Tag Archives: research

A paper vs. digital rant

Or, why I love (love!) paper

(Book Autopsies series, Brian Dettmer)

I write a blog.  A blog is short for “web log” and represents a unique forum in communication on the web’s agora.  I do not pay to maintain my blog and you do not pay to read it, but this free-of-cost illusion does not come cheaply.  The energy cost is not free.  The cost to the environment is not green.  And, the publication of the blog is not lasting.  It is convenient and contributes to a much higher output, but it is transient and only accessible via technology.

This post is a bit of rant, really, about the impermanence of our information, today, and it considers the paperless myth and the hidden costs to our society.  As a historian, my work depends on archives and libraries; as a teacher, adopting the Iroquois proverb about taking care unto the seventh generation, I want to see that future historians are able to continue to delve into the past, our past.  Speaking of the seventh generation, it really is a myth that the paper industry will destroy the planet’s green by wiping forests from the face of the earth–quite the opposite, in fact.  And, finally, shunning paper creates a real problem and inequity in our society–even cheap technology costs more to purchase and operate than paper!  Furthermore, our youth and society at large lose something when they do not slow down long enough to take the time to read and write with paper.  It effects our brain and our thinking.

Let me say that I am not a Luddite!  I love technology!!  I just don’t want it to replace my hands and my brain completely.  After all, I do write a blog and very much enjoy the blogs of others!  It is the best way for me to get headline news and stay up to date with many of my hobbies, such as sports, but I’d rather sit down and read a newspaper at the coffee shop to get the depth in coverage.  But, even as I revel in technology’s accessibility, I print out most things I am going to read that are longer than a few paragraphs.

Historians and paper.

(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

Historians need sources!  As a result, they need their paper!  You may well argue that just as methods for producing data evolve, so, too, will the methods of research with digital material.  Certainly, future historians will no doubt include technicians who can perform autopsies on obsolete 3×5 floppies, but nevertheless much will be lost before they have the opportunity.  How many people have sought to take their old Word Perfect files off their IBM 360?  If the files were not printed, they were probably not saved.

As the Paper Because campaign points out, paper just lasts longer!  The Gutenberg Bible still exists today!  Any document that was written out by hand on paper or a paper-like substance, such as velum or papyrus has a shot, because it could be saved.  How else we do we have the writings of Greeks, Romans, Persians, Chinese, Japanese, etc.?

(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

Our personal histories are being lost with each successive computer crash–we do not even print out our photographs anymore!  I was first acquainted with this concept when I met a grad student my freshman year of college in the library studies program who, in working with the university archive, remarked that such archives across the country were finding it increasingly difficult to keep records on college life because e-mail had already begun to replace letters.  This was in the fall of 1999.  I no longer have access to my college e-mails or instant messages.  The e-mails were lost  due to a fatal computer hacking of the college’s computer systems.  The only ones I have,  I printed and stored with my letters from my childhood.  This is everyone’s story.  Think of school assignments that are entirely lost (sometimes before they’ve been handed in) because of a computer glitch or crash.  Some of these not only reflect the student’s hard work, they include personal creations that can’t be recovered.  I won’t speak for others, but in my family we kept stories and projects because they were on paper and were stored in our file or brag book.

Humans will produce an exponentially greater amount of data than ever before (think of all those Tweets and text messages), but will save a negligent amount of it in the upcoming years.  It will distort our memory and legacy.

Print is Green.

(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

You are forgiven for thinking that avoiding paper-use saves trees–it is a very popular theory–but, you are wrong.  It is, in fact, quite the opposite.   The paper industry insures the health of forests.  Without the demand for paper, which is the least wasteful product produced from trees, forest land would be sold off to developers, leveled and become a construction site, confining forest land to preserves.

(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

As an industry and as a final product, paper also conserves energy.  Reading a book, writing a letter, painting a picture or developing a photograph (on paper) costs little or no energy once the bookstationary, and paper has been manufactured.  Furthermore, these industries are leaders in energy-efficiency and recycling.  So, be green!!  Do something good for the earth!  Use paper products!!  (Below, are sites devoted to this concept with cited information.  In fairness, many of them come from the paper industry, but their arguments and sources make for a compelling argument.)

The costs of abandoning paper.

(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

There are two main costs I want to consider: 1) the resulting divide between those who can afford technology and those who cannot; and, 2) the stunting affect excessive technology can have on brain development.  Both of these concepts represent a real loss to society in slightly different ways.

By reducing paper–particularly in the case of the government and its sundry departments–we reduce access for the portion of our population that cannot afford smart phones or computers, nor have access to such technology at school or work.  While libraries offer a slight reprieve, they are not equipped or funded to cover the entire demographic.  The internet is a great resource in democratic society, but when the IRS decides that its tax forms are no longer available at the post office, and that one must go online to get said forms, the internet becomes an unintended class weapon.  The paperless revolution takes on a eugenic-like quality where the poor are once again sacrificed in the name of progress in general and green progress in particular regardless of whether it is intended or accidental.

(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

But, there is more lost.  There is a diminishing return in the development of the young brains.  Sure, we do not experience the same astonishing development that Lynne Truss reported took place in New Zealand.  There, students were permitted to hand in class work and tests in what I like to call text-speak (Eats, Shoots and Leaves).  But, nonetheless, there is evidence to show that students’ brains learn something special when they are forced to do slow reading as opposed to exclusively internet-scanning.  And, again, brains develop more completely when forced to write by hand as opposed to typing everything.  We still, rightly, refer to written works created by the act of writing, whereas we never refer to typed materials or typing–just typos!   (Having said that, my sixth-grader spends useless computer lab hours toodling around on the internet and has yet to rise above chicken-pecking her assignments on the computer!  Surely, if they are going to be on the computers in school anyway, and are assigned large projects that must be typed at least several times a year, then they can take the time to teach them typing!!)

Handwriting has been linked time and again to cognitive development.  This thinking ability, the capability to make connections and to problem-solve, is something I have to guide my students through each semester in community college history classes.  It is frustrating to know that the seventh graders I taught at the all-boys private school were more literate and capable of cognitive thinking then the majority of my students at the college level.  Key practices and training are being missed at earlier levels, stunting development.

Today, students cannot typically process lengthy textual information–even at the collegiate level where they must.  By lengthy, I do not refer in my [collegiate teaching] experience to books or textbook chapters, but long articles.  They seem to struggle to focus on anything even that long.  This is in part symptomatic of little practice, and is exacerbated by confining themselves to reading texts, Tweets and internet pages and posts.

Not only does this inhibit youth development, it retards and diminishes adult brains as well.

***

 

(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

So, hail paper!  Hail books!  Hail slow reading!  Hail paper tax forms and ballots!  Hail writing with a Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil!  Hail photographs printed and framed!  Hail watercolor paintings!  Hail the glorious tactile sensation of fondling a book you are about to savor!  Hail postcards!  Hail archives and primary sources!  Hail newspapers with articles longer than two paragraphs!  Hail printed journals!  Hail diaries!  Hail printed sheets of music and a group of people making music together!  Hail printers and book binders!  Hail memory and legacy!  Hail recycling and forests!  Hail the unhackable!  Hail note-taking!  Hail research papers, theses and dissertations printed and bound!  Hail paper!!

Recommend reading on this subject:

(Feel free to print stuff out and read it at your leisure!!)

Preserving history

This is not a new area of concern for libraries and archives.  In 2006, in an article, “Fragile digital data in danger of fading past history’s reach” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 7) reported on the problems encountered by the Library of Congress and the National Archive Records and Administration.  Contact the archive at your alma mater or make inquiries at any collection that maintains primary sources and get the scoop!  Librarians are not shy–they’ll tell you!

Keeping green

Start with these sites:

Paper Becausehttp://www.paperbecause.com/

Print Grows Trees: http://printgrowstrees.com/

Choose Printhttp://www.chooseprint.org/

Learning better

On slow reading I recommend, “The art of slow reading” and “Slow Reading: An antidote for a fast world?”.

On the link between handwriting and cognitive development I recommend, “How writing by hand makes kids smarter”, “How handwriting trains the brain” and “Writing by hand helps the brain”.

forests

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal

Student-written “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories for learning history

“Choose Your Own Adventure” Additions | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day….

