Teaching Historiography: A Panel Report

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Jeffrey T. Manuel is an associate professor in the Department of Historical Studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He is the author of Taconite Dreams: The Struggle to Sustain Mining on Minnesota’s Iron Range, 1915-2000. He also teaches public and oral history.

Note: This is the first post in a three-part series on teaching historiography in the classroom. Check back the rest of the week for more!

Should we teach historiography to students in introductory classes at the high school and college levels? If so, how can we do this effectively given the many competing demands on our time, including basic coverage and analysis of primary sources? These were the challenges posed to a roundtable of distinguished high school and college history teachers at the 2015 OAH meeting in St. Louis. Roundtable participants included James Sabathne from Hononegah (IL) High School, Jason Stahl from the University of Minnesota, Jason Stacy from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Michelle Stacy from Mascoutah (IL) High School, and James Zucker from Loyola (CA) High School. Bringing together high school and college history teachers to discuss our shared successes and challenges in the classroom, the roundtable exemplified the best of the OAH’s “big tent” approach to the discipline.

The roundtable began with a discussion about the importance of incorporating historiography in introductory classes. There was immediate consensus that historiography was valuable to students because it humanizes history, allowing them to see the individual historians behind each analysis. Jason Stacy noted that partway through the semester his students began identifying journal articles by the author’s last name, a sure sign that they were connecting interpretations with specific authors. By focusing on historiography in introductory classes, students come to see history as a boisterous conversation—an argument, at times—about the past and its meaning. Roundtable speakers agreed that once students recognize history as a conversation, they feel much more comfortable entering that debate with their own arguments and interpretations.

Perhaps the most provocative aspect of our discussion centered on the balance between historiography and primary sources in the classroom. Although primary sources have a long lineage in the classroom, history pedagogy has undergone a primary source revolution in recent decades. But our discussion hinted that we may have reached primary source saturation in the history classroom. For instance, James Zucker noted that too much emphasis on primary sources runs the risk of recreating a strictly fact-based, non-interpretive history pedagogy. Other speakers added that if primary source analysis was not handled with care it can devolve into little more than reading comprehension. Panelists agreed that there are important benefits to shifting some of our pedagogical attention from primary sources to historiography.

On the other end of the pedagogical spectrum from primary sources are history textbooks, which were another important focus of our discussion. Roundtable speakers unanimously criticized the simplistic use of textbooks in the classroom. Textbooks speak to students with what Jason Stahl called a “voice from nowhere,” the opposite of the humanizing of historical arguments possible with journal articles or monographs. Jason Stacy and James Sabathne compared textbooks to the Wizard of Oz, joking that historiography helped students pull back the curtain to see the real humans behind the analysis. Practically, textbooks don’t have footnotes for students and teachers to follow up on. In contrast, several teachers described successful assignments that asked students to follow up on specific footnotes from an article to see exactly how a historian had built her or his argument.

Although criticizing textbooks is a well-worn tradition among historians, audience member Elaine Tyler May—author of a well-known U.S. history textbook—pushed us to consider new possibilities for the textbook in a digital age. She noted that her textbook, like many others, was transitioning to a digital format and this might be a useful moment for historians to reimagine the textbook. On one hand, roundtable speakers and audience members imagined several optimistic scenarios for incorporating historiography directly into digital-platform textbooks, such as videos of historians explaining their analysis or direct links to excerpts of books or journal articles that informed a certain analysis. But other speakers noted that the textbook publishing industry was typically conservative and was unlikely to undertake such changes unless there was widespread demand from teachers.

Finally, our roundtable discussed historiography’s importance in the revised AP U.S. history exam. James Sabathne, Michelle Stacy, and James Zucker have extensive experience teaching AP U.S. history. They highlighted how the new curriculum framework requires students to understand historiography via the historical argumentation thinking skill. Yet high school teachers face rarely-acknowledged challenges in accessing the scholarship needed to teach historiography. For instance, simply finding history journal articles can be difficult for high school teachers because most high schools do not subscribe to digital journal databases such as JSTOR. Partnerships between university history departments and local high schools would be a valuable option to resolve some of these problems. High school teachers could take seminars to keep up with the latest scholarship and university affiliation would grant access to library resources. Finding the time to keep up historiography is also a challenge because many AP teachers are also involved in demanding extracurricular activities or sports . In short, the discipline needs to consider the unique challenges facing high school teachers who want to incorporate historiography into their classes.

Overall, our roundtable raised more questions than it answered. But it left me optimistic about the possibilities for incorporating historiography into my introductory classes and, more broadly, about the state of history teaching today.

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