The Structure and Operation of This Unit

Historians do not believe that events "just happen" for no apparent reason. If we believed this, there would be no reason to take this course. Instead it is one of the core tenets (beliefs) of historians that the past is connected to the present, helps shape current issues and defines the options which seem most workable as citizens address the concerns of their time and place. The Biafran episode in African/global/European history did not "just happen" either. By working through the materials accumulated at this website students will not just learn more about this episode from the "near past" but will learn how to "do" history by framing questions to understand the dynamics of other situations past or present. To achieve these goals, this unit has a number of special features.

Initial Focus on a Single Event: At the end of this project you will find out that your knowledge is important for understanding current issues not just in Nigeria but also, potentially, globally. Another way of defining this effort is to call it a "posthole"—we will focus on a single event and, by working through all of its implications, get a good understanding of broad issues such as colonialism and imperialism as well as other topics in African and European history. And in this process students will become historians for a semester.

The Importance of Questions: This inquiry will be driven by questions because that is how historians work. Teaching is not a task where historians reveal to students information that is hidden away in a mystic mountain which each historian visits during graduate school in order to learn all the answers. Instead (although historians may disagree on the meaning of events) historians are unified by the ways they approach issues. They look at primary sources, ask questions as a result of this reading and analysis, and then look for other materials to answer these new questions. (or else we reread the material with these new questions in mind). The need to learn to ask and answer questions is part of why this unit is organized the way it is. For historians an unanswered question is preferable to an unquestioned answer.

As the author/compiler of this material, my goal is not to tell a story through many screens in the sense that there is a single answer or single story that will emerge from your work if you do it "right." Instead my goal is to lay out some resources for people to fit together, to see how formal or informal collaboration helps achieve a fuller understanding of issues and to see how new evidence, added to previous understandings, changes or reinforces understandings of the past.

Backwards Chronological Approach: History has been defined by some as the study of "one damn thing after another." The teacher asserts that a particular set of events is "very important" and that you should learn the chain of events (in chronological order) to understand the event. In contrast, this material on Biafra is presented in chunks which come in reverse chronological order. Students will learn first about the episode itself, then move back to the era of early political independence which hatched this revolt, then further back to the era of colonialism and imperialism. In effect this unit works deeper into the past as the study goes along because that seems to be a natural way to study history. We start with an event and ask why it happened. Then we form some hypotheses and look at the events immediately prior to the episode. But to understand more fully what our study of the immediate past turned up, we have to push further into the past.

Take a familiar example. The study of the American Civil War can start with the election of Lincoln, the failure of the Crittenden Compromise and the shots fired on Ft. Sumter. But, in order to understand these actions, students have to know about the Dred Scot decision and "bleeding Kansas." Then we have to move further back to look at forces driving the people to make the decisions they did. These deeper, earlier issues can include slavery, abolitionism and world trade. Then we ask how these forces developed and look at the efforts to compromise these differences in 1820 and 1850. And so on. Similarly we will move backward in stages to gain a fuller understanding of Biafra. [The pre-nineteenth century era of the slave trade is not part of this unit even though it is clearly part of the background to these events; at many institutions slavery was covered in an earlier course.]

Evidence: This unit makes extensive use of "primary sources" for understanding history. Primary sources are direct evidence left from earlier times—diaries, laws, speeches, photos, and statistics, for example. Memoirs of participants are "nearly primary" sources in the sense that they were produced later but were written by participants about the events in which they were actors. Questions raised by some materials will be answered when you read into the materials from earlier eras. According to the terminology of this paragraph, your textbook is a "secondary source." It was written years after the events it describes by someone who was not there. On the other hand, the careful study of the past by a trained historian yields a "secondary source" (a book or an article or a lecture) which is a very reliable analysis of what happened and why it happened.

Collaborative Approach: This unit lends itself to collaborative study. It is based on the premise that if everyone person does a part of the work and shares their results with other members of the working group, the outcome will be an enhanced understanding of the issues for everyone involved. You will have to take the work you do and put it into your own words to teach others what you found out. To achieve this goal, each of the major sections of the unit is divided into four subsections. You will be asked look into the material in your subsection and see how it relates to the bigger issues which are raised by this posthole. Your instructor will decide how this collaboration is to be carried out. The possibilities include in-class study groups, outside of class meetings, or online discussion using email and listservs or bulletin boards.

Some faculty and students will recognize parts of this activity as comparable to the documents-based questions used in advanced placement courses in high school history for college credit. Therefore you should first read each document simply for its content--What is it saying? What are the author's main points? Who was the intended audience for this statement? What did the author hope would be the impact of the statement? Then you will need to address the questions associated with each reading which (are supposed to) help you fit the material into the various contexts of this study. Your collaborators will help you fill in some of the context when they share their findings with the group.