Introducing Students to Historiography

One of the challenges of teaching lower-division history classes can be moving beyond methods that teach students about the content of the past, instead teaching them about how this knowledge about the past came to be in the first place.  Historiography is often a topic reserved for major classes or upper-division students, but understanding how knowledge of the past is created, debated, and revised can be a great tool for engaging students at all levels of education and specialty.  While we teach them a subject called “History,” many students do not realize that there is a continual and ongoing debate among historians concerning how the past ought to be interpreted.  Students can also benefit from being exposed to the ways in which historians bring different perspectives from different subfields of history. Political historians, labor historians, economic historians, and gender historians can each bring new perspectives to periods or events that students feel they already understand.

Another challenge involved with introducing historiography or multiple fields in a survey class is the issue of finding room for this subject in the course materials. Textbooks have so much to cover that they typically focus on the perspective of one or a few authors. Over the course of the past few years, I have found that using a text with multiple authors, such as the material offered by Globalyceum, has been an effective way to introduce students to the variety of approaches that historians take in relation to the past. As each chapter of the digital textbook is written by a different author who is an expert in that particular era, this format presents students with depth as well as variety.

Six of Globalyceum’s seventeen American History authors

Globalyceum authors are encouraged to bring their research specializations and interests into the Core Essays and Topical Essays that they author for the platform.  In both the Core and Topical Essay on the American Revolution, for example, Pulitzer Prize winner Alan Taylor draws from his research on Native Americans during the Revolution to emphasize that there was not “one” Revolution.  He argues in his essays that the extent of dissent within the American colonies over which side to support could represent an internal Civil War.  This is an idea that challenges students’ understanding of an event that they feel they know well and can be used to spark classroom discussion about how the Revolution should be presented.

Several authors on the website bring their perspective as historians of gender into Topical Essays and Problems that can be used to introduce students to the insights brought to light by this field.  While discussing the Early American Republic as a general period of innovation in the United States, students continue to be divided in my classes over whether the Female Academies featured in the Problem “Women’s Education” by Caroline Winterer were liberating or restrictive to women.  Thavolia Glymph’s Topical Essay on the myth of the Plantation Mistress is another excellent way to introduce a gendered approach, as it challenges students to rethink their assumption that slaveholding women were somehow “kinder” or “gentler” than slaveholding men.

In the final three units on the period from 1972 to the present, three historians present three different perspectives on this period, allowing students to analyze how economic, political, and demographic changes have reshaped America in recent years.  Julian Zelizer brings a political historian’s insights to the significance of the conservative turn in American politics, while Bethany Moreton’s essays emphasize the primacy of economic changes during this period.  David Gutierrez brings together Immigration History, Mexican-American History, Asian-American History, and other fields to position demographic changes as the most significant in the past thirty years and into the future.

In these essays, as well as in the rest of the materials provided across the whole online platform, students are challenged to synthesize various approaches to the past and formulate their own understanding of historical perspectives and events. Students in lower-division classes can be introduced to historiography through Globalyceum and understand the nuanced perspectives of various historians in the field. They will be more engaged and better understand the complexities of the content in a way typically not explored until upper-division courses.

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