How we teach history? Thoughts on the work of professional historians.

Joshua Kim writes at the Technology and Learning blog at Inside Higher Ed that he’s reading and really enjoying Charles Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.  Then, unfortunately, Kim makes a whole lot of questionable assumptions about the ways in which history is currently taught or should be taught in university classrooms.

The last time I learned about the Columbian Exchange was in high school. Learning dates and the sequence of events, and getting familiar with maps and geography, was central to my high school history experience. As a history major in college the emphasis on maps, dates, and events diminished, as the work in primary sources came to the forefront.

I can’t imagine 1493will be much required in college history courses, as this type of historical narrative for a popular audience (written by a journalist and not a historian) probably does not conform to how postsecondary history is taught. This is perhaps too bad, as I just did not know most of the history of Columbian Exchange described in 1493.

Learning how to “do history”, to work like historians, is probably not a bad thing. But most history undergraduate students will not go on to graduate school. A book like 1493, a book with strong opinions and lots of dates, geography, people and events, might be an example of the kind of works we should make room for in our history courses.

Kim is probably right that a synthetic work aimed at a popular audience probably won’t be on a whole lot of college and university syllabi.  But why should books aimed at a general audience be taught by professional historians, when students might instead read a more challenging book with a professor on hand to guide them through it?  Students are perfectly free at any point of their college or post-collegiate lives to pick up a book like 1493 and read and enjoy it, just as Kim did.

Quite frankly, I don’t think I need to show my students how to read a book like 1493 or celebratory biographies of the so-called “Founding Fathers” by David McCullough.  (I think I personally might die of boredom–and my number-one criteria for selecting books for my syllabi is whether or not *I* think they’re exciting or interesting and can stand to read them again.)  Student can find and read the popular books on their own, and perhaps my former students will get a little more out of them because they’ve had to read other books about the eighteenth century by (for example) James Sidbury, Clare Lyons, Sharon Block, Kirsten Fischer, Jon Sensbach, and Annette Gordon-Reed.

Finally, I disagree with Kim’s construction of popular history versus academic history–a history “with strong opinions and lots of dates, geography, people and events” on the one hand, as opposed to the dull, primary-source based history that professional historians write and teach on the other.  (Wait a minute–I thought one of the problems with academic history is that it’s all just facts and dates and geography.  Clearly, history is too important to be left to the historians, but we’ll go with Kim’s complaint that there aren’t enough strong opinions, facts, or dates in academic histories.)  As I suggested above, strong opinions are central to my interest in books and in assigning them to students.  How much stronger an opinion can you find than (for example) Ramon Gutierrez’s forceful argument that berdaches are not early modern heroes of gay liberation but rather were more likely conquered enemies and victims of rape?  How about Annette Gordon-Reed’s awesome smackdown of the Thomas Jefferson biography industry of the past two centuries?  I don’t know what Kim read as a History major in college, but maybe he should have looked for more interesting or more challenging courses.

Kim should perhaps hie himself over to a history classroom at Dartmouth, where he is not a History professor but rather “the director of learning and technology for the Master of Health Care Delivery Science Program at Dartmouth College” and “has a Ph.D. in sociology from Brown University.”  I’m pretty sure that the History faculty over there would be surprised to hear Kim describe their work in these terms.  They probably think that showing students how to “do” history with primary sources is important for developing their students’ critical and literary faculties as well as central mastering the discipline even as an undergraduate major.

Why do we never hear calls for science faculty to ditch their lab sections?  Does anyone seriously think that books by Atul Gawande and Robert Krulwich should supplant the lab- and research-based curriculum in science department, in spite of the fact that few science majors will go on to earn Ph.D.s in their fields?  I mean no disrespect to these authors, whose work I enjoy.  But I don’t for a minute think that they are working scientists.  And if I were a student or a parent of a college student, I’d sure as heck want to be trained (or have my child trained) by a professional, not by a collection of popular books on the subject.

33 thoughts on “How we teach history? Thoughts on the work of professional historians.

  1. When I read that piece by Kim earlier this morning I was surprised at the poor writing and reasoning, as I usually respect most things I read on Inside Higher Ed. He certainly didn’t describe any university-level history that I know. At Dartmouth, Kim may want to consult not only the History Department but also the Native American Studies program given his reading interests (espcially Prof. Colin Calloway). It seems that Kim assumed that because he discovered a new book and it appealed to him that it represents some completely new way to approach history, especially American Indian history – wrong (though I do like Charles Mann’s books even if they are not cutting edge scholarship).


