Tag Archives: historical method

History Education Resources | A review of Teachinghistory.org’s Civil War poster

Even if these were not momentous times we are living through (does this make the ’90s seem dull–all that prosperity and pop-culture?), there are always reminders of momentous times.  Last Sunday we remembered 9/11, ten years later.  This year is the National Road’s bicentennial as we remember the pioneer spirit and its side-effects in expanding and founding our nation.  Next year will inaugurate the bicentennial of the War of 1812.  And, of course, this year marks the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.  We study these subjects, anyway, even if there is no rounded-number anniversary, but when these moments come it is worth a little extra emphasis to put the past in perspective, both in terms of the chronology and years since the event, but also in the progress or regress in human actions from point A to today’s point B.  Plus, there a wealth of opportunities and resources spring up on such anniversaries that are well worth exploiting!

In honor of the Civil War’s big birthday and the start of the new school year, Teachinghistory.org has unveiled a new free poster for classroom walls.  This poster, much like their general history poster (click here), it is geared as much to exploring how we learn about the past–not as from a textbook, but as a historian doing research–and the types of questions and sources we engage for that purpose.  In other words, it is about historical method.  The Civil War poster also tries to tempt students, to tease them, to pull them into the investigation on their own accord.  I think it may well be successful in sowing seeds of curiosity in young minds, but any teacher who posts it has to take advantage!  It cannot just go up as a passive “tool”–it needs to be built upon.  This is something that a lot teachers do not do.  They tape it up and hope the poster will speak for itself and inspire or teach.  To help with this, Teachinghistory.org provides an additional research: an interactive online version of the poster.

This is the perfect opportunity for history teachers and parents to make use of and build upon a great eye-catching, tool.  At http://teachinghistory.org/civil-war, the poster’s pictured artifacts and documents are presented.   Scroll over them, and click on the individual items to be linked to lesson-plans and videos for instructional ideas and resources.  For example, there is a series of videos of historian Tom Thruston who explains a book of slave receipts to expound upon the realities and legalization of slavery, its regional influence and its absolutely mundane, accepted nature of its existence in American society.  These are designed to assist the teacher in using the artifacts that the poster includes.  Because of the different types of artifacts, one has the opportunity to make a several learning projects for small groups and build upon each group’s learning experience by having them teach the subject to their fellow classmates, either in small groups or in class presentations.

Once a teacher has used the poster as part of the active learning, the poster remains an active learning tool.  Students who look up at the slave receipt and the other artifacts will be reminded of the exercise and will continue to think about it and make links that they had not thought of before every time they see it.  Active, thoughtful, considering learning is the the great skill that all subject should teach, with each subject enhancing it in particular ways and bringing the subject’s value to it.  History has its own particular value that, among other things, encourages self-reflection.  The Civil War is one of American History’s most important moments for self-reflection.  If in using this poster, teachers initiate the students in active learning of the event, it will be a great tool for educators to introduce that national self-reflection along with history and historical method.  Well done, Teachinghistory.org, well done.

 

Tomorrow, look for my review of Teachinghistory.org’s Spotlight series.

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Reflections on the American Historical Association Annual Meeting, 2

I loves sports!  I am a huge football and ice hockey fan!!  So, I was thrilled to attend the following workshop in preparation for my Sports in America special topics history class at The Community College of Baltimore County.

The Hynes Convention Center where the AHA 2011 conference was held (and where an exceptionally irritating fire alarm interrupted the session I am describing in this post)!

