Balancing Clean Narrative and Messy Historical Thinking in Lecture

Last week Tara wrote a great post about balancing different historical narratives when assigning readings. This got me thinking about how to do the same in lecture. A lecture is supposed to provide a framework for students to make sense of readings and assignments, but there is danger in conflating the role of a lecture with the role of a textbook.  Students may take the lecture on face value as a set of objective facts, or at least the version that parroting on a midterm will give the best chance of gaining approval.

I’m sure many of you issue the same disclaimers I do during the semester about how your lecture is not the final say on complex historical questions, but these warning labels may not be enough.  Another tact we often take is mentioning possible alternative causes for something like the Great Depression or Civil War, but often these seem like side notes embedded in the main/real narrative of the lecture. How can we structure our lectures to both present a narrative and also show the messiness of historical interpretation?

This is a problem I am nowhere close to solving. In my last post I brought up the idea of organizing chunks of lecture around discussing a question. This time I want to suggest two possible ways of organizing a lecture in an attempt to balance what I consider the twin goals of a history survey: an introduction to historical content and an introduction to the historical thinking. Both of these models work better for certain historical topics, so let me just preface by saying I don’t think every lecture could be designed along these lines.

  1. Dueling Banjo Approach– The lecture (or chunk of a lecture) will focus on a particular question like the causes of the Great Depression, or the possible irrepressibility of the Civil War.  Spend 15-20 min minutes giving an historical interpretative narrative that answers the question. Then spend the next twenty minutes giving a contrasting interpretation. Each side of the lecture will center on the similar events and persona, but analyzing them from different angles. In both cases, it’s important to give it your all, even if you disagree with the interpretation. It would be best to pick arguments or interpretations that are still scholarly viable, and not straw men for the version you hold. I must admit that the debater in me enjoys the prospect of this approach. One might object that most of the time historical scholarship really doesn’t work in this way, and there is usually a lot of overlap in interpretation, so that difference is a more a matter of degree rather than kind. This can come out in a discussion following the two mini-lectures. Push the students to think about possible ways to find common ground between the two interpretations.
  2. Jenga Approach– Spend the first part of the lecture laying out an interpretative narrative of events. Then spend the second part describing the source base, possible flaws/gaps, and criticisms of the interpretation. Far more important than teaching students specific historiography is modeling how an interpretation is put together or dissected. The goal of this would not be to destroy the interpretation; in fact this approach would work the best with an interpretation that you have sympathy with.  Students can learn that an argument isn’t destroyed or made irrelevant just due to the presence of valid criticisms (honestly this is something I think students sometimes struggle with this notion). Again discussion would be vital to make full use of this approach. Push the students to see how problematic the gaps or weaknesses of the argument are, or how one could go about addressing them.

Obviously these techniques would work better for certain historical topics. One major disadvantage of this type of organization is that it will limit how many topics can be covered in a given session. If you are going to give two full interpretations of the post 1763 Imperial Crisis, you might need twice the time. However, more and more people seem to be arguing that the goal of a survey should not be a maximum amount of coverage, and instead a focused, deeper engagement with a smaller number of topics and questions. Yes, that entails making hard choices about what is emphasized and what is cut, but we make those choices intentionally or not whenever we build a narrative for a class lecture.

Organization would be crucial. I am not for ditching narrative entirely, because I think students need a framework in order to fully engage with sources and readings. It would be dangerous to assume that students already have a basic narrative of US history from high school or other courses, and it’s easy to picture them becoming lost with either the these approaches, unless one is careful not to lose the thread of a narrative.

Do you think that there is a risk that students see lectures as some kind of master narrative they don’t need to engage critically? Do you think the Dueling Banjo or Jenga approach could work? Has anyone tried something like this in lectures (as opposed to readings or class debates), and if so how did it go? Please let me know of ways you mix building a narrative and showing ambiguities in your lectures!

One thought on “Balancing Clean Narrative and Messy Historical Thinking in Lecture

  1. I’m late to this post. I’ve tried the Jenga approach with Mark Smith’s Stono Reader. It works, in the sense that they understand that their are different interpretations. But, it is a slog.

    And the dueling banjos approach is what the Major Problems series does. And I love those books. Sometimes the historiographical debates are hilariously simplified though. And they are so expensive. Prohibitively so, in my opinion.

    I’m increasingly unsure about whether tackling secondary interpretations is worth it in a survey. But, I think it is so so central to what we do.

    Maybe my real problem is the survey itself?

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