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Input Wanted: What Is History?

August 26, 2008

In my opening class tonight—and indeed in all past history courses I’ve taught—part of the program involves soliciting opinions from students about the nature of history. If you’ve done something similar, what did you emphasize in conversations on this subject? Normally I’ll get a number of standard replies, from the banal to fairly insightful, such as: keeping track of history allows us to learn from the mistakes of the past, or history helps us to know who we are (identity), or history tracks change over time, or “I don’t know or care, this class is required of me.” – TL

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5 Comments
  1. Tim,
    Granted I don't have the teaching background that you do, but one suggestion might be to provide or to solicit some ideas of what history is not. The majority of people who think history is boring generally consider it a string of names and dates. Yes, those are certainly an aspect of history, but some people, especially in intro classes, I would think, would benefit from a discussion specifically geared at deconstructing preconceived notions of history. Perhaps you already do this, but I figured I'd mention it.

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  2. Lunchbox,

    I do attempt to delineate the differences between chronology, or chronological/almanac-type accounts, and history. This is useful and you're right in that this distinction has to happen early in the course to get survey-level students on board. Indeed, most survey textbooks make this easy in that they often provide chronologies at the end of chapters.

    Of course talking about what history is not is complicated by the fact that it's a broad-ranging, interdisciplinary humanities subject. Still, there are some bright lines, as with chronologies, annals, biographies, etc.

    – TL

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  3. Tim: I started my 20th century survey class with two exercises. One designed to highlight change over time, the other history-as-interpretation.

    In the first I asked all the students who were eligible to vote in the presidential election to raise their hands. Then, using the actual voting law from California (1905ish) I read out the various exclusions asking the excluded to lower their hands. The first and most dramatic, of course, was women. But by the time I got thru everything I'd say less than 10% of the original number were still voters. It made an impression: things do change. (and they say I'm too negative about America!)

    The second exercise asked students to write a timeline of important events in their own life, then divide it into at least three periods. Then I went around asking for volunteers to explain the periodization of their lives. I wanted them to see that “history” (even the simple act of defining periods) is an ac of interpretation. It worked at bit, largely because most are the same age, so they could see how different individuals cut up the same time period based on their own criteria. But it was a little too individualized. TH

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  4. Toby,

    Thanks for the comments. I like the practical impression made by the first. That's a great first day exercise.

    Your second task goes to a point I try to make with my students. I feel that a highly effective way to understand the complications and strengths of history is to personalize it. Although I haven't used your comparative autobiography exercise, I ask students to think through their own pasts and the differences between how they have interpreted events in relation to friends, family, enemies, etc. In sum, unless you're curious about your own past and how to think about it, it's unlikely you'll “feel” the complexity of professional histories (even survey texts).

    – TL

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  5. Tim,

    Sorry to get to this a little late. For future reference, I like to discuss what history is so that we know what we're going to be doing in the course. I ask the students how they define history. Failing that, we play word association. “What do you think of when you think of history?” At times, I've specifically asked them to free associate what is meant by American history. “What do you think of when someone says, 'United States history.'”

    This is not to expound on the utilitarian aspects of history (though the conversation often turns to that), but simply to define what the field is. This also helps to encourage students to think of history as it is, rather than it is not, as lunchbox sagely suggested. Hope you find some utilitarian value in this thought.

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