An Introduction for history classes
Each week when I teach Western Civilization 101 or 102, I pair a question with the material for that week’s unit. This question is designed to introduce students to the field of history using that week’s content as a way to teach how historians do their thing, as a way to drive the methodology point home. (I do this both to introduce students to historical method and to introduce students to the fallibility and controversy of the field–something lost in most history textbooks, museums and documentaries, but useful for citizens in the U.S. where there is an information overload.) For example, in the week we study the Greeks, I ask, “What are a historian’s sources?” Thus, I can introduce the literate society of the Greeks that recorded earlier oral tradition and really introduced history, drama, philosophy and political discourse to Western Civilization. In so doing, it is also possible to introduce the methods historians apply to these different primary sources types.
I begin with this concept on day 1, where I introduce the course with the question, “What is history?” The purpose being to introduce methodology to separate history from other studies of the past. We read a brief excerpt from Sam Wineburg (Historical Thinking) about the importance of studying history, in an ever-shrinking world, where one is taught the skills to recognize that the context of a document may be foreign and require research and careful consideration ahead of assumptions. (Note: Whether Wineburg is read in class actually depends on the class format–it is hard to fit him into a 50 minute class!) We also read a brief excerpt from Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier’s From Reliable Sources in which they explain that history is something people write about the past–it is constructed and requires reliable sources to be reliable, itself. This is the point where I generally introduce a metaphor to help students understand what a historian does and what those sources are.
Today, on TV you can watch fictional detectives at work every night: NCIS, CSI, Law & Order, Castle, Criminal Minds, Cold Case, Bones, etc. The popularity of these shows has contributed to reality TV shows and regular shows dedicated to following actual criminal cases. So, people, including our students, are acquainted with the methods (more or less) by which detectives collect evidence to build a case against criminals. Using this fairly common “knowledge”, I set up some comparisons to explain how historians do their research, such as seeking clues from witnesses by reading primary sources.
- Interview witnesses
- Training and experiences
- Read primary sources
- Secondary sources
- Names, geography
Just as detectives investigate in order to build a case for the prosecution (or Matlock!), so, too, do historians investigate in order to build a case for a paper or book. So, where the historian’s research is to detective work, the historian’s written argument is to the prosecutor’s court case. The publication, the written case, is the presentation of the evidence that has been gathered to convince a jury of one’s peers about what actually happened, and why one’s sources are most reliable and should be considered in a certain light. It is remarkably similar to the process the prosecutor follows–even needing to consider other points of view and address critics, just as the prosecutor must do with the defendant’s case.
- Opening statement
- Interviewing witnesses on the stand
- Presentation of physical evidence in exhibits
- Closing statements
- Oral arguments
- Rebutting the defense’s case
- Citing primary sources in your text
- Citing archaeological evidence
- Written arguments
- Taking into account critics and opposing view points
For each week we spend a class (or in accelerated courses and once-a-week courses, a portion of class) working specifically on the content that helps demonstrate the point that the question is teaching. This typically means looking at specific primary or secondary sources. For example, in Week 3 of Western Civilization 101, the question, “Is research the story of the victors/elite?” is asked. This week’s content is Egypt and to a lesser extent the Hittites. When considering this question, we look at the monumental evidence left behind by the Egyptians–covering a general history of the culture. The homework includes reading excerpts from The Book of the Dead, so we discuss the Egyptian afterlife. The PowerPoint ends with a look at the archaeology of the tombs and worker cities built around the tombs. The rest of the week, the content continues to circle back to this question and demonstrates how the losers and lower strata of society can be found and accessed by historians (and archaeologists, too), while also showing that it takes a slightly different approach in order to get there. This helps to provide some context for the students so they can try their hand at some of the detective work.
The practicum is either done on Wednesday, or in the middle of class (again, depending on format). This portion of class is dedicated to working with sources to investigate a particular aspect of the culture. It is a specific attempt to get students to try their hand at the detective work. We will often draw up outlines, initially as a class and later in small groups, to begin practicing building and presenting a case.
The week ends with a discussion that, it is hoped, will help students retain and be more capable with the skills and content that historians use and learn. It is the opportunity for students to practice being the prosecutor, often by presenting cases that were built in small groups during the practicum and other times discussing and debating controversies.
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An additional wrinkle that I will be testing this semester is a homework assignment to bring in three documents. The point is to try this detective work with a familiar context and to get to know each other a little better. Examples of appropriate material includes a birthday card from a relative, a certificate of achievement, an e-mail or a to-do list. (If you try this, be sure to also be very clear about what is not appropriate for the assignment.) The metaphor, thus, introduces concepts of historical method in a recognizable way that is reinforced weekly.