Teaching Historiography to Undergraduates

I’m taking a break this week from discussing video production to write about historiography. I am heading to the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) conference next week to  speak on a pedagogy panel. If you can’t make it, this post will summarize my thoughts. If you are able to attend our panel, this post can serve as a refresher.

I teach at Dickinson College, an undergraduate-only liberal arts institution. My department consciously opens all our courses except the senior seminar to all students (first-year to senior) of all majors. This creates particular challenges that those of you teaching historiography in graduate school will not have to face. The two key issues I would like to address here is how to explain historiography and how to get students to write historiography.

What is Historiography?

Students see a final paper on the syllabus and naturally want to write a research paper, because that is what they are used to in history courses. One of the  hardest things I have found is how to pull students back from that urge and explain to them the purpose of knowing how historians have approached understanding the past. The less experienced students hold the common misconception that “history just happened” or pose the oft-heard question, “Why do historians keep changing their minds”? Well, we know that the first comment is ludicrous and the question is uninformed. History doesn’t just happen. Events happen, but history is made by the historian. This involves the scholar making choices about what to study, which sources to pursue, how to interpret them, and how to craft a logical argument. This leads to the question about us “changing our minds.” New sources, new approaches, and new questions shift the field, and this is what I’m trying to get students to understand: how, why, and when do historians change their perspective on an event. So how do I teach this?

How to Teach Historiography?

Let me use my current course on Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini as an example. On day one, the students are to have read an online, generalist approach to the Sonderweg. It isn’t perfect, but it is short and gets students to see how perspectives change over time. The next class we read Anthony Cardoza’s “Recasting the Duce for the New Century” and either David Hoffmann’s introduction in Stalinism: The Essential Readings or Sheila Fitzpatrick’s “Revisionism in Retrospect” to get a flavor of some key moments in Italian and Russian historiography. In each of these we are less concerned about following all of the complexities and instead merely learning that historians disagree with each other for very good reasons. We then start practicing historiography.

Day three includes, among some content reading, a dissection of Wilson Bell’s “GULAG Historiography.” I like using this because Wilson clearly shows his moves. He groups scholars into categories and shows how their primary understandings of the function of the Gulag differ. This helps me to get the students thinking about categories. Were the Gulag camps penal, economic, or educational institutions? How do we know what we know? It is also in this second and third class period that I begin to introduce terminology. We talked about genres of history (e.g. political, diplomatic, economic, social, cultural, etc.) and approaches and schools of thought (e.g.Whig, Annales, Marxist, New Left, Post-Modern, etc.) These, of course, mean nothing to students until they begin to see some of them in action. I can’t possibly cover every approach in this class, but I want to give them some experience of spotting perspectives and categorizing them.

With this class on Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, it is natural to start with the totalitarian school. Throughout the semester we use this as a frame as we also read revisionist and post-revisionist scholars. I get students to practice dissecting articles in their note-taking and in the own writing.

The Note-Taking Template

Full disclosure: I stole this idea (with permission and attribution of course!) from my new colleague Evan Young. I have developed a method for reading primary sources that I have used for about fifteen years that gets students to ask questions of the sources. I have been less successful in developing a systematic approach to teaching how to read secondary sources. Evan’s Note-Taking Template is quite straight forward:

Full Bibliographical Information (Chicago Style) 

Overview (1-3 sentence summary)  

Aims of the Work   (What problem is the author exploring? What questions is the piece trying to answer? How does the author intervene into the field?)  

Arguments

Sources  

Methodology/Frameworks/Theory   (How does the author use the sources? Frameworks or theory that the author uses or criticizes?) 

Contributions   (Why should we engage with this piece?) 

Weak Points  (unfounded assumptions, breaks in logic, issues with use of sources, etc.) 

Points for Discussion  

Some of these elements are more difficult than others. Not all my students read Italian, German, and/or Russian, so following footnotes will not always help in understanding the source base. We look for clues in the text of the article, and I help them identify archival notations and give them basic vocabulary in the languages so they can find references to newspapers, memoirs, diaries, letters, etc. “Contributions” will often come in the authors’ introductions when they lay out their historiographical understanding of the field. We struggle most with the theories and frameworks section simply because most students (especially non-majors) have never considered these questions and have not yet read as widely as we do in graduate school. That said, after several weeks, students are able to discern “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches, political from social history, totalitarian/revisionist/post-revisionist, and much more. Within a few weeks they are able to deploy successfully some of the vocabulary of historiography.

How Can You Teach the Writing of Historiography?

I’ll be honest, this has taken a lot of trial and error. I have gotten to the point that I am feeling more comfortable with a method that is producing good results from most students. We start with what I call a “Historiography in Three Acts”. Each student chooses one of the three dictators and I assign a key monograph on each regime. The students write a brief three-page critical summary in which I push them to look less at content and more on craft. What arguments are made? How are they made and with what sources? Can you identify a methodology or school of thought?

After providing written feedback on each one, I then assign each group an article that is in conversation with the monograph they just read. This five-page paper could easily fall into a compare and contrast style of writing (e.g. author X said this and author Y said that). I push students to go further to consider WHY the authors differ in their perspectives. Are there new sources in the more recent piece? Has author two found a logical flaw in author one? Has a new approach been used?

Act three is a seven-page paper in which students then choose an article that continues the historical conversation. Some of the students are uncertain about what might be the best article, so I tell the them that they can develop a list of articles and discuss them with me. So, after three short papers they have practiced reading for and composing historiography. At this point, they choose a topic of their own (typically in consultation with me) and write a proposal and annotated bibliography. This is accompanied by a short reflection on their search process. They are required to present me with AT LEAST ten monographs and ten articles on their topic. We then identify six to ten books (or the equivalent in articles) for their final paper. This independent work takes the second half of the semester. The smart students come to talk regularly, and there is an optional draft. I would expect one-third to one-half of the students to submit a draft in week thirteen (all of the students say they will). After more comments, they have two weeks to revise and then another week to create a two-three minute podcast summarizing their findings. We continue to read, on average, two articles per class (9o minutes each) for the rest of the semester. We continue the same historiographical discussions as practice, but I also call out more explicitly the structure of the articles both as a way to get students to think about how to write their final historiographical paper, but also to give them models for future research papers in other courses.

Because I have tweaked the assignments this semester and changed about 80 percent of the readings, I asked the students to complete and anonymous self-evaluation during the middle of the semester.

Slide1

I should have done a pre-assessment on day one, because most of these questions, ranked 0 to 4, likely would have had a mean around 1. This chart shows, in my opinion, a good amount of learning among the students. All the standard deviations, except question 1, are below 1.0. I will give the same questions to students in the final week and will report back.

This is a ridiculously long post, but I have only scratched the surface. Please contact me with any questions and I will follow up on this blog. I hope to see some of you at ASEEES next week.

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply