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HIS1101 : Historical Sources and Methods

  • Offered for Year: 2022/23
  • Module Leader(s): Professor Susan-Mary Grant
  • Teaching Assistant: Miss Harriet Palin, Miss Leanne Smith, Mr Louis Holland Bonnett, Mr Richard Hayton
  • Owning School: History, Classics and Archaeology
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
Semester 2 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0


This module introduces 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, workshop and essay surgeries.

An asynchronous lecture series of 11 one-hour lectures will run throughout the module, on the basis of one or two 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 some of the following topics:

Photography; Ideology; Newspapers; Autobiographies; Folklore; Visual Sources, visual languages and “Eye-witnessing”; Political tracts and ideological texts; Material Culture and its role as evidence (Objects, buildings, landscapes); Police records; Slave Narratives.

A seminar series of nine two-hour seminars will run throughout the module. 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 their seminars learning from the lectures and their assigned worksheets, and half engaged in source analysis or source-related skills work linked to their assessments.

Students will participate in a two-hour workshop which 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.

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Structured Guided LearningLecture materials111:0011:00These are included in student contact hours
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion541:0054:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyDirected research and reading521:0052:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching92:0018:00Seminars
Structured Guided LearningStructured research and reading activities62:0012:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesWorkshops21:002:00Assessment support guided learning: 1 for documentary analysis assessment, 1 for the essay.
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesDrop-in/surgery21:002:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study491:0049:00N/A
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, online 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. 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. Online lectures will enable students to learn about a new source type each week and thereby complement and inform the work they are doing in seminars. A workshop with teaching staff will help them engage with materials drawn from Special Collections, giving some insight into the wealth of documents on the doorstep and encouraging the further use of SC in their degree. Students will be supported in their assessments and progress through drop-in surgeries where they can bring any academic issues to the SL for discussion.

Assessment Methods

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

Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Research paper2A75A 2500-word research essay based on primary sources related to the source databases introduced
Written exercise2M251 x 500 word documentary commentary based on primary sources
Formative Assessments
Description Semester When Set Comment
Written exercise2M1 x500 word documentary commentary based on primary sources
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 formative written exercise introduces students to the practice of writing a source analysis/commentary of a primary document/image/material. This is intended to develop their skills in summarising, contextualising, and interpreting a source within a limited word count. The formative written exercise which precedes this will give students a chance to practice this and work with the feedback provided by their seminar leaders.

The research essay introduces students to the nature of independent engagement with primary sources databases at university level. They will be given some choice in deciding with primary source database/document they would like to interrogate (all provided via links on Canvas) and the task is to craft some arguments out of these sources. This will put the students on a pathway to a more confident relationship with primary source materials.

Reading Lists