Women's History through Family History: A Variation on a Theme

By Snider, Christy Jo | Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Women's History through Family History: A Variation on a Theme


Snider, Christy Jo, Teaching History: A Journal of Methods


The undergraduate family history project has become a standard assignment in survey courses around the country over the last twenty years--sometimes as an optional project and sometimes as a required assignment. This activity, which documents the lives of two or more generations of a family or evaluates a family member in light of a historical event, has become popular in part because it has several advantages over typical undergraduate research papers--it generates a high level of student interest, it is more difficult to plagiarize, it builds a deeper relationship between professors and their students, and it allows students to connect personally with the material presented in class. (1) In teaching a U.S. women's history course for undergraduate majors, I have modified this project to take advantage of these benefits, while at the same time using it to introduce higher-level research skills. (2)

My assignment asks students to complete an eight-to-ten page research project that focuses on a woman from their family. They examine an important event or significant experience in the life of the woman and then compare their findings to the historical scholarship on the topic. For example, students can examine their grandmothers' activities during World War II and then compare those experiences with the historical literature that describes women during the war. To do this successfully, students must familiarize themselves with and engage secondary sources on their topics, work with primary sources, and develop critical thinking and writing skills.

To make the project manageable and encourage students to work on it throughout the semester, I break the assignment into eight different stages, with three separate deadlines. (3) In stage one the students locate primary sources about the female family member that they wish to study. I encourage them to use diaries, letters, scrapbooks, photographs, family bibles, and any period newspaper clippings that might be available. Students who do not have access to a collection of family documents conduct oral interviews to gather the evidence necessary to complete the assignment.

During stage two students pick a topic upon which to situate the research. This is an important stage, because I want to ensure that students do not write a life history or biography about their female family member. Instead they must emphasize a specific topic or event in the life of the woman. While students who rely on documentary evidence are constrained to write about a subject that the material covers, those conducting oral interviews have a little more freedom in choosing a topic. I encourage students using oral interviews to discuss briefly with the interviewee what the female family member considers to be some of the most important events in her life. I also provide students with a list of ideas to help them define the scope of the project. Good topic ideas include the woman's experiences during the Great Depression, the woman's thoughts about school desegregation, whether the woman supported or opposed the women's liberation movement, what marriage and family life was like during a specific decade, the woman's experience doing wage labor, the woman's reasons for religious conversion or missionary work, and the woman's experiences participating in sports.

For stage three of the project students use the library to locate secondary sources by historians with which to compare the experiences of their subjects. During this stage, I give the students guidance on locating sources. Since I teach at a small liberal arts college, which has few women's history sources published before the mid-1980s, I warn students not to rely on just our library's collection. Instead, I encourage their use of easily accessible book and article databases, such as "WorldCat," "America: History & Life," "ArticleFirst," and "JSTOR." I want these history majors to search as widely as possible for sources, so I do not insist that they identify a minimum number of books or articles, requiring instead that they examine all relevant historical literature. …

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