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.