Cold War Sport in Global Context

Winning the Cold War in East Asia: Sport and Regionalism, Sandra Collins, California Sate University at Chico

Home and Away: East Germany and the 1972 Olympics in the Age of Ostpolitik, Christopher Young, University of Cambridge

The Soviet-Canadian Rivalry and a Japanese Battleground: Canadian Hockey Professionals Meet the Soviets, 1970-77, John A. Soares, Jr., University of Notre Dame

This was a fantastic workshop based on the premise that sports during the Cold War were not merely symbolic but deliberate tools in diplomacy, control and, as Soares described it, clearly identifiable victories and losses.  Collins evaluated the IOC’s political maneuvering in Asia and the clear absence of its supposed political neutrality.  Young looked at the GDR and its involvement in the 1972 Olympic Games (although I confess one of the most interesting features was the poll of GDR youth in evaluating national vs German success in the Games).  Soares presented (through fire alarms, believe it or not . . . poor Bobby Hall . . . being disrespected in Boston!) on the intentional use of ice hockey by the Candians in the Cold War diplomacy and international competition.

Collins (author of the book, The Missing Olympics) discussed the IOC’s lack of neutrality in Asia during the 1960s, banning certain countries from participation.  This prompted the founding of the Games of the Newly Emerging Forces (GNEFO) out of Indonesia.  These games were aimed at those countries in Asia and Central/South America who were blacklisted by the IOC precisely for political reasons.  Whereas the Olympic Games were heading to Japan in 1964, GNEFO was being held in defiance in 1962–the IOC banned any country that participated in the ’62 GNEFO from the ’64 Japanese games.  South Korea withdrew from GNEFO and Japan, in seeming defiance, sent a B-squad.  (It was suggested that this might have been a determined effort to distance Japan from its internationally enforced relationship with Taiwan.)  Clearly, this active involvement in international politics on the part of the IOC.  (Inspired by this talk I found this 1963 Sports Illustrated article covering GNEFO.)

Young is a scholar after my own heart (although much more accomplished and knowledgeable) who is actually a medievalist, doing sports history for the joy of it!  For the purposes of my brief post, I choose to focus on two points from his larger presentation–one from his paper and one from the comments and questions afterwards.  One of the most interesting aspects from this discussion was his summary of the opinion polls that the GDR took from their youth–the category of youth who were not on board with the government were categorized as those “not yet disposed” to support the government!  In these polls, a hypothetical handball tournament was suggested among the USSR, East Germany, West Germany and Denmark and the youth were asked which teams they would support.  Whereas East Germany won by a landslide and the USSR came in second, the West came in at a very close third.  Polls also revealed a great deal of animosity for the individual GDR athletes, despite the universal support for the GDR teams.  Citizens of the GDR reveled in the success of West Germany during the Olympics, as well.  Young concluded that the support for athletic representation was not necessarily support for the regime.  In response to a the commentator and a query from the audience, Young also discussed gender during the Olympics and the preparation for those Olympics.  The GDR recognized the rise of female participation in the Olympics and deliberately sought to dominate in this arena.  Of course, this policy led to the tainted metals won by the steroid-juiced athletes in 1972.

During the Cold War, the competition to demonstrate the superiority of these opposed ways of life and governance spawned many “cultural exchanges” that were intended to out-do and create dissension among the various populations.  Soares demonstrates the deliberate use of ice hockey by the Canadians to fight these cultural wars.  Ice hockey, in particular, is uniquely appropriate for this discussion, Soares explained, because all the relevant powers played it, it was a team sport and the diplomats considered it one of their weapons.  There was deliberate discussion about utilizing ice hockey instead of ballets and symphonies to win the war for the people’s sympathies.  The Canadians boycotted the Olympics for many years, offended by the farcical claim of communist and socialist countries that they were sending teams of amateurs in compliance with the rules.  Ice hockey was also an important link between Canada and Japan in their attempts to build diplomatic ties independently of the U.S.

Of course, this is a brief summary of larger discussions and contexts, but it shows not just the legitimacy of considering sports in the Cold War, but the actual necessity of it!

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Reflections on the American Historical Association Annual Meeting, 1

This past week historians descended on Boston thicker than a Nor’easter snow storm!  This is an enormous conference, not least because it is open to as wide a collection as possible of the fields and subfields under the history umbrella.  In hundreds of workshops, innovative ideas are presented, discussed, have sex with each other and create new little ideas that will grow in the work and research of both the presenters and the audience.  These are great moments for those of us in the field to develop professionally and grow in the field.

