Historians argue, really! They do!

Introducing the concept of historiography to undergraduates in the survey is not altogether that difficult to do, although not without problems.

In my first “real” lecture, on Re-con-struction “(Re-con-struction)”–any Grease fans out there?–I start the class off by asking if any of them have heard of W.E.B. DuBois. Maybe a third of the class raise their hands.

Then I tell them I think he was the smartest American we’ll run into this semester–a highly debatable point, and students always look at me somewhat dubiously and they sometimes even offer alternatives (Oppenheimer comes up a lot, as does Einstein).

Then I talk about DuBois’s book Black Reconstruction. I tell them what he said, and what he was arguing against.

Then I tell them that if they had been sitting in the classroom 100 years ago they would have learned from the Dunning school, at which point I raise my copy of Dunning and explain that version of Reconstruction. I again show them DuBois, then I tell them that nobody cared about DuBois’s version of Reconstruction until the civil rights movement, when Ken Stampp published his big book (which I also raise to show them). Then I talk about how historians began to re-evaluate the era, and how now we have Eric Foner’s big book as the standard guide (which I also raise).

I’ve now shown them visually and told them orally about how historiography works, about how the past is a flexible genre, and how I’m always open to their interpretation of events. Some of them will ask me if the history we teach has any validity at all, because it is constantly in flux and so dependent upon the perspective of the person teaching and/or writing about it. This always leads to interesting questions about knowledge and authority and the importance of contingency. Interpreting the past becomes flexible and changeable, and they can have a role in shaping it, either as historians or historical actors. And the stories we run into in the course are about people who made history. They can make it too.

And this all leads up to the big moment when I get to say: “and now we are amending and adding to Foner’s big work on the subject, such as in this major work by Ed Blum, called Reforging the White Republic.

11 thoughts on “Historians argue, really! They do!

  1. That’s a creative way to illustrate historical debate, but here’s the real shocker from your post: Your students actually know who Robert Oppenheimer is?


  2. LOL … wikipedia can tell them! Reconstruction, I think, is the best place to teach historiography. I actually don’t do anything with historiography in the level 100 class … primarily because no one did that when I was an undergrad. What do folks think … should historiography (that we argue and that historical moments influence how we argue) be mentioned???

    OK, off to teach my upper-level historiography class!

  3. I need to bring more visuals to class—in the form of door-stop historical tomes—to emphasize the solemnity and wordiness of historiography. …Even so, well done Kevin! – TL

  4. Ah, yes, it all ends with Ed. He is the telos of Reconstruction historiography! Seriously, reading Blum was a breath of fresh air after spending countless hours in Widener reading this material. Hell, even into the 1950s and 1960s E. Merton Coulter was espousing some form of this historiographical trend (as Foner notes). I think historiography is a great topic in exposing students to contentious issues and important topics of debate. Much easier and more feasible, I have found, with graduate students or upper level undergrads. I think it also humanizes historians and demonstrates ways in which they are embedded in and implicated in broader social structures. Given that my historiography is so specific to a particular topic (such as African American Religion in the 20th century) or a specific subset of a broader narrative (such as Pentecostalism in a course on Religion in the US in the 20th century), I suppose it is more manageable than a broader survey of US history. I should note that I tend to find that historiographical debates simply are more compelling and interesting on some topics than others and matters quite more for some topics than others–obviously race is important, but I think about, for example, how schools of thought have so deeply affected groups such as Pentecostalism–social deprivation, class bias, etc.–in terms of first generations of major historians of the movement.

    Kevin, you do make it look so interesting though!

  5. To the original point of this post, I do introduce historiography with survey students, but I don’t actually use the term, and we do it in a very rudimentary way.

    I note that most people think historians deal with factual questions (Who, what, when, where?) but that the two really interesting ones are “Why?” and “So what”? (or, cause and consequences). I ask them how those last two are different than the first four – they usually come pretty quickly to the idea that “why” & “so what” are more interpretive and subjective. Then I hand out a few photocopied pages from Kyle Ward’s excellent “History in the Making” and have them read two or three passages on, say, Pocahontas and John Smith, from textbooks from the 1870s, 1920s, 1980s, etc. Then we talk about why these stories about the same event are so drastically different.

    I think it is worth doing, only because I want them to be able to read critically, and to see my lectures as arguments with an actual point, not fact-spewing (of course, on occasion the “actual point” of my lectures is hazy, even to me!) Also, I like to think it weakens those populist/patriot media figures out there who like to dismiss “revisionist” historians who “don’t teach real history but just their interpretation”; if you understand that real history IS interpretation, this statement loses a lot of its punch. History is such a commonly-used weapon in the political arsenal that I feel my students ought to have some familiarity with how it is actually produced.


