Historiography Do’s and Don’ts

The most important thing about studying the study of history is to understand that doing so can sometimes lead to a series of difficult choices, especially for an undergraduate history major.  Here are some suggestions for senior history majors:


Do’s / Don’ts

  • Try to build on previous work / Don’t assume you have to tear down previous work to succeed
  • Adopt a constructive but skeptical & questioning tone / Don’t let anything represent the final word
  • Take special care to find the very best recent sources / Don’t waste time on unworthy sources
  • Put your historiography in chronological order / Don’t ever ignore the idea of change over time
  • Tackle big historiography questions in your papers / Don’t try to debate interpretations in notes
  • Be fair when characterizing other peoples’ views / Don’t be afraid to condense and summarize
  • Point out revealing discrepancies in notes / Don’t litter notes with every discrepancy or mistake
  • Be creative about making connections / Don’t overwhelm your narratives with historiography

The bottom line is that undergraduate history majors should always try to see themselves as members of a historical community, ready and capable of making contributions to their respective fields, but only if they work hard enough to deserve it.

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Historiography is the study of how historical interpretation has evolved.  Traditionally, this has meant an intense analysis of academic writings and a careful examination of how they tend to build on (or sometimes oppose) each other.  Modern-day undergraduates, however, can probably benefit from embracing a more expansive definition of historiography, one that also includes the study of classroom teaching and public history.  Here are some helpful guidelines for approaching and researching different types of historiographical questions:

Academic History

  • Rely on high quality reference sources to help identify important books and articles.
  • Learn how to peruse notes in academic scholarship to identify historiographical references
  • Become familiar with tools such as reviews, review essays, and state-of-the-field essays

Classroom History

  • Learn how to identify and assess textbooks, standards, and curriculum sources
  • Seek out specialized pedagogy journals, blogs, and other resources on teaching practices
  • Understand how to use surveys and studies for evaluations of teaching & learning trends

Public History

  • Understand different categories of public history presentation (museums, sites, cultural, etc.)
  • Learn how to be creative in evaluating the public interpretative process
  • Reflect on the meaning of memory and heritage as components of historical thinking


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Teaching the Constitution and Slavery with Eighth Graders

By Stephanie Kugler


Abolitionist icon, by Josiah Wedgewood  (1787)

Abolitionist icon, by Josiah Wedgewood (1787)

“The Constitution is interesting – the slavery part I mean – how they never mentioned the word slavery and the inequality with the 3/5 compromise.” This is what makes the Constitution worth studying, according to some 14-year-old students in California.  I teach these eighth graders in addition to about 90 others and if there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the years, it is that even though teens are rarely intrigued by dry constitutional history or basic civics lessons, they are equally appalled and fascinated by how the Framers handled the various slavery controversies in 1787.  Because of this intrinsic interest, recent events in the news, and my own desire to have my students engage in thoughtful academic arguments, I created a lesson in which students would answer an investigative question: Was the Constitution Pro or Anti-Slavery as it was written in 1787?  For academic historians, this is a familiar discussion that just heated up all over again now that political figures like Bernie Sanders and scholars like Sean Wilentz have weighed in with provocative opinions.  As soon as I encountered some of these recent debates on HNN and elsewhere, I knew I had to try to teach it because my students would be full of their own engaged and unique perspectives.  While far from perfect, this lesson provided my students the structure and support to revisit a primary source of history, the Constitution, as well as analyze excerpts from two very recent secondary sources –literally dueling  op-eds from September 2015– which present conflicting arguments regarding the Framers and their original intentions over the future of slavery.

As part of their assessment of this lesson, students wrote paragraphs outlining their arguments to answer the historical investigative question.  Unsurprisingly, the majority of my students came to the conclusion that the Constitution should be viewed as pro-slavery.  Their sense of right and wrong at age fourteen is very clear and the existence of slavery alone makes the Framers guilty in most of their minds. One student in particular argued it was pro-slavery because he believes the delegates made sure that no living slaveholder would ever suffer real consequences from abolition.  What he meant by that claim was that compromises, such as putting off the possibility of abolishing the slave trade until 1808, simply guaranteed any still-living former delegate would probably “be too old to benefit from slavery.”  While the “too old” may be an exaggeration, the evidence is valid in that it shows he understood that those who were making the rules had a stake in the decision and that many of the slave-owning Framers still had many years to benefit from the system they supported.