  2. Add to this the fact that most popular histories are creative and engagingly written syntheses that depend on the work of academic historians who are working with the primary sources. Does Kim think that the authors of books like 1493 just get their materials out of the ether?


  3. @Notorious: yes, I think he thinks they do. As we all know, David McCullough et al. are WALKING ENCYCLOPEDIAS who ZOMG KNOW EVERYTHING!!! and so are above doing mere… *research*.


  4. To be fair: the first (and so far only) comment on Kim’s article at IHE is by someone who points out that Mann acknowledges the depth and breadth of professional research on which he bases his narrative.

    Good point on the Native American studies program at Dartmouth, SouthernProf. I don’t know how old Kim is, but I wondered if maybe it wasn’t so much the Native American history but rather the environmental history that struck him as so exciting. And if he’s my age (or older), unless he studied at a very few universities in the 1980s, there just wasn’t all that much environmental history being taught. That’s changed, but I would say that the more eastern and more elite universities still haven’t discovered environmental history, which tends to be centered more in the West.


  5. Coincidentally, Mann yesterday reviewed an endless tome on the Spanish empire by some English archduke in the _NY Times book review_ and touched, albeit glancingly, on questions about popular “great-man” v. critical histories, emphases on narrative and “character” v. impersonal forces as agents of change, and conquistadors v. religious or scientific dissidents as key actors.

    I like to use primary sources, but in truth, many published collections of them are pretty formulaic and pre-digested (like some geology labs, now that I think of it: acid on chert = ). When I’m enterprising enough to go to an archive and photocopy more randomized selections it usually works better–or to my better satisfaction anyway. The best types would be ones that lead a student to say “so what’s going on here, Dr. ________???” and the prof to say “gimme a sec, not quite sure, I think maybe…,” just like we do on the floor of real archives in real time. That’s not the kind of pedagogical interaction what most “ISBN’d” document collections are edited or designed to produce, though.

    What I’d like to see in this tech-forward age would be a “device” that functions like a giant electronic documentary roulette wheel, with the instructor clicking on “doc” and the wheel stopping on any one of maybe 500 manuscripts within a given field. And the pressure quickly shifting to the pro(f) to say “this is how we do it on Wednesdays when we pull a folder out of a box at the Cheektowaga Historical Society.” Not your editor-manicured pillsbury doughboy exemplar of “artisan republicanism.”


  6. Must have been the new book by Hugh Thomas.

    Mann writes,

    Hugh Thomas’s big new book falls firmly into the genre of Nobody Does This Anymore. “The Golden Empire” is the second installment in a multi­volume history of the rise of the Spanish Empire. . . .
    For better and worse, “The Golden Empire” is history of the type critics dismiss as “old-fashioned”: a story in which the narrative engines are human character and action, rather than the impersonal forces of economics, culture and the environment. This is a history of conquerors, rather than conquered; a great majority of the protagonists are white, European and male. . . .
    Puzzlingly, Thomas acknowledges that the reason Las Casas was ignored was that the empire had at last become profitable. But he almost entirely ignores the source of those profits: American silver, which historians have come ever more to emphasize. It’s hard to know what to make of such omissions. Thomas disregards much recent scholarship — his descriptions of the Indians encountered by Spain in South America are almost all based on Smithsonian publications from the 1940s, for example.

    That’s a pretty good reason why Nobody Does This Anymore!


  7. Why do we never hear calls for science faculty to ditch their lab sections?

    Actually, there are those of us who are convinced that undergraduate lab courses–as currently constituted–are worse than worthless, because they give a grossly misleading picture of what it is like to actually pursue a scientific question in the lab. They are built around little technical demonstrations with a preordained outcome, and they give students the impression that being a scientist is boring, routine, and mechanical, rather than exciting, novel, and creative.

    At my institution, the undergraduate cellular and molecular biology program has actually instituted lab courses that are based on the students being supervised in genuine discovery-based research projects devised by program faculty and related to ongoing work in their research laboratories. These are excellent, but they are extraordinarily time- and resource-intensive in comparison to prepackaged demonstrations that are the norm.

    And more generally, undergraduate science curricula tend to be overly focused on facts and theories at the expense of providing insight into the process of generating scientific knowledge.


  8. I teach the Columbian Exchange in my courses. I think it’s pretty standard now, as Historiann points out. And I would tend to argue that my cultural history is full of people who do things. They write, publish, read, see, and even live fictional French lives.

    I would also say that a lot of academic history is quite engagingly written. It’s just not often reviewed in the NYRB.

