Publication Date

March 13, 2024

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

K–12 Education, Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education


Teaching Methods

In a 2007 issue of Perspectives, Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke offered their model for how they teach historical thinking in the classroom with the “five Cs of historical thinking.” In the 17 years since, history teachers have adopted and adapted this framework to help students approach the study of the past with keen eyes and sharp minds. The five Cs—context, change over time, causality, complexity, and contingency—form the foundation of historical thinking skills and therefore our discipline. It remains a useful set of parameters to have students touch on when completing short identification essays on tests or small group discussions, as scaffolding toward developing strong research questions, or for thinking about what it means to do history.

Continuity might be as important as change over time when teaching historical thinking skills. Peter Mizsak/Unsplash

We have been making Dig: A History Podcast since 2017 as a way to bring academic history to general audiences. We take an explicitly feminist historical perspective and focus on telling the stories of marginalized historical actors such as women, the poor, and people with disabilities. Over the past year, we focused our episodes on topics that illustrate and illuminate the five Cs, with an eye toward both how they can be useful in the classroom and how to communicate these scholarly concepts for our general listenership. Midyear, Marissa asked a question in our producer group chat: Why isn’t continuity a separate C?

Andrews and Burke rolled continuity into “change over time” in their model, acknowledging it as integral to understanding change but not pulling it out as its own tool. Yet we can’t talk about change over time without considering the ways that some social, economic, political, and cultural forces persisted across decades, centuries, or millennia. Change is hard to come by, after all. Further, there are experiences shared by people across time and geography.

As nice and tight as the five Cs of history are as a teaching device, we decided that this sixth C was necessary to complete our historical thinking series. It is important to show change over time. It is equally important to foreground the mundane, routine, and familiar in our historical thinking—and to examine the larger violent, oppressive, and hierarchical continuities that shape the everyday and the long term. When we roll continuity into change over time, we underplay the significance of unchange in the lives of the many, especially women, for whom daily life’s continuities persisted through extraordinary historical events.

Change is hard to come by, after all.

Historians including Alexander Gerschenkron and Tariq A. Baloch have stressed continuity in their research and teaching scholarship for decades, while educators writing for Teaching History have long extolled the necessity of explicitly pairing change with continuity in both secondary and postsecondary history courses. In their guide to teaching the methods and skills of history, Conal Furay and Michael J. Salevouris use continuity as a starting point, because the mundane and day-to-day, the unchange, is life for most people. It is entirely another way of thinking to step back and grapple with continuity in the longue durée. Yet, as Fernand Braudel notes, historians must deal with both the change and the unchange of history, because “history moves not at one pace, but at a thousand—all at the same time.”

When we founded Dig, we set out to create a resource that would synthesize and narrativize historical scholarship for the engaged public without access to academic libraries. In that mission we’ve been modestly successful, with 1,200 subscribers and 3,000 downloads per week. The nature of the topics we cover and our accessible approach have led to our podcast becoming widely used by educators. In the last year alone, faculty at more than 85 different universities in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia have used our episodes in their classrooms, some even structuring syllabi entirely around our podcast episodes. Now, with that audience in mind, we share on our website how we use the podcast in our own classrooms. We work with a secondary education specialist to create detailed lesson plans for use in secondary and postsecondary survey courses.

Typically, we put out a “series” of four episodes at a time, with episodes loosely connected by a theme such as “Sex” or “Elections.” For 2023, we made each of our five series for the year a different C of historical thinking. We designed each C series to include one episode each that could fit into a global history course, a European history course, a US history course, and a women’s history course. The distribution of topics offered broad and diverse histories for our nonacademic audience to continue to enjoy. But this also met instructors’ needs (including our own), as these are the courses that we teach ourselves and in which other educators use our episodes the most.

With 20 episodes exploring the five Cs, we’ve covered a wide range of topics. For example, we explored the ways context matters for understanding the interpretation of the Igbo/Ibibio Women’s War of 1929. Under the banner of causality, we considered the murky and contested causes of the American Civil War. To demonstrate the complexity of history, we discussed attitudes toward fatness in premodern Europe. To close out the year, we examined contingency, a concept rooted in the idea that nothing is predetermined and that individual and collective choices matter, which helps to explain why the health-care system in the United States sucks but doesn’t need to.

Even as we framed each of these episodes around a single C, the exercise actually highlighted why historical thinking requires consideration of context and causality and change over time and complexity and contingency. Though we wrote each episode somewhat artificially around the framework of a single C, we were constantly reminded that the Cs are an interlocking set of historical thinking skills, rather than tools that can be wielded independently of the others. When we got to change over time, our episodes on the legacy of Roger Casement in Ireland, the party shift in American politics, feminisms and the interconnected rights revolution, and a global history of writing highlighted the significance of continuity.

We were constantly reminded that the Cs are an interlocking set of historical thinking skills, rather than tools that can be wielded independently of the others.

Change over time flows alongside unchange over time. Change can be slow or explosive, and each iteration is fairly simple to quantify. But change is almost never complete, as is noted by historians like Hal S. Barron. For every person who immigrated to a new nation or region, others remained in their hometown. For every major agricultural innovation, there were decades or even centuries when crops were cultivated using earlier methods. If we ignore that slow change means long periods of continuity, or that explosive change rarely leads to change for everyone, then we miss the complexity of the past, present, and future. Historical thinking teases out nuance and requires that we sit with the reality of painful unchanging lived experiences. We must learn how to see, quantify, and qualify both change over time and continuity in our study of the past. We’ve redesignated the yearlong project the “Six Cs of History.” The continuity episodes come out in March, with episodes on police brutality, capitalism and reproductive labor, the humoral theory, and the gender wage gap.

Continuity can help us understand how the past affects the present. Take, for instance, the history of police brutality, an undercurrent of American life easily ignored by white Americans until a horrific event—such as the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, among others—forces it back to the center of national attention. Yet police brutality in America has deep roots. Slave catchers, enforcing laws of ownership, used bloodhounds to capture escaping enslaved people and charged slavers a higher fee if a whipping was necessary in the process of an apprehension. The Texas Rangers murdered ethnic Mexicans with impunity for decades. As Monica Muñoz Martinez highlighted, one Texan recalled in the bloody year of 1915 that “nearly every day you could hear about people being killed by Rangers.” Rather than our seeing police brutality as a current problem, continuity helps us to recognize that it’s actually a disturbing thread through American history.

A focus on continuity helps build historical empathy, allowing us to perceive and contextualize the past on a personal level. One way to explore this is to analyze how capitalism relies on the fruits of reproductive labor. The gendered and racial division of reproductive labor shapes our current labor and monetary system. Women perform the majority of reproductive labor in homes, and in multicultural societies like the United States, women of color disproportionately perform the care work necessary to keep the economy and society running. Yet the reliance on women’s reproductive labor and the historical devaluation of this work (both culturally and for pay) are based on fundamental concepts like value, gender, and work that underwent specific historical changes. Scholars like Jennifer Morgan, Adrienne Davis, and Evelyn Nakano Glenn have shown how enslaved women were commodified as laborers, sexual objects, and the mothers of future commodified humans, and how the social structure of caregiving has historically been grounded in coercive methods that have compelled women to take on the responsibility of caring for others. Examining the continuity in laws, institutions, and instruments of capitalism exposes how concepts of value and gender evolved into the taken-for-granted forms we know today.

Continuity reveals the longevity of systems of oppression and the lived experience. Judith Bennett and other scholars have shown the continuities of devalued waged labor for English women from 1350 to—alarmingly—the present. Excluding continuity privileges “great man” history and “turning point” models of interpreting history, the significance of which were undetected by those who lived at the time. Examinations of the longue durée often reveal the persistence of structural inequities for and oppression of women and other historically marginalized peoples, and invite students to consider how and why history matters.

Averill Earls, Elizabeth Garner Masarik, Sarah Handley-Cousins, and Marissa C. Rhodes are the creators and producers of Dig: A History Podcast and history faculty in the United States.

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