Engaging Students with Primary Sources

Professor Pollack teaching students Professor Rachel Pollack and her students explore primary source materials from the GW Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center. (Photo by Quinn Baron, BA ‘14)

When Professor Rachel Pollack began teaching a course titled, “Framing the Visual World of Shakespeare,” she wanted to find printed works written contemporaneous to Shakespeare to provide her students an insight into his time. Perhaps examining primary material would prompt her students to study deeper.

A colleague pointed her to the I. Edward Kiev Judaica Collection, where she found Hebraica and Judaica written around Shakespeare’s time. Then, working with librarians in the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC), Pollack was able to expand the selection to materials in other GW collections.

Encountering primary materials in class inspired her students. “My students have even found things we didn’t pull on the class day,” says Pollack. That first semester of teaching the Shakespeare course, one of her students discovered a 16th century edition of Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, in the GW collection. “Shakespeare used it for writing Othello,” Pollack explains.

“I thought, ‘Well, why am I not doing this for my Dutch class, as well?’” she says about her “Dutch Painting at the National Gallery of Art” course, which she had been teaching for six years. As a writing-intensive course, it had a component of library instruction, but Pollack hadn’t thought of using primary materials for that course until she saw the impact of source materials on students in her Shakespeare course.

Now she teaches three courses and each semester she brings her students to the SCRC for a class day with source materials. Pollack describes a big difference in her students since using these resources. Before, she would encourage her students to use primary materials, but they only understood it in an abstract sense. “Now,” she says, “the books are right there in front of them. They really go right to the source. It’s an exciting thing to work with the material.”

This semester, one of her students is examining Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1628, shortly after Shakespeare’s death. One of the earliest writings on the pre-medical subject of melancholy, the book is well-known to psychologists. The student is using it to write a paper about proto-psychology and Shakespeare.

“It really does make a difference,” Pollack says, “They’re not afraid to look through the books anymore.”