    And, like those lab courses PhysioProf writes of (oooh, can I take one?), I think of my research-based courses as useful to understanding both what historians do, and understanding how to take a critical view of documents and historical writing — and writing in general. I don’t really care what Robert E. Lee had for breakfast before Gettysburg. I do want my students to think critically about those heinous “history” lectures Glenn Beck seems to enjoy giving.


  9. Comrade’s first paragraph articulates better than I was doing what I imagined as the difference between lab OR document-analysis experiences that merely give students a somewhat different angle of looking at the various thematic “usual suspects” that necessarily inhabit even the better examples of our work (preordained outcomes) and ones that might suggest the mystery (and risk) of the process of inquiry as it happens in real time.


  10. Agree with you, Indyanna, that many documents readers erase the joys of discovery. I prefer to show up with random photocopies and even scraps from my archival notes. I like your idea of a document roulette website, too! That would be fun, and maybe a great random paper-topic generator too, on the side.

    CPP’s comments about the relative value of prepackaged labs are revealing. OTOH, no one is telling scientists to just assign Malcolm Gladwell’s books or books by other popularizers rather than practicioners. I guess my point was the ways in which non-experts dare to tell professional humanists how to do our jobs, especially if we’re lit or history professors. Environmental studies types and climate scientists probably get this kind of bullying, but not people in older science disciplines, I’m guessing.


  11. The “roulette” thing might also have some reality show upside, Historiann. There used to be b&w t.v. show, early 1950s, produced by the U. Museum in Philadelphia, called “What in the World?” Panels of ranking “experts” (invariably bony-handed, flannel-clad, white-haired men) were confronted with arcane “objets” from somewhere on the planet and asked to deduce the where/when/why of it all. Very err-u-dite. If we got green-lighted on this projet, I’d want to be the “Offstage Voice” figure who pre-clues the audience on which ancient mountain that week’s obsidian atlatl-holder was found and what it did. (Besides the obvious function of holding atlatls!) A number of these episodes can be seen on Youtube now.


  12. Great post, Historiann. As anyone who’s studied (or taught) history knows, primary sources can be more riveting and instructive than any “popular” history book. And while it’s true that many traditional document readers can be quite limited, the Internet has opened up the options here as well. We think our online reader (Milestone Documents) is one such option, but there are many others as well, from the great historical newspaper collections to some of the digital presidential libraries too.


  13. Point taken about the edited and manicured document collections. They can take the discovery and fun out of it.

    But frankly, I would give anything for a document reader that covered the History of Central and Eastern Europe before 1945. Not many of my undergrad students read German, French, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, much less Latin or Old Church Slavonic or any of the other relevant languages you need to know to get at the primary sources East of the Oder-Neise Line.

    There was an on-line collection hosted at Cornell, that covered some of this stuff, but its disappeared into the Ether. So translated and edited doc collections are still thin on the ground in some parts of the world.


  14. Good point about the difference in availability in English vs. non-English language sources. In English, I think most fields are pretty glutted. There is one reader in one of my fields that is–almost quite literally–a 600 page collection of snippets of 1 sentence to two paragraphs.

    SIX HUNDRED PAGES!!! And in most cases, the editor’s introduction and contextualizing remarks take up more space than the actual “document,” (or rather, tiny snip of a document.)

    It’s like a document reader written for Twitter before Twitter was even invented. (To be fair, I’m commenting on a version of this reader that’s probably a decade old. I have no idea if it’s still like that, but I have no interest in examining it ever again.)


  15. Should history classes be relatively passive venues where students absorb engrossing tales told by professors and authors that painlessly include relevant facts and details or should they be active venues in which students learn how to do history?

    A lot of people like the former but we’re not here to win popularity contests. We’re here to teach our students the skills of historians. We can do that in ways that entertain and stretch the students but the priority should always be on teaching them how to do, not just what we or our assigned texts think!

    I use maps. I refer them to their textbooks for dates. I figure that class time is too precious to fill it with narratives: I try to fill it with skill-building and with questions that stir them to grapple with historical methods. I don’t think I’m that different from a lot of other historians in the field: a pity, as you note, that Kim didn’t go beyond his own undergrad experience to see what’s going on today!


  16. ditto to Matt. I’m teaching the required “beginning of history to the discovery of America” course (whoever thought it was a good idea to cram 6000 years into one course and then make all the first years take it together should go to a very special hell), and it’s hard to find primary sources collections that are in English, interesting, and not on an utterly vanilla topic. You can find some good stuff if you scrounge (I found an article on Sumerian food that had fairly long, translated primary souces- feast descriptions, recipes, etc.), but it’s really time consuming, and my adviser is already up my ass for spending too much time on teaching.

    So, yeah. Somebody (not me) needs to get on that.


