To Name-Drop, or Not to Name-Drop: The Perils and Potential of Historiography in Lectures and Classroom Discussion

I’ve already mentioned in a previous post my own aversion to assigning secondary sources in survey courses. But I do think it’s very important to involve secondary sources in upper-level history courses. While it’s always a challenge deciding what to assign, I’ve found it’s equally difficult figuring out how to introduce historiography into my lectures or classroom discussions. Every time I try, I always revert back to an experience a close colleague told me about during her TA experience in grad school; one that resonates with some of my own experiences.

My colleague TAed for a newly-hired professor in the department, who, like so many new hires, had been assigned to teach the survey course. I’m not sure where the professor got the idea, but throughout the class, this professor made discussion of historiography a substantial part of the classroom lecture and discussion. As my colleague reported, neither she nor the students in the class were at all impressed. It didn’t help that my colleague was a specialist in a very different field from the professor, and could pinpoint the professor’s mistaken characterizations of books the professor probably hadn’t read since grad school. But that wasn’t the main problem. Even if the professor’s assessment of every monograph or scholarly article had been spot-on, the students simply weren’t engaged. As my colleague told me about this, I got the distinct impression that this professor forgot what it was like to be an undergrad, to not know, much less care, about the scholarly contributions of Bernard Bailyn, or Eric Foner, or Melvyn Leffler.

It got me thinking about how much I name-drop in my own lectures and classroom discussions. I must admit that, while I don’t assign secondary sources in my survey courses, I do, on occasion, mention how different historians have characterized a particular event. I try to keep it brief, and I pick my spots. I only do it if I feel comfortable enough with the scholarship to be able to give an accurate assessment of the historiographical differences, if the substance of the debate is something students could reasonably expect to grasp, and, most importantly, if it’s relevant to my overall lecture. The debate over whether the American Revolution was a war against monarchy by aspiring republicans, or a war sparked by royalist colonists, has worked well for me in the past.

Since I do assign secondary source readings in my more advanced classes, historiography factors more largely in my lectures and discussions in those classes.  But my experience has been very hit-or-miss. On the one hand, just as I’ve found secondary sources invaluable for helping students learn how to read actively, correctly assess an author’s thesis, and compare claims with evidence, I’ve also found name-dropping specific historians or mentioning relevant historiographic information valuable for showing students how scholarship has changed over time. It’s also led to some lively and fun comparisons. On the other hand, even well-written scholarly work is multi-layered and complex, and students sometimes seem lost in the scholarly argument. Discussions sometimes fail to capture student interest, and students sometimes parrot back my characterizations of a scholar’s work, rather than taking it as a jumping-off point for their own analysis.

When, and under what circumstances, have you found name-dropping a particular scholar or group of scholars, or involving historiography in your lectures or discussions, to be effective?

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