When assessing my students’ work I am hoping they will be able to present a claim supported by historically significant and reliable evidence, following the model of academic historians.  Some were successful, others were not.  But that is OK, because the lesson was in October and they are still learning.  Those who were less successful simply restated claims from the historians they read and did not explain the significance in their own words or connect their thinking back to historical evidence.  Those who were more successful analyzed evidence and connected back to the primary source.  For example, one student who argued in support of the Constitution as an anti-slavery document, suggested “the Constitution is anti-slavery because the delegates never said the word slavery. They never used the word slavery because they never wanted to give in to the idea that humans could be viewed as property.”  She was one of the only students to put forth this argument in her writing.  Other students saw this evidence as weak, but she agreed with Wilentz’s assertions that the principle of “property in men” was not tolerated by the Framers.  The strength of this analysis came from her ability to effectively cite Wilentz’s argument, explain his thinking, and then connect it back to the Constitution.

The other major challenge with asking students to compose historical arguments related to such high-interest topics is that they often cannot separate their initial impressions or pre-conceived notions from the academic argument.  Many of my students read the title of Wilentz’s article and scoffed, “he is wrong, slavery existed past the signing of the Constitution, therefore, the Constitution must be seen as pro-slavery.”  This is why the public debate was helpful and why it’s necessary to have students go back to the primary sources before and after reading secondary sources.  One student argued the Constitution was pro-slavery because “slavery was not abolished, only the slave trade. Slaveholders could still get more slaves from the slave women and this is the real reason the Constitution was both racist and pro-slavery.”  While it is clear this student had passion for his claim (hence the bold), his analysis was still grounded in evidence from a primary source – remaining an evidence-based argument.

How did my students come to such authoritative (if debatable) judgments?  Here is where I think the value of online platforms for academic history really can become transformative.  In this instance, they enabled a middle school teacher in California to engage and present a complicated and practically real-time historiographical debate in terms that provoked some serious historical thinking from an eighth grade social studies class.  Without this heated online discussion among academics, I never could have provided such an experience for my students.

Stephanie Kugler teaches at Bridgeway Island Elementary School (K-8) in West Sacramento, California.  She has received permission from the students and their parents to share their work on this assignment with a wider online educational community. Stephanie can be reached by email at stephanie.kugler@gmail.com

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Evaluating sources

Why are some sources better than others?  There are many ways to answer this question, but for the historian, it begins with an understanding of the research playing field.  Aspiring historians learn to distinguish primary and secondary sources along a kind of baseball diamond.Research Field

This field illustrates a key insight.  Primary sources are almost always most reliable the closer they are to the point of creation, but secondary sources tend to become more useful the further they are away from events.  In both cases, it is a question of distance.  Proximity correlates with truth in first-hand evidence, but the passage of time helps encourage broader perspective in the development of secondary sources.

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Historians are not necessarily known as a creative bunch, but good history requires plenty of creativity.  Historical researchers must often become quite ingenious when seeking out documents in archives or through online databases. History teachers or museum curators must always be clever when designing effective presentations.  The best historical scholars are invariably the most inventive in crafting their interpretations.  But most important, anyone who wants to engage a general audience must create a historical impression that matters –that brings the past to life.  That is an inherently creative process.

Nothing better illustrates this point than when artists who put their talents to the work on behalf of history.  Lately, there’s been a spate of such examples from musical theatre. The best known is “Hamilton,” now a major Broadway musical from  Tony and Grammy-award winning musician Lin-Manuel Miranda.  After reading Ron Chernow’s celebrated biography of Alexander Hamilton, Miranda actually began crafting a historically inspired rap musical about Hamilton’s improbable rise to power.  Miranda first presented one song from this musical vision at the White House in 2009:

Although this slickly produced 2010 musical parody from Soomo Publishing lacks the artistry and depth of Miranda’s creative reinvention, it is nonetheless a pretty funny video send up of Hamilton’s great rival, Thomas Jefferson, as he crafted the  Declaration of Independence (to the tune of One Republic’s “Apologize”):

The truth is that you don’t have to be a professional musician to create a memorable –and teachable– musical parody.  Here is Tim Betts, a teacher from Brooklyn, New York, who has put together a pretty amazing series of musical parody videos from across American history that are all available freely over YouTube.  Here is his version of the Bill of Rights –to the tune of “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by the Proclaimers:


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Exhibit Assignment


By Friday, October 16, students are required to post a short multi-media exhibit on the framing of the US Constitution that draws upon Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men at its principal secondary source. The goal of each exhibit should be to translate some important theme or episode from Beeman’s work into a teachable resource for a typical high school or undergraduate classroom.

Choosing Topics

  • Students needs to consider “teachability” very carefully here when selecting their exhibit topics. Mostly that means find a “theme or episode” that is not too sprawling or difficult and that relies more on images than text to convey its message.  Small windows can open up large perspectives.  So, “slavery and the Constitution” might prove unwieldy, but an image gallery of the South Carolina delegation combined with some snippets from Pierce Butler’s sketchbook might do just fine as a gateway if the captioning is done well.
  • Brevity is a virtue.  Your exhibit should be designed for concise presentation within the usual time constraints facing any ordinary teacher.   That advice translates into a Google map with ten placemarks, not a hundred; a YouTube video of four minutes, not forty; or a Prezi with a dozen slides, not dozens of slides.
  • Also, remember the general advice from this handout on framing questions; but also now consider the particular needs of the 21st-century high school or undergraduate classroom.  It can get quite complicated, but the pay-off from a well-chosen, well-designed multi-media exhibit topic is immense.  You can quite literally help shape the way others students learn about the Constitution.

Using Beeman

  • You can feel free to quote liberally from Richard Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men –in fact, one main purpose of the assignment is to help translate an important work of this magnitude into something more concise and teachable.  This means, for example, that it is perfectly acceptable to use quotes from Beeman as image captions or for placemark text. Your exhibit must have some original writing of your own, but a significant portion of your text can be borrowed from Beeman.  Just make sure you that honor all of the course plagiarism rules and that you acknowledge your source (or sources) appropriately. Exhibits typically don’t have footnotes, but you can find creative ways to provide proper credit regardless.  It is also especially important to credit images. For specific questions on how to cite or credit sources, see Prof. Pinsker.

Grading Criteria

  • Teaching design and concept –Does the exhibit meet the needs of a targeted classroom?
  • Constitutional content –Has the exhibit translated Beeman’s scholarship accurately?
  • Scholarly format –Does the exhibit succeed in acknowledging and crediting its sources?

Assignment Details

  • Embed your exhibit within a PRIVATE blog post at the course website
  • Feel free to choose any visually engaging platform for your exhibit, but consider the following five (5) options as among the easiest and most likely to yield successful results:


  • This link goes directly to the Dickinson Survey which features not only a number of model maps, but also a video tutorial.  Here is a handout that helps summarize how to create an effective custom-made Google Map.


  • There are many excellent Prezi models to consider at the Lincoln’s Writings website.  See the Project Gallery.


  • NOTE:  Storify is best used as a display that incorporates images and social media.  This post from our course offers one model to consider.


  • NOTE:  “Visualization” can mean many things in this context, such as using a WordPress blog post as a platform for presenting an image gallery, or featuring word clouds, or by generating some kind of creative graphs or charts.


All of these sites will require you to set up accounts, but they are free to use and to share.  Also, remember that in order to successfully embed them into your blog post at the course site, you will have to make sure that the settings are open or public and that you have obtained an embed code that you can enter into the “Text” (not “Visual”) tab within your post dashboard.

Remember to consult the models from the teaching of the Dred Scott Case

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Screen Shot 2015-10-05 at 1.09.48 PMThere are many, many challenges to the successful teaching of American history in 21st-century America.  Especially for K-12 educators, this has been a particularly turbulent pedagogical era.  Besides the usual suspects of complaints (such as about increasing pressures to “teach to the test” in this era of No Child Left Behind), there are particularly dangerous traps for history and social studies educators.

First, there has been an immense (and still developing) controversy over the Common Core State Standards.  These standards are ostensibly only about reading and math, but they affect every subject teacher, especially in social studies, because they have a tendency to crowd out time spent on traditional disciplinary techniques.  However, there is also something about the Common Core that all history teachers should be able to embrace.  The idea of “close reading,” which is central to the Common Core, has the potential to unlock one of the more elusive tactics of good history.  All historians read documents and other types of evidence closely, and though perhaps not exactly in the protocol of the original Common Core directives (by adhering to the “four corners” of the text), there is still something intriguing for historians about a set of educational standards that seriously promotes higher level reading comprehension.  In Fall 2014, students in the Digital Humanities seminar explored this concept of “close reading” using a set of videos and documents from the House Divided Project.

