The Value of a Methods-and-Approaches Week

When I began teaching survey courses, I would jump into the course narrative as early as possible. My key goal was to avoid boring the students. A secondary goal was to cover a full textbook chapter each week. So after syllabus-and-roster preliminaries, I would launch directly into a lecture that introduced, e.g., the peoples of North America prior to European contact— often in the latter half of our very first class meeting. (Forward, march!)

There was value in this. But I tried a different approach the first time I was asked to teach premodern global history, which presents special conceptual challenges. Also, to be honest, my textbook and document reader happened to be a couple of chapters short of the usual fifteen, so I needed to add material. Thus, almost on a whim, I inserted something new to the schedule: “Week 1: Prologue and Basic Concepts,” which covered the rudiments of historical thinking.

It was the best thing I could have done. Rather than showing boredom, students (after some initial awkwardness) responded eagerly. They found it interesting to talk about history as a process of investigation, to puzzle out strategies for telling truer and more creative stories about the past. They were hearing lectures, yes, but these were topics that lent themselves to a highly interactive sort of lecture, full of questions and answers and group activities; students could directly engage with these questions without much background knowledge at all. Some students would even bring up concepts from the first week later in the course.

These days, I start all of my introductory courses with a methods-and-approaches week, even when it requires some fancy footwork later in the semester to make up the “lost” time. If anything, doing this seems even more valuable for teaching United States history than world history. It turns the supposedly familiar into something usefully strange, upending some of the stultifying assumptions that students bring to class.

Here’s what I tried to cover or accomplish in the first week all of my survey courses as the current autumn semester started:

  • An introduction to history as investigation. This involves a “History of Your Lifetime” group exercise I recently described elsewhere. Later in the week, I rely on the memory of this exercise when emphasizing that “history” and “the past” are not the same thing.
  • The Five Cs of Historical Thinking. This classic list by Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke helps me show how the questions we ask about the past are interrelated. I particularly make sure my students learn the term contingency and reflect upon how complicated causality can be.
  • The difference between primary and secondary sources. Included in this discussion are the kinds of questions that are useful to ask about a primary source. I explain, among other things, why “Is the source biased?” isn’t a very useful question to ask, and why “What is this source saying?” is less useful to ask than “What is this source doing?” (Historians are so immersed in primary and secondary sources that we often don’t appreciate just how tricky even the difference between these terms can be for students.) Sometimes we do a class activity using a brief excerpt from a mysterious primary source to clarify these concepts.
  • Dimensions of historical truthfulness. Noting that the past itself is inaccessible to us, I explain what it means to make judgments about the validity, reliability, and accuracy of historians’ accounts of the past.
  • Who matters. I talk about the difference between “great man” history and “history from below,” and about the special challenges that can arise for scholars trying to write the history of women. We also talk a little about the pitfalls of essentialism and eurocentrism.
  • What matters. My students learn a little about the methodological differences among political/military, intellectual/cultural, and social approaches to history. I assure them that all of these approaches are valuable and mutually helpful.
  • Subverting stereotypes. As an Anglo man, I fit most American preconceptions about what historians look and sound like. So I try to provide my students with early representations of historians who don’t. This quotation from Jill Lepore, for example, is useful not only for what it says but also because it lets me present a woman as the course’s first example of a particularly distinguished historian:

To write history is to make an argument by telling a story about dead people. You’ll be dead one day, too, so please play fair …. Your [research] question hasn’t been tattooed on your forehead. You can change it. … A question isn’t a fish, a very wise historian once said; it’s a fishing license.—Jill Lepore, “How to Write a Paper for This Class”

Every history teacher will have their own list of priorities, so these examples are given only to show how easy it is to fill an entire week with historical thinking, and perhaps to suggest how it can be useful in specific ways later in a course.

Every semester, my methods-and-approaches week gets a bit more fluid, with more connections presenting themselves among different topics and with new ways to relate these questions to current events. Student engagement during the first week has improved accordinglyand so have class discussions later in the semester, as students build conceptual connections for themselves.

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