I have a couple of thoughts that I would like to share this week from the conference and which I will spread over a couple of posts.

Rhetorics of Reform and Medieval Religion

The Semiotics of Pious Reform and Insurgent Historiographies in Early Islam, Thomas N. Sizgorich, University of California at Irvine

A Conversation Across Centuries: Reforming the Secular Clergy in Western Christendom, 800-1200,  Maureen C. Miller, University of California at Berkeley

Reform, and Ever Reforming: From “Movements” to Conflicts, from Persons to Institutions, from the Twelfth Century to the Fifteenth, John H. Van Engen, University of Notre Dame

Comment: Mayke de Jong, Universitiet Utrecht

I have been interested in various reform movements in the Medieval period, spending the most time with the Carolingians and the 11th century.  In most cases, I was concerned with the intended reforms and not their relative success, in other words: trying to grasp what was intended in these reforms on the part of specific reformers though not necessarily how successful any actually were.  The reason for this is obvious–we have the documentation for the reformers so we can make that effort to get inside their heads, but determining their successful or unsuccessful implementation is not as well-documented.  But, this is where the challenge is and historians are remiss to ignore it.  This was, to a large degree, the substance of the talks.  The word “reform” has started to lose its currency in much the same way that the word “feudalism” has.

Whereas Miller turned to material culture to try to trace attempts at clerical reforms and actually ascertain to what degree the reforms were implemented, Van Engen discussed the difficulty in the idea of “reform” for an institution that should be continually devoted to self-reflection and, thus ideally, self-correction.  The point is this: to really return a sense of substance to the word, it would behoove us to stop considering reform in terms of waves of movements, and instead focus on the changes that occurred (or didn’t) as a result of calls to reform.  De Jong congratulated the presenters on this precise point when recalling the work of Robert Markus (recently deceased and remembered) who suggested that the real work for scholars would be to look at the spaces and places that changed and shifted in the Church’s history.  (This is what he did so well in The End of Ancient Christianity.)

Without this revision to our approach, the word “reform” seems to require definition and explanation every time it is used.  It also means that we need to leave behind the purely intellectual history of most previous reform discussions and try to tease out the actual effects of these propositions on the ground.

This is what Miller did in her presentation regarding the priestly vestments and their evolution through the period of the 800-1200 reform movements, seeking evidence of these alterations in the material culture–a challenging task given the limited number of sample artifacts.  Her project is clearly attempting to rectify not only the problems with our discussions about reforms but also the means by which we gain insight to movement on the ground.  In addition to the vestments, she made use of the regional liturgical legislation as a method for inter-textual reading against the legislation that was coming out of Rome which faced unique challenges that were not experienced in most regional churches.

Van Engen compared the resistance to these movements among the clergy as being frequently resisted among large segments of the targeted population to a hypothetical reform in academia wherein professors would lose their offices and instead congregate together as a return to academia’s purer roots!  Given that, it seems worthwhile to identify actual successes or setback in such programs.

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Local History in our Cities’ Museums

In the U.S., our cities have certain stories of their past to tell:

  1. Life before the European–the story, told mostly through archaeology and treaties, of the American Indian in a particular region
  2. Settlement–a story that often includes conflict, with the previous inhabitants, the landscape or both; sometimes this is a story of innovations, sometimes a story conquest and often it includes stories of tremendous will and perseverance; this is also told through archaeology and occasionally federal and legal documents–under more fortunate circumstances, it includes first person accounts
  3. Growth–a story that explains how a settlement of a few pioneers became a town and then a city; this is usually a story that builds through multiple phases: first as infrastructure improves and again as local industry develops; occasionally these stories include periods of economic and population regression–sometimes it is how they culminate
  4. Local industry–this story features the prominent (usually) men about town that created jobs and economic growth through commercial means and typically effected politics and society, such as Heinz in Pittsburgh, the race track in Saratoga or the ship yards in Baltimore
  5. Local events/catastrophes/individuals–these are uniques stories and major events unique to the region, from cataclysmic natural disasters to military battles to political show-downs or epic instances of courage; they provide much of the local color and show up in any phase along the way
  6. Prejudice and civil rights–these are stories that recognize the local region’s particular participation in our country’s greater history of having failed to live up to our own ideals, tempered with the stories of courage and risk in which those shortcomings were overcome–most of these stories appear in the past tense, often around slavery, Jim Crow or urban renewal, and with the sense that we have overcome those periods and issues
  7. Sports–these stories can also encompass a wide range of periods and are part of the local lore, trial and triumph; these often include a discussion of prejudice at some point, usually looking at the Negro Leagues or desegregation in sports and the impact on society

These cases are often the focus and model for local museums.  As with historical textbook authors and documentary directors, curators are often knowledgeable about either one particular facet of the museum’s exhibits or are specifically gifted in their field and happen to be at a history museum (as opposed to art, for example).  Thus, it is frequently the case that museums, as with textbooks and documentaries, do not always deal with the method behind the displayed knowledge, nor thus the disagreement that often exists regarding historical interpretations.  So, in the same sense there is often the perception of the provided information as being HISTORICAL FACT as opposed to an interpretation of evidence–often the result of hard research, I am sure–but not reflective of historical method, which is itself an end in one’s historical education.

So, the question arises: how do we use this as curious human beings and as educators?

For the curious:

Whenever we visit these museums, we have two options in our approach: we can simply take in and enjoy–a passive edutainment approach–or we can consider what is missing, what evidence is provided for the assertions, what implications arise, what other interpretations exist or other questions–an active thinking approach.  This is all really dependent on one’s own interests.  While visiting the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh I was really intrigued by a small exhibit that acknowledged the various religious women orders that had been active in Pittsburgh despite a prevalent suspicion for foreign-born Catholics.  The exhibit explained that the nuns earned respect by providing health services for orphans and poor factory workers in the growing steel industry.  An example of each habit was provided and a brief blurb about the order, but little other information or evidence about their accomplishments and relationships in the city.  I was particularly interested because few of the orders had an education–mission which is the stereotypical role, today.

In the sense that the exhibit brought the subject to my awareness it was positive, but that I left with more questions than answers is an outcome for which the merits must be judged by each individual.

For the educator:

These same challenges can be turned into opportunities by educators.  In fact, tapping into the local industry or sports lore may be a really useful way to engage students in challenging concepts surrounding both historical method and content.  Relationships can be fostered between local institutions encouraging students to engage and research the content in the exhibits and learn more about how historians know what they claim to know.  There are, thus, many opportunities not only to engage students with the physical objects of the past, but to engage their attention to the construction of the content.  Local histories are often exhibited in a predominantly positive way, with the darker points of history usually (but not always) relegated to the more distant past, and this also creates opportunities to prompt thought about other perspectives and more balanced understandings of human past and human nature.  (Incidentally, I think it is often the threat of the darker side of history that makes the accompanying sports history that much more appealing and triumphant!  That is unless, of course, there is something inherently unavoidable about the loss, such as the Baltimore Colts packing up and leaving town, or the utter racism that left the Washington Redskins as the last team to desegregate.)

In short, there is opportunity in our local field trip availability that can trigger really useful active thinking–historical thinking, as Sam Wineburg would call it–that we can tap into as educators at all levels.

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History vs. Journalism, a problem with sources

Where have all the reliable sources gone?

