What are the rules for writing good history? An Independence Day weekend provocation.

rossflagThis morning on the Twitter, my fellow Coloradoan Paul Harvey directed me to an article at The Atlantic by a young whippersnapper, Michael Conway, who was himself a student in an Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History course in 2008-09. He writes about “The Problem with History Classes,” by which he seems to mean “The Problem with High School History Classes,” and rehearses the argument that it’s important to show students that history is not in fact a linear narrative of consensual facts but rather aggressively contested ground on which historians and students disagree, sometimes loudly and rancorously.  Yes indeed!  Although history itself is sometimes a bitterly contested ground, I’d be hard pressed to find an AP-USH teacher or a Ph.D.-holding scholar of U.S. history who would disagree with this point.

Conway then says that no one shared the contested nature of historical inquiry with him until he went to college, which surprised me because he took AP-USH, and I thought the point of that was introducing students to college-level ideas and analysis.  He writes:

When I took AP U.S. History, I jumbled these diverse histories into one indistinct narrative. Although the test involved open-ended essay questions, I was taught that graders were looking for a firm thesis—forcing students to adopt a side. The AP test also, unsurprisingly, rewards students who cite a wealth of supporting details. By the time I took the test in 2009, I was a master at “checking boxes,” weighing political factors equally against those involving socioeconomics and ensuring that previously neglected populations like women and ethnic minorities received their due. I did not know that I was pulling ideas from different historiographical traditions. I still subscribed to the idea of a prevailing national narrative and served as an unwitting sponsor of synthesis, oblivious to the academic battles that made such synthesis impossible.  

Has the teaching of AP-USH degraded over time, or is it still merely dependent on the quality and dedication of the teachers themselves more than the tests?  When I read this paragraph was, huh?  I guess AP-USH has degraded over time if historiography isn’t being taught, and if some teachers are pushing testcraft over the craft of history, that’s too bad for their students.  Thirty years ago, when I was an AP-USH student, historiography was the first, last, and always lesson that our teacher urged us to understand.  We read a book then-popular (and apparently still published) that taught a variety of historical and historiographical controversies, After the Fact:  The Art of Historical Detection.  (Another popular book that teaches some of the same lessons is the late Robin Winks’s The Historian as Detective, but I didn’t read that until college–and this is the exact edition that I probably still own.)

Conway’s analysis of his experience in AP-USH puzzled me.  First, it’s a useful exercise to develop a strong thesis and defend it–it’s hardly succumbing to “one indistinct narrative” to do this.  Secondly, what does he mean that he “pull[ed] ideas from different historiographical traditions,” and why does he think this is a transgression?  Sure, it would be difficult (to reach for a timely example) to combine the Dunning School with the evidence and methods of W.E.B. DuBois, but that has more to do with political and ideological coherence than the Rules of History–whatever they are.  If you really want to see historians’ fur fly, then try to get them to agree on the Rules of History!  They make historiographical disputes look like a croquet match at a garden party.

Isn’t taking useful evidence and ideas where you find them just what working historians do all of the time?  Or am I some kind of outlaw historian (Historiann!) who didn’t realize until just now that I’ve been coloring outside the lines my whole career (so far)?

There’s no such thing as bad evidence.  There are only wrong interpretations of evidence (which give us bad history like the Dunning School), and learning of a piece of evidence or style of argumentation from a bad historian doesn’t contaminate that evidence or style for all time.

If nothing else, didn’t we all learn in our American History classes at that middle-school taunt that it’s a free country?  As of tomorrow, I’m off to that country-within-a-country, Québec, to wrap up my research and find some photos and images to include in the book, so wish me bonne chance, if not adieu, as I will be posting again regularly next week.  Á bientot, mes amis!

36 thoughts on “What are the rules for writing good history? An Independence Day weekend provocation.

  1. I learned nothing about historiography until I went to college, and I took two years of AP US History from 1999-2000. It was all about testcraft and linear narrative. My high school taught the course over two years for some reason, and most people blew it off so badly that I was one of three out of 60 who achieved what AP calls a passing grade (3, 4, or 5). As far as I know, I’m the only one who went on to become an historian. The point for us was not to be exposed to college-level ideas, it was to get advance college credit and look good on a transcript. OTOH, I went through a really terrible public school system, so there’s that.


    • What a disappointment! Also, that they stretched the dull misery into TWO years instead of one.

      To quote Dorothy Parker: I “frowed up” when reading about your experience!


    • This was my experience, too. Not even a whisper of what I now know to be historiography in my APUSH in 1990-91, with an excellent private school teacher whose students had a very good record on the exam. I also remember absolutely nothing about what we learned in that class except very vague things about the Missouri Compromise. Not sure we read primary sources beyond practice DBQs either. It was all coverage coverage coverage.


      • How disappointing! I must rethink my nostalgia & my thesis of “teachers these days. . . ”

        I guess we should see AP-USH as among the first experiments in test-driven teaching (well ahead of the NCLB drive to grade schools by testing their students.)


  2. I took AP 12 years ago and currently teach standard world history. I collaborate with my colleagues who teach AP World (which is a nightmare of a class) and occasionally speak with colleagues who teach APUSH.

    I don’t believe historiography is explicitly taught to students but it is implied. If you have a good teacher they will emphasize the importance of different points of view, usually through primary sources in order to cover topics. For example, the teachers this year put a lot of focus on the interpretation of political cartoons because they noticed a lack of understanding amongst their students. But the focus seems to be on general critical thinking skills and absorbing the set content in preparation for the test.


    • Thanks for this field report, VaMoWebb. I don’t think that “historiography” was in fact a word I could define until grad school, so I don’t think it was taught under that name in AP-USH or even in my undergrad education. (In fact, I think it’s so obscure that I’ve renamed our “historiography” grad course “introduction to historical practice” when I teach it, because 1) I think my name is more descriptive, and 2) I don’t want my students to feel like they’re dummies on the first day of class. Historiography is a useful term among historians, but I think it sounds like obscurantist jargon to outsiders.


  3. I don’t think we got much historiography, even implicitly, in my AP U.S. history class (c. 1980-81). Despite the fact that I attended a (pretty good) girls’ school, and had a teacher I still consider excellent, the narrative we learned was, sadly, heavily political/diplomatic/military: basically, how we got into wars, and how they proceeded. We read Uncle Tom’s Cabin as part of the Civil War unit (my first introduction to a novel I’ve spent a lot of time with since), and we must have at least discussed the suffrage movement, and I’m pretty sure Rosie the Riveter came up at least briefly, but that was about it. If I’d know there was such a thing as social/cultural history, I probably would have been a historian (instead, I’m a historically-inclined literary scholar, when I’m not being a trained-on-the-job composition specialist).

    The main thing I got of value out of the class (and an earlier one in 20th-century history) was a love of primary sources, and an understanding of them as the basic building blocks of history. The subjects of the DBQs may have leaned in the direction of “What caused [fill in war of your choice]?,” but at least the methodology stuck (and I mean really stuck; when assigned to do a research paper in my intro to women’s studies class my first year in college, I headed straight for the bound volumes of 19th-century periodicals — which were still available in the stacks — in order to investigate the 19th century. That’s how it worked, as far as I understood). From that perspective, it was one of the most influential classes I ever took — on me, and on my students, whom I prod to do actual original research whenever possible. When not, I at least make sure that they understand that, from the perspective of a scholar, reading other people’s research is not “research” (well, unless you’re doing historiography, of course), though it may be a first step toward doing original research.

    Oh — and I got either a 4 or 5 on the test. I have no memory of what the essay questions were, or how closely they resembled the ones with which we’d practiced.

    Bon voyage!


    • P.S. The Reconstruction history we learned was, sadly, darn close to the Dunning School (carpetbaggers and scalawags were important vocabulary words). I grew up in the (upper) south, but in a pretty cosmopolitan metropolitan area. I can’t remember if we learned the word “contraband” as well, but, if so, there was no discussion of its complexities, and no hint that many slaves freed themselves in the course of the Civil War, or of any other elements of the DuBois school.


  4. I asked my niece (who took APUSH this past year) and she said they talked about the process of writing history and such a little, primarily when talking about writing “document based essay questions.”