Second, there has been an explosion of controversy lately over revisions to the AP US History (APUSH) framework.  This issue seems utterly –perhaps hopelessly– politicized.  It’s about many things, but mostly about whether or not advanced US history courses at the secondary level should experiment with introducing new historical figures and historical thinking topics into the traditional national narrative.  Critics fear an approach mired in political correctness –one that almost vilifies the American past.  Advocates worry about what seems like a new wave of historical fundamentalism, one that treats US history more as religious doctrine than a subject for intellectual inquiry.  The battle has been fierce.  Students in History 117 have already addressed this argument earlier in the Fall 2015 semester.

Regardless of any future career choice, senior history majors need to be aware of both of these particular challenges and should start contemplating where they stand in these fast-evolving debates.

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Treaties and the Breakdown of the Separation of Powers

Today, so much of the President’s time and energy are focused on international affairs. Not only does the global environment demand the President’s attention but he possesses more sway over the United State’s foreign policy than any other person or branch of the United States. However, this was not always so or at least foreseen. Throughout the drafting of the Constitution, members of the Convention focused the vast majority of their time and energy on outlining the new government’s structure and function concerning internal politics. In Plain, Honest Men, historian and author Richard Beeman only touches upon the treaty a handful of times.

Nevertheless, these sections carry a large importance and expose constitutional concepts that politicians struggle over today: who has the power to structure the United States’ foreign policy. In Article II, section 2 the Constitution gives the President the “Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.” Beeman outlines how this format spawned from the constant concern over the division of power among the different branches of government.

In reality, the words of Article II, section 2 give Congress the real power and sway over treaty making as the President is just their agent of negotiation. Gaining two thirds of Congress’ support is very difficult. Furthermore, the Constitution divides other international duties between the President and Congress. The President is the Command in Chief but only Congress has the authority to raise an Army and declare war. However, Beeman sheds light on the fact that while the Constitution divides power on the ability to declare war and create a treaty it provides little information about the everyday roles of the branches of government in actually conducting either war or foreign policy. ((Richard Beeman, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, (New York, Random House, 2009), 349.)) One thing is clear though, the Founders were concerned about effectives dividing power between the Executive and Congressional Branches without limiting the new government’s ability to operate effectively.

Fast forward to the present and one cannot help but wonder what happened. Today, the President is the most influential and powerful agent in constructing the United States’ foreign policy. By and large, executive agreements have replaced formal treaties as the means to constructing binding international agreements with other nations. Executive agreements, unlike treaties, do not need the Senate’s approval, giving the President near unilateral power to constuct international law. Today, this shift – the concentration of power under the President – still draws widespread criticism. Earlier this summer, the Iran Nuclear Deal infuriated members of Congress who felt that President Obama bypassed the his Constitutional obligations.

John Boehner reacting to the Iran Nuclear Deal

John Boehner reacting to the Iran Nuclear Deal


Speaker of the House John Boehner wanted to sue President Obama over the Iran Nuclear Deal which he viewed as “worse than anything [he] could’ve ever imagined.” Speaker Boehner’s sentiments can be difficult to simpathize with. Since World War II, formal treaties have paled in comparison to the number of executive agreements made between the President and other heads of states.

Just how did this shift in power occur? In the epilogue of Plain, Honest Men, Beeman writes about the political troubles plaguing the United States just years after the creation of the Constitution. These problems emerged as a result of tense international developments. I am very interested in researching just how the ambiguity of the Constitution facilitated the concentration of international power under the President.

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The Framers’ Constitution and Slavery

This post offers an example of how to transform initial reading into some thoughtful first steps toward a paper topic.

By Emma Jenkins

Benjamin Franklin’s contributions to the 1787 Constitutional Convention were often out of place. Perhaps his most insightful observation was on Monday, September 17th, as the delegates gathered to sign the Constitution after four long months.  He astutely remarked that when “you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?” [1]  He was right.  While the Constitution was a revolutionary document, it was far from perfect.

Instead, the document signed that crisp fall afternoon reflected how the delegates were divisive on major issues like presidential power, impeachment, apportionment, and slavery.  Rather than interrupting the Convention’s momentum to harp on controversial topics, the delegates either glossed over these issues or eventually passed them off to the states.  While all of these topics were hotly contested, slavery was the issue that continuously plagued the Convention that summer.  After months of back and forth, the delegates finally decided to let each state choose whether to abolish slavery and the slave trade.  However, the Framers wrote into the Constitution multiple clauses that protected so-called state interests without ever using the words “slave” or “slavery.”  This is the source of one of history’s most debated issues: was the United States Constitution a pro- or an anti-slavery document? This question is open to many interpretations, especially because historians can only speculate about the Framers’ original intent.  Were they institutionalizing slavery at the national level, conceding to southern state interests and expecting slavery to fizzle out, or were they attempting to undermine it altogether?  Whatever their intent, the pro-slavery clauses in the Constitution allowed the institution to continue – and now it was on the national stage.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass argued the Constitution was an anti-slavery document.

