primary materials (common research techniques for primary sources)
12.       Conclusion – What has this module explored, and what it teaches/what you need to remember in subsequent modules.

A seminar series of nine two-hour seminars will run throughout the module. Each seminar group will explore a particular topic closely related to the research expertise of the individual seminar leader, primarily through an examination of particular forms of primary source material, and the methods used by particular scholars to work with particular forms of evidence. The seminars will broadly map against the lectures so that the information introduced in lectures can be discussed in detail in relation to the research area. It is envisaged that reading each week will be a mixture of primary sources, and texts which illuminate particular approaches to those or similar sources. The intention is that students will spend around half of the time each week engaged in source analysis or source-related skills work, rather than simply concentrating on specific content. For example, a seminar group might explore over the course of the history of the French Revolution via political tracts, journalism, satirical cartoons, diplomatic correspondence, police reports, economic statistics, soldiers’ letters and diaries, and other sources.

Each seminar group will attend a two-hour Archives and Special Collection Workshop with colleagues from Special Collections during the module. This will introduce them to approaches to working with primary materials, best practices for working with archives and archivists, and the wealth of useful materials special collections contains.

The assessed components of the module will be supported by two essay surgeries of two hours in duration, during which they will have opportunities to speak individually and/or in small groups with their seminar leader on any issues they are facing with their research essays. This is in addition to opportunities of seeking advice in Feedback, Guidance and Consultation Hours.

Teaching Methods

Please note that module leaders are reviewing the module teaching and assessment methods for Semester 2 modules, in light of the Covid-19 restrictions. There may also be a few further changes to Semester 1 modules. Final information will be available by the end of August 2020 in for Semester 1 modules and the end of October 2020 for Semester 2 modules.

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Structured Guided LearningLecture materials361:0036:00Lectures
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion471:0047:0040% of Guided Independent study
Structured Guided LearningAcademic skills activities22:004:00Assessment support guided learning: 1 for documentary analysis assessment, 1 for the essay.
Structured Guided LearningAcademic skills activities12:002:00Structured material on working with historical archives.
Guided Independent StudyDirected research and reading461:0046:0040% of Guided Independent study
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching92:0018:00Seminars
Structured Guided LearningStructured research and reading activities62:0012:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study351:0035:0020% of Guided Independent study
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

As a Stage 1 module, aside from an in-depth understanding of the content of the module, the teaching methods, which focus on small group work, presentational and oral skills, team work, lecture delivery and independent research and writing, relate to the core learning outcomes of supporting students in developing sophisticated research skills across a wide range of sources, being able to synthesise the information they collect and form convincing and coherent arguments.

Independent learning is essential to this module: students are expected to develop skills of source evaluation, critical reading and note-taking in an independent and effective manner. Seminar teaching complements these skills by allowing students the opportunity to share and debate information gathered independently. In addition, students will be required to work in small teams to deliver a poster and oral presentation, enhancing their team-working experience and skills. Oral skills of argument and presentation will be developed. Moreover, a significant part of seminar teaching will test the development of primary source analysis and problem solving.

Small group teaching will allow the students to explore ideas and patterns together in a structured way, and great emphasis will be placed on primary sources and their interpretation.

Assessment Methods

Please note that module leaders are reviewing the module teaching and assessment methods for Semester 2 modules, in light of the Covid-19 restrictions. There may also be a few further changes to Semester 1 modules. Final information will be available by the end of August 2020 in for Semester 1 modules and the end of October 2020 for Semester 2 modules.

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Research paper2A75A 3000-word research essay based on primary sources related to their seminar topic
Written exercise2M252 x 500 word (1000 words total) documentary commentaries based on primary sources provided by the seminar tutor
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

This module (1) supports and assesses student progression to university and (2) endeavours to support their skills development, including academic and employability.

The research essay introduce students to the nature of independent learning at university level. Organisational and time management skills are to the fore here. The research essay emphasises independent thinking and learning (supported by the Module Team), research literacy and finding skills, writing and structuring skills and working to deadlines. Submitted work tests intended knowledge and skills outcomes, develops key skills in research, reading and writing. The online primary source referencing test encourages students to get into good referencing habits around unusual primary source materials.

All Erasmus students at Newcastle University are expected to do the same assessment as students registered for a degree.

Study-abroad, non-Erasmus exchange and Loyola students spending semester 1 only are required to finish their assessment while in Newcastle. This will take the form of an alternative assessment, as outlined in the formats below:

Modules assessed by Coursework and Exam:
The normal alternative form of assessment for all semester 1 non-EU study abroad students will be one essay in addition to the other coursework assessment (the length of the essay should be adjusted in order to comply with the assessment tariff); to be submitted no later than 12pm Friday of week 12. The essays should be set so as to assure coverage of the course content to date.

Modules assessed by Exam only:
The normal alternative form of assessment for all semester 1 non-EU study abroad students will be two 2,000 word written exercises; to be submitted no later than 12pm Friday of week 12. The essays should be set so as to assure coverage of the course content to date.

Modules assessed by Coursework only:
All semester 1 non-EU study abroad students will be expected to complete the standard assessment for the module; to be submitted no later than 12pm Friday of week 12. The essays should be set so as to assure coverage of the course content to date.

Study-abroad, non-Erasmus exchange and Loyola students spending the whole academic year or semester 2 are required to complete the standard assessment as set out in the MOF under all circumstances.

This module can be made available to Erasmus students only with the agreement of the Head of Subject and of the Module Leader. This option must be discussed in person at the beginning of your exchange period. No restrictions apply to study-abroad, exchange and Loyola students.

Reading Lists