  5. renamed our “historiography” grad course “introduction to historical practice”

    That’s interesting. On the occasions when I’ve used it, my colleagues in the physical sciences all get what historiography means. My experience with terms similar to historical practice suggests that it would not be as clear to this audience.


  6. I’m about to teach APUSH for the third time in 5 years of teaching at a prep school (after finishing my PhD). As someone noted above, historiography isn’t explicitly taught, but definitely implied. We do a lot with primary sources, and we do introduce – very heavily – the idea that historical interpretation is something that people debate ideas about, etc. Sure, we teach the history chronologically, but the students that really get it understand that it’s more than just a “linear progression”. And the revamp of APUSH definitely does more to stress the idea of differing interpretations.

    Personally, I think the author of the article is revealing more about who he was as a high school student in terms of his ability to engage and understand. There’s a lot of stuff my students don’t get because they’re swamped with five or six other classes, they’re stressed over grades more than learning, and they just want to know the right answer. There’s still some developmental changes yet to happen after high school.


    • Tanya–it’s good to hear from you! Thanks for your comment. I agree with you on this: “[T]he author of the article is revealing more about who he was as a high school student in terms of his ability to engage and understand.” But it also sounds like (from other comments) that his experience isn’t isolated.

      Good luck with your class this year!


  7. “…. which were still available in the stacks…” (cf. contingentcassandra, above). Aye, there’s a phrase that could be unpacked to launch a thousand posts about the challenges currently facing the teaching of almost any subject as an actual research enterprise. I don’t remember how I learned anything, except by good exemplars and haphazard osmosis, nothing that you could truly call curricular. I do remember early in college plunging into the basement stacks of my small college library, in subjects other than history, and using scholarly research journals whose names still fill me with wonder to put together papers that were doubtless as ungainly as foundling deer fawns. In eleventh grade, the claim that I had to do research on the early life of Mao Zedong got me an unsupervised day trip to the New York Public Library (where I was back again not three days ago), and where I indeed found thousands of amazing sources. Only they were in Chinese!?! Oh well, I bailed and went to a hockey game!

    Have a great and productive trip to the Pays du Nord, Historiann, and Happy Fourth!


    • “I don’t remember how I learned anything, except by good exemplars and haphazard osmosis, . . . ” Good expression! That’s what I’ve been discussing on Twitter with some folks–that historians need to make more of our training and assumptions clear to our students, whether in HS or college or postgrads.


  8. I took AP US History at an all boys high school with an excellent teacher. I scored a 4 on the test. We used a textbook that was assigned to the same intro to US History course at a local community college (as I recall the instructor taught there as well as at our school). Lots of narrative, lots of vocabulary (there is a multiple choice part of the test too) and practice writing essays with a thesis. We also had to write a twenty page research paper. That was the part of the class I remembered best for two reasons: first I had to get a one day extension and rewrite the paper from scratch after our IBM PC junior crashed and I lost my files; Second, I tried to apply the Turner frontier thesis to the american space program, so we must have learned a little bit of historiography somehow.

    I would have to say that I did not really understand historiography as an abstract concept until grad school, but I certainly could identify it when I was writing research papers for specific classes. I knew a lot of little historiographies, but I didn’t call them that at the time, or even know that was what I was doing. I think Tanya is right, there are a couple of developmental stages that have to happen between being a junior in High School and a junior in College.

    I don’t think there is any harm in introducing the concept of historiography in AP classes or in freshmen level surveys, but I wouldn’t expect students to grasp it until they are working on a capstone or senior thesis. Even then I don’t expect them to really get into it and to think historiographically unless they go to graduate school. The other stuff about primary sources, assembling and analyzing evidence, crafting an argument, are all way more important for BA students. (Although I know some of my colleagues would disagree on this point and think that historiography should be a large part of the capstone experience).


  9. I can’t speak to history AP in particular, but the students I see generally have taken AP classes as a way to get extra college credits while still in high school, and are primarily being taught to pass the test. Having never taken AP, I don’t know what that entails, but the classes don’t seem involve as much intellectual engagement as I used to think.


