All history teachers agree we should get students reading more primary sources. But how should we use them?
I have lots of books on my shelves with 1-3 page snippets of primary sources accompanied by convenient paragraph-long introductions and short study questions. Sometimes I assign these to my students. If you're familiar with AP history tests, you know that the Document-Based Questions give students primary sources consisting of very short paragraphs to analyze and write essays on. Students figure out the context and make quick judgments about the accuracy, biases, and meaning of the texts, most of which are just a few sentences.
I read an article a few years ago (I have no recollection where--maybe a classical education site? if anyone else saw it I'd love to find it again) in which the author discussed the value of reading lengthy sources, not just short selections. The reason is that the more time you spend with and author, the better you get to know him or her. The text becomes a much more personal interaction between author and reader, rather than a brief collection of sentences relaying some information.
I've thought about this a lot as I've assigned readings for students over the years in my history classes. Reading the entire text of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is a much different experience than just reading a couple of paragraphs. Reading The Communist Manifesto in its entirety gives you a better sense of Marx's personality and style of arguing than just reading a page or two (and, I have to say, it's not very pleasant). Serving our students texts that have been sliced and diced the way they typically are in anthologies of sources allows them to hear from a greater number of voices, and gives us the ability to feel happy that we are having them read "lots" of primary sources. But the trade-off is not only depth of meaning, but missing out on the personality behind the text.
For sure, some primary sources may not be worth reading in their entirety. And students can't read everything. Perhaps this simply comes down to having to make judgment calls about which texts to read short excerpts from, and which to read more of. But however we do it, I think there is great value making sure, as frequently as possible, that students have the opportunity to spend greater time with the authors they are reading in order to develop that personal interaction that isn't possible by reading a short, utilitarian snippet or two.
What do you think are the best ways to teach primary sources in history classes?