Tag Archives: history

“Learn More, See More”

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Teaching our students to “see” our field is an essential aspect of what we do.  While I had a student recently express frustration with my midterm that tests for methodology as much as content–and, what would he need that for when this is a 101 class and he’s a computer science major–the simple fact is we want our students to see more of the world around them, not less.

History has a humanizing quality about it, but one cannot access that facet of the field unless one has an understanding of how history works.  Engaging humanity through another culture, even if it is a root for our own–especially if it is a root for our own–forces students to effectively open a dialogue with the people who came before.  But, that is impossible if we pretend to be the man behind the curtain and provide our students with a sterilized “history” that has already “answered” all the questions for the students.  Rather if we open the discipline up to students and encourage them to attempt formulating their own interpretations and engage directly with those of scholars, then we will expand their vision.

Perhaps, I should explain what I mean by “expand their vision” so it is not some empty platitude.  Neurologist Richard Restak explains that the eye does not operate as a camera lens, taking snapshots of “the world out there.”  Instead, it sees according to the knowledge of the scene already possessed, hence his expression which I borrowed for my title, “learn more, see more.”  If I, for example, brought a sailor, a marine biologist, an American historian, and a local businesswoman out to the point where Fort McHenry sits in Baltimore, each of their minds would seize on different aspects available in the scene, would be drawn to different subjects:

  • The sailor would likely notice the tides, the shipping lanes, and perhaps scan the port visible across the water;
  • The marine biologist would plausibly look for algae blooms, scan the fauna along the shore, notice the sea birds or other animals that the others might miss, and see the unwanted debris floating in the Bay;
  • The American historian would probably focus more on the Fort itself and scan the horizon for the landmarks during the War of 1812 or the Civil War, looking for the neighborhoods that were occupied or were battle zones;
  • The local businesswoman would doubtless take in the new developments in the surrounding neighborhoods visible from the point or, depending on what her business is, direct her attention to the port and its activities, BUT…

If she is a local, born-and-raised Baltimorean, she may well see many of the same things as her counterparts:

  •  Boating is such a big part of local Bay culture that she may be an enthusiast, herself, or have friends and family who are thereby having picked up something of their knowledge;
  • One cannot live on the Bay without being acquainted with the local animals and fauna, nor without being aware of the decline in its health and efforts to improve it, frequently hearing in the news, local radio, and PSAs about its conditions and what threatens it most;
  • The history of Fort McHenry is well known to locals who are proud of its place in American history and as the site where the star-spangled banner waved in the wind, inspiring Francis Scott Keys, held on a British man-of-war in the Bay, to pen the poem that became our national anthem.


The more we can add to what our students and our children see, the more rich and nuanced the world they live in becomes–the more alive!  When a person can scan the horizon and see in his or her line of sight a teeming vision of the community around him or her (whether it is a positive and pleasant sight or one that insights frustration or anger), boredom and disinterest remain distant.  Citizens are thus engaged in their community and in the world in which they live.  As a result, they can share more with all of us.

This same argument applies to the skills the field requires, not merely the content.  Seeing is a verb with many meanings.  One can see the scene in front of him or her and one can see patterns in verbal communication (which can later impact how one sees the scene).  We are a culture inundated with verbal communication: ads, news, social media, entertainment, etc.  It is crucial that we learn to digest that material effectively and critically.  It is also expected that as citizens we are prepared to engage in the dialogue, but for that to be useful the output has to be intelligible and preferably intelligent, even if contrary.

Historians have to read critically, recognizing what questions a source answers (even if that question was not already in their head when they sat down to read the source!) and which questions still need to be answered–this active reading and developed curiosity leads to interesting and productive explorations.  It also fuels useful discussion.

It is further incumbent on historians to interpret what happened in the past given the available sources and make an argument defending that interpretation.  This argument requires developing verbal skills in both written and oral communication.  This in turn should improve ones recognition of the patterns of argumentation one encounters.  (Please note, however, that this is precisely what textbooks and most documentaries do not do!  Rather, these forums provide the interpretation as fact–a squirrely thing in the field of history–not as a single interpretation that has been developed through one’s research into past sources, which are themselves often interpretations of an event and thus subject to critical reading, analysis, and interpretation.)

If we can help students to see these things in what they read and write we are training them to be successful whether they are stay-at-home moms or dads, computer science professionals, local businessmen and women, or historians.  It trains them to see information with a critical eye and ask the right questions, recognize answers, and intelligently navigate arguments.

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Hellenism spreads history and other Greek ideas. Part 2, of a web-based picture comics.

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intro to Hellenism





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Ephesus library

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History comes from Hellenism


Want to see Part I?  Click the title, here:  What is history?  A web-based picture comics in 3 parts.

