First Things First: Doing a Methods-and-Approaches Week

Jill Lepore: "To write history is to make an argument by telling a story about dead people. You'll be dead one day, too, so please play fair. ... Your research question hasn't been tattooed on your forehead. You can change it. ... A question isn't a fish, a very wise historian once said; it's a fishing license."
One of my presentation slides, featuring an excerpt from this handout. (The newspaper photo used in the background for informational purposes is blurred here out of concern for copyright.)

When I began teaching history, I would jump into the course narrative as early as possible. My key goal was to avoid boring the students. A secondary goal was to cover a full textbook chapter each week. So after syllabus-and-roster preliminaries, I would launch directly into a lecture that introduced, e.g., the peoples of North America prior to European contact–often in our very first class meeting.

The first time I taught a survey of premodern world history, however, I decided to try a different approach. Starting out in World History I, it seemed, my students needed less a flood of specific historical information than insight into anthropology, sociology, and historical reasoning in general. Also, my textbook and document reader were a couple of chapters short of the usual fifteen, so I needed to add material. Thus, almost on a whim, I inserted something new to the schedule: “Week 1: Prologue and Basic Concepts.” It introduced my students to the rudiments of historical research and writing.

I had been worried about boredom, but my students responded well. They seemed to find it interesting to talk about history as a process of investigation, to puzzle out strategies for telling truer and more creative stories about the past. I was lecturing, yes, but these were topics that lent themselves to an interactive sort of lecture; students could directly engage with these questions without much background knowledge at all.

Taking the time to discuss basic theory made for an excellent first week in the survey. I was also amazed to note that some students brought up concepts from the first week later in the course.

These days, I start all of my survey courses this way, even when it requires some fancy footwork later in the semester to make up the “lost” time. At first, this seemed a bit more awkward in U.S. history courses than in world history courses, but I think I’m over that now.

Here’s what I tried to cover or accomplish in all of my courses last week as my autumn semester started:

  1. An overview of the course. My “syllabus day” takes 45-50 minutes even without an icebreaker activity. I don’t simply review the syllabus. I explain my philosophy and larger goals, as well as my rationales for the assignments, quizzes, and exams.
  2. An introduction to history as investigation. This involves the “History of Your Lifetime” exercise I described in my previous post. Later in the week, I rely on the memory of this exercise when emphasizing that “history” and “the past” are not the same thing.
  3. The Five Cs of Historical Thinking. This classic list by Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke helps me show how the questions we ask about the past are interrelated. I particularly make sure my students learn the term contingency and reflect upon how complicated causality can be.
  4. The difference between primary and secondary sources. Included in this discussion are the kinds of questions that are useful to ask about a primary source. I explain, among other things, why “Is the source biased?” isn’t a very useful question to ask, and why “What is this source saying?” is less useful to ask than “What is this source doing?”
  5. Dimensions of historical truthfulness. Noting that the past itself is inaccessible to us, I explain what it means to make judgments about the validity, reliability, and accuracy of historians’ accounts of the past.
  6. Who matters. I talk about the difference between “great man” history and “history from below,” and about the special challenges that can arise for scholars trying to write the history of women. We also talk a little about the pitfalls of essentialism and eurocentrism.
  7. Subverting stereotypes. Except perhaps for my age, I fit most American preconceptions about what historians look and sound like. So I try to provide my students with early representations of historians who don’t. I use a slide (see above) quoting Jill Lepore, for example, not only because the quotation is useful by itself but also because it lets me use a woman as my first example of a particularly distinguished historian.*
  8. What matters. Finally, my students learn a little about the methodological differences among political/military, intellectual/cultural, and social approaches to history. I assure them that all of these approaches are valuable and mutually helpful.

Student engagement last week seemed excellent. Some students asked astute questions of their own, and many were able to give thoughtful answers to the questions I posed.

Each time I do a methods-and-approaches week, my delivery gets a bit more fluent, and I feel more confident in the connections it makes among different ideas the course will draw on later.


* I also have a third reason for including the Lepore slide: I’ve started trying throughout my courses to advertise excellent scholarly historians and books that students are likely to encounter in Barnes & Noble endcap displays. I’d like my courses to promote a different image of what popular history can be as well as a more academic understanding of history.