Time and the UnTextbook

The semester is looming and as per usual, I have discovered that I forgot to order textbook for my History 101: Western Civilization course. Fortunately, textbooks are not a vital cog in this course and the texts that I tend to use are fairly common.  Because I teach the course in the university’s large Scale-Up style, active learning classroom, students have ample opportunities to share books, can find search the web for key content, and spend as much time producing text than reading it. 

As readers of this blog know, I have been puttering around on two textbook projects for the last few years. One is a fairly conventional history textbook and the other is taking shape as an untextbook that leads students through the process of pulling apart conventional history texts and writing their own. I’ve been blogging my effort to pull together my various notes on this second textbook project. Two weeks ago, I wrote up a short section on sources for history. This week I deal with time, chronology, and periodization.

I haven’t quite decided whether this project will work alongside a conventional textbook or whether this untextbook will replace it entirely. Since I use an assortment of textbooks in my course, this part of the untextbook project asks students to not only critique their textbook, but also to begin to uses dates to frame their own arguments.

It’s rough, but it’s something:

Time is the medium in which history happens, but chronology represents a unique challenge to students. Some of this stems from the long-standing fear of having to memorize names and dates. Historically, survey courses courses have managed chronology in various ways. In many cases, particularly for World History and Western Civilization, topical approaches have trumped chronology as an organizing element in textbook and classroom narratives. For example, despite the contemporaneity of the Hellenistic period and the Roman Republic, they often appear in different chapters. As the goal of this class is for students to create a textbook, one of the priorities for this work is to understand how chronological conventions and periodization schemes shapes the way in which we understand the past.

At the highest level, this section unpacks the assumptions (and historical circumstances) that created the BC/AD (or BCE/CE) convention in annual dating. Some of this involves the simple recognition that BC/AD dating was not used by most of the societies that we study in the course. Then, in a slightly complex register, we can discuss how Christian dating conventions and reflect our own distinctly Western approach to organizing historical time. As a start, we can, then, demonstrate that even our most basic chronological conventions depend on historical and cultural circumstances.

Approaching chronology at a slightly more complex level involves introducing students to the basic periodizing conventions common in the student of the premodern West. For example, students should understand that the Early, Middle, and Late Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean depend in large part on material culture difference. Whereas scholars have defined the the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods in Greek history on the basis of historical events. Likewise, historians divide the Roman world into the Roman Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, but, much to students’ consternation the Roman Republic controlled an empire. In each case, divisions between the early, middle, and late carry judgements that speak to traditional views of the birth, life, and death of particular social, political, and cultural practices. Understanding the distinction between the Early Medieval, High Medieval, and Late Medieval period requires an understanding of both political and larger cultural contexts further complicating the superficially simple tripartite periodization schemes that tend to dominate high-level historical periodization.

Unpacking the scholarly and political conventions behind these periodization schemes allows students to recognize some of the decisions that textbook authors make when organizing their content. This forms the basis for a timeline exercise that starts with students preparing a timeline on the basis of the information in their textbook(s). For a single chapter, students should make a timeline of the important events, dates, and periods from their textbook? What do these names and dates tell us about the priorities of the textbook authors?

Alternately, students could be asked to make a timeline on the basis of a traditional historical question. I’ve used two:

1. How did the Athenian democracy accommodate the challenges of the Athenian Empire?
2. What caused the fall of the Roman Republic?

The first question required students to pull apart Thucydides narrative of the Peloponnesian War (usually on the basis of the Funeral Oration of Pericles, the Melian Dialogue, and the the Mytilenean Debate) and interleave it with historical events from their textbooks or another source. The second question has a greater emphasis on historical causality and pushes students to sort through the complex series of events that led to fall of the Roman Republic as well as traditional sources that critique the Republic’s decline (involving brief excerpts from Sallust and Tacitus and Augustus’s Res Gestae). Both exercises push students to understand to connect chronology with arguments and this contributes to a more general appreciation of the how periodization schemes reflect the arguments that scholars have made about the past.

Thinking about Sources for a Western Civilization Textbook

Last week I talked a bit about putting together a proposal for an un-textbook designed for an active-learning style Western Civilization class. The proposal is probably never going to amount to anything “real,” but it is designed to pull together various notes and ideas from my four semesters of teaching Western Civilization I in a Scale-Up style classroom

The little section below doesn’t really do the larger project justice. The goal of the class has been to get the students involved in writing history from the very first week. To get them going, however, I need to introduce some basic technical vocabulary (primary and secondary sources, chronological systems) and some basic tools (working in groups). I’ll bring these components into my chapters as I go (and maybe later today).


Sources are at the heart of any historical work. Historians divide their sources into two kinds. This division is largely arbitrary but it nevertheless reflects two different ways of thinking about the past.

Primary sources are sources more or less contemporary with the time in which they describe. A newspaper is a primary source. A law code is a primary source. A ancient inscription on stone is a primary source. Tweets and Facebook posts produced during an important public event like the Super Bowl or Presidential election night. As long as the document describes a contemporary event, it is a primary source.

Secondary sources are works that bring together primary sources usually to advance an argument. A history textbook, like the one that you will write in this class, is a secondary source. Articles in Wikipedia or by professional historians are secondary sources as well. These sources use primary sources to advance arguments about events in the past.

While this distinction is obvious is its most simplified form, things get more complicated in practice. For example, an ancient work of literature, like the epic poems of Homer or the history of Tacitus – are primary sources as well for the period in which they were written, but secondary sources for the period that they describe. The same might apply to, say, a history textbook written in the 1930s which described European politics before WWII. It is a primary source for attitudes toward, say, Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany in the 1930s, but a secondary source when it pulls together sources for European political history between WWI and WWII.

Primary and secondary sources should be read in different ways. Primary sources are generally read to understand something about a past culture. They might provide some basic information – like who was in ruling a state – or insights into social situations – like whether women could own a tavern. Some primary sources provide us a kind of “factual” information on the past. For example, census record can give us an idea of how many people lived in a community at a particular time. Reports from a battlefield can tell us what units participated in an campaign. At the same time, primary sources can also provide us with an idea of how people thought about their world in the past. For example, census records can tell us who the state counted and why. Political records can tell us why a political leader acted as he or she did. This kind of information can help us understand what people in the past valued, how they understood political power to function, and what motivated them to behave in certain ways. To extract that information, however, primary sources must be read carefully and critically. Always ask yourself what a document say as well as why is says is.

Secondary sources should also be engaged in a critical way. Works written by professional historians, like your textbooks, draw upon primary sources to make arguments, but this doesn’t mean that the professional historian can’t be wrong. It is always smart to go back to the primary sources to make sure that even the best professional historian has made a convincing argument. To facilitate this, professional historians use footnotes and cite the sources that they use allowing readers to track them down. Become a careful reader of footnotes and always ask yourself how the author of a secondary sources supports his or her arguments.

For secondary sources like Wikipedia, an extra level of scrutiny is necessary. These sources sometimes cite their primary sources or cite other secondary sources, but the authors are often not as careful. This doesn’t mean that Wikipedia is useless resource. For basic information – names, dates, and places – Wikipedia is unparalleled, but for historical arguments and analysis, it should be used with great caution.

That being said, read all secondary and primary sources carefully.