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The overwhelming body of written stuff [I want to read]

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 My curiosity often seems fairly boundless to me.  There are so many things I want to explore and I never will have time to read even a quarter of it.  My interests are pretty wide: various fields of science, current events, virtually every location and era of history, and countless tales, fables, stories, and poems all fascinate me.  Every day could be filled with reading the various articles of interest from my Twitter feed alone.  I could very literally spend an entire day reading through it.

It would help if I read faster than I do–it would have helped in grad school, too.  But, puzzlingly, I am not particularly speedy when reading the written word.  Sometimes I get bogged down in hard thinking over the reading, or thumbing through the filing cabinet of my brain seeking a dialogue with some other text (or several) that my current subject provokes.  That latter scenario is often when additional texts, articles and notes start piling up around me at my desk and next to the couch, on the night stand and on the already stocked shelves an arm’s length from my side of the bed.  The former scenario usually leads to mad scribbling in various journals–maybe its the journal I use for possible projects, maybe its the more personal journal in which I record my more personal thoughts.

This extensive curiosity is one major reason why I stopped at the Masters of Arts in history, unsure of how to proceed to a dissertation that would focus my energies  for a number of years on one particular problem–completion of my Ph.D. seemed unlikely to occur in an acceptable time period.  It is also why freelancing was so appealing, I could work on longer projects that require long-term focus, but pick up smaller projects of other interests along the way.  Ideal really.  (Homeschooling my daughter has ended up filling in most of those smaller projects for the time being, but we don’t plan on homeschooling her for college, too.)

Another challenge I have is the cultural literacy I have developed that has given me access to many stories despite the fact that  I haven’t read all of them.  To this day, I cannot remember if I have read Romeo and Juliet in its entirety, from start to finish, or if I have only read various excerpts and seen it a hundred times in a hundred ways–I can probably quote more lines from it than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, but I am still not certain I ever read it.  I still haven’t seen Hitchcock’s Pyscho on a related note, because I already know the plot and have seen the most famous scenes from the movie.  It’s not my intention to avoid these classics–quite the opposite I assure you–but it is difficult to prioritize my reading when there is such a long list and such tall piles waiting for me.

Antique book with German text

When it is time to start a new book or story, I often suffer from option paralysis because the stacks are so many.  Not only that, but I often try to “schedule” reading certain books before others when I know that there is an open dialogue between texts A and B, and the author of B largely relies upon the fact that I, the reader, have already read A.  Plus, there is the self-experienced truism that many of the greatest works offer something more in each new reading, and I hate not returning to the great works.

It really isn’t a bad problem to have, but sometimes I get a little depressed when I consider just how few of the many books, articles and papers I want to read will actually be read.  As a historian, my work is reading and writing.  I just finished explaining to my students in the 101 history course I am teaching this semester that a historian wants to consult as many sources as possible to engage a particular event and really understand and interpret it.  This is much easier to say in a 101 course, for which we have so comparatively few sources and the authors’ existing canon is fairly limited and well-known by comparison with the early modern era and the increasing proliferation of sources, expanding with increased literacy and technology.  Even comparing a research project of the American Revolution with one of the Norman Conquest reveals a laughable gap in the available sources, though knowledge of Latin is far less necessary for the Americans.

This holiday season, I will be traveling–hours in a car and in a plane mean I will get some reading done, but not a ton.  It also means I will, much to my pleasure, acquire more than a handful of new reading materials, both as gifts for the holidays and as the result of my travels.  In other words, my list will only grow.  That’s ok.  If nothing else, it means I should never be bored, and I always have something to look forward to as  I get tied up in one project or another, building book castles all around my abode.  Although, I will always be grateful that I live in the 21st century and am thus not likely to become a historian of the era and all the many, many multi-media sources it will produce!

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What is history? A web-based picture comic series in 3 parts


For Part II, click here:  Hellenism spreads history and other Greek ideas… Part II

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Methods of reading…

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It is perhaps inevitable that I would study the medieval era and perhaps inevitable that I would go to grad school to study history.  I say this in observing how I read.  It appears that I have a rather medieval turn of mind which is seen in the analysis of my inquiries: my investigation invariably grows laterally as I gather authorities and auctores around me in my study.  The medieval literary mind would seek a greater synthesis of all materials than I do and would likely have a greater memory of their library stored in their brain matter than I do, but otherwise the similarity remains.

As I proceed into an inquiry, just as many other scholars do, I seem to assume the quintessential image of the professor working away between mountains of books.  Note, that  I said inquiry as opposed to research project, because it is not always the case that I am engaged in a serious research project when the near-obsessive, hound-like hunt begins.  I may have just read something that has simply made me curious, in an article or a novel.  I begin pulling books off the shelf and sniffing out the trail my synapses seem to have created.  Often, I think I would like these to develop into projects, but it happens so frequently that I cannot possibly live long enough to pursue every track to the prey.

