Rebekah Pite, Associate Professor of History

 Q: In HIST 106, Introduction to History, students are expected to learn how professional historians analyze primary sources. Can you tell me about the use of primary sources in your Food Histories section?

A: One of my main goals is that students work with primary and secondary sources together to construct a narrative about the past. Their research project asks them to use a cookbook as a primary source to gain insight into a historical moment. I take an unconventional item that many wouldn’t think of as an historical source and show how the students can use it, together with secondary material, to learn a lot about the past. We start with smaller types of primary sources like one recipe or an advertisement. We also look at scholars who have used cookbooks as primary sources to see how they combine their analysis with secondary sources to tell a story about a particular time, group of people, or individual. Then the students work towards choosing their own cookbook or series of cookbooks to work with for their final projects.

Q: The library bought a collection of cookbooks that was heavily used by this class. Was that a collection you identified or knew something about?

A: There’s a large culinary archive at the University of Michigan, where I was a graduate student. When I became interested in developing a collection for Lafayette, I got in touch with their archivist, Janice Longone, and worked with her to develop a list of available cookbooks that are rare and also representative of different ethnic groups in the United States. I needed primary sources that were in English, and that’s Jan’s specialization. There were a couple of cookbooks that Skillman already owned, so of course we didn’t purchase those. But the Lafayette Library purchased a large basic collection of some of the most important culinary literature in the U.S. – with a focus on early cookbooks and cookbooks of different ethnic groups – as well as a couple of international sources. It was fantastic for the library to buy these sources because I couldn’t have done the course without them; they’re essential to teaching this course.

Q: Information literacy is a slippery term. What does it mean to you in the context of an Introduction to History course?

A: I want students to come out of this class with an ability to conduct independent research, in particular to be able to find a primary source that interests them. In this case, they have a genre already identified for them: the genre of the cookbook. Let’s say a student is interested in Chinese cookery in the U.S. How can he or she identify relevant cookbooks and find secondary sources on the topic? A key part of the research for this class is not only finding the primary but also the secondary sources that help to fill in the story. And the students need to be able to find those sources themselves—whether they’re book chapters in the library, scholarly articles on a search engine like JSTOR, or books and journals housed elsewhere. We talked a lot about finding things at other libraries and ordering them early. There’s a long lead time on this project so that students can start their research ahead of time. Because this is largely a first and second year course, some of the students are learning how to use the library’s different search mechanisms for the first time.

Q: You worked with Library Instruction Coordinator Lijuan Xu to flesh out the information literacy components for this course. Tell me more about this collaboration.

A: The class met twice with Lijuan. During the first session, we talked about identifying the cookbook or primary source, as well as general information literacy skills like how to navigate around the library website. One of the phenomenal things was that Lijuan tailored everything specifically to our course. Lijuan and I met before the library sessions, and she tailored exercises to help the students develop their information literacy skills within the context of the course. The second session was focused on finding secondary sources. So let’s say a student chose to work with a Tex-Mex cookbook from the 1950’s. How could they find information about the history of Mexico and Mexican immigration? During this session, the students began to work on their own projects with Lijuan’s assistance. Lijuan did an excellent job helping the students understand how to conduct research and how to navigate dead-ends or challenges.

Q: I imagine it’s a new experience for many students to a) discover that there are cookbooks in the library and b) to look at cookbooks with a critical eye. What feedback did you receive from students regarding this process of re-looking at information in cookbooks in a new way?

A: One of the best comments that I received was from a student evaluation. The student wrote that this course made her think about history in a whole different way. Through using the cookbooks, it opened her mind to what a historical source can be. So the fact that the library has this collection, that students now know that it has this collection, and that they see there are serious scholars who are using cookbooks as sources broadens their sense of what history and historical research can mean. I think a lot of students are surprised at first, kind of puzzled, and maybe even nervous about the idea of doing more than just cooking with a cookbook. But by the end of the semester, when they all present on their research, they have become experts on their sources and that’s really rewarding to see. By taking an everyday object that many students have never thought of as being part of the academic realm…it broadens their understanding of what types of sources one can work with in a scholarly way.

Q: Do you think that a history course is, in any way, better suited to integrating information literacy than courses in other disciplines?

A: That’s an interesting question. The easy answer is: I think there’s a tremendous overlap between historical questions (who wrote this, why, in what context, what kind of evidence do they use to make their argument, etc.) and the idea of information literacy. We have this whole idea of historiography already, which is basically a body of scholarship and the trends in that scholarship and the ways in which it has developed over time and place. I don’t know that all disciplines have such a concept at the heart of what they do.