  10. When I was junior in high school, our social studies class focused for a few weeks upon historiography, with emphasis on the ideas of Wilhelm Dilthey. I am not kidding.


  11. I see a lot of students fresh out of high school history who are pretty sure they know it all and what they know is mostly historical facts wrapped around a very careworn Whig narrative. Depending on their denominational leaning, the Renaissance brought education, then either heroic Protestants or heroic Catholics championed truth during an age of religious wars and somehow everyone enjoyed a great leap forward in the eighteenth century. Most of them are comfortable with the idea that different schools of history focus on different things in the past, but their understanding of historiography gets really fuzzy beyond that point.

    Have fun in Quebec. Get some steamies for me if you’re in Montreal at any point. It’s been too long since we’ve been back!


  12. I don’t know that we used the term historiography, but one of the texts we used in the first year of AP US history back in the Stone Age (c. 1970) was called “Competing Interpretations of US history”. (We did the two year thing too.) It was like those old DC Heath pamphlets, which as I recall had titles like, “the constitution: Liberty or Self-interest” , with the idea was that you had to choose, and it was all pretty polarized. The constitutionBut like several others, I remember writing the research papers: my junior year I wrote about southern opposition to secession, and was entranced in the NYPL by reading real pamphlets from 1860. It was magic. (Alger Hiss my senior year was less magical, and I thought he was innocent, and my teacher didn’t, but writing those 20 page papers was a great experience. FWIW, I think that 4 of us in my cohort got PhDs in history, and that 3 of us are still practicing scholars.

    I don’t get the sense hat my students who have taken any of the history ap classes have done he kind of research papers we did.


    • Wow–an impressive hit rate for AP-USH to grad school and beyond!

      Incorporating primary research is something that may be regionally dependent. Then again, it may also have dropped out of most AP-USH classes because of the general mania for test prep teaching in the past 15-20 years.


  13. I went to one of those schools where the history courses where taught by coaches, and there were no AP courses. (Well, OK, calculus was nominally AP, but it was so horribly taught that no one would ever have dreamed of actually taking the AP exam). I didn’t pay attention at all in my high-school US history course because it was all about wars; world history was a little better, but not by much. I was much more engaged in my English courses and in my strangely named Advanced Social Theories course, which was really intellectual history. I didn’t get anything approximating historiography until college; it really took grad school for that kind of thinking to gel. I do remember what a revelation US history taught as cultural history was (college) — that was the first time I had any sense that history could be taught in a way that didn’t emphasize memorization of dates and facts.

    Interestingly, in the wake of the events in Ferguson, I had a conversation with a student who went to my high school (in Florissant, just over the Ferguson town border) 25+ years after I did; my high school does now offer AP courses.


    • The critics of AP-USH from the right need to read more stories like yours, Sophylou, and like others in this thread that show that the courses are often quite traditional and/or badly taught. That should reassure them, for a number of reasons.

      OTOH: Advanced Social Theories??? Sounds like Marxist feminist multicultural indoctrination to me.


      • Marxist, probably, yes (lots of economic history), not so much feminist or multicultural, but still, a great class. Plus it was team-taught, so, *extra* Communist, right?

        I did really well in the “economics” sections of Social Theories, enough that I decided to major in economics in college. Which I prompted flunked because it was all abstract formulae – I’d been good at economics in high school because it was actually economic HISTORY and so involved reasoning from actual events and numbers.


  14. At the time I was a student my excellent public high school only offered one AP History course, and it was European History. I remember not having to work particularly hard in the class, but I did very well and got a 5 on the exam (which I attribute to voracious reading and an excellent AP English program). In all fairness, I do remember the teacher handing me a reader on Enlightenment intellectual history (not part of the class requirement), and a fascinating re-enactment of treaty negotiations in which contrary to history I got Russia to take over the world. I don’t recall much writing at all for that course, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any.

    I’m not a historian, but I did take history classes in college and didn’t encounter historiography as historiography until it was key to my own doctoral research program in a different humanities field. What could have been!


    • Thanks, C. This conversation is inspiring me to be more explicit about what I’m doing even in my intro classes when I’m introducing historiography. I tend to shy away from calling it by its name, because I think it can obscure as much as enlighten, but talking to students about history as not just what happened but the past and ongoing debates about interpretation seems like it would be more interesting for students.