William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison believed it was pro-slavery.

This debate is not new – it was a popular topic for 19th century abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison – and has resurfaced after presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders claimed the United States was “created … from way back on racist principles.”  Historian Sean Wilentz responded in a New York Times op-ed, arguing that Sanders’ belief “is one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of American history.”  He makes a good argument that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document, but I’m not entirely convinced.  He claims, for example, that “Without that antislavery outcome in 1787, slavery would not have reached ‘ultimate extinction’ in 1865.”  However, I believe that the Constitution temporarily allowed the institution to continue.  And while it’s difficult to determine the Framers’ original intent, historian David Waldstreicher makes a compelling argument in response to Wilentz.  He insists that the Framers’ Constitution wasn’t an anti-slavery document and points out that of “the 11 clauses in the Constitution that deal with or have policy implications for slavery, 10 protect slave property and the powers of the masters.”  Yes, many of the Philadelphia Convention delegates knew that slavery was wrong.  Pennsylvania’s Gouverneur Morris even went as far as to call it “a nefarious institution.” [2]  But that didn’t mean the delegates (all of whom were white men, and many of whom were elitist) were ready to abolish slavery and accept African Americans as equals. The harsh fact of the matter is, in Wilentz’s words, “most white Americans presumed African inferiority.”

So, the Framers wrote a document that reflected the sentiment in 1787: many realized slavery’s hypocrisy in the land where “all men are created equal,” but they were crippled by their “inability to imagine free blacks as equal citizens.” [3]  The delegates left the wording vague because they didn’t know how to handle the issue.  However, it’s indisputable that the Constitution allowed slavery to continue.  It prevented Congress from amending the slave trade clause before 1808, and it didn’t even set a date to reconsider the fugitive slave clause.  Waldstreicher’s assertion that “the Constitution was deliberately ambiguous – but operationally proslavery” perfectly summarizes my argument.  Take the fugitive slave clause, for example.  The wording is obscure but the meaning is explicit.  It acknowledged the institution of slavery on the national level but left enforcement to the states.  Even worse, it “was not merely a provision that passively countenanced slavery, but, rather, it was one that required those states where slavery had been abolished to be actively complicit in keeping slaves in bondage” [4].  As James Madison reflected in 1792, “Every word … decides a question between power & liberty.”  While the words “slave” and “slavery” were intentionally excluded from the Constitution, there’s no question that these clauses gave power to white citizens and took away liberty from slaves.


Screen Shot 2015-10-01 at 5.14.16 PM

Article IV, Section 2

But as Franklin asked, “From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?” [5]  While there were faults with the Framers’ Constitution – largest among them the national institutionalization of slavery – it was a product of the time.  Slavery was commonplace and the delegates simply believed that Americans weren’t ready to accept, and couldn’t envision, African Americans as equal citizens.  I don’t believe the Framers intended slavery to continue indefinitely, but they permitted it to carry on for the moment because they didn’t want the Union to crumble over this issue.

I expect this debate to generate a final paper topic.  It’s a good starting point because it’s a controversial topic and the 2016 presidential election has brought it back in the spotlight.  Going forward, I’d like to explore how these clauses ignited the great debate between the North and the South, and how different Constitutional interpretations led to sectional crisis and the outbreak of war.

[1] Richard Beeman, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (New York: Random House, 2009), 360.

[2] Ibid, 316.

[3] Ibid, 323.

[4] Ibid, 330.

[5] Ibid, 360.

Posted in Research Journal | 1 Comment

Who Was Jacob Shallus?


If you know the name Jacob Shallus, then you are a true Constitutional maven.  He was the clerk who engrossed the final handwritten copy of the U.S. Constitution for the 1787 delegates to sign.  Shallus prepared the 4,500 words of text on four parchment pages probably over the course of a single day, Sunday, September 16, 1787.  The 37-year-old Pennsylvanian did a remarkable job under the circumstances –and received $30 for his efforts– but nonetheless he made some mistakes.  Henry Bain from the National Archives has a wonderful post detailing the errors contained within the earliest versions of the Constitution, some produced by Shallus and others, apparently according to Bain, the responsibility of none other than Alexander Hamilton (who somehow managed to misspell Pennsylvania).  Even sacred documents, it seems, need determined proofreaders.

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