Picture This: Using Images to Engage Student Research

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    I’ve only recently emerged from what felt like an avalanche of exams and essays. I dislike the frantic rush to finish the academic year: students are universally stressed about grades and at my community college many are trying to make critical decisions about transferring to four-year colleges.

The end, however, is a great time to reflect on what did and did not work during the semester. In my previous blog I offered some tips for conducting library research with first and second year undergraduates. This week I’d like to share a favorite research-based project that I assign to all students in introductory-level United States history classes. My next blog will explore the ways in which the reference librarians and I support the students in their research during library instruction.

The goals of my favorite assignment are two-fold.  First, I want students to conduct research using the library catalog, including books and databases of electronic resources. Having a general understanding of how these resources work will enable the students to successfully complete not only this assignment but also prepare them for research in other college-level courses.  Second, I use this project as a way to supplement the course with content that is not directly addressed in the course syllabus. Click here to read the assignment.

Now that you’ve read the assignment pause for a moment and imagine the most iconic photographs from the last one-hundred years of United States history.   

Perhaps Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” comes to mind or Alfred Eisenstaedt’s Times Square shot of a sailor kissing a woman in celebration of World War II’s end. Or maybe the haunting image of a naked Vietnamese child running from napalm captured by Nick Ut in 1972. Each of these images are so famous that they have become representative of the eras from which they originated. But what about the millions of photographs with which we are not familiar: native children dressed in the clothes of white men; a black man racing a bicycle; teenage girls standing outside a textile mill. What can these stories tell us about the history of the United States? And, how can these images provide a window through which we can help our students conduct library research in survey-level courses?

For this assignment I gather an assortment of images from the time period of the course; some are photographs, many are images of artwork. I print the images in black and white on standard paper. I provide students with a web address so that they can easily bring up the image on a screen. Illustrations of colonial America, political cartoons, and paintings by John Singleton Copley are among the images assigned to students in United States History I. For United States History II the images cover everything from post-Reconstruction race relations to the counterculture of the 1960s. The shared characteristic in each class is that the students are not allowed to choose their image. Usually I get to the classroom ahead of time to randomly place the images at workstations in the classroom.

I want the students to be challenged to learn about something new while engaging in hands-on research. “Migrant Mother,” therefore, is not a desirable image for this project because it is so recognizable as a depression-era image. I also want the students -- as much as possible -- to become excited about their topics. Admittedly, this goal is easier to achieve in US History II. In my experience a student who has not been particularly engaged in the course to this point in the semester will become notably more interested when assigned an image of an athlete or entertainer.

Can you think of topics that might excite your students to think about historical research in a new light? Play around on the internet now that the semester is over and there is time to reflect on what has and has not worked in the past.  Enter phrases such as “Native Americans and sports history” and “Black Panthers breakfast” into a search engine for images.  Then, try to imagine the sparks these images may ignite as students discover that each image truly has its own story to tell -- one that they had likely never considered before this moment in your class.  

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.