Category Archives: History how-tos

Lecturing and passive learning

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A common question for educators that is often raised is that of lectures and passive learning.  There are two reasons why it is  good to ask about this:

  1. Is the lecture/passive learning method a successful means  for teaching our students?
  2. Do we employ it simply because it is how we were taught (keeping in mind that many of us enjoy our subjects and therefore often enjoyed many of the classes we took)?

I think, firstly, that we as educators have to admit that we frequently enjoyed our lectures as undergraduates and, for those of us who sought grad school, avidly attended many conferences when feasible.  Because of our interest we were seldom passively learning, however, and often making connections to other material or asking questions.  We frequently enjoyed lectures.

On the other hand, what about students who lack that interest or experience with other material?  Is it impossible to inspire them to be interested?  I can freely admit to sitting in class, genuinely interested in what the lecturer was saying, but totally unable to keep my eyes open unless I got up to get some water.  How much more difficult is it for someone who has not yet learned to appreciate the subject or gained experience with related subject matter?

Lecture is effective as long as it is engaging.  There are many ways for lectures to be active learning experiences, but we have to be honest and acknowledge it is easy, without vigilance and planning, to make it a struggle for everyone.  Whenever I feel I’ve fallen into the dull lecture trap, I like to return to the Ken Bain book I was assigned in a graduate level historical teaching course: What the Best College Teachers Do and especially the chapter, “How do they conduct class?”  This book is the result of asking people about their best experiences with college professors to create an interview list of the top instructors in the country, as well as inquiring about their worst experiences to create a negative persona, Professor Wolf, with the bad examples.

Below, I want to provide my own summary of this chapter.  (Keep in mind that I’m prioritizing my summary based on those things I am either most passionate about or those points about which I think I need the most improvement, personally–other points within the book might apply differently to other instructors.)  The headings are directly from Bain.

Create a Natural Critical Learning Environment (99)

The gist, here, is that students should be engaged, probing materials and assumptions, seeking answers and asking questions.  They should be grappling with the same questions and problems that scholars do.  They should be doing this while they are sitting in class with the instructor!  The biggest and most common mistake an instructor can make is to provide answers to unasked questions.

This learning environment pushes students to higher-order intellectual activity: “encouraging them to compare, apply, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize, but never only to listen and remember.”  (102)  Bain describes the story-telling and Socratic-questioning of Donald Saari (filling me with all sorts of envy that I never took his class) that challenges the students to develop the concepts of calculus: “‘When I finish this process,’ [Saari] explained, ‘I want students to feel like they have invented calculus and that only some accident of birth kept them from beating Newton to the punch.'”  (102)

Questions are a great means of reinforcing processes and building to the next step in the lesson:

  • What’s the next question?
  • What can we ask now?
  • (in response to questions asked by students)  What do you think?
  • If this is true, then why (how, what, where, when, etc.)…?
  • What major conclusions did you draw?
  • What questions remain in your mind?

Of course, there are many ways to create this environment–lecture is not required, but nor is it true that lectures are incompatible.  Investigations supply a vocabulary of the field and the experience of thinking like an adept in the field.  Bain found no professors who relied solely on lectures, but none of those who used lectures provided an “encyclopedic coverage.” (107)

Start with Students rather than Discipline (110)

Bain speaks briefly about the need to get the attention of students and hold it in his 2nd heading of this section.  He begins this under this heading by stating that it is necessary to gain students attention for higher purpose, to initially focus on something the students get, are concerned about, or assume before our own stories, theories, or outlines.  Another professor Bain interviewed, Michael Sandel, reminds us that Socrates began by staring with what people thought they knew and then tried to “systematically to wrench them from their familiar place.”  (110)  Thought exercises/experiments can introduce familiar scenarios that test for assumptions and force students to reason forward, applying critical thinking, self evaluation, civil argument, and defense.

“Many of the best teachers,” Bain writes, “make a deliberate and carefully measured effort to confront some paradigm or mental model that students are likely to bring with them to class.”  (112)  This is a student-centered ethos that serves to draw students in and introduce them to the type of thinking and questioning that is required for solving problems in the field.  It starts with the students and elevates them from where they began the process to a new level within the field.

Help Students Learn Outside of Class (114)

Students should be armed with the necessary skills and preparation for the next homework assignment.  This is in opposition to merely “covering” material or assigning something because it “deals with” some subject.  The best teachers plan in reverse, says Bain creating a map with intellectual way-stations that provide the opportunity to develop through the course.  In other words, they know what their end goal is for the students and develop a course that will guide them there.

