Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Thinking Like an Historian

I started my historiography class today. I announced to the students that I would teach them how to think like an historian. Tall order – but doable. First of all, it’d better be doable, or my job as a history professor is rather pointless. But doable also because I have seen it happen. The secret is not a hard one, though one it took me a couple of semesters of teaching classes like this to catch on to. You can tell them the steps of critical analysis from an historian’s point of view all day long: “Examine the kinds of sources the author uses; think about the kind of language the author uses to describe different subjects; think of these two different books as conversation – are they arguing, saying the same thing, what?” And many more such questions. You can tell them to ask these questions all day long, all semester long, and you won’t get much of anywhere. You have to show them. You have to lead them by the hand, example by example, until it sinks in. With some, it’s a slow osmosis, while for others, it just clicks one day, and you can see the wheels suddenly start to turn. Anyway, I plan to post on some of these issues in coming weeks. Blogging about historiography – yeah, that’ll get me to the top of the Technorati rankings!


Fred Vincy said...

When I was an undergraduate, the light came on in a seminar with Donald Kagan when we were discussing the Melian Dialogue. Starting with a text that is so disturbing and so alien to the modern college student, Kagan encouraged us to look at the debate from the point of view of an Athenian, and what had seemed foreign was suddenly terrible and regretable, but very much understandable.

Dr.T said...

I do sometimes use "alien" texts, and they can help a lot, but they take a lot of work - not the sort of thing you can just walk into a classroom unprepared and expect you or the students to get anything out of it. Of course, if you're Dr. Kagan and the subject is ancient Greece, you might not have to do quite as much work as I would!

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