I love reading a well-written piece in magazines such as the Smithsonian.  These cultural catch-alls are entertaining and usually skillfully crafted prose, often adorned with fantastic photography or artwork.  Still they are not written from an academic perspective, nor typically for an academic audience.  The sources are frequently limiting in their perspective and infrequently fully disclosed.  As a historian I read many pieces with a certain sense of frustration, usually related to the author’s method.  (As a high school student, I recall being particularly fired up after reading a National Geographic article on Ibn Battuta, the African Muslim traveler who covered way more turf and sand than Marco Polo, but NO sources were provided.)  I am not entirely sure how this is played out for other academic fields, but in the field of history there are demands for disclosure of one’s sources that are not required of journalists–in fact, journalistic codes often require just the opposite: protection of one’s sources.

An "Indelible Image" in Smithsonian Magazine, a regular edition that typically interviews the individuals in the photo and the photographer about the picture.

A few years ago, I sat in the Dirkson cafeteria on capitol hill with a fellow colleague of the Close Up Foundation.  He was also working part time at one of the big box book stores and taking advantage of a book loan program they had for their employees.  Sadly, I cannot recall the title or author of the particular book he was reading, but I do recall that it was about the Bush administration’s decision to go to war.  When I asked him about it, he said it was rather odd: it was written by a journalist and had sections of dialogue in it.  Actually, it was like a running transcript of a discussion supposedly held in the Oval Office by Bush with Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell.  According to my friend, there was no citation or explanation about where the script came from.  WHAT??!?  Don’t you have to at least tell me that you got it from a source you can’t tell me about?

Admittedly, journalism has changed–look at what I’m doing; journalists do it, too–but, the whole approach was always different from history.  If journalism requires investigations into current politicians, corporate heads and international politics, than sources need to be protected so that they may speak freely.  That is the theory, anyway.  I respect that, although, when the news contradicts itself as much as it does, today, it is really hard to know what is actually happening.  Historians do not need to worry so much about their sources feeling reprisal since all parties are often dead.  In fact, it is quite the opposite approach.  Everyone should have access to the source!  As I read a historian’s work I am not only at liberty to check his interpretation against the sources he used, but am encouraged to follow his sources to develop my own theories and ideas and build on our current understanding.  This is an essential feature of  the field.  It is frequently not possible with journalistic writing.  When I would desire to check a random assertion, I am left without a footnote and my only recourse is to see what others have published.  It is often difficult to get to the primary sources, because no one wants to divulge them.  All I can do is trust the journalist’s integrity and judgement!

Journalists forgetting their press badges are not "backstage passes."

It is thus difficult to do one’s due diligence.  We have an undesirable situation compounded with the withering of the newsprint industry.  Instead of reading a lengthy story with explanations and a trail building to a conclusion, most people have chosen short blurbs on TV media or snappy online sources.  I tend to ignore tweeted news without an article attached to it.

Twitter killed the newspaper star?

That explains my frustration with current news media, but it also explains one’s irritation when reading journalist-written histories.  The training creates significantly different products from a journalist than it would from a historian, but it often gets read more, promoted more and discussed more outside of academic circles.  To add insult to injury, journalists with insufficient knowledge or training often review academic history works in popular publications.  What a mess!  I don’t really have it in for journalists, but I do get frustrated with them–they aren’t historians, but they sometimes play historians in the media!

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A metaphor to explain what historians do

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.

The Detective

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.

DETECTIVE WORK

  • Investigation
  • Crimes
  • Interview witnesses
  • Training and experiences
  • Evidence
    • Clues
    • Observation

HISTORY RESEARCH

  • Research
  • Questions
  • Read primary sources
  • Secondary sources
  • Evidence
    • Realia
    • Names, geography
    • Events

The Prosecutor

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.

PROSECUTOR’S CASE

  • Opening statement
  • Interviewing witnesses on the stand
  • Presentation of physical evidence in exhibits
  • Closing statements
  • Oral arguments
  • Rebutting the defense’s case

HISTORY ARGUMENT

  • Introduction
  • Citing primary sources in your text
  • Citing archaeological evidence
  • Conclusion
  • Written arguments
  • Taking into account critics and opposing view points

The Workshop

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

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 Discussion

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.

* * *

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.

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