This means that they are properly prepared to advance both their knowledge and their thinking by doing the assigned work outside of class.  It should contribute both to their knowledge of content and the skills they need to employ while working in the field itself.

Engage Students in Disciplinary Thinking  (114)

Any course that is not designed with this tenet in mind is a waste of time and money.  Just read a textbook or watch a few documentaries if we are going to ignore how this information is gained.  If, as a professor, I present my discipline without teaching you how to replicate the field’s problem-solving, them I’m swindling you, withholding the sacred knowledge, keeping you beneath me.   That is unacceptable.

Besides, we should take advantage of our disciplines to advance our students’ thinking skills.  What could we possibly gain by neglecting this fundamental duty?

Create Diverse Learning Experiences (116)

Alter the rhythms of learning: supplement oral information with visual information; allow for group discussion of problems; and, use case-studies.  Diverse materials, experiences, and input reinforce both content and method.  Interviewed professors relayed to Bain, “Some material was organized inductively, from facts, data, and experimentation to the general principles and theories; other things, deductively by applying principles to specific situations.  The teachers gave students an opportunity to learn sequentially, a piece at a time; they also gave them space to learn globally, through sudden insights.  Some of the learning involved repetition and familiar methods; some, innovations and surprises.”  (116-7)

The key to successful lecture, thus, begins with a successful concept of the course, including a commitment to engaged learning, followed by the notion that it is more of a conversation–a collaboration, if you will–than a performance or an exhibition of one’s knowledge and know-how.  Passive learning is, in actuality, ineffective.  But, this does not mean that lecturing has to equate to passive learning–good lecturing is, without doubt, a means of engaged and active learning.

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Last minute costume ideas from the vaults of history, ’12 edition

Last year’s last minute costume ideas went over pretty well, so I thought I’d revisit it: soooo, whatcha gonna wear for Halloween, tonight?  Here is my top 5 list of last minute history-inspired costumes for 2012:

1. Templar knight

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What you need: An old white top sheet; grey sweats (top–with hood!–and bottoms); belt; boots; sword or lance; additional white sheet (optional).

What to do:  Take your white sheet and cut a hole in the middle large enough to fit over your head, and again on either side to create a narrow scapular–shoulder-width, touching your boots in the front and back, and belt this over top your grey sweat suit (make sure the hood is out).  You should paint a red cross on the chest and back of the white sheet.  If you have the additional sheet, it is your cloak.  Wear it around you and paint additional red crosses on it where it meets in the chest.

What to say when someone asks who you are:  “Beau Seant!”  It is hypothesized by one scholar that this may have been the Templar battle cry, meaning in the medieval French something akin to “Be noble!” or “Be Glorious!” (The author in question, John J. Robinson, is loosely a scholar, and should be regarded warily, but this is for Halloween not your dissertation, so we’ll go along with it for now.)

Historical accuracies: 1) While a knight would have worn chain mail and not sweats, the basic design of the “uniform” is the same. 2) Medieval French–it’s what many Templars would have spoken, and their banner was certainly called a Beauseant.

2. American soldier, War of 1812

What you need:  Blue shirt or jacket; white or khaki pants; black boots; with gaiters (can be made with black duct tape or construction paper); gold construction paper for trim (optional); musket (could be improvised with a broom stick spray-painted silver and a wooden or cardboard stock); leather shoulder bag for cartridges.

What to do:  If you want to be an authentic soldier at the outset of the war, your going to need the gold frippery, but it wasn’t long before the U.S. government couldn’t afford to provide all the extras on the uniforms and began issuing them without the extras.  So, you could basically pull it off with navy blue shirt and blue or grey pants, if you can’t scare up a pair of khaki cargo pants (after all, it isn’t the ’90s anymore).  If you like the frippery–which is nifty, certainly–then cut up some gold construction paper in the pattern you see above.  If you smudge some “dirt” on your face you can claim you lost your hat in battle and forgo that step–though, the government will take the cost of the hat out of your already-months-late pay.  Sling the cartridge bag over your shoulder and keep your musket close at hand!

What to say when someone asks who you are:  “Remember the Raisin!

Historical accuracies:  1) I already explained the historic changes in the uniform.  2)  Yep, that’s right, the Raisin:  A river in Michigan, and the sight of the bloody defeat of American forces.  If you live in the Chesapeake Bay area, you may just want to holler, “Remember the capital!”  I just don’t know if that is as fun as remembering the Raisin. 3) While we had a rifle contingent at this time, the bulk of the army went to war with muskets.

