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:
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My Favorite First-Day Activity

classroom

I came up with a version of the following activity for a tiny U.S. history class about a decade ago. Since then, I’ve revised it and used it successfully in both world and U.S. history survey courses, for classes ranging in size up to thirty-five students. It’s become my go-to exercise for illustrating what history is and why it matters.

I make minor adjustments to fit the course and the students, but here’s how it usually goes. I call it “The History of Your Lifetime,” for obvious reasons. It happens on either the first or the second day of a survey course.

Step 1

First I ask students to form groups of three or four (just based on where they’re sitting) and take a couple of minutes to introduce themselves and get to know each other a little. This obviously has the benefit of encouraging a little first-day conversation and promoting neighborly interaction.

Step 2

Then I direct the students each to take out a piece of paper—any paper will do, just something to scribble onand individually write out a list of seven things he or she would include in a history of the United States (or the world, as appropriate) during his or her lifetime.

The things on the list can be events, people, inventions, trends, ideas, whatever. (They don’t have to be things the student remembers personally, as long as the student was alive for them.) I encourage my students to be creative with their answers–but to remember that the goal is to list things that might help our descendants understand what the world was like.

Step 3

Now I have the students compare lists within their small groups. I direct them to decide as a group what seven things to include on a combined group list. I ask them to talk together about their criteria and reasoning in order to come to agreement before writing down their group’s answers.

By now, the room is usually buzzing fairly loudly. Undergraduates often like comparing notes on how they remember their childhoods, and the exercise typically leads them into general conversation once they’re done with their lists. Even fairly shy students often respond enthusiastically. Especially in a larger class, I often have to interrupt the proceedings for the sake of time.

Step 4

Now I stand in front of the class at the blackboard and call for volunteers to name some of the things they put on their group lists. As they do, I write their answers on the board. I keep calling for nominations until the board is mostly full; if necessary, I prompt the students to contribute things they don’t see on the board yet, or things that might seem offbeat, or things they weren’t sure about including, or things that didn’t make the cut for a group list.

The September 11 attacks are always among the first things students mention. (If you call for a show of hands to see who had September 11 on the list, virtually everyone will put a hand upan instructive fact.) This has held true even for students who increasingly have no clear personal memory of that day. (Remember, traditional college freshmen in 2018 are likely to have been infants at the time.) So I ask my students why there’s so much agreement on this point. Why do we all agree that September 11 is crucial for our descendants to know about? They usually furnish excellent answers to this question.

Then I continue asking questions about how they arrived at their lists and about what they see on the board for the class as a whole:

  • “What did you decide to leave out of your group lists? Can you explain a criterion you used in order to reach your decision?” (Often students will realize that they tried to focus on things that seemed to have a big impact in the worldi.e., things that caused other things, including other things on the board, to happen. Sometimes I draw lines between them to indicate this.)
  • “Where are you getting your memory of these things? If you don’t remember them all personally, where did you learn about them?”
  • “Look at the board as a whole. If we wrote a detailed history of our lifetimes based on this list, using it for a rough outline, would our audience get an accurate impression of the world we lived in? Why or why not? What’s missing? What’s distorted?”
  • “What kind of a story would we be telling about our lifetimes?” (Answer to this question often include “It’s depressing” or “It’s full of conflict.” In world history courses, students often realize that their answers are very U.S.-centric.)
  • “Is this how you remember your own lifetime? Is this the world you lived in, or is this a misleading picture?” (Answers will vary, but they’re often pretty emphatic in one way or another.)
  • “What is missing from this story we’re outlining? What things should we add in order to give future generations a more accurate picture of the world we lived in?”

Finally, I try to wrap up the exercise with something like the following observation: “To complete this exercise, you all had to make judgments about significance. You were deciding what, or how much, these things meant in some bigger scheme of things. You didn’t just write lists of facts. You were thinking about how to tell a story that would be about somethinga story with a point.

“Well, that’s what historians do when they write about the more distant past. They are figuring out how to use pieces of informationabout all kinds of thingsto tell a true story, usually about things they don’t remember personally. It’s basically the same process.”

Then, if I think of it, I try to ask one more question: “Do you think your lists would look any different if you made them again twenty years from now?” That lets me talk about how our perspectives about what matters can change over time, even when the facts don’t change.

In the years since I started using this exercise, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it really fail.

History, Liberalism, and Myth-Making

Detail from Robert Delaunay, Simultaneous Windows on the City, 1912

In the Chronicle Review, Patrick Iber has an essay called “History in an Age of Fake News.” I think it describes an excellent approach to teaching history. Overall, it’s concerned with how to respond to contemporary attacks on the expertise of historians. How, Iber asks, can historians justify their work as something that is politically potent—carrying urgent implications for public policy and social debates—but also grounded in, or at least undertaken in pursuit of, objective facts? How can we show that good history is different from partisan historical hackery?

Just beneath the surface, though, Iber’s essay also raises questions about how far good historical thinking can go toward producing (not just interrogating) our political commitments. I sense some ambivalence on that score, and I’d like to talk about it here.

First, I really like Iber’s take on the implicit politics of the historical profession. He argues that there’s a sort of self-doubt inherent in the historical enterprise, and therefore a “soft liberalism” among professional historians as a whole. He says this transcends scholars’ individual political commitments:

To think historically is also to see things from multiple perspectives; it is a necessary skill to think through the actions of others. When we look into the past, we see that people held views that were compatible with the way they lived. We see that their outlook on the world was a product of their time, their position within society, and their character. What seemed right and what seemed wrong to them had a great deal to do with their time in history, the society in which they lived, and the kind of power they had, or did not have. Historical thinking demands that we recognize that the same is surely true of us. Our present will soon become someone else’s past, and nothing puts us outside the influence of the social forces of our own time. We too will one day be judged as flawed, and as products of our own time, just as we now see those who lived in past decades, centuries, and millennia.

