Teaching Thursday: The Historians Crap

In keeping with my end of the semester reflections on teaching, I’m starting to feel that my History 240: The Historians Crap Craft is tired. Part of this is because, like my Greek History class, students seem to increasingly struggle with lectures. More than that, students seem to be excited about spending time in the archives with historical documents and our colleagues in Special Collections seem eager to open their collections to students and classes. Finally, when I designed this class originally, it was only for history majors, but in recent years it has been required for minors and now for students majoring in Indian Studies. More than that, I am getting a steady stream of students who are just interested in history and are testing the waters to see if this is a major for them. In other words, this class is now a recruitment tool for majors as well as a foundational course for the degree.

These considerations have shifted my priorities for the class. At present the class is taught as two courses. I dedicated the first seven weeks to the history of the discipline and practice of history from Homer to the present. The second seven weeks focus on a series of assignments designed to prepare students to write their capstone paper (and to introduce them to basic forms of writing used in other history classes like the book review or prospectus). I explain that seven weeks of the second part of the course simulate the first half of their capstone course and reinforce the need to work efficiently to discover sources, build bibliography, and articulate a research question.

In the spring of 2020, I want to break the class into three courses. 

1. Introduction to the Discipline of History (5 weeks). This course will devote a week to Ancient and Medieval historical practices, history in Renaissance and Reformation, 19th century history and the formation of the discipline, 20th century historical practices, and, finally, 21st century priorities. This will loosely chart the development of historical practices and the emergence of the professional discipline with an emphasis on explaining how certain fundamental characteristics of historical thinking developed over time: primary and secondary sources, citation, plagiarism, peer review, articles and monographs, and departments and associations. 

2. Archives (4 weeks). Budgeting a week at the start of the semester for introduction and organization will cut into our time in the archives, but I think four weeks might be the perfect duration for a short, public facing archival process. The first week will be a general introduction to Special Collections, and this is something that our friends in the archives already offer. The next three weeks will focus on three things: a single document or (small) collection of documents, understanding its significance, and producing something public from it as a group (or a number of small groups). 

3. Producing a Prospectus (5 weeks). One of the threshold concepts in our history program is understanding how to problematize a historical thesis. In fact, during our capstone presentation at the end of every semester, it is possible to draw a clear and distinct line between students who understand how their work fits into a scholarly conversation and those who do not. The former start with a brief sketch of historiography and the latter start with a description of events. While it is difficult to say that one approach is substantively better than the other, the former tends to reflect disciplinary practices more closely and the latter tends toward antiquarianism. In my experience, antiquarianism serves a useful purpose only when it is approached critically and this is a leap that students sometimes struggle to make. Framing the last 5 weeks of the class around writing a prospectus with a substantial bibliography and a clearly problematized thesis give students experience with this kind of thinking well in advance of their capstone paper. More than that, it serves as a kind of “live fire” drill in preparing a prospectus efficiently in 5 weeks which parallels the first five weeks in their capstone course. In my experience, students who are able to problematize their thesis in the first month of their capstone course are significantly more likely to be successful than those who take longer. 

Students obviously struggle with both the abstraction of historiography and the complexities of the academic discourse, but these can’t be avoided if our goal is to produce thoughtful and critical students in the discipline. On the other hand, most students are drawn to history not because of the invigorating debates between distinguished scholars, but because they are curious about the past as the past. Giving them time in the archives to handle documents and explore collections feeds that sense of wonder and giving them a chance to put these collections in context allows them to see how their interest in the past and the discipline of history can mutually reinforce one another. This kind of gently introduction to the discipline might help us recruit some majors from our required class and make the course itself more enjoyable. 

 

 

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