Why saying “put it in historical context” isn’t enough

A few years ago, a grad school colleague of mine told me the technical term for what we were asking our students to do in many of our assignments. “Putting things in historical context,” she said, could also be expressed as “Identifying and applying relevant information.”

That phrase has helped me understand just how and why it’s so difficult for students to do. First of all, it’s broken the task down into two separate steps, both of which need to be taught. But it’s also helped me see the step that it leaves out, one that comes before identifying or applying. Maybe it’s not even a step so much as a mindset that needs to be cultivated in students: the idea that understanding historical documents requires context beyond the context you bring to the text.

I think this might seem obvious to us, and we think that just saying it is enough for students to understand it, but reading the reflection essays my US I students wrote last week reminded me that it takes much more to cultivate this mindset in students.

In these reflections, they had to examine the primary source assignments they’d done so far, consider them in light of the guidelines of the assignment, and think about where they’d shown strength and where they needed to improve.

It struck me how much my students focused on their successes and failures with particular aspects of the assignment while completely ignoring others. They noted where they’d skimmed, they noted where they had thought about who the author was, they noted where they had failed to recognize their own errors in interpretation even when the text offered them clues that they had been wrong.

But very few students even talked about whether they had used material from lessons and discussions to understand the document. This is pretty standard for these first reflections, and it always stands out to me, because it’s the thing I most want them to be able to do. It’s central to thinking and reading like a historian.

Each time I assign this first reflection, I get this sort of response, and between that and so many students saying in week 10 that they just realized that the primary sources and lessons are connected, I’ve changed a lot about how I talk about historical thinking. I’ve talked more explicitly about that connection and tried to make clear that using your notes to help you understand the primary sources is both the goal of the assignment (and the class itself) and also something that will make the reading itself easier, or at least less frustrating.

But still, even after a month of assignments and discussions meant to explain it and practice it as a group, my students not only struggle to put it into practice in their own work, most of them don’t understand its importance or even its existence as a separate mode of thinking.

One reflection this time around finally helped me understand the disconnect in a way I never had. This student said that she had initially assumed everything she needed to understand the text was in the text. She mentioned this as a preface to describing a successful change she’d made in her approach to reading primary sources: she’d started using the OED to look up words she didn’t know.

When considering the role of the dictionary in reading primary sources as a class a few weeks ago, we talked about how we’re often taught to use context to make sense of a word we don’t know. To encourage them to use the dictionary, I reminded them that there was no shame in realizing they couldn’t figure out a given word from the surrounding context because the point of the assignment was figuring out that context – the primary source text itself.

It was great to see that that discussion had helped this student, and possibly others, get to a place where they could use the dictionary more often. What really struck me about her revelation, though, was that she didn’t immediately take it to the place I hoped she would. She had recognized the importance of seeking outside information to help her understand the meaning of a word in context, but not connected that to the importance of seeking outside information to help her understand a text in historical context.

But I think the way she phrased her initial mindset is helpful for us in thinking about how we meet students where they are and guide them into historical thinking. Thinking she could figure out every word from context meant that that this student had, for better or worse, come up with a definition for those words based on context. Before making this change in her approach, she hadn’t sought out, identified, and applied what I considered relevant information because she thought she had all the relevant information already, right in the text.

I think we see this same dynamic at work in how our students approach primary sources, but often fail to recognize that they’re doing it. Our students might not be identifying and applying relevant historical information to make sense of documents, but they’re not just giving up. They rarely come in to class and say “I have absolutely no idea what any of this means. It might as well be in a foreign language.” Instead, they’re using the context of their lives, experiences, and beliefs to make sense of what they’re reading.

Here we can draw on the concept of “makessense stop,” for which I’ll cite John Holdo citing Jonathan Haidt citing Harvard psychologist David Perkins: “[Perkins] says that thinking generally uses the ‘makessense’ stopping rule. We take a position, look for evidence that supports it, and if we find some evidence — enough so that our position ‘makes sense’ — we stop thinking.” As a result, Holdo notes, “makessense stop” feels like making an argument, even if it’s not.

“Makessense stop” also feels like correctly interpreting a historical document. “Makessense stop” also feels like correctly discerning the meaning of a word from context. What I think my student realized was that being able to make sense of a word from context didn’t mean that she was making correct sense of that word. Just as “familiar” words and phrases in 17th century texts, things like “dear” and “disposed of,” are least likely to send students to a dictionary, or even give them pause, so too are familiar themes and problems in historical documents most susceptible to “makessense stop” interpretation—the unknown unknowns hiding in plain sight as known knowns.

All this is to say that I think the hardest part of “putting things in historical context” isn’t identifying relevant information or applying it to the text, but rather understanding on a fundamental level how and why specific historical information is needed to fully understand the historical meaning of what you’re reading. Our students are using context to make sense of what they read. They are interpreting texts. As teachers, we need to be conscious of this and think of better ways to guide and grow that skill in the ways that are important to our discipline and way of thinking. This is a real challenge, one that I have not been able to meet to my satisfaction, and one that I don’t think can be met simply with finding the “right” way to explain to students what we’re looking for.


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