The Historian's Craft
Tom Scott, September 2002
From the Teaching column in the September 2002 Perspectives
When historians get together, discussion often turns to the humorous responses and assorted malapropisms that all have found on various exams or in assigned papers: that Woody Guthrie was the economist who laid the intellectual groundwork for the New Deal; that white entertainers put on black-face and performed menstrual shows; and that Ida B. Wells wrote a pamphlet on "Southern Whores" rather than "Southern Horrors". Numerous governmental reports over the years have reported that most Americans, even college educated ones, do not know in which half-century the Civil War occurred, that they cannot identify more than a handful of American presidents, or that they are not even entirely sure when the War of 1812 took place.1 Recently, however, Mercer University's historians came to a realization of three truths about our students that we found just as disconcerting as their inability to keep discreet bits of information in a neat chronological order: they did not understand the discipline in which they were majoring; they did not understand the nature or process of historical research; and, they did not know how to perform the basic tasks expected of them in upper-level history courses.
Those three specific deficiencies appeared when we made assignments such as critical book and article reviews, research trails, and comparative essays of primary documents and received in return book and article reports, lists of a few unrelated sources from the Web, and essays describing their feelings about the Articles of Confederation versus the Federal Constitution. When we pushed students to examine higher-level questions involving ethics or historical philosophy, they wondered (sometimes aloud) what any of that had to do with history, and one student rebuked a faculty member for teaching some basic historiography in a course on the Civil War. We finally decided we either had to change our curriculum or continue producing majors who had no idea in what they had just majored. To that end we designed and have recently implemented a three-part, one-semester, sophomore level course entitled "The Historian's Craft."
The first third of the course addresses the first of our concerns: that history majors did not understand the discipline in which they were majoring—its purpose, its questions, or its heritage. To resolve those deficiencies, we begin by asking the big but basic questions: What is history (as a discipline) and what do historians do? Where does the discipline sit within the academy? What element or elements drive history forward—free human choice and will, a passionate lust for power and money, a great chain of previous events, economic and class conditions and conditioning, divine guidance, or pure dumb luck, to name a few? What kind of beings are we humans—political, rational, spiritual, economic, passion-filled and lustful, willful, or just plain capricious? To engage the students in exploring both their own and the discipline's philosophies of history, the students read and discuss excerpts from historians such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, Luke, Guicciardini, and Marx. A brief overview of the development and state of the discipline and its literature since the beginnings of professionalization in the 19th century concludes this section.
The next section focuses on the mechanics and conceptualization of historical research. We found that most college students—including history majors—had absolutely no idea how to pick a topic, find research materials, organize and compile significant amounts of information, or document their sources. Most students had no idea how to use (or even why they should use) notecards—either electronic or paper, and few had any ideas about how to use footnotes and bibliographies to find new sources. More important, most did not understand the conceptual difference between "report" and (original) "research." Topics that students had suggested for 8-10 page "original" research papers indicated the nature of the problem. They ranged from "What are the origins of Islam?" to "What events led to the downfall of Czarist Russia?" to "The Women's Movement," "Social Stratification in the Antebellum South," and "The Rise of Hitler." Students were stunned to find that these topics were too large, that a fair bit of historical research had already been conducted on them, and that our library had few sources necessary to conduct original research. Our goal in this section of the course is to provide students with the mechanical tools to perform basic historical research but also to help them understand that (true) historical research is not merely the re-reporting of information garnered by previous travelers but is truly a voyage into an undiscovered country.
The final section of the course deals with "History in the Classroom" and "Assignments in History". Here the primary goal is to instruct our majors in the basics of how to succeed in advanced courses. We instruct them in such things as "How to Take Notes", "Strategies for Classroom Participation", and "How to Write a Critical Book Review". To reinforce the most important components of this section, each student in this course has to produce a critical article review, a primary document analysis, and make an oral presentation. We found that we simply could not assume that students, even majors, knew what we wanted in the areas of classroom participation, taking exams, writing essays, or taking notes. At least for our majors we wanted to provide some directed instruction for History in the classroom.
In truth, our creation of "The Historian's Craft," is part of a wider revision of our history curriculum and a change in the philosophy behind it. Our curricular requirements had historically put an emphasis on the informational side of the discipline. Under that curriculum we produced majors who had been exposed to a fair bit of historical information (most of which they probably soon forgot), but they had limited exposure to the process, goals, and heritage of the discipline. Our new curriculum, we hope, correctly balances the "process" side of the discipline with the informational side. We will surely continue to have the kinds of humorous historical and literary errors that make our jobs aggravating but also humorous. The Mercer History faculty are willing, however, to trade at least a little bit of humor for a top-notch essay, an A exam, or even a coherent oral presentation. To put it another way, we think it will be worth it to trade the smile of humor for the smile of satisfaction.
—Tom Scott, who received his PhD in early American history from the College of William and Mary in 1991, is associate professor of history at Mercer University. He has published articles on Revolutionary and early national religion and on the history of Georgia. He is currently working on an article connecting the colonization efforts in Georgia to those in New Zealand, and on an biography of Jesse Mercer, founder of Mercer University.
1. The most recent report card, the 2001 National Assessment of Educational Progress, showed no progress among secondary students in the field of history from the previous 1994 mark. See Diane Ravitch, "Should We Be Alarmed by the Results of the Latest U.S. History Test? (Yes)" (http://historynewsnetwork.org/articles/article.html?id=755) (27 May 2002).