Primary sources and social networking

All the student learning outcomes and objectives for my History classes come down to this: the ability to create a historical thesis and defend it by using primary sources. Without these skills, students just aren’t doing history.

The past couple of years I have revamped my courses so they focus on these skills, practiced over and over. Students do it in a constructivist way in the forums, where they post their choice of primary sources and create theses from them each week. They are assessed both as a group and later as individuals on quiz essays.

Whenever I make a change in a course, I track it carefully over time. I have seen the problems I expected to see, and have made tutorials, FAQs and feedback (both group and individual) to answer the issues: using a primary source instead of the textbook, finding primary sources, translating the skill from discussion forum to quiz essay. Citing the sources seemed to be a particular problem last semester.

So all this semester I provided resources and feedback about how to cite a photo or other visual primary source. But this obstacle is proving much more difficult. On the final exams, even when they use primary sources, they don’t cite them properly.

No, before you get out those style sheets, it’s not a problem of MLA or parenthetical citations. The problem is that they are citing each other.

Whichever student posts a source in a forum becomes the origin of the source.

Here’s an example. Megan posts an image of Jane Addams with children at Hull House. The correct citation would be something like:

Photographer unknown, “Jane Addams with a group of immigrant children” (1889), State Historical Society of Wisconsin, found at

Another student is writing a post or essay, and wants to use the photo. Instead of citing it correctly, he writes “Megan’s photo of Jane Addams” as the citation.

This isn’t an occasional thing. It’s been a consistent issue this whole year.

It happens even when they’re told not to do it, and shown many examples, and I model proper citation in my own posts. And I wonder whether it’s bigger than not following instructions.

Doesn’t social networking change the definition of a “source”? Your “friends” are now a source of information, and the trail by which they got it is often convoluted, and comes through other friends.

I think it’s because of how they share information that students won’t cite the photographer, artist, or author, or think it’s important to find out who it is. It’s easier to cite Jeff’s post, Jessica’s image, Joshua’s web site. And it makes more sense. After all, it was Jeff/Jessica/Joshua who went to all the trouble to find the source and post it for everyone to use. Why shouldn’t they get the credit?

Am I on to something? Or should I just be rounding up the usual suspects (not following instructions, being unprepared, not reading the feedback, etc)?

7 thoughts to “Primary sources and social networking”

  1. I’ve experienced similar issues with a post I’ve written on the Technology Adoption Lifecycle. I pinched a graph from Wikipedia that I clearly attribute, but time and time again I find I’m getting hits because people say it’s my image. This has happened in academic powerpoint presentations shared on SlideShare, and on blog posts on academic websites.

    At one point I was posting comments that say “I didn’t create this image, I merely reused it under the terms of the license” but it’s happened so many times now that I don’t even bother.

    It does seem like the social media culture of post trackbacks is now in conflict with longer standing notions of primary sources, and that the way you found out about a bit of informations (e.g. the connections) is being considered as important as the connections itself.

    I’m not saying that’s a good thing though mind you, just an observation…

  2. Sorry, that comment fell apart at the end LOL – still only halfway through my first coffee.

    That second to last paragraph was meant to read “…that the way you found out about a bit of information (e.g. the connections) is being considered as important as the information itself.”

    One a different note, in looking at the image I referred to a bit closer I can see there is a reference to a source in very small print, but I can’t make it out in full view, which means possibly I didn’t cite the source correctly either :S

    1. Mike, your comment makes me want to ask them to tell the class how they found the source. I do plan to add social bookmarking of sites containing sources, so maybe it would be cool to have them report how they found the information.

      And I’m glad you brought up citing on the internet – it hadn’t occurred to me but of course source citation is made sloppy when a sentence from Wikipedia is copied verbatim on 14 different cites without attribution. Hmmmm….

  3. I think it’s not a bad instinct on the part of students, actually, in that it shows what filters and aggregators they trust – in this case, their classmates. It resembles the isnad, or chain of credibility in the hadith (sayings and actions of the Prophet in Islam). Every saying has a chain of attribution – Mike heard from Lisa who was told it by her grandmother who had it from her aunt who witnessed the event at first hand. The difference is that any weak link in the chain undermines the authority of the hadith, whereas here we only see the last link in the chain: Mike shared it, and I trust Mike, so it’s good.

    What we all need to be careful about is showing the whole chain, the whole reason why we deem a source a good one. Academic citations aren’t, in fact, as revealing as they ideally would be. Author, date, page – assumption of fact-checking by someone somewhere. Every bit of evidence would, ideally, have the whole chain – trusted filter, citing source x, repeating source y, back to the really, actually, truly primary source, wherever possible.

    1. Ed, the sources I have them used are supposed to be true primary sources: a letter from a Civil War solider, a recording of a speech by FDR, Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In this case, the chain might involve translation and editing for length, but in a first-year class we might not have time to get into it. So for my purposes, it is enough if they say “Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (1830)” instead of “Samantha’s post of the painting with the naked breast and the flag”. The further attribution, to my mind, is the website where they found it.

      So you’re saying that the chain of authority is undermined when it hits the previous student, who posted the image? Often they even quote what the student wrote about it, as if that were also a primary source.

      1. Well, if we’re adapting our way of thinking about sourcing to the social media age, I guess I’d like us to think about as full a pedigree as possible. Not just the primary source, but how it came to the awareness of the end user. The chain of authority should be solid all along. My classmate C, whom I trust because she shows consistently good judgment on matters of art, posted this image, called x, made in medium M in year Y by artist A, in the context of her blogpost (citation) discussing topic z. She came by the image on Artstor (citation). The original is in gallery G, where it was photographed by photographer P. More transparent than most academic citations, and more in tune with how we tend to find things these days.

        1. So true! But there is an issue of practical expectations. For quizzes, I demand three sources, but by the final exam, it’s nine. Looking at what I’ve got this semester, where less than half are using nine truly primary sources (some are citing their textbook and my lectures, which are primary only if you’re writing about me), I woud end up making citations the point of the whole class. Making creating a thesis and supporting it the point of the whole class has about a 75% success rate. I don’t think I’ll get close with citations.

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