Thinking Like A Historian


Like most first-time teachers, I think too much, I plan too much, I want to do too much in every class session. This has been one of the most difficult aspects of teaching so far. How am I supposed to cram ALL of the American Revolution into two 50-minute class sessions? When there is so much to cover, what do I include and what do I leave out?

But I’ve realized something over the last few weeks: the students care less about history than they do about historical thinking. Now, to a historian, this sounds preposterous. You surely can’t study history without some history! What I mean by this is that my students are most engaged when we’re actually doing history, when we as a class or they as individuals are researching, analyzing, and evaluating.

This realization came to me during last Friday’s class, as we discussed how to “read” an image. Before they came to class, students analyzed an image of their choosing from The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americasimage database. I supplied a simple image analysis worksheet that guided them through the analysis, and they brought this worksheet and the image to class on Friday. Instead of just having them turn in the worksheet, I decided to spend an entire class talking about the why, how, and who cares of image analysis. I detailed my personal methodology, explaining the three spheres of inquiry – the formal, historical, and theoretical – I use to comprehend an image. I made it clear that this is something important to my identity as a scholar; as a historian of visual and material culture, I constantly seek meaning in images and objects. I also widened the importance, noting how pervasive images are in our contemporary culture and how often we passively take in their messages.

We then analyzed an image together, Isaac Cruikshank’s “The Abolition of the Slave Trade…” All of the sudden the class came alive, wanting to give their input: what they saw in the image, what the figures and symbols represented, how it made them feel, how it could have influenced the course of history. One student remarked about how the young black woman appeared almost like a piece of meat hanging from a hook, a smart comment we turned into a discussion about the perception of slaves as chattel. Another student pointed out how the text notes the “virgin modesty” of the girl, invoking Christian morality juxtaposed against Captn. Kimber’s sadistic, almost satanic looking face. This point sparked a conversation about the use of Christian values in anti-slavery propaganda, and how images of slaves as humans and brothers/sisters in Christ was such a powerful motivator in the anti-slavery movement. As we evaluated the meaning and import of this one image, students engaged in historical thinking. And, surprisingly to me, they really liked it. I received multiple emails after Friday’s session from students who felt they had “learned more in this class than any yet.”

This may seem old news to veteran teachers. It was a revelation for me. As an undergraduate, I had been most interested not in the specifics of history, but in thinking like a historian. That’s what led me to pursue a career as one. Yet I believed, as I prepared to teach, that my own preferences as a student were reserved for those like me, those who wanted to be historians. I was, it seems, wrong.

If there’s something we can do to make ourselves as historians more integral to the constantly evolving education system, it might be to take a deep breath, let go of some content, and get students thinking like historians. I’m not advocating that we strip our classes of all content, all the macro and micro stories that move us as historians. But if we can at least get students thinking in a historical way, analyzing the images, texts, and media that comprise their own lives, I think we will have done them and our society well. My students will almost certainly forget that the Battle of Saratoga was a crucial turning point of the American Revolution. But I know that most of them will rarely now look at an image without thinking like a historian.

I want to emphasize this more in my classroom, so help me out! How do you get your students thinking like a historian?

4 thoughts on “Thinking Like A Historian

  1. Whitney, for me, the short answer is simply “primary sources.” In my survey courses I use primary source readers in conjunction with the rest of the readings and lecture, and ask freshmen to write reflective responses on sources of their choice. They seem to respond well, and it’s a nice inroad into demonstrating how we think about the past. Some don’t buy in, but many actually do.

  2. I agree with that, Drew, but aren’t primary source readers almost exclusively documents? I think that can often be boring for students. Introducing them to other source bases, however, engages them to think not only about the past but also about their own present. Historians aren’t just scholars of texts, but of societies that are composed of images, objects, etc. Maybe it’s only the readers I’ve looked at though. Do you have a particular one that you use?

  3. Most readers are reprints of written documents, but there are an increasing number of published readers that incorporate images and have links to multimedia (sound clips, speeches, video and film, etc.) Most of the slick modern textboooks like Foner’s Give Me Liberty or Tindall and Shi’s America: A Narrative have these kinds of resources through the publisher. I prefer using my own course pack, depending on the specific course, and what I use is cobbled together from a variety of places. As for a specific reader to recommend, I think the Going to the Source volumes from Bedford/St. Martin’s are pretty good at presenting a variety of sources, including sources from lesser-known figures or marginalized groups, and incorporating a fairly rich collection of visual material.

  4. “..take a deep breath, and let go of some content” – love the phrase as much as the sentiment. It’s something that all history teachers must do, if they want to be assured they develop their students as thinkers, rather than repeaters. Perhaps part of struggle for many of the old guard is that they can’t understand how their content can never be separated from thinking. The content that teachers as individuals or the discipline as a whole have chosen to enshrine in the canon is the product of thinking, and remains in its place of importance as a choice and conclusion of thought. Yet as more and more historical material and evidence is digitized and presented, the value of any specific content will be re-assessed and measured by its ability to understand the past and why we immerse ourselves in history in the first place.
    Documents may seem dry in and of themselves, but a letter from George Washington to his 15 year old son will have a resonate with students. ( Images of of alcohol prescriptions from the 20s, English textbooks from the Soviet Union, NSDAP rally planning documents, letters to the editor of Life magazine, local television broadcasts the Monday after Woodstock, the list goes on and on. Have you see Georgia Tech’s ? How about Stanley Forman’s pictures from Boston in April, 1976?
    I’ve been collecting, tagging and organizing primary source content for the last 20 years or so, you can see these and other primary documents at

    It’s wonderful to see that others value teaching students how to think rather than how to remember for the test, then forget for the rest of their lives.

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