A look at Larry Ferlazzo’s edublogs will reveal a real respect for student-written “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories as learning tools.

 

A key concept that’s important for students to learn is the importance of engaging with the text — not just being a passive reader.

There are obviously many effective instructional strategies to help them practice that lesson.  One pretty explicit way is for them to have access to reading “choose your own adventure” stories where they are periodically given choices of what they want characters to do, and then participate in the construction of the story itself…

In addition, writing these kinds of stories has the potential of being a fun and educational group writing activity for English Language Learners and other students.

~ Larry Ferlazzo

“The Best Places to read and write ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Stories”

By following the link at the top of the page and the one credited in the above quote, you can see a large number of online tools to engage students both in reading and writing these active stories.  Some of those found by Mr. Ferlazzo, are set on a historic stage–the link at the top of the page, for example, includes a Jamestown version.

Historians often discuss what might have been had X not happened, if Y had not done that, if Z had this, etc.  What-if books on various outlooks have been published (although I find many of them snarky and irritating in their scapegoating).  But, I like the potential application of a student-written “Choose Your Own Adventure” Story to address either major decisions that were made that we question today, or to consider the day-to-day decisions of someone from a distant culture.

For example, I have decided to add an in-class activity when I get to my Crusades class in Western Civ. 101.  In this version, I will provide the introduction to the story and the first decision.  I plan on using blue books, pasting in the introduction, and having small groups write in the subsequent story and choices.

Obviously, regarding the Crusades, I could create a story about Pope Urban II’s decision to call fighting men to volunteer at the Council of Clermont, but that’s not the direction I am going to take.

Urban II's call for Crusade at the Council of Clermont

Instead, I am going to start the story with a young noble man whose father has just passed away and who had donated some of his best lands to a neighboring monastery.  The first choice will be whether the young man should take the lands back by force or appeal to his lord for aid and advice.  Should he choose to attack, he is captured by his lord to whom the monastery appealed and after being tried will serve his penance by going on the Crusade to Jerusalem.  If he seeks mediation from his lord, part of the negotiation will be to leave the lands in the monastery’s care while he goes on the Crusade.

From there, the students will use their primary sources to inform their creation of the rest of the story.  The directions will guide them to create conflicts on the journey, in battle and in Jerusalem that will require decision-making and two possible consequences in each instance.

I am debating an alternative method.  In this instance it would be a PowerPoint version and as the two options were provided the class would debate for one or the other.  In this way, students would consider some options by a similar means but be forced to reason their way through it.  I would have some additional controls for choosing realistic possibilities and pinpoint citations to explain those possibilities.

In a perfect world, I would love to see students consider and critique the major decisions in history, such as: Ramses II’s decision to sign the peace treaty of Hattusili; Hannibal’s decision not to attack Rome; Constantine’s decision to convert to Christianity; Gregory the Great’s decision to send missionaries to England; Charlmagne’s decision to meet the Muslims; Harold’s decision to rush to Hastings and meet William the Conqueror; and Innocent III’s decision to except the Dominicans and the Franciscans and declare crusade on the Albigensians; etc.

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How to achieve this in a survey course during a brief semester and have it be a meaningful learning exercise instead of a mere game?  How can one hope to understand Constantine’s decision without doing [at the very least, secondary source] research?  Veteran historians disagree as it is and they have the benefit of being professional historians with advanced degrees!  I am sure it can be done, but I confess, on those larger questions, I do not, yet, see how best to achieve it in as a student activity.  The PowerPoint version may be a viable way to tweak the lecture format and still challenge the students to think their way through, but I am not sure how meaningful the non-historical alternatives are without a larger base knowledge than a 101 class permits.

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Researching at the Library of Congress

(A snow day post…)

A bird's eye view of Capitol Hill and the Library of Congress

If you don’t do research, you should find yourself a project just so you have an excuse to visit the Library of Congress (LOC).  If you have never visited, you should–it is very cool and entertaining, more accessible than many of the Smithsonian museums and better located for other amenities, plus you can spend a half-day or a full-day there and not feel like you have left most of it unseen.  (I posted about the LOC earlier for folks who want to visit:  “The Library of Congress”.)

