Talking to Teachers about Teaching History

Later today, I’m going to talk to a group of history teachers in North Carolina about teaching history in college. This year, these teachers are focusing on both building and evaluating good historical arguments and using writing to support learning history and the historical method. I’m very excited to learn more about how these teachers work, but the goal of my talk is to communicate what we do in the college classroom, the kinds of students we tend to encounter, and how we want to see our students develop over the course of our program.

In advance of the meeting today, I got a series of questions from the moderator of the event. They begin with some general questions about the historical method including how do I define it, what constitutes an effective historical argument, and how these produce historical knowledge. These are difficult questions in large part because history is, comparatively, a methodologically weak discipline. Many of us are satisfied with the old adage that we know a good historical argument when we see it. That said, most of us do recognize that there is a reciprocal relationship between good arguments and good evidence. Good evidence supports good arguments and the best arguments tend to naturalize what we know about the past.

When historians step back as far as they can from our field and our arguments, we tend to realize that there are kinds of questions that interest us (or are relevant to our 21st century lives and conversations among 21st century historians) and these kinds of questions tend to anticipate certain kinds of arguments which in turn naturalize certain kinds of evidence. The relationship between evidence and argument remains one the trickiest for history students to grasp. There’s a tendency to want FACTS to exist somewhere in the ether (or in the ARCHIVE) waiting for eager historians to harvest them and arguments to exist as forensic exercises that are good or bad based on how neatly the facts support this or that point.

There’s a related question about the future of history that I think is particularly useful. For history to matter in the future, it has to remain relevant and while students are often eager to recite to me George Santayana’s chestnut: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is probably too optimistic a reading of the power of history, but I do think there’s a growing sense of urgency among historians to create a past that somehow informs the present in a meaningful way.  

The second group of questions involve what college faculty like to see in students entering university. In my experience, our students tend to have decent factual knowledge about the past especially students considering the history major or minor or who have had some AP classes. Students seem particularly comfortable with facts that support narratives, which are a kind of arguments that typically has an implicit rather than explicit goal. In other words, narratives are a particularly obscure way of naturalizing historical evidence. 

The best students have started to recognize that historians construct historical narratives more or less like any other historical argument. Ironically, the media’s fascination with a kind of “post-truth” world often encourages students to view conventional historical narratives (and especially anything that they consider “revisionist”) with intense critical suspicion. They know, for example, to question the heroic narratives of the founders even if they’re not entirely sure when and why that narrative has come into existence. At the same time, they can be preoccupied with what they zealously call “BIAS” in historical sources and arguments. Bias appears to mean any source that is not “objective” (or better impartial). In general, I discourage them from using the term bias (and usually make a joke about bias being largely discontinued in the 1970s and being replaced with radials) largely because it seems to prevent them from taking a source for what it is. Over the course of the semester, I try to get students to recognize “bias” as another source of historical information. When Augustus composed his Res Gestae, it was obviously biased, but that bias itself is an important source of information about political representations and rhetoric in the Roman period. If anything, a sense of bias should encourage us to read more closely and critically.

I do sometimes wonder where students develop this aversion to bias and whether we can do more to normalize the presence of bias in sources and make it yet another opportunity for critical engagement rather than some kind of miasma to be avoided.

Students who tend to struggle the most in my classes are those who come from rather more ideologically limited backgrounds: international students, for example, or students who come from very small communities, certain religious backgrounds, or certain kinds of home schooling. It is not so much that they have particular perspectives on the past, but more that they have less experience unpacking the assumptions that structure historical arguments. There’s a tendency to see historical arguments are “right” (and therefore “good”) or “wrong” and therefore “bad” or even “destructive.” These students also tend to have a somewhat greater commitment to certain abstract ideas, and questions and arguments involving these ideas are often pretty difficult to develop at the scale of the classroom. Determining whether a historical figure was “greedy” for example requires a vast body of comparative, social, political, and even economic knowledge to asses what “greed” meant at a particular time and place. 

The final group of questions focus on how I develop historical thinking and arguments in my classes. I suspect that I’ll introduce my courses on three levels. 

First, by introductory level course tends to be a kind of walled garden. I regard the textbook as less a narrative and more a collection of facts that can, if used in an argument, become evidence. I also introduce students to a garden of primary sources which they can likewise deploy in various ways to support arguments. Because these classes have a wide range of students at a wide range of levels and with a wide range of learning goals (most of whom are not history majors or minors or even humanities majors or mines), we tend to concentrate on constructing written arguments. In this regard, the class is pretty remedial and designed less to impart a particular body of historical knowledge and more to reinforce a method of argumentation (e.g. thesis statements, primary sources, evidence, et c.). There’s a basic level of information literacy involved in this as well (finding and using evidence and moving from general knowledge to specifics) and this is consistent with learning goals in the modern university. 

In my mid-level, historical methods class taken by history majors and minors, I continue to focus on making good arguments, but shift the context from primary sources to secondary sources. The goal is to have students not only develop more robust basic research and writing skills, but also to use those skills to venture beyond the garden walls. To do this successfully, we tend to focus on making academic arguments and this involves both dissecting academic works (through article and book reviews) as well as developing our own arguments with particular attention to the “who cares?” question. The culminating exercise is a prospectus or a proposal assignment. This short paper includes both a thesis and a literature review which demonstrate how a particular historical argument both is possible on the basis of existing archival resources (broadly defined) and contributes to an existing body of academic knowledge.

Our upper level courses, which ideally build on both the walled garden and the “who cares?” question introduced in the lower level classes. It introduces students to narrower range of sources and scholarship which provides the foundation for deeper engagement and more subtle arguments. 

Finally there are a number of questions that relate to how we motivate and inspire students at the college level. I’ve found that group work and various approaches associated with “flipped classroom” pedagogy has improved student engagement and attendance. In lower level classes, engagement has always struck me as the biggest hurdle, and group writing which generally disliked by students, allows more advanced students to guide less advanced students, discourages students from checking out (as they might during lectures), and creates a kind of boisterous and relaxed classroom that makes a 2.5 hour night class less painful. Much of the group work is digitally mediate and uses wikis, Google maps, and a relatively well-equipped “active learning” classrooms to make group work easier and less complicated.

In my methods class, I now include a 5 week session in a local archive which gives students hands-on experiences with professional archivists who work with them on small, but real projects associated with their collections. This not only allows students to get a sense for what a professional career in a historical-adjacent field might be (that is as an archivist), but also get their hands dirty (so to speak) in real collections of documents. 

Ironically my upper level classes, which tend to be mostly occupied by history majors, tend to be the least pedagogically sophisticated. I stick to a more standard lecture/discussion format with reading in primary and secondary sources serving as a scaffolding for both lectures and discussions. Since I don’t teach upper level courses often or very regularly, I tend to keep things pretty simple.


That’s what I’m thinking about this morning as I prepare for this conversation with secondary school history teachers! I’ll report back next week on what I learned which I think will be useful in the run up into the fall semester! 

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