  17. I hate document readers. I particularly hate the ones with snippets, and I am driven crazy by the editorial apparatus that tells students what to look for. I use them sometimes; other times I post documents from the web on our course management system, but I have yet to find a good way of using documents. My research documents will help with specialized courses, but I don’t get to teach enough of those.


  18. “We’re here to teach our students the skills of historians […] I figure that class time is too precious to fill it with narratives: I try to fill it with skill-building and with questions that stir them to grapple with historical methods. ”

    This comment made me pause. I’m not a historian, but it gets towards the split that’s taking place in English, too: are we teachers of skills (writing, analysis), or teachers of content (literature)? While obviously these two things can’t be completely separated, I hesitate to put all the weight on the same side that Janice does (skills), primarily because it sounds like we’re putting all our eggs in the vocational basket. If you’re a student, then yes, it may be more immediately useful to you to become really good at using various analytic methods, perhaps more useful than knowing the stor(ies) of the War of 1812–but it also sounds pretty boring to go to school for 4 years just to mess around with methods, instead of those methods being primarily the means to the end of learning an interesting (hi)story.

    Or to put it another way, when a student takes a history class, is he/she learning how to be a historian, or learing “about,” say, the history of North America up to 1800? Course titles (across the humanities, with the possible exception of languages)usually suggest the latter, which may be part of the problem we’re having selling the humanities to the public as a valuable investment: if we say what we do is teach someone to “do” history, rather than teaching them “about” history, it could sound a lot like much of what we do is simply self-replication (instead of offering the opinions of experts, which is what people seem to want who go looking for narratives). While I’m also skeptical–as just about every humanist is these days–of the grand narrative style of criticism, comments like Janice’s above make me wonder if our focus on skills could be one way we’re arguing ourselves out of a job.


  19. I haven’t read 1493, but I first encountered Charles Mann in a grad course on Colonial Latin American literaure. And not only did I love it, but I’ve used it several times in my Latin American civilization I course, with great success. Why do I use it? To show my students (along with other sources, both academic and primary sources), the different and conflicting narratives about Pre-Columbian times, and the effects of the “discovery”. I am not a historian, so I find very interesting how different the reactions to Charles Mann are in these comments compared to the one I had.


  20. Spanish Prof.: I think the difference here is that we are historians and you are not! Your goals in teaching Mann’s book were different than the ones most of us here have as historians. The goals you had in exploring different ways of telling pre- and post-Columbian narratives were apparently well served by Mann’s synthesis.

    I have occasionally used narrative histories in my teaching, but I’ve never felt that they were as useful or as productive as argument-driven histories. When I’ve assigned a really smooth, glossy narrative, I’m frequently left wondering what the hell I’ll discuss with the students in my class!


  21. Oh, absolutely, we are in different fields. I assign texts to challenge students general assumptions, and I design my syllabus using different sources and narratives because I am not a historian. Latin American civilization courses are sometimes conceived as history-lite, something that drives me crazy. There is already an excellent Lat. Am historian in my university, I won’t teach history better than her. So I change the focus.
    I actually did a quick Google search about 1491 in course syllabus, and saw it assigned in a lot of “Intro to Latin American studies” courses, anthropology courses, and classes like “Environment and Society”. No conclusion to draw, but I was curious.


  22. Document readers are my bane! I had an alright one in my undergraduate Mexican history course, but mostly because it was unexcerpted and as a result was huge, and really heavy to carry.

    They use them in political science, where I teach, an awful lot in survey courses. Invariably they are collections of things a student can usually get for free.

    But I ran into the worst offender this semester. The wife went back to school to finish her degree finally and they forced her to take a political philosophy course. The reader she has is nigh incomprehensible. Many of the excerpts are from the same sources, but spread throughout the book under artificially constructed “themes”. That’s pretty painful to have to try to sort through, especially since I read many of them in their original, unhacked up form, in graduate school. So I have to help the Mrs by trying to put them back together in my head to remember what they are actually saying. And some of these stupid things are A PARAGRAPH LONG, where it looks like the editor searched the manuscript for a single keyword, and cut and pasted the paragraph containing it, regardless of what the G-D thing says.


  23. OT: For everyone who despises readers and works on non-US topics, I just want to throw in that I made a custom text book for my grand intro to the history of the universe class this term. I’m not sure it was worth it, but I discovered in the process that the company I used (Pearson) actually has a reasonably substantial collection of primary material available (like descriptions of Sumerian floods, the Code of Hammurabi, etc etc). It lacks the diversity that I would like, but the documents themselves are pretty meaty (esp in comparison to the 1 page or less reader version). So you can custom make a reader. Again, it won’t have everything you want, but it’s better than all the pre-fab things I’ve found out there. FWIW.