As great as it is to take the tour and play with the “The Passport to Knowledge” at each of the exhibits, the experience researching at the LOC is awesome!  While the facility exists first and foremost to benefit Congress–think about that for a moment and see if it doesn’t give you a flicker of hope for our country’s future–it is also intended to benefit the country as a vast receptacle of knowledge that will contribute to the greater good for America’s citizens.  So, take advantage!  This is a primer on doing research at the LOC and quite frankly will only scratch the surface because there is so much within its facilities.

The beautiful Thomas Jefferson building (LOC)

Your first stop should probably be the the LOC’s website, where you can get the lay of the land and IM with a librarian to help plan your visit.  Your next stop should be the James Madison building.  Here you get your library card–it typically takes a few minutes.  The building is at the top of the street from the Capitol South Metro station on the Orange and Blue line.  (Union Station is only a few blocks away and is on the Red line.  Transferring takes the most time on Metro, so if you are already on the Red line just go to Union Station.)  The library card station is one floor below the main entrance and both the security guards and the help desk just inside the main entrance can guide you.

The John Adams building (LOC)

There is security because these are federal buildings.  Don’t bring blades–even scissors, although some guards will ignore them I wouldn’t risk it–and travel light.  Put those items that run afoul of metal detectors in your bag or coat so you can quickly run it through the x-ray machines (while this will speed your entrance, it does not necessarily help you with slower tourists who may be in line in front of you–fortunately most of them will be at the Jefferson building).  Your next step is to determine which reading room you need.  The folks who get you your card will give you a quick orientation.  For some projects you have to go to a specific reading room because the materials do not leave that room.  If time is of the essence than you will want to go to the correct room to get your materials quickly.  If you are using a variety of materials, such as books and journals, you have a little more time, or brought some materials to work on with you, go to the Jefferson’s Main Reading Room.  This is also where preparation is so important, because you can pre-request materials online and have them waiting for you in the Main Reading Room or a specific reading room.

A map of the Library of Congress facilities on Capitol Hill (more exist in Maryland!)

Let’s say you do this and are going to the Main Reading Room, you will never work in such a beautiful and, in my opinion, optimal setting.  So, enter at the Madison building, get your card and walk through the tunnels to the Jefferson building so you do not have to do the security drill again and you bypass the tourists–also allows you to avoid the bizarre DC weather.  Once you get to the Jefferson building (follow the signs–it is not quite as obvious as it might be), go to the coat check–this is mandatory!  Here, you will hand over your bags and coats.  My advice is that you wear a layer or two–I typically find that I get cold after sitting there for a while.  Travelling light is important, too, because you will carry everything in by hand or in provided clear plastic bags–which I love and constantly reused at my campus library!  This includes your laptop and its accessories, pencils (pens are not allowed in some reading rooms!!) and notebooks!  Go find a spot to sit and note the seat number.  Then submit your book requests with your seat number at the desk or pick up the resources that are waiting for you.  Assuming you find what you need, but don’t finish with all of your materials you have the option of holding the books for a week and retrieving them from a room off the Main Reading Room.  Remember you can’t take them with you!

The Jefferson's Main Reading room (LOC)

Use your time wisely and be focused about what you want to do when you are there.  I liked having two projects to work on, because  I could switch my focus if I was hitting a block or getting burned out, but I have also been guilty of over-stimulating myself and not making the best use of my time.  While we are talking about the actual practice of researching let me throw in a quick note about note-taking: Be methodical!  Put your bibliographical information at the top of page (be it in Word or your notebook) and write down the page numbers for each note.  This is a good habit to get into–especially if you have previously been stacking and hoarding library books in your room all semester long.  This will make your research process much more useful to you two years later after you’ve completed that project and realize you need something from that research which you did not include in your paper.  You can’t own all the books you need, but you can take good and useful notes, which may be almost as useful.  (The key is being able to do it quickly, which is something I still struggle at . .  maybe from lack of practice while a student!)  Finally, if you are stuck ask for help.  The librarians know there business and if you are in a specific reading room they really know their stuff.  I was amazed at how they could help me even if they were not experts in my field.  They work for you and work out solutions.  (A shot out to librarians everywhere!)