Q: Which online databases do you teach students in this course when there’s no natural match for food history sources?

A: I give the students a lot of the literature on food history because it’s difficult to find. Some of the best work’s been done by anthropologists, sociologists, and literary scholars. In a sense, it’s quite interdisciplinary. What I try to get the students to do through the databases is find the historical context that helps us understand food history in specific moments and places, with specific subjects. So we look at JSTOR and ProQuest – the typical scholarly databases and journals that one would use for historical research – but we add that together with the less conventional cookbooks. Sometimes a famous cookbook has been studied before, but it’s hard to find those articles because they’re published in relatively small journals. There are some food journals but they’re often not on the major electronic databases so it’s a challenge. And book chapters are a challenge as well. Sometimes the text has an introduction and then certainly they can look at footnotes and other citations from relevant secondary scholarship, but it depends. Students often start out trying to do research that’s just about their specific cookbook when they need to be doing much broader research. Eventually they become the expert on their text and its broader context.

Q: In many of your classes, you require students to engage in peer review. What does in-class peer review provide the students?

A: I think when students peer review, they learn as much from revising someone else’s paper as they do from having their paper revised. The process of looking critically at someone else’s work helps you not only become a better editor but also a better writer. Involving the whole class asks the students to commit equally to working on their writing and editing skills rather than having students defer to a small set of people who are the so-called “good editors.” Learning how to revise their own work is a really important skill even in future classes where the students might not do peer editing. I like them all to take responsibility for it.

One of the main objectives of this class is that the students come out with an appreciation of writing as a process, as something that benefits from advanced planning as well as tremendous amounts of revision. And I mean a kind of energetic revision, not just fixing a comma here or there, but actually getting their hands dirty and making a much better paper. Then the students present and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I read your paper at an earlier stage and I can see how far you’ve come or what you’ve done.’ They invest in each other’s work in a more serious manner and it creates this sense of community within the class, which I really like.

I give them a handout when they do peer editing, so it’s not just free peer editing. One of the key things I have them look at is the person’s argument and how it relates to their evidence, both primary and secondary. Is there a tight link between them? Sometimes, especially in the early revision process, a reviewer will find a disconnect between the argument the writer is trying to make and their evidence. Or the writer might not have enough evidence and need to do more research to substantiate what they’re trying to say. We focus on that link between the argument and evidence when we read scholarly articles, so that’s one of the main threads that runs throughout my classes.

Q: Would you expect something different of upper-level students in terms of research?

A: I just taught my upper-level seminar in which the students also have to write a research paper based on their analysis of primary and secondary sources. One of the reasons I designed the intro course in this way is that it gives the students a tangible primary source genre to start with. I don’t do that for the advanced courses. I encourage my upper-level students to identify a topic and then find the sources on their own. So I’m asking more of them in terms of their information literacy, to use your term, or in terms of what they can find and work with. We also focus a lot more on writing skills and the writing process in this course because many of the students are new to history and college level writing. A later course gives them the opportunity to peer edit and pay attention to the same skills, but the more advanced students come in with a better sense of how to identify an argument in an article or how to write one. Of course, they can (in fact, we all can) still continue to improve these things.

Q: Any last thoughts?

A: I think the library here is a tremendous resource for faculty and students alike. The emphasis on tailoring the library sessions to individual courses and then working with specific students is a unique opportunity that just doesn’t exist to the same extent at a large research university. This collection and the collaboration of Lijuan and the ongoing support of everyone at the library, including the reference desk, makes this kind of class possible in a way that it wouldn’t be in a different context. So I’m very grateful.

I know my intro students worked very closely with the reference librarians and talked to them, especially Lijuan because they met her in these two sessions. But even in the seminar I just taught, several students mentioned in their written feedback or in their end-of-semester presentations how useful the reference desk had been to them in developing these projects, which as I mentioned asked a lot more of them in terms of identifying a range of primary and secondary sources. A lot of them were astounded by how much they could benefit from that interaction and were specific in naming it, so that really speaks to how important the relationship can be. So in this first course, it’s like a familiarization process, but I really saw in the capstone course that it became an in-depth kind of interaction. The students always benefit from being reminded that the library and librarians here are a tremendous resource that they should take advantage of.

* * * An abridged version of this Q&A appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Bytes & Books (Volume 23, no. 1).