  24. I was in a foul mood this morning due to factors beyond my control. I took my rage out on Kim. I don’t regret it. I posted:

    Dear Dr. Kim,

    There is this thing called hubris. Maybe you learned about it in history class. Maybe you learned about in English. You need to revisit the concept because this article reeks of it.

    Let’s revisit some of the premises shall we? “Probably doesn’t conform to the way postsecondary history is taught.” You couldn’t do a quick google search of syllabi to find out? And this is the technology and learning blog? And it’s not like H-Net groups aren’t searchable either.

    Second, your assumption that post-secondary education somehow avoids, geography, maps, and dates, in favor of primary sources. The last time I checked maps often were primary sources. And maybe you were (un)lucky but most large lecture classes, the ones the vast majority of students will take, are still narrative based. And there’s this thing called historiography where you learn about the strong opinions historians have and how they derived them. I’m sorry you never got the chance to do that as an undergraduate.

    Post-secondary history teaching isn’t just about pleasant content delivery (although there are certainly folks who think that’s the case and teach that way). It’s also about developing your bullshit detector and learning how to use facts to make a persuasive argument. It’s about learning how to do basic research skills that are widely applicable in your later life.

    The real rub here is that you are thinking of history teaching as content delivery rather than skill development. Like so many technologists (although not the ones I am fortunate to work with at my own institution), you miss the point of education completely.


  25. Pingback: The “Love Boat” analogy is a joke, but the sentiment is serious. « More or Less Bunk

  26. Like Canuck, I was thinking of how all this applies to English (where we are also plagued by readers — anthologies — full of fragments, though there are also some good ones available). On the one hand, we almost have to do some variation on the roulette wheel — finding some very obscure texts for our students to work on — if we want them to practice skills at all, since if we present them with a text someone else has already analyzed (i.e. any canonical or semi-canonical text), it’s impossible, short of locking them in a room with no internet access, to get them to practice analyzing it themselves, rather than looking up someone else’s “right” answer. And since they have very little sense of cultural or literary context, one also has to provide materials for that, without suggesting “right” answers through those choices (or at least find a way to help them formulate and answer questions about parts of the text that require context to interpret).

    On the other hand, one of the reasons students have very little sense of cultural or literary context is that survey courses, which provide broad narratives into which texts can be slotted (or, in some cases, to which they can be contrasted), have gone out of style. I think we’re eventually going to have to find a way to re-create such classes, though probably in ways that tell multiple intersecting narratives rather than a single one determined by the dominant culture at the time. It’s been a while since I taught a survey course — or an above-intro-level literature class at all — but I think my ideal would be one where the professor and/or textbook provided an overarching narrative (and/or several competing ones) and fairly standard, contextualized, analyses of better-known texts (with some chance for students to practice such analyses in class, away from the internet if possible), while paper assignments and some portion of exams focused on exercising those skills on lesser-known texts with enough similarities to allow students to apply what they’d learned about context as well as analysis. Whether that’s salable or not, I don’t know.

    I’m not sure what the English analogy to suggesting students read 1493 would be — maybe suggesting that they read contemporary, perhaps YA, historical fiction, set during a period, or a movie “based on” a novel, rather than a work actually produced during the time period ostensibly being studied?


  27. AHA, so surveys are gone from English (not where I am, though), then that explains something I read at Undine’s. I’m in Spanish and Portuguese and I teach ’em, lots of ’em, in different ways. Cassandra’s recommendation is how a hip survey is done. In my field lots of people do them that way. Those who don’t are trying to teach everything and teach it as an example of a single national story, or a Volksgeist or something, and it’s boring. But doesn’t have to be.

    I had surveys in Spanish and Danish as an undergraduate and some were too survey-ish; I always liked the ones that went more in depth on representative texts instead of going for “coverage.” In French they didn’t have them, but had courses on different centuries, instead. More focused surveys. I liked those.

    In history we had surveys, too, and I liked those, too, but we didn’t have document readers. We had a textbook with boxes on some pages with excerpts from primary documents. Then we had a few books we had to read that were primary documents. Like Hobbes, Leviathan, we read it in an early modern survey. Then, still in those history surveys, they’d give you these assignments where you ended up in the rare book room looking at primary documents. I thought those were really smart courses, are they out of style???


  28. Pingback: A book is not a toy. « More or Less Bunk

  29. Pingback: MOOCs vs. House of Cards smackdown : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  30. Pingback: MOOCs vs. House of Cards smackdown | Historiann

Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.