The study of history often imparts a kind of humility about what actions will produce the kinds of social changes that might be judged desirable. That humility, along with the ability to grasp the logic used by even those we find disagreeable, is why historical thinking, as the scholar Nils Gilman put it, tends to ‘sand off the rough edges of ideology.’

These professional commitments and habits do make a kind of soft liberalism the modal politics of the profession, even as a range of views, from right to left, can be found in most departments. Seeing oneself as a part of history tends to be equalizing: It exposes the radical contingency of your own existence, which usually results in taking the humanity of others as seriously as your own.

That, of course, raises the question of how historians can be radically humble and open while also standing by the knowledge they produce when it comes under attack—especially by people who do not share any of that humility. Here I think Iber concedes a bit too much to the elusive ideal of objectivity, in that he apparently allows a dichotomy between accuracy and political bias:

Nevertheless, we can’t allow politicized attacks on the profession to define our posture when we speak in public. Sometimes journalists are pressured to report ‘both sides’ of a conflict, without trying to sift their way to the truth. That is not how historians can, or should, act. Truths can be complex, but we cannot descend to the point at which ‘describing things as they occurred, with evidence’ is considered politically biased. We have a professional obligation to portray, as best as we are able, things as they are or were.

Sometimes this will have political implications, and that can’t be avoided. Nor do we have an obligation to be ‘balanced’ by the standards of today’s political divisions, because history was not in any way determined by today’s political divisions (the opposite is closer to the case). Some mythologies about the past are more accurate than others.

I think I would put that a bit differently. The struggle is not to preserve or assert the existence of a political-bias-free core to our histories. The struggle is to show that, although every observer has political biases (partialities, prejudices, predispositions, tendencies), even the most biased people can, by committing to factuality and fairness and rigorous research as well, tell the truth more reliably than people in similar circumstances who do not share these commitments. It’s not a lack of bias that makes an account truthful, but its relationship to other dispositions beyond bias.

I don’t know how historians can make a public case for that except by modeling it for people. For most professional historians, in the long run, there are probably only two ways to do that: by writing good opinionated history for a wide audience, and by teaching in opinionated yet fair ways.

Now, when he writes about teaching, Iber describes a method I endorse completely. Here again, though, I have a quibble with the underlying theory:

In classrooms, we have a slightly different set of responsibilities. We will have students who span the political spectrum, and those who are apolitical or undecided. It is our job and our responsibility to teach them all, at a time when they may have trouble agreeing with one another or even conversing across these lines of difference. One way to breach these walls is to explain that we see ideas and ideologies as historically produced. …

To demonstrate that historical methods are frequently counterpropagandistic, we should present the documents that have led us to our conclusions. Classes should become more like labs, with students constructing knowledge out of the raw materials of primary documents. But we can’t imagine that brute empiricism will always be persuasive, because the historical record may provide challenges to personal and political identities that will be hard to overcome. As best as we can, we should strive to be clearer than ever about the ways that remembering (and forgetting) are put in the service of contemporary politics.

My quibble—and it’s possible that I’m simply overreading Iber here—is that I don’t think “brute empiricism” is ever really a thing. Nobody’s political views, or views about anything, ever derive from simply absorbing facts. They derive from what Iber, earlier in the essay, calls myths—”powerful stories that guide our understanding of the world,” which transcend the details of any specific factual case.

Which leaves me with the nagging question I referred to at the beginning: Can good history, produced and taught in the open and fair way Iber describes, help create those political commitments? Can it be a legitimate part of a person’s political “myth-building”? Or is history’s only legitimate function a negative one, calling myths into question?

I could be wrong, but I think Iber himself may be unsure what to think about this question. He implies that our necessary political myths are both empirical and biased, and that this creates a conundrum for the historian: “As these myths are made out of the raw material of historical events, they depend on remembering, but also on forgetting. Yet, as Eric Hobsbawm wrote, the historian’s business ‘is to remember what others forget.'”

I don’t think this really works, to be honest. Historians are, at the end of the day, narrators and arguers. However much we may disguise the fact, we are telling stories about cause and effect, about people’s lives over time, about choices, about the emergence of new phenomena, about all kinds of change, and about why they matter. And narration and argumentation always involve omission—”forgetting,” at least temporarily—as well as inclusion. Otherwise no book would ever end.

In other words, I think historians are myth-makers in the sense that Iber uses the term, and I think any explanation of how we are also committed truth-tellers has to account for this aspect of the work.

I find the solution to this problem in the historian’s role as a committed humanist: We believe that perspectives are multiple and partial, but we also believe that there is something that all human beings have in common and can recognize in each other, and we believe it should induce moral commitments in us, however tentative and flawed. Our choices as narrators and arguers flow from this ontology (and from the subsidiary commitments we have developed around it over time through dialogue with others’ work).

That is not an account of history that really lends itself to refuting charges of “political bias” when they come from people who are committed to hatred, oppression, or exclusion. Its legitimacy can only be demonstrated through doing history well, and thus inducing the kinds of humane moral commitments that make the work of fair truth-telling valuable in the first place.

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Image: Robert Delaunay, Simultaneous Windows on the City, 1912. Kunsthalle Hamburg via Wikimedia Commons.