We often emphasize to our students that our lectures, and even our entire courses, have arguments and use evidence to make those arguments. We also talk about historiography, even if we don’t use the term, and show students how historians produce new historical knowledge. This semester, my US I class is using Liz Covart’s podcast Ben Franklin’s World to consider both of these issues.
I knew I wanted to use BFW for some project, if only because I wanted students to be able to further explore something that interested them in our class, or something that interested them that wasn’t in our class. When I considered what I could have them do with this new knowledge, I decided to have them use it to think about a) how historians conceptualize, research, and write new interpretations of the past, and b) how history professors conceptualize, write, and revise courses to make arguments about the past.
And so each student has chosen an episode of BFW to listen to, and they’ve been given two sets of questions to write on using that episode. The first set of questions asks them to consider the historian and the project detailed in their episode. What question is the historian trying to answer? How did they decide to tackle it? What makes their interpretation different from what has come before? Why do they think their project changes our understanding of the past in important ways?
The second set of questions asks students to think about how the things they learned from this episode add to or change what we learned in class, and how they’d work these new facts and arguments into the existing course.
To get them thinking about how this might work, I told my students how I first wrote our class – drawing on books and articles I’d read – and how I’ve revised it over the years. I was honest with them about how difficult it can be to do that revision. To begin with, there’s so much new and wonderful history coming out all the time. I couldn’t keep up with it even if teaching were my only responsibility in life. Moreover, there are limits on what I can reasonably ask them to learn, and that means that I can’t simply add on new things as I learn them.
Most importantly, the course as a whole and each lesson within it make an argument about the past, and revising those arguments to include new material – new interpretations – is often daunting. I joke with them that constructing a course is like inviting people to a wedding; inserting one new issue in a lesson in week 12 means you have to go back to weeks 6 and 4 and put things in there too. It can get out of control quickly, and makes revising scary.
To complete the second set of questions, therefore, students have to argue for the inclusion of this historian’s new work in our course. They have to explain what specific lesson they’d put it in. They have to tell me what they’d take out of that lesson to make room for the new stuff. And they have to consider whether they’d have to adjust lessons that came before the one where they wanted to insert the new material in order for it to all make sense. Overall, they must argue why the course would be better with this historian’s new work included in it, and consider whether it would be worth sacrificing something already in the course in order to include it. In some cases, this might be somewhat easy – junk an old interpretation of an event and add a new one – but in most cases, I imagine it will be a challenge.
I emphasize that my course is about arguments, not pure fact accumulation, but I think it can often be hard for students to see the forest for the trees, and I know that I get bogged down in the “stuff” myself. My hope is that this project will help my students see the argument of the course, and of each lesson, much more clearly. I’m sure all of them will think the things that they learned are important for the class. In asking them to consider how they’d revise the course to make conceptual and actual space for this new material that they think is important, I’m inviting them to think about how I’m using evidence to make arguments and challenging them to show me how I could do it better.