Tag Archives: history method

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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Helping students read and write better

At the end of the semester it is worth reflecting on what has passed and what one would do differently.  Fall 2010 was less than smooth for me–some of it was very much in my control and other aspects were simply not.  (Friday, I will write about the glamorous life of the adjunct.)  One of the things I introduced this past semester were workshops associated with the midterm specifically intended to improve reading, writing and understanding of the historical method.

Studies have concluded that the social sciences and hard sciences are better mediums to teach reading because students have to grapple with the content.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have already created a bit of confusion in my design.  I refer to the first class of the week, or the first part of class depending on the weekly structure, as a “workshop” which is a carry-over from my Close Up days.  In this formula, a workshop is used to examine important concepts centered around questions pertaining to the subject.  At Close Up, these were questions about democratic governance; in my history classes, these are questions about historical method or challenges with those methods.  This is separate from the workshops I assigned this semester with the midterms which were intended to help improve students’ reading and writing skills.

In the case of the midterms, I assigned three questions that required two-page essay responses with two options for each question.  The first question asked the students to analyze an anonymous passage, to find the clues that would place the text in our course chronology and make an argument for their conclusions.  The second question asked students to make a historian’s argument dependent on four primary sources provided with the exam.  For both of these questions, the students were allowed to use any primary sources handed out in class and their textbook to supplement their answers and the provided material.  The final questions were based specifically on methodology: either they answered a how-to about specific a question we touched on during the first half of the semester or they made an argument about whether or not they believed there was such a thing as historical fact.

Notice that they are asked in each instance to make an argument and that in at least two of those instances these arguments are dependent on their ability to read and extrapolate the content for their argument.  While we have worked on these skills in class, this is the first time where I do not hold their hand through the process.  I graded the midterm with a firm hand and then assigned the Writer’s and Reader’s Workshop assignments when I handed back the midterms.  These were designed to force the students to revisit their work and improve upon it.  The major drawback with the system was the time it took for me to tailor assignments to each student and each student’s work.  Now that I have done it once, it would be easier for me to reproduce it a second time because of the experience granting me some anticipation for the sort of problems I can correct.  Once graded, the students earned back points on their midterm–in some cases, extra credit–but the workshops were also counted as separate assignments to insure that students took it seriously.  The earned back points made a big difference for many of students’ midterm grades; it is my hope that the workshops made a difference for their reading and writing.

For the Reading Workshops, I assigned tasks meant to get the students to reread the sources and find what they needed.  The amount of work varied depending on the quality or strength of the original submission.  For example:

Workshop assignment.

For the assignment, I want you to compile a list of quotes from the text that show it is a) from the Queen, b) English and c) Reformation-era.  This should be literally a list under the appropriate heading (i.e.: “From the Queen”) made with each quote getting a bullet point.

The intent was to go back and find the clues that they missed and or that they mis-attributed and correct their mistakes.  In each instance there are many clues that provide a direct link to the time period and the culture that produced the text.  In the above exercise, for example, there is little difficulty in going back and recognizing that the piece is English because of references to Parliament and to the decree that all prayers and preaching be done in English.  In the case of each answer, students had to demonstrate the skills they had learned as well as their acquired knowledge about the era in question.  With Queen Elizabeth’s edict, referred to in the above example, one had to be able to take the clues provided (the queen, the language of the Reformation, the reference to Parliament, etc.) and recognize it as a document from the English Reformation during Elizabeth’s reign.  So, it is not as though they are only being tested on historical method.  They are demonstrating their knowledge through their use of the methodology that we have also addressed in coursework.

In the second question, the texts were meant to work in harmony and provide evidence for a larger case.  So, reading the texts as being in dialogue with each other was essential.  In most cases, the students simply did not deal with each of the provided sources which often produced a one-sided perspective.  For example, one option asked students to evaluate the changes in English culture as a result of the Industrial Revolution, but many ignored the document provided by the manufacturers who owned the factories with the new machines and limited their focus to either child labor (from primary sources referenced in class) or hand-workers who had lost their profession to the cheaper machines.  So, in this instance I needed students do grapple with the content of each provided source as with the following assignment:

Workshop Assignment.

