Laying Hands on History

I often fear that when we get started talking about how we’re going to revolutionize education, it’s too easy to lose sight of what it is we’re actually trying to teach. Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, moreover, makes it clear that it’s not so easy to pin down what’s really happening — or should be happening – in a history classroom. What we actually want our students to be able to do is hard enough to articulate, let alone how to teach them the skills they’ll need to do it. In Historical Thinking, Wineburg really parses out what it means to think about history, what’s happening when we analyze a primary document, how we can enter into conversations about historical moments that span generations, experts and lay people, scholarly texts and Blockbuster films. I appreciate Wineburg’s insistence on really spelling it out: he refuses to be satisfied with the sorts of skill sets we see articulated in the Common Core Standards, for example (which, by the way, lump history into the English Language Arts category – exactly the sort of thing that I imagine drives Wineburg nuts) – ideas like “analyzing primary documents” which sound tidy but are hard to put your finger on. Wineburg’s willing to get his hands dirty with the nitty-gritty of historical thinking: what thoughts are actually running through a historian’s head when he or she reads a primary document for the first time? What does an engaging history lesson really sound like? And I really, really appreciate that Wineburg has crafted some actual curriculum out of his research.

While I do believe it is absolutely crucial to take the time to really figure out what we’re talking about here (and you would be hard-pressed to find someone more excited to talk about the minutiae of history pedagogy than me), I do have to admit that after the whiz-bang effect of Gee’s text last week, Wineburg left me wishing for something a little more revolutionary. This isn’t Wineburg’s fault, I don’t think – it’s just that Wineburg’s insistence on actually looking at some Civil War Era political speeches felt a little drab after Tomb Raider. Of course, this is exactly the dilemma that real history teachers face every day, so it seems only fitting that we might have to live through it ourselves. I think it’s also what happens when you take big-picture ideas like Gee’s and start to really apply them to something like a history curriculum: it’s hard work, and some of the glamor fades away, but it’s also the only way, I think, that those big ideas come to matter very much.

That said, I do think there’s room for taking a hard look at historical thinking in the context of the undergraduate classroom AND imagining how that classroom might radically change over the course of the next few decades. Imagine my excitement, then, when I read T. Mills Kelly’s post “The History Curriculum in 2023,” which combined Wineburg’s focus on skills with Gee’s interest in looking forward and shaking things up. I was particularly taken by the first and last of Kelly’s “Ms” –  Making and Mash-Ups. What can students create in a history class, using digital technology and even 3D printers?

I can imagine other ways of thinking about “making” in a history classroom too, though, including some ways that are less digitally-oriented.  What about engaging students in a project of constructing history itself — thinking about the construction of a textbook, a documentary, or any other document that aims to compile a historical narrative? This brings me back to Wineburg and his concept of “collective occlusion.” Collective occlusion, according to Wineburg, is “the flip side of collective memory” — those memories that are perhaps not erased but are “not salient and not easily seen” (Wineburg 242, 243). How (and why) are these scattered moments and documents transformed into a narrative? What gets included in that story, and what gets left out? Who decides? How does the narrative change when we reinsert or recover some forgotten element?

While we’re getting fired up about all the possibilities of history in the digital age, likewise, I’m also excited about thinking about grounding history in a more physical location. In my own 12th grade classroom, I’ve been playing with the idea of getting students out into communities, becoming familiar with a real, physical location and peeling back the residual layers of history that they might find there, creating historical maps (or mash-ups?) of the spaces around them. I imagine the possibilities for this kind of project are even more far-reaching in the undergraduate realm. Of course, digital technologies could and perhaps should be involved in these kinds of undertakings — but I also like the idea that as we increasingly digitize, history is still something that you can sometimes, at least, reach out and touch with your hand.

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One Response to Laying Hands on History

  1. hnballlard says:

    I was struck by many of the same points in Wineburg’s text, Caroline. In particular, the way that he articulated what it means to think like a historian stood out to me as something that I had been trying to pin down since entering graduate school but hadn’t quite managed. I could feel my mind starting to think in that way the more that I engaged with the field, but I couldn’t articulate it much less put it into action in a classroom, at least until Wineburg provided me with some avenues to start thinking about that transition. I think history teachers of all kinds could benefit from reading this, sort of like a history mission statement. Wineburg clearly and concisely outlines what we do, why it matters, and though it might be difficult, how much more of an impact it could have on students than a straight “coverage” lecture.

    I also really like your idea of getting your students out in the community. Not only is your potential plan a way to get students away from the litany of facts, dates, names, etc., it’s also a way to get them to engage (whether they are aware of it or not) with a particular sub-field of history — urban history. Students probably have no idea that professional history can be the study of cities, the environment, science, or whatever else may pique their interest. I think they would walk away from a lesson like that with an idea of what it means to do history, to think like a historian, and that creativity in writing and research is a valued part of the process.

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