  6. I believe students even at the survey level should be aware of differing interpretations on historical events. I introduce them to historiography on a few occasions during the semester, and the study of Reconstruction is one of those occasions.

    Last year I assigned an excerpt from a 1910 AHR article on Reconstruction written by W.E.B. DuBois as well as a portion of a textbook chapter from the same era espousing a Dunning school interpretation.

    I showed clips from “The Birth of a Nation” for discussion period the next week. In conjunction with that screening, I assigned students the task of retrieving articles from Proquest Historical Newspapers and America’s Historical Newspapers (Our library subscribes to both of these databases.). The fundamental question I asked for that assignment centered on public reactions to that film when it debuted in 1915. I also asked students to record the keywords and dates they used in their search.

    The clips from “The Birth of a Nation” reinforced the previous week’s discussion assignment, while the article search familiarized them with the use of historical databases. More importantly this exercise introduced them to the craft of “doing history.” Several students demonstrated real excitement at the discoveries the made and couldn’t wait to share their findings during the ensuing class discussion.

    Wayne Ratzlaff

  7. The “uncoverage” approach I’m trying out this semester relies heavily on introducing students to historiography and the notion that historians argue. Since I’ve paired Foner’s Give Me Liberty! with Schweikart and Allen’s A Patriot’s History of the United States, it’s fairly easy to point out how background and political persuasion shape interpretation. The first week we discussed the broad patterns of American historiography, especially the post-WW II transition from the “old political history” to the “new social history,” and I situated Foner’s biography and work into that movement. Then we discussed the rise of conservatism (in its various strands) as a response to modern liberalism and the conservative critique of the “liberal takeover” of academia, placing Schweikart and Allen’s biographies and work in that context. We will devote one class period each week to comparing and contrasting how the two books approach the week’s topic (this week we did the European conquest). One student began the class by asking “how do we know which version to believe?” Several students raised their hands to offer suggestions, ranging from “believe whichever one you want” to “believe the one that is most based on facts.” So this turned into a good hands on introduction to the ways that historians construct arguments and ways that readers can assess evidence. It’s an experiment and I suspect that it will take time for me to know the best ways to really help the students to “get it,” but I like what I’m seeing so far.

  8. I find that historiography is what separates college surveys from high school — even though it can lead some students into a temporary crisis: (How can we know anything?? What’s the point of history if we can never know what happened????)

    To allay these concerns, I’ve used Nell Painter’s Sojourner Truth biography to teach historiography as well as how historians use evidence. If you haven’t read it, it’s far more than a traditional biography because Painter spends several chapters discussing how Truth represented herself and how others have represented her in the past through the 1990s. I find it particularly useful because Painter uses visual evidence (Truth’s cartes-de-visite to modern-day posters and t-shirts) as well as textual evidence – Harriet Beecher Stowe’s version of Painter’s life, newspaper reports of Truth’s speeches, etc. Students see how even if evidence isn’t the “Truth” (so to speak), it can still tell us something about the past.
    –Gale Kenny

  9. Yes, Oppenheimer lives. My favorite retort was from a student who, three months after this lecture, inserted as the final, send-away note in the final exam that the most brilliant American was some physicist I’d never heard of. There were a lot of exclamation points to bring the bring the notion home.

    I do think it is important to bring this up at a very rudimentary level in a university setting, even in a class of 120. I think students feel more comfortable debating points for the rest of the semester, which is a win on its own. Plus, I hope it also gets them to the point that history is as much how one tells the stories rather than the foundations (facts) of those stories. This makes history more playful to them. Then, when we see black student marchers getting pelted by fire hoses, the question we’re talking about is not exactly what happened but (1) why (2) what does it mean, and (3) what did it inspire to happen next?

    That’s the hope anyway.

    Great ideas above too–and Wayne, well done with all that leg work! Impressive indeed.

  10. I held off on posting because I was trying something a bit “out there” related to this, and wanted to see if it crashed and burned. Happy to report it didn’t. There’s a classic Simpsons episode from Season 7 called Lisa the Iconoclast. You may recognize it–The town gears up to celebrate Jebediah Springfield, only to have Lisa discover that Jebediah was really a murderous pirate. At the end she starts to tell the truth, but finds she can’t.

    I showed the episode in class to frame more of a history versus memory discussion, but I think it could work just as well to illustrate evolving historiographies. The class got into a lively discussion when I asked “Did Lisa do the right thing?” (Split about 50/50, btw).

    I wonder if there’s a Simpson’s episode for every week?! 🙂

  11. Dan,

    There’s a Simpson’s episode for everything, and god forbid should the Simpson’s fail you, there’s always South Park, although that might be better left to my Religion in American History class.

    Great idea nonetheless, and I’m glad it worked!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *