ARCHIVED—The Flip Side of the Coin is Real Research
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Coinage that is no longer in use has no value as money, but it does have value as an historical artifact and can serve as the basis for a research project. James Kostuchuk buys old coins in bulk on eBay and uses them for an assignment to help students learn how to do research, identify legitimate sources, cite those sources and use them in a research paper.
That is a project very much like what real archivists and other historical researchers do, he explains. They are confronted with artifacts that are not self-interpreting and they have to make connections and produce research work about them.
Before assigning the work, Kostuchuk sorts the coins according to the difficulty of the research challenge they present. An Arabic coin, for example, presents more of a challenge because it features not only a possibly different language and script from what students are used to, but also dates drawn from a different calendar.
He begins the assignment by talking about research (See "Three 'Simple' Questions for Inquiring Minds") and the challenges it might give the students. Then he gives each student a coin. Students love this aspect of the project, he says, because they get to keep the coin.
Having the coin, of course, means that they might lose it, so the very first task they have to accomplish is to prepare a pencil rubbing of the two sides of the coin and take note of any information, such as dates, words and symbols.
Students then begin the research. They are allowed to consult any sources available to them, except Kostuchuk himself. Their first challenge is to find sources that can help them. "They can be quite creative," says Kostuchuk. "If they get a coin with a foreign language on it, they will often try and find someone who speaks that language."
The students can be asked to contribute three levels of work on the project, which makes it suitable for students with varying abilities and at varying ages.
- At the simplest level, they can write out some facts they have learned about the coin, giving their sources for this information.
- Students who are university-bound can be asked to provide a list of sources in Modern Language Association style.
- Finally, students can be asked to produce a research essay based on what they have found.
The last is a particularly interesting challenge, because the essay has to be based on what students learn doing their research. In a typical history assignment, students will be told to research Jacques Cartier and can be confident there will be plenty of information on which to base their work. With the coins, they may end up writing about Poland in 1934 or even analyzing the symbols on the coin because that is the only thing they have been able to determine for certain.
This is exactly what real historians and archivists do, says Kostuchuk. "In history we write about what we have learned and that is often something very different from what we hoped to learn when we started."