      Of course, this year we have a ready-made example in the debates over the meaning of the Confederate battle flag. Maybe that’s overdetermined, but I’m surprised by the number of Lost Causers I run into among my Colorado students.


  15. I can’t remember exactly when or where they crossed my path, but I do well remember those old D.C. Heath “either/or” book… I’m almost going to say book-LETS…. that presented the past in binary form. In a 10th grade private school class on Ancient History we actually had to read two different gigantic college-level textbooks, with the evocative authorial names of “Breasted” (James Henry, but you can imagine what adolescent boys did with that one) and Hayes and Moon (which a subversive girl in the fourth row insisted on calling “Hayes and The Moon.”). You could have broken either foot by dropping either book, but I guess they did combine to convey the notion that there was more than one way to tell the same basic story, even about the Medes and the Persians, the Fertile Crescent, and all that stuff.

    In college, a French Revolution prof. walked us through some serious historiographical review at the outset which seemed to have gone on for the first three weeks of the course, but probably didn’t. His basic point was that the French people had never stopped fighting their Revolution (this was in the hallucinogenic Spring of 1968), so why were Americans so self-congratulatory and complacent? He was a fierce and yet hilarious and self-deprecating, self-described democratic socialist who was scary hard, but also accessible. I only a few years ago learned, reading an online eulogy for him from a department memorial service, that one of his two “major professors” in a Ph.D. program at the U. of Belgrade had been–in a much earlier life, as a teen-ager–arrested as an accessory to the plot to assassinate the Archduke, thus helping to start WW I. The guy (my professor’s professor, just to be clear) was subsequently pardoned and released after that war based on age restrictions for criminal liability and enlightened despot limitations on capital punishment dating to the 18th Century Austro-Hungarian empire! That felt like historiography in the blood and bone, although I don’t remember our prof. telling that particular story. I surely would have.


  16. I don’t teach APUSH although I probably will in a few years after they guy who is teaching it retires. We (private school that was Boys and Girls and is still single sex K-8 and co-ed 9-12) only started offering it last year. Previously we had US history courses that were simply Honors and students could take the test. Course moved from 9th-10th (boys) or 10th (girls) to 11th. I teach the 11 honors and touch on Turner but don’t do a lot of historiography other than “The best historians are always wrong” for talking about risk taking and the importance of having a good question even if they answer you get to needs work. I might name drop specific historians, but I try to get away from the either/or two competing views thing and get to multiple interpretations that are possible. I rarely name them.

    There was one historiography question on the AP when I took it in 1984. I got Frederick Jackson Turner and Jackson Turner Maine mixed up. Only MC I got wrong. Sigh. I didn’t really get historiography until junior year of college


    • A-HAHAHAHhahahaaaaa!

      But you know, there’s a good reason why you might have mixed them up, as they were grandfather and grandson. JTM was still alive when I first moved to Colorado in 2001, although he was declining rapidly. I have had the privilege of getting to know Gloria Main over the years, JTM’s widow. She served dinner to the FREACs (Front Range Early American Consortium) when we met in Boulder in 2002 in her and Jack’s basement, which was lined with bookshelves full of FJT’s personal library. It was a special experience for me.


      • Did you eat on the Turner silverware? I was regaled by Boulder students with stories of the FJT silverware. I was sooooo pissed when I found out FJT and JTM were related when I got to graduate school. I’ve been carrying this grudge for a long time.


  17. When I was teaching the Civil War last semester, I asked my students at the start of the semester, “How many of you have taken APUSH?” Almost all of the 30 students raised their hands. Then one said, “But I’ve forgotten almost all of it.” So I asked, “How many of you have forgotten almost all of it?” And the same number raised their hands. Ah, testcraft.


    • As we say around the ranch: Awesome!!!

      OTOH, would these students have enrolled in your CW class w/o exposure to AP-USH and/or forgetting most of it? I’m inclined to see more history education as a good thing, but it’s also good to see that AP-USH might not be serving its intended role, which is to spring students from college history requirements.


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