I am a historian, a traveler, a writer and a lover of mysteries–though I define mysteries far more broadly than crime–and, as such, I currently have several book projects and possible articles collated and filed in my brain.  (I can only hope that my brain’s filing system is more finely tuned and calibrated than my office suggests.)  Journals, nearly a fetish of mine, are filled with notes, outlines, and text-pockets sewn together with arrows.  These are maps of the inquiry as it unfolds on my desk, literally reaching new heights, before I finally concede a need to get back to authorized assignments and official business.  Hopefully, I will have the opportunity to pursue these projects more thoroughly at some point, but simple math assures me that many will never come to fruition.

And, yet, there is little regret.  While I read more slowly than other folks with my background, training, and interests, I am quite at peace with the lively energy that accompanies even modest intellectual pursuits, including more than a few that were intended simply as pleasure.  The truth about texts is that they are forever talking to each other in ways that no one person can entirely grasp, even the authors.  So, my desire to join the conversation is, while rarely planned, as much part of the program of the textual world as it is inherent in my own composition.  Although, I admit it is sometimes difficult to turn off and can be nothing but a nuisance at one in the morning.

I have always had a reputation for being energetic, but the energy is not only a physical trait, it is a mental trait, as well.  Perhaps, it is less medieval and simply over-active.  Also, I concede I have found a powerful need to balance physical activity with intellectual activity throughout my personal history.  I suppose that is why I was able to earn my black belt two-and-a-half years ahead of schedule when I was an undergraduate, one semester before graduating with one major and two minors.  None of this is meant to brag or suggest I have a powerful intellect, because I have met people with powerful intellects and am well aware of my lacking.  In fact, some bright psychologist reading this may be just as inclined to diagnose me with ADHD!  (If so, I contend that I have developed some successful coping mechanisms.)

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Alternate Histories: Where politics and history collide

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What if Jefferson hadn’t purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon?

Mental Floss recently blogged about alternate histories that have been written and suggested.  They selected seven (plus a few) examples.  I have always been intrigued by alternate histories, but ultimately repelled.  As an intellectual exploration it is a pretty fascinating idea, and I think it could be a useful exercise for the classroom, but when these are published on the bookstore shelves and the politi-rags, they are always emotionally-charged, political tirades.

They are also, in my opinion, very seldom probable.  It is as though the authors are unhappy about X in their current world and Y in the past and it is just easiest to link them together (or so I simplify, in this case).  Curiously, I’ve never been a big fan of time-travel story-lines, either.  I think it is a related affront to the way my brain works.  The factors, the details, the extenuating circumstances inevitably spoil any attempted plots for me, because of all the loose ends.

Naturally, I do think the occasional alternate history considerations in my classes and conversations, but even so I seldom suggest actual alternatives so much as  I question whether certain events would have transpired at all given fundamental changes.  In the end, I find that the political motivations obscure intelligent historical thought.  The bias certainly leaves a thick stench over the content, at least that’s the odor prompting me to turn up my nose.  It was a bitter realization when I first encountered alternate histories in the book store in high school: I was immediately excited but after reading the back and perusing the table of contents immediate disappointment followed.  The political agendas override the potential of the intellectual exercise.

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What if Twitter had existed in other historical eras? Tweeting historiography.

I recently was tickled to find this piece on (where else?) Twitter: British r Coming. Pls RT! | Foreign Policy.  It’s really funny.  It gets one thinking, too.  Others have pointed out the value of challenging students to make observations in a succinct 140-character medium.  This forces students to use precision about the subject they are evaluating and to prioritize the material succinctly.  This is also a moment of frivolity to share with your class.

Aside from being fun, you could actually delve into some real historiographical issues.   Each set of tweets could be altered based on the different interpretations from the historiography.  For example, assign small groups a different scholar and encourage them to create tweets from the primary documents based on the assigned scholars interpretations.  Then you could compare the results.

It adds an extra layer of education, but it’s still fun!  Done well, this should be a slightly addictive exercise in levity and history.  Students should get addicted because its funny and entertaining.  You may find they actually have a better grasp of the scholarly concepts at the end, as well.  Maybe you throw it in right before or after exams or a big paper due date to get productivity despite the intensity of their coursework.

This is similar to the concept behind making fake Facebook walls.  You are asking students to use the technology with which many of them are well-acquainted as the medium in which to present their findings.  This does not suggest that you abandon papers or other means for testing their knowledge and developing skills, it is an alternative that can give students a bit of break without simply putting in a movie and having them unplug.  These exercises introduce a little levity and they should be fun.  At the end, they’ll be #Twitterstorians!

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