3. Phillis Wheatley

What you need:  A dress–long-sleeved and floor length, a bonnet, a shawl (optional), an apron, a Bible or book of classical Greek or Roman literature–i.e. Homer, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, or Horace (optional).

What to do:  Get dressed, apron goes on the outside.  Carry the book with you wherever you go.

What to say when someone asks who you are:  “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,/May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.” (“On Being brought from Africa to America,” by Phillis Wheatley)

Historical accuracies:  1) Phillis Wheatley was a colonial era slave and poet, extensively educated by the family who owned her and wrote complicated poetry about America’s slavery institution, full of literary allusions from the Bible and  classical  Rome and Greece.  2) She was well-read particularly of the Bible and Greek and Roman classics.  3) She was a successful poet, though many doubted a slave capable of her poetic production.

4. Viking

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What you need:  A grey sweat suit; a long, large grey t-shirt–hanging to mid-thigh or knees; a belt; a grey ball cap or skull cap; axe, sword, or spear; large round disc–either card board spray-painted grey/silver, or similar; a large sack full of books, gold, jewels, or any other stuffing to make it look full of loot (optional)

What to do:  Put on the sweat suit, then the over-sized t-shirt, after you’ve removed the sleeves, and belt it.  If you have a grey ball-cap cut the bill off of it or simply wear the skull cap.  Make your shield and carry it along with your weapon.

What to say when someone asks who you are:  “Valhalla!

Historical accuracies:  1) Vikings wore chain-mail–if you have a kilt or animal skin that you can wear like a kilt, this would probably be more accurate, but maybe it’s cold outside, tonight.  2) Vikings would not have worn horns on their helms.  So, unless you are going as an opera viking or a Minnesotan viking, forgo the horns.  3) Vikings carried a simple round wooden shield–if they carried one at all.  You may forgo the shield to carry the sack–remember, the vikings were robbers and marauders from the sea (or, from Scandinavia  by way of the most convenient waterway).  4)  Valhalla was the sacred mead hall of heaven reserved for warriors who died gloriously.

5. Rosie the Riveter

From the Rosie the Riveter Trust;

What you need:  Blue button-down, collared, long-sleeve shirt; blue work pants; red hankerchief.

What to do:  Put your clothes on.  Roll your sleeves up and tie the red bandanna on your head, with the bow on the top.

What to say when someone asks who you are:  “We can do it!”  (And, show your guns off while you say it!)

Historical accuracies:  1) This is obviously the image from the famous WWII propaganda poster highlighting the blue-collar work of women on the homefront during the war.  2) Blue collar variations could include tools or welding helmets, etc. as women worked in various “manly” positions so “our boys could go off and fight the war.”

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Geneology research at the National Archives


Trying to fill gaps in your family history or figure out when your family came to the New.   World?  Much of your initial geneology research can be done online through a resource such as, but if you get stuck you may want to investigate the resources at the National Archives. will provide census documentation and ship manifests for immigrants.  If you come to the Archives the staff can assist your use of this reource and these documents.

These documents have their limits in the information they provide, however.  At the Archives you may be able to build a more comprehensive history by investigating military records and other documentation filed with the federal government.  State governments also keep records and may further assist filling out family history through property records.


To visit the National Archives in Washington DC for the purposes of research (and not to visit the U.S. Constitution or Declaration of Independence) go to the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance–the side without the lines!  Once their you will go through security.  Travel light: no pens, no notebooks; bring a laptop for notes or a pencil and use their notecards (also make sure that your sweater or sweatshirt is not a bulky one).  If you actually end up going to get records, you will not be able to take these things into the records room.  Any documents that are yours which you bring in have to be shown in advance so there is no question that they might be stolen when you leave.

You will need to go through a PowerPoint about the rules and regulations–theft of records is a problem, so be understanding–and then you can get your researcher card.  Documents you request will go into the queue at regular intervals and the goal is to get them distributed within an hour.  The Archives also have regional offices throughout the country and if you get your researcher card in DC, it works at any of these facilities.

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Researching to write historical material or historical fiction

How to Improve Your Researching Skills and Write Accurately | recently published this article on how to research for your work.  One of the reasons many authors enjoy writing is because it offers one the opportunity to explore many things they are curious about.  History offers a huge amount of material and opportunity in this way.  The article linked above is a very good starting point, but I wanted to make some history-specific recommendations to add to this writers’ guide.  These are useful, I believe, for the author of fiction or non-fiction.

