Publication Date

December 18, 2023

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning

In 2012, the AHA invited historians from a variety of fields and walks of life to participate in the Tuning the History Discipline initiative. The project sought to describe rather than prescribe “the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind that students develop in history courses and degree programs” that could then be “tuned” to an individual program’s curriculum.

A silver tuning fork rests on the interior wires of a piano.

The AHA’s Tuning the History Discipline initiative has ended, but its lessons persist. Cindy Trussell/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

I joined Tuning as a new associate professor. I had recently concluded that my past decade of teaching students to think like budding historians needed a solid rework. I thought that all I was probably offering students was a chance to glean what a historian does through classroom osmosis, and that such generalized pedagogical murkiness probably does not make for the best learning environment. Now, eight years after Tuning ended, I feel more confident about explaining what it is we do as historians in the classroom. While I have made many changes in how I teach based on what I learned through Tuning, here I would like to offer just one example of such a change—how I ask students to be historians during the first weeks of their introductory history major course.

Following Tuning’s completion, I began revising my course by reflecting on how Tuning related to my students. I focused on two competencies Tuning had defined: competency 1, “consider a variety of historical sources for credibility, position, perspective, and relevance,” and competency 3, “revise analyses and narratives when new evidence requires it.” This language was a valuable starting point for answering my questions: How should a student identify a historical problem, map out an analytical road toward a conclusion, and then revisit each step of the process? Like most history programs, our department’s curriculum approaches this problem iteratively; students practice historical thinking as they progress through increasingly difficult courses, ending in the program’s capstone by melding primary and secondary source analysis in a research project. Yet what bothered me was not the goal but rather what a student’s attempt to practice these skills should look like. Importantly, what should their first attempt look like, especially as they were almost always going to be categorical and unequivocal failures? And, finally, I wanted to know how students could stick with it given this likely outcome.

Instructional tools designed by historians to help students interpret sources could help. For instance, Patrick Rael coined the term PAPER (purpose, argument, presuppositions, epistemology, and relate) to structure such an analysis. As Rael explains, if a student was defining a source’s purpose, they would ask,

Who is the author and what is her or his place in society (explain why you are justified in thinking so)? What could or might it be, based on the text, and why? Why did the author prepare the document? What was the occasion for its creation? What is at stake for the author in this text? Why do you think she or he wrote it? What evidence in the text tells you this? Does the author have a thesis? What—in one sentence—is that thesis?

When I started using this excellent resource, however, I found that it stumbled in one crucial way. It does not start where my students begin. They are almost always bewilderingly confident in what they think practicing history entails, completely wrong in their assumptions, and afraid to acknowledge this disjunction for fear of proving that they do not belong in a university. The first step, it turned out, to help them think and speak like historians was to provide a space to express and reflect on their expected “failure” to be able to do this at all.

How should a student identify a historical problem, map out an analytical road toward a conclusion, and then revisit each step of the process?

Sam Wineburg describes using a research tool known as a “think-aloud” in his work, a tool he and his fellow researchers used as they sought to qualify and quantify the interpretive models that might differentiate between how a professional historian and an amateur high school student read a previously unseen primary source. Formerly, I had asked my students to read Wineburg, hoping that the descriptions he provides would resonate with their experiences. Although students suggested his work was helpful, it was also overwhelming; the mental processes he described felt out of reach.

Two years ago, I concluded that I was extrapolating the wrong lesson from Wineburg. Maybe using his work as a description of the historical method was wrongheaded on my part. Instead, I needed to look at how he encouraged people to verbalize their thoughts, doubts, confusions, and unproductive circumlocutions. If students became comfortable expressing to me how and why they were struggling, I might be able to better identify pathways to help them reach desirable outcomes.

Now, four times during the semester, I give students in my Introduction to History course unfamiliar and uncontextualized primary sources and ask them to record a 15-minute oral stream-of-conscious reflection about the sources. I tell them explicitly that neither do I expect them to produce a “correct” interpretation of the source nor will I grade them based on the “correctness” of their assessment. The purpose of the assignment and its graded component is to encourage them to become comfortable telling me “I don’t know.”

In their first think-aloud, which students record on their phone and email to me, I ask students to read the document out loud and to summarize what they read in their own words. In this process, I ask them to try to be aware of when and where they get stuck. Next, I ask them to listen to their recording and to produce one or two written paragraphs telling me whatever it is they want to tell me about the experience. Many of my students report being “weirded out” by recording their own voice and listening to it, and so the first assignment serves as a gentle on-ramp to let them express these reservations. In practice, only some of my students use the assignment for its intended purpose; most still assume I am trying to trap them and seek to interpret the source “correctly.” This is all fodder for the next step.

In class, we reflect on how and why people felt discomfort with the assignment—“I do not like the sound of my voice,” “I sound stupid,” “I am embarrassed about my vocabulary”—as well as why some students did not feel comfortable even sharing these thoughts. I start this session by explaining the embarrassment I felt when I saw the video recording of my first teaching experience. I then show the video, talk about it, and discuss how even now I sometimes feel like I just want to destroy any evidence of my own professional inadequacy: “See how I will not look at my students?” “Interesting how I got that date wrong, huh?”

By the third assignment, a student’s first attempt at thinking aloud begins to blend the personal with the historical.

Then we do the assignment over again. This time, however, I ask them to pay greater attention to the actual content of the document and the interpretive method we have been reviewing in class (purpose, that first P in PAPER). I ask them again to verbalize whatever barriers appear between what the model is asking them to do and what they are actually doing when confronted with a historical source. If they think vocabulary is an issue, they should track how often they encounter this problem. They should ask themselves aloud whether the confusion over the meaning of a word arises from the word being entirely unfamiliar to them or if this word might have multiple (chronologically appropriate, but contemporaneously unknown) meanings. They should also vocalize issues about the structure of the document, their reading environments, and their attention span—how often did they think, I am bored? And why? Are the sentences too meandering? Does their phone chirp constantly with notifications? Do they even feel in control of the words they are speaking aloud?

Each of the subsequent assignments starts similarly but introduces more documents to consider, or I ask students to provide a fuller textual, contextual, and chronological reading of the document. Usually by the third assignment, a student’s first attempt at thinking aloud begins to blend the personal with the historical. However, with each assignment, I tell students that space is always there for them to stumble, to admit what they found perplexing, and even to confuse themselves. Only as they refine and repeat the assignments will grading criteria start to reflect our Tuned outcome language.

The assignment still yields uneven results, but I hope this overview suggests a place for reflection about how we can concretely help students reckon with most history departments’ outcome language, Tuned or not, regarding what it means to think, interpret, and speak like a historian. The process is ultimately muddy. Learning to be direct with oneself about what one does and does not know (and why one does not know it) is utterly important to what we do in the classroom. To do this, we must make space for students to stumble, to fail, and to tell us about these failures; otherwise, useful language developed in places like Tuning will remain ethereal guidance.

Richard Bond is associate professor and chair of the history department at Virginia Wesleyan University.

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