History 101: What It Is and Why We Need It Now

Paulina L. Alberto and Farina Mir, April 2018

The University of Michigan Diagonal, 2010. Andrew Horne/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0Several years ago, the history department at the University of Michigan—anticipating the effects of what has come to be known as the “crisis of the humanities”—began restructuring its undergraduate curriculum. We wanted to move from coursework and requirements that had developed somewhat organically over decades with the ebb and flow of faculty interests to a more intentional, strategic set of offerings. The process led to intellectually and pedagogically productive questions about what history is, why it is relevant to students today, and how our department could get more students, from a wider variety of backgrounds, to give it a try. One outcome of those conversations was a new gateway course, like those in economics, anthropology, psychology, or sociology: History 101.

In fall 2012, after faculty brainstorming sessions and a seminar-style pilot, we—one of us a historian of modern Latin America and the other a historian of modern South Asia—developed and co-taught a lecture version of History 101. Ian Moyer, a historian of ancient Greece and Egypt, participated in the initial course design and has since taken a turn as co-instructor. History 101 has doubled in size from its initial offering, currently enrolling 200 students from all years and a variety of fields and schools.

What does such a course even look like? Historians have no established canon. Nor do historians have a canonical method. One of the hallmarks of history today is its interdisciplinarity, varied theoretical approaches, and multiple subfields. Historians, moreover, are deeply situated in specific times and places. History 101 could hardly represent the discipline’s temporal, geographic, and methodological coverage. We therefore developed the course as a long-form answer to the question “What is history?” But to answer this question—and keep our audience—we learned to address another, more basic one: “Why history?”

Many students find it hard to understand why history is relevant to their lives, and in the context of coursework, they find it difficult to see the tools of historical thinking as skills that can be honed and employed in varied settings. We therefore begin by explaining precisely how history develops critical thinking, a skill fundamental to almost any career path and to contemporary global citizenship. Drawing on the AHA’s Tuning project, we underscore empathy as another crucial skill that this course (like all those in history) helps develop. We also try to empower students to start doing history from day one by demonstrating how they already employ many of historians’ key tools in their everyday lives, if unconsciously. Facebook and Instagram, for example, can show how historical thinking—including chronology, use of evidence, research, argumentation, archiving, and narration—structures life at different scales, from the individual to the global.

What does such a course even look like? Historians have no established canon or canonical method.

With the devaluation of the humanities in public discourse and our students’ deep insecurity about their postgraduation prospects in mind, our core mission in History 101 is to emphasize the idea that history matters. Throughout the course, we seek to instill a sense of “the critical role of historical thinking in public life” (to borrow the AHA’s eloquent phrase). We accomplish this by showing that history has real-­world stakes and by emphasizing the political implications of historicizing. When students see how histories are made in particular times and places, for particular purposes, within relations of power, they can question received narratives and feel empowered to effect change.

History 101 is not meant to be comprehensive, nor is it a linear course. Each of the four units in our syllabus takes one approach to the course’s core mission and to the question of what history is. Collectively, they produce a course that builds outward in concentric circles, pushing in new directions while reinforcing and reanimating acquired material.

Our first unit, “Foundations,” builds up a structure for understanding history and its methods, and pulls down (or at least unsettles) well-worn historical narratives. A lecture on time—a key building block of history—renders the familiar unfamiliar by illustrating the ways time has been constructed historically and across cultures. Building on R. G. Collingwood’s “Who Killed John Doe?” (in The Idea of History), a lecture on evidence and narrative shows that these two aspects of the historian’s method are recursive, rather than being simply sequential. While examining foundations, students also consider the place of power in history-writing by analyzing Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987) and the reception of its controversial thesis that ancient Greece (and thus Western civilization) was indebted to African civilizations.

A second unit, “The Modern Discipline,” explains and critiques the Euro-American or “Western” tradition of history. Since historicizing is at the core of what historians do, an introductory course must historicize the discipline, even as we emphasize that our approach is just one of many possible “histories of history.” This unit allows students to learn how the discipline has changed over time—new and different histories being told by different people—and to understand how power informs history-writing. From ancient Greece through the development of a 19th-century “scientific” historical discipline, we examine how the writing of history (as distinct from other forms of narrative) claimed objectivity as its key ideal. This encourages students to explore how history became interlaced with the workings of nation- and empire-­building. Specifically, we examine how historians and their works upheld or subverted ideas about racial, ethnic, and cultural difference central to the politics of their time. In lectures on the British Empire in India and on the transnational history of the “Black Legend” of Spanish cruelty, for example, we show how discussing and writing about the past shaped the course of events. As we approach the discipline’s current state, we explore how cultural and social historians’ use of race and gender as categories of historical analysis transforms the way that major events, like the French and Haitian Revolutions, are understood.

Our third unit, “Outside the Book,” continues building outward to explore how history is made beyond the confines of traditional written sources. The students watch Le retour de Martin Guerre and team-debate what the medium of film can do that Natalie Zemon Davis’s classic microhistory cannot, and vice versa. The goal of this unit is to showcase diversity rather than create narrative continuity, so this unit provides an ideal opportunity to invite guest lecturers who can offer perspectives on unconventional sources or methods. Colleagues have lectured on music, ghost stories, art, spirit possession, fairy tales, and nonhuman biological entities (microbes, DNA, plants). These discussions encourage students to consider the potentials and limitations such sources bring to historical analysis, to think imaginatively about who or what is a historical agent, and to consider the differential value assigned to varying kinds of accounts of the past.

We have resisted the urge to march students through endless events, disembodied concepts, or subspecies of history.

Finally, “History in the Present” uses case studies that illustrate the power of history to stoke present-day conflicts and to produce peace. We examine South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a form of public history-making aimed at restorative justice, and how memories of Australian and New Zealander valor in World War I (the “ANZAC legend”) emphasize a coherent, masculine vision of the nation at the expense of national imaginaries that are more contentious. We end with a consideration of the future of our discipline, pointing to the possibilities (in Big History or Deep History, for example) for new understandings of our human predicament through expansive historical thought.

History 101 has been a huge success. Enrollment in the six iterations of the course (2012–17) totals 865 students, drawn almost equally from all four years. The overwhelming majority of students (89 percent) are from our College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA), while 11 percent are from other University of Michigan schools and colleges, such as Engineering, Kinesiology, and Nursing. Although 27 percent of students had not declared a major when they took the course—an important constituency of “undecideds” that we especially hope to reach—information on the remaining 631 students (who represent 60 different majors) illustrates the course’s reach beyond the humanities. Of the LSA students, 51 percent are social science majors and 13 percent are from STEM fields (although STEM student enrollment jumps to 19 percent when we include students from the School of Engineering). These numbers validate our conception of History 101 as a course that reaches out to new audiences and potential constituencies.

There is no one way to teach History 101. But if our version has succeeded in engaging larger numbers of students term after term, perhaps it is because we have resisted the urge to march students through endless events, disembodied concepts, or subspecies of history. The answer to “What is history?” should come in the form of a compelling story that is powerfully illustrated—and students must find themselves in it. The time is right, it seems, for our discipline to embrace a 101, a course that speaks boldly and broadly about our purpose and values as historians.

The authors are associate professors in the Department of History at the University of Michigan and recipients of the 2017 Matthews Underclass Teaching Award for their work on History 101. Their syllabus for History 101 is available here.

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