Being sure to cite the sources as you use them—even where you don’t directly quote, but nonetheless paraphrase—write four paragraphs that follow the provided outline.  This is in essence the body of the essay without an introduction or a conclusion, but also tightly focused on the provided sources.

I.  First piece of evidence

  1. Introduce the William Radcliffe text, what type of document he writes and when it is written
  2. Point #1 about what it was like before the development of the textile machines
  3. Point #2 about what it was like after the development of the textile machines

II.  Second piece of evidence

  1. Introduce Leeds Woolen Workers Petition, 1786 and what type of document it is
  2. Point #1 about why the workers say they have written the document
  3. Point #2 about what they say about the impact of textile machines on their lives and livelihoods

III.  Third piece of evidence

  1. Introduce Letter from Leeds Cloth Merchants, 1791 and what type of document it is
  2. Point #1 about what the merchants say has changed (you can note that they have a different take than the authors of the petition above)
  3. Point #2 about what change the merchants propose to enable in the future

IV.  Fourth piece of evidence

  1. Introduce the final text, “Observations”, what type of document it is and when it is written
  2. Point #1 about what change the author observes (first point)
  3. Point #2 about what change the author observes (second point)

(Note: Roman numeral = a paragraph; number = 1-3 sentences.)

In this example, the point was to ask the students to provide evidence from each source–not necessarily to change their conclusion.  In some cases, this meant simply rereading the sources with the benefit of my notes on their exams.  The outline is set up so that they now know what each source is supposed to provide them, even if they could not figure it out when they read through the texts on their own the first go ’round.

For the Writer’s Workshop, I was often asking students to address organization or their argument’s structure.  Sometimes this meant refining the above structure to include an introduction and conclusion.  Often, students skip introductions and conclusions to simply “answer the questions” without realizing how an introduction and conclusion benefits the clarity of their answers.  In some cases, students provided good information, but understanding it required extra work because there was no logical order to their answer.  This was also when they frequently would contradict themselves.  So, in some cases the assignment was to produce a refined outline of their content and to make sure they were really answering the question as in the following sample:

Workshop Assignment:

Write an outline for a new essay answering the question showing steps a historian would take to answer one of the provided questions.  Consider the things you have been asked to do previously in the exam and review the material from our first week if classes to help you think about what it is a historian does and how one uses the historical method to answer questions about the past.

The outline should show consideration for the following points:

  • What types of sources are available for the era and the people involved?
  • What are the limitations of these sources?
  • How can answers be found with the sources we have?
  • How does the historian make an argument to answer this question [you selected]?

Getting students to approach the material in a more organized way helped them to better understand their own arguments and the material in general.  In the best-case scenario they make new connections that they had not realized before–in other words, the exam itself is a learning tool.  In assessing the success of the workshops, I am inclined to be optimistic.  While some students were still not able to make some of the connections I hoped, their was improvement in every instance.  For some students, the improvement was significant (indicating either that they better understood on the second attempt or that they put more time and effort into the second attempt).

The Readers' and Writers' Workshops helped bump up Midterm grades--but they had to work for it!

For the final, I assigned less work, dropped the third question regarding methodology and asked them to answer more guided questions for the first anonymous passage.  It was also worth more than the midterm to hopefully reward them for having taken some risks in the first attempt and to have refined their approach by the second attempt.  In order to make use of this method in the future, I need to plan it out better so it is not such a time-consuming process on my end, otherwise it is not worth it for the students.  Still, once I saw the results it was hard to argue against doing it.

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Teachinghistory.org had my great idea first!!

And, here I was thinking I was so original and creative!!

 

Click on the image to get a closer look at all the brilliant stuff in this poster--a great breakdown!

 

I was visiting a great site and resource called Teaching History and came across this poster that they offer for free.  This has a lot of stuff that is straight out of my introductory classes each semester.  I thought I was pretty clever, but apparently I am not that original after all!!

Check out the poster and then check out my earlier blog on introducing the subject and the field each semester: “A Metaphor to Explain What Historian Do.”

Clearly, I am on to the right track!  I just received the free poster in the mail yesterday and it is fantastic.

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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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