Reliable Sources

When a historian writes history, he or she writes an argument for his or her interpretation of the past.  As with any argument, evidence is needed–if an author does not provide adequate evidence, be suspicious!  History is always a journey into foreign lands as separated by time and sometimes physical space.  It is faulty to presume that the past is always familiar, even when at first glance it appears to be a very familiar situation to present circumstances.  This is one of the non-historians most frequent errors!  Presumptions and generalizations based on supposed similarity may provide compelling reading, but are often misleading at best and an entirely misrepresentative of past peoples and cultures.  (I find it particularly troublesome, because if we do it with historical peoples, do we not also run the risk of doing it with foreign peoples?)

Some common examples of this include the assumption that Renaissance artists were generally gay because they were so artsy–it is true that Leonardo da Vinci was accused of sodomy (a term which encompassed a rather large category of sexual deviance, of which when defined for modern audiences often seems odd and confusing) while he lived in Florence, as were many more people than were likely guilty, although evidence does exist to suggest he was in a relationship with a young man.  Another useful example is Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible which was written as a commentary of Cold War-era commie “witch-hunts.”  As such, it is far more descriptive of Miller’s contemporary America than of colonial Puritan Salem.  Dan Brown’s accounts of the Roman Catholic Church’s history are incredibly flawed–I have no idea how accurate his accounts of science are or are not.  Biographies are often, also, a difficult sort of book both to write and to use as a source.  Often biographies are unbalanced, leaning too heavily towards vilification or laud.  They are also frequently too divorced from the era or eras in which their subject lived, providing a myopic account of the figure’s actions.

So, how does an untrained researcher of history avoid these pitfalls for articles, books or fiction.  Start with reliable sources.  Start with the history book written by a history scholar.  These are identified in many ways, my recommendation is head over to a nearby certified research library as designated by the American Library Association’s Association of College and Research Libraries.  Access the JSTOR database and do a search for your topic, this way you can get both reviews and scholarly articles on your topic.  Depending on the era you are researching, there may be other databases that are also more specifically targeted to your research–the librarian will be able to assist you with that.  If you have a university close by and the history department teaches the area you are researching, faculty may also be able to assist you in building a reading list.  (Remember your college schedule?  Faculty are busiest in preparation for a semester and immediately after major due dates such as midterms and finals week–the soft spots are usually when the students are working on projects.)  Another good place to start are the collections of published by Cambridge, Oxford and other preeminent universities and university presses.  These are usually compilations on a subject, such as the Oxford Illustrated Guide to ___ and the The New Cambridge ___ History c. ___ to ___.   (Note: these same companies often also have similarly good materials for youth!)

The advantage to using these sorts of academic resources are twofold: 1) you’ll get good information, and 2) you’ll get good, cited evidence that provides a paper trail for your research, including both secondary (scholarly written history) sources and primary (contemporary original documents from the studied era) sources.  These authors have been through history boot camps, they understand how to interpret the past and are also on guard against assumptions of familiarity or strangeness.  Also, there are general guidelines that they all follow such as stating the intended purpose of the written work, supplying evidence through cited sources, etc.  (Always read the introductions!  Also known as gold mines by history majors and grad students everywhere!)

When it comes to history research, your online sources are generally limited to the following options: 1) the American Historical Association and like organizations of scholars (many exist on more specific areas of expertise); 2) .edu sites that have information or collections of primary sources (caution: these can often be dead or neglected sites that a professor set up, but for whatever reason has ceased using and the school has since pulled), a very useful site of this kind is the Internet Sourcebook provided by Fordham University; 3) internet sites attached to a museum collection or related online exhibit, the Smithsonian, for example, does this regularly, now; 4) internet sites established by a historical site or preservation project which can vary widely from local projects to National Park sites or National Trust for Historic Preservation projects.  Beyond that, one must tread carefully.  History is a subject that many people enjoy, but fewer people actually do well and the web is absolutely groaning with bad historical information for anyone to misuse!

That’s my basic primer.  I was motivated by the useful article from and from oodles of experience being disappointed or just plain offended by the inaccuracies that pass out there for fiction.  I long for the day that people actually have a useful and vaguely correct concept of the Middle Ages, for example, as opposed to the prejudiced account of the Dark Ages that was largely, though not entirely, created during the Enlightenment and is wrong or vastly overstated on most counts.  Whatever you do, don’t underestimate the importance of reliable sources and primary documents–that goes last bit goes double for writers of historical fiction!!  Below are some additional reading recommendations before you really get rolling:

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