Pessimism and Primary Sources in the History Survey

My friend Eran Zelnik poses an interesting problem related to students’ “emotional well being” in history courses:

It was, oddly enough, when I went back to my own work on my book, that I finally realized what was troubling me. It was the narrative trajectories I keep employing [as a lecturer]. Virtually all of them start on a positive note and end on a somber one.

From lectures about New England and Virginia during the late seventeenth century, through lectures on the American Revolution, to lectures on Redemption and Jim Crow, they all started with opportunities lost and ended with the retrenchment of power structures of one variety or another to the detriment of the majority.

Since—as I keep saying—narrative is fundamental to history at all levels, I think Eran is right to raise this as an issue.

The problem crystallized in my mind one day a few years ago. In the modern U.S. survey, I was covering 1950s society and mass culture. My young students seemed entranced by the cultural optimism I was describing. I commented on their reactions, and some of them explained that they were fascinated by—and perhaps needed (I’m pretty sure that was their word)—a vision of American optimism about the future. For they had come of age in a pessimistic time. And, I suspect, they had been paying attention to the narrative trajectory of some of my other lectures.

(Don’t worry. I did plenty of things to complicate their picture of 1950s optimism.)

This matters for reasons beyond emotional health. First, historians’ habits of pessimism tend to produce cynicism about public affairs. Second, if left unchecked, our pessimism also does an injustice to the vulnerable and marginalized people of the past—people who built lives of meaning for themselves amid the large-scale public failures we describe.

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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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