The War Department in the Classroom

February 24th, 2016

In this guest post, Zayna Bizri describes her approach to using the Papers of the War Department in the classroom and offers suggestions for those who wish to do the same. Bizri is a doctoral candidate in History at George Mason University; her dissertation is tentatively titled “Selling Her the Military: Recruiting Women into the Armed Forces in World War II”

In the Fall semester of 2015, I taught an upper-level undergraduate course, War and American Society, which focused on the connections between the military and the broader culture. I wanted my students working with primary sources as soon as possible, so I used the Papers of the War Department Project as part of a series of Workshop Days where they learned the day-to-day job of being a historian. The PWD project covered two Workshop Days.

I randomly divided students into work groups of 5-6 students each; each group selected documents to transcribe that all fit in the same theme of their choice. Each student would be responsible for transcribing at least two pages, and reviewing at least two others, meaning that each page had at least two sets of eyes on it. Most groups selected a series of documents, letters or reports on the same topic. One group found a letter that was a report of an attack on a frontier settlement and were able to follow the correspondence to its end. Two groups of six students selected 12-13 page documents; in these groups each student transcribed two pages and reviewed four, so that each student saw at least half the document.

Students needed to register as transcriptionists, and we did that during the first Workshop Day. They then browsed through the list of documents needing transcription and made their selections. The final transcriptions had to be submitted to the site by the next Workshop Day, and each group presented their findings in class.

The students enjoyed the opportunity to work with documents so early in the semester, though the eighteenth century handwriting proved confusing for several. I had thought that some of the students would use documents from the PWD project as a part of their semester-long research project. None did so, but several found documents or topics that set them on a search that led them to their eventual topic. I hoped that a few would be inspired to continue transcribing, and some have.

Based on my experience, I have a few recommendations for others who want to use the Papers in their classes.

First, coordinating with the admins of the Papers of the War Department is crucial to the success of the project. Warn them when your students will be signing up. I gave them a few days warning that 50+ new logins were coming in, and I told my students that it would take some time to get all the logins approved, so everyone was aware of the lag time.

Second, I believe that this assignment would work for either individual or group work. I opted for group work because I felt that a group was more likely to take on a large document.

Third, there is currently no way to “park” or reserve a document to transcribe at a future date. If a transcriber begins entering information on the document, other transcribers will see that it is in progress, but there is no guarantee that they will not transcribe it anyway. In our case, the group that selected the 13 page document completed their transcriptions offline, and found that in the two weeks between selecting and posting, another transcriber had completed and posted the document. In that case, they provided the transcription to me.

Finally, I believe the in-class presentation of findings was an important part of their selection process. Because they would have to present a coherent set of documents, and then answer questions about their choice, they took their time reviewing the documents, instead of picking what they thought would be the simplest set to transcribe.

I found this project to be quite successful. It introduced students to both primary source documents and the role of the digital in historical work. I will refine it for future classes based on the recommendations above.