Pulling an all-dayer is possible, of course, but you need to plan carefully.  For food, you can get “off campus” if you need a break and walk a couple blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue (use the researcher’s entrances and exits on the back side of Jefferson–right next to the coat check), but be aware that the area can get a bit crowded and busy if Congress is in session and the weather is nice.  Otherwise pack your lunch and check it in with bag and coat.  There are places to eat and even purchase food in the LOC–so, again preparation–know the location closest to where you are researching.

This should get you started.  The LOC has most books published in this country, many published abroad, journals, newspapers, photos, audio and video archives.  It is a great place to visit and research.  It is worth developing a project just so you can take advantage of the facility–consider it your duty as an American citizen!

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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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Visiting the Library of Congress

The original access to the main reading room--the youth on the left is learning and the elder on the right is meant to represent wisdom.

The Library of Congress owes the bulk of it’s establishment to the library of Thomas Jefferson, which was a rather special and extensive library at the time.  Sadly for TJ, it also contributed to his bankruptcy and, thus, his need to sell it off.  Congress did him a huge favor when they purchased it.  When it was in his library at Monticello he divided it into three categories: Memory (Historical interests), Imagination (Literature), Research (Scientific interests).  One of the exhibits in the current building, Jefferson (completed in the 1890s) features a replica of his collection–with most of the books being editions from the years he purchased them.  (Many of the original books have been lost as the Library of Congress had some fires in its early years.)

The artistry is most evident from the floor above the main entrance. Above is a skylight made of stained glass surrounded by aluminum--at the time more valuable than gold!

The main building, called the Jefferson building, is a stunning building of marble, mosaics, statuary, gilded gold and stained glass.  50 artists were recruited from the Chicago World’s Fair to the work on a voluntary basis!  At the end of the project there was a $500,000 surplus, out of which $300,000 was paid to these workers (the rest went back into the Treasury).  The building reflects, as our guide explained, the Eurocentrism that was popular in America during the 1809s: historic men from Western Civilization are depicted–particularly those noted for their love of knowledge and learning–and idealized women are also placed throughout representing abstract ideas–they are not historic unless they represent classical deities.

The L.O.C. does restoration of their books and have even found a method by means of a milk-magnesium vapor to whiten pages that have yellowed with age–a process they predict lasts up to 240 years.  Given the importance of some of their collection, such as a Gutenberg Bible, these processes are essential for the upkeep of the library.  The library is first and foremost a collection for Congress, but is open to researchers who may obtain library cards in the neighboring Adams building.  One requests the books and they are brought from their positions to researchers.  While there are various reading rooms–many devoted to a particular field–I have never been able to turn down the opportunity to sit in the main reading room, except when I was researching in the rare books collection, from which books do not leave to any other reading room.

During World War II Hollywood stars took orders and bussed tables for American soldiers, featured on the wall behind Bob Hope.

For the visitor, as opposed to the researcher, there are always exhibits open to the public and tours are available to explain the building and the collection’s history.  Another fun feature for younger audiences (and a few adults, as well) are the Passports to Knowledge that are available from the information desks.  These Passports provide information to guide you through the building but also have a bar-code that can be inserted in to consoles located throughout the exhibits.  By typing in your information, you can download it onto myLOC.gov and access images and information at home.  With exhibits featuring the New World and American culture especially, this is a really cool feature giving you access to what you have seen on your visit.

Past exhibits at the L.O.C. include:

EXPLORING THE AMERICAS:

Northwest Gallery, 2nd Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building

CREATING THE UNITED STATES:

Southwest Pavilion, 2nd Floor, Thomas Jefferson Bldg

THOMAS JEFFERSON’S LIBRARY:

Southwest Pavilion, 2nd Floor, Thomas Jefferson Bldg

HOPE FOR AMERICA: PERFORMANCE, POLITICS AND POP CULTURE:

Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment, Ground Floor, Thomas Jefferson Bldg

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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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