Publication Date

November 1, 2009

In the January 2009 issue ofPerspectives on History, Nancy Shoemaker asks where the history lab course is.1 There’s one at the high school where I teach and it’s called “Advanced Seminar in Historical Research and Writing.”

I confess that the course title is of my own devising, intended to sound impressive enough on a high school transcript for ambitious college-bound seniors who worry that they may not have enough Advanced Placement courses to satisfy admissions officers. The course grew out of my unhappiness with history that is too often taught with piles of undigested (and frequently indigestible!) facts in ways that minimize creative human efforts to understand the past. The course’s premise is simple enough to state but often difficult for students to grasp: that the past and history are two separate things. What I hope students will realize as they move through the course is that the stories we choose to tell about the past involve the same degree of imagination as does the work of the artist or the writer, even as the discipline of history imposes its own distinctive requirements and methodology. Unlike a straightforward introduction to historiography, the seminar does not systematically review any particular school of historical thought, but instead emphasizes through research and writing the historian’s craft of using a variety of primary sources to understand the past.

Because our school year is divided into trimesters, the flow of this senior elective course naturally breaks into three parts. At its heart is the writing of a substantial research paper—approximately 4,000 words in length—based on primary sources. Our school is relatively new and does not yet have a full-scale library. However, every student is issued a laptop computer, which can be used anywhere on our wireless campus. And so for our primary documents we access the amazingly rich and diverse resources of the Library of Congress American Memory web site (which means that the course emphasizes American studies).2 Students have used American Memory collections to research topics as diverse as Leonard Bernstein’s Jewish roots, 19th-century cigarette advertising, the experiences of Chinese immigrants in California, the Progressive Era’s City Beautiful movement, animated cartoons before Walt Disney, the women’s movement against suffrage, and educational influences on the young Thomas Jefferson. Mind you, the students are writing as high school students (albeit sophisticated ones) with ideas that are hardly definitive, but the process of working with primary sources to answer questions posed by the students gets to the heart of the work of the historian.

Because of the school’s limited library resources, improvisation has fostered innovation. For journal literature, the school subscribes to JSTOR. Requiring students to read at least a couple of journal articles exposes them to another aspect of the profession and offers an easy way of learning how their area of interest has been approached by historians. Our city is also home to one of the campuses of the state university system that allows checkout privileges to high school students in the county. During the course of the year, we trek back and forth in the late afternoons with loads of secondary sources. If nothing else, students learn the layout of a university library and how to be economical in their use of books that may slip forever out of their reach when they are returned after a few weeks!

Encouraging students to enroll in the course after telling them they will write a paper of this magnitude can be challenging. Sometimes it helps to know that this preparation will serve them well in their college studies, although pitching the most demanding of high school courses merely as college preparatory seems to me to undercut the value of education for its own sake by forcing us to always look to some future point. My assumption, however, is that the entire process of writing a history paper—from posing a question that can be answered, to analyzing primary documents, to learning how to cite sources, to drafting a thesis and then a rough draft leading to a finished paper—is new to students. Consequently, much of this part of the course is spent with the students working independently in the classroom in order to guide them through the process, minimize the amount of work they must do on their own, and provide opportunities to share with others the progress of their work.

There are times, however, particularly early on before there’s much progress and then toward the end of the course as the papers near completion, where more formal instruction is required. At these times I try two different approaches. In the fall, we embark on a series of “history lessons,” that, despite their pedestrian name, attempt to find interesting ways to get at the craft of history. The first lesson comes with reading excerpts from Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History and is summarized with his injunction: “We constantly need to be shaken out of a false sense of familiarity with the past, to be administered doses of cultural shock.”3

From there, we pursue two themes as we build on what Darnton says about the strangeness of the past while also considering those things that budding historians should think about when writing about the past. For example, in the lesson “Seeing the Unseen,” we begin with the anonymous painting Virginian Luxuries (circa 1815) that shows a master fondling a female slave and wonder why this canvas is framed backward so that it remains unseen by the viewer looking from the proper side at another painting.4 We then explore the issues raised by Annette Gordon-Reed inThomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and The Hemingses of Monticello, reading some of the primary sources she cites and asking how later perceptions and assumptions influenced historians in their views of those sources.5 One of the simplest but most revealing documents we examine is two paper dolls of black females: “Topsey” from 1863 and “Sally Hemings” from 2000.6 Which doll—the older one of a ragtag, silly-looking girl with very dark skin or the contemporary one of an attractive woman with an olive complexion—better fits students’ perception of master-slave relationships? To what extent are our understandings of Jefferson and Hemings based on incomplete but evolving research as opposed to the preconceptions (and misconceptions) of historians about the possibilities inherent in the relationships between these two Monticello families? How would we understand a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings which, after all, has no exact parallel in the world we know today?

My desire is to draw lessons from a variety of sources. And so we read H. L. Mencken’s “A Neglected Anniversary” (his spoof on the anniversary of the introduction of the bathtub) as a reminder of the trust that bonds writer and reader.7 By tracing the controversy surrounding Michael Bellesilles’ Arming America we learn how evidence, if not carefully documented, itself can ruin a thesis.8 In his portrayal of Mark Twain recounting the tall tale “The Story of Grandfather’s Old Ram” (from Roughing It), actor Hal Holbrook dramatizes the necessity of a simple, straightforward narrative.9 What I most like about the lessons is that their topicality allows for them to be quickly drawn up, developed over time, and interchanged with new ones; what makes them fresh is that they draw on whatever I’ve come across that I find interesting enough to share and relevant to what we want to learn. If they are playful, so much the better, for they become more memorable.

The research papers are completed toward the beginning of the spring trimester, which allows time for one more approach to studying the past by reading a “big” history, that is, a history that has attracted popular attention. Last year, students chose from a list I drew up The Cigarette Century by Allan M. Brandt (which eventually required me to accede to their demand that we also watch the satirical filmThank You for Smoking).10 For this past spring, I picked A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry by Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger, which is not, strictly speaking, a history, but a book that raises an issue that many have wrongly assumed faded into the past with the end of the Cold War.11 With this work we also sampled one of the films mentioned in Paul Boyer’s 2008 Perspectives on History article, “A Life in American Cinema: The Nuclear Option.”12 My intention is to end the school year with an important study that nevertheless gets away from the world of the textbook while demonstrating how understandings of the past affect the present.

How effective is this course? Informally I keep track of two kinds of anecdotal evidence in a measurement that is anything but scientific. The first is how often a graduate returns during the first year in college and reports being unfazed by a professor’s first research paper assignment because the student knows what to do. This happens regularly enough to make me think that students learn something valuable in the course. (At least they return kindly enough disposed to be willing to say so without much prompting from me!) The second is how often a graduate declares a history major. Not surprisingly (given what history majors have to look forward to in their career options) this remains an uncommon but not unheard of experience. Unmistakably, however, it does happen, and with more frequency than ever before in my many years of classroom experience. While it may not prove much, it at least signifies to me that these students’ last experience of studying history in high school did not so traumatize them that they want nothing more to do with the discipline.

— is a National Board Certified Teacher at the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, North Carolina. His most recent book is In Every Good Work: A History of First Baptist Church, Greensboro, North Carolina (2009).


1. Nancy Shoemaker, “Where Is the History Lab Course?Perspectives on History 47:1 (January 2009), 24–26.

2. Library of Congress, American Memory, (accessed February 9, 2009).

3. Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (Basic Books, 1984), 4.

4. Virginia Luxuries, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, Williamsburg, Virginia.

5. Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (University Press of Virginia, 1997) and The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W.W. Norton & Co., 2008).

6. “200 Years of Black Paper Dolls: The Collection of Arabella Grayson,”, Press Room of the Smithsonian Institution (accessed February 9, 2009).

7. H.L. Mencken, “A Neglected Anniversary,”A Mencken Chrestomathy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1949), 592–97.

8. Michael A. Bellesiles, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000). For a debate of the issues, see the forum in the William and Mary Quarterly, 59:1 (January 2002).

9. Mark Twain Tonight!, DVD, directed by Paul Bogart (1967; Kultur Video, 1999).

10. Allan M. Brandt, The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America (Basic Books, 2007) and Thank You for Smoking, DVD, directed by Jason Reitman (Twentieth-Century Fox, 2007).

11. Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger, A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry (Bloomsbury, 2008).

12. Paul Boyer, “A Life in American Cinema: The Nuclear Option,” Perspectives on History 46:8 (November 2008), 36–38.

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