Monday, April 4, 2011

How to Approach a Historical Methods Course?

Teaching historical methods is a bit like studying American history – outsiders are prone to be skeptical. America has history? History has methods? You mean, like statistics and models and guidelines for the proper use of a Bunsen burner?  (My question is informed, or should I say misinformed, by a total lack of knowledge of what research methods in the sciences might actually be.)

Almost every history major (except for one of the degenerates who writes for this site) has to take some variation of a methods course as an undergrad. For most people, this class is the first time they ever hear the word “historiography.” I know when I saw a snarky comic strip on my professor’s door in which a Foucauldian egghead drones on and on about the “horizons of subjectivity” in “Historiography 101,” I assumed it must be one of those cumbersome terms that people dream up to make what they do seem more complicated than it is – and, perhaps, for history professors to give a scientific, technical gloss to their vocation.

Perhaps there is some truth to that suspicion, but the intervening years have at least given me a healthy respect for the body of thought that considers the nature of history and how to do it. Historiography and historical methodology are not just tokens of professionalization, grafted on to the simple practice of studying the past; they actually provide a toolbox of perspectives and techniques that enable us to see more and understand the story better.

At least, this is what we would hope to convey to our students in a basic methods course, but how do we go about it? Do you try to acquaint them with a rich variety of historical literature to give a sense is what is possible – ranging, say, from Carlo Ginzburg’s classic of early modern Italy, The Cheese and the Worms, to the latest book about transgendered vampires and Halal food culture in the borderlands of the Western Sahara? Perhaps you keep the same range of material but structure it chronologically, to show how historical thought has evolved from ancient Greece to the early twenty first century. Or do you deemphasize reading and focus the course entirely on writing – teaching the basics of grammar, argument, and research with primary and secondary sources?

As I plan my own course, I am torn among these options. Some of the freshest and most interesting work in history is the most difficult to read; I would love to assign Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic, a dazzlingly complex study that manages to connect the Atlantic slave trade to the rise of insurance, the novel, statistics and finance capitalism, but I wonder if it would go over the heads of undergrads or even grad students. I barely understand it. Is this a good use of the time that history majors could be spending learning about race, class, gender, sexuality and other fundamental categories of analysis, or getting the hang of Proquest, Hein Online and other resources for research?

A friend told me that most of his students in one class were familiar with JSTOR, but 80% said they had never checked a book out of the library. Any library.  So it might pay to spend a decent amount of time introducing students to the Congressional Record, microfilm, and the concept of a library card. Then again, I want the class to be intellectually stimulating for both the students and myself; it would be nice to cover the nuts and bolts while still evoking a sense of the possibilities of history, even if some of the books or articles we look at are more provocative than intelligible.

Another question involves the use of a theme. Some instructors do a methods class as a crash course in all that history has to offer, or a more general introduction to the basics of research and writing. Others orient the class around a central topic or time period, so that students get to test out a variety of different ways to approach a similar set of historical questions. Students who select the course may be particularly interested in the section’s focus, whether it is “The 1920s” or “The Atomic Bomb,” and thus involve themselves more in the course. My own methods course was called “Jefferson’s America.” It was not a topic that was especially dear to my heart, and a vegan anarchist friend who was also majoring in History chided me for doing such a conventional “Great Men” kind of topic. But the class still provided some valuable hard knocks in terms of learning to write better, and it prodded me in the direction of thinking historically – even if it was something so simple as the professor asking, “Why do people speak of ‘Jefferson’s America,’ but not ‘Washington’s America’? Why do people talk about Jeffersonian democracy and not Washingtonian democracy?” Embedded in such an innocuous question is a curiosity about assumptions, framing, and the power of language – the sort of things a History major ought to be thinking about.

What is the best way to design a course that introduces History majors to the tools of the trade? What best serves the interests of students, most of whom are enthused about History but will likely (hopefully) not pursue a career in academia? Do we try to give them at least a little exposure to the theoretical end of things, in the hopes that they want to dig deeper and learn more? I never once heard of Michel Foucault or Hayden White in an undergraduate class, although I did get a good dose of Edward Said during my senior thesis project. Maybe this material is best left to grad school, to await those who are masochistic enough to go looking for it. Then again, maybe students ought to know a little about the world of theory.

Should our primary goal be to ensure that history majors come out with a solid grasp of how to do research, read documents, compare and contrast, and make an argument? What was your experience with a course like this as an undergrad, and if you are teaching now, what has worked best for you?  What would you assign?  Any thoughts or suggestions on the subject would be warmly welcome.

Alex Cummings


  1. as a student (and hopeful academic), i beg you to please skip using class time for basic research skills (where to find academic databases, where to find the library, etc.) --- this can and should be covered in a one-pg. handout.

    i don't study history, so i dont know if is zinn's "a people's history of the united states" out of the question?

    does GSU have a writing center? if so, you should require undergraduates to use the writing center to proofread drafts with writing counselors before handing in assignments...

    also, are there really that few jobs in academia? or only the humanities?

  2. Hi Ess,

    I'll probably limit the online research stuff to a handout or email, like you suggest, but we may spend a little more time going over the variety of print sources and how to use them. Just knowing where to find different kinds of legal, political, cultural resources is not always easy, even for grad students.

    Zinn is viewed as being simplistic and not-serious-history by most academic historians, but not by me. See unbearably condescending missive written by Jill Lepore (upon Zinn's death!):

    The lady knows how to dance on a man's grave.

    The catastrophic job situation is really limited to the humanities and social sciences... if you're doing Chemistry it seems you can pretty much write your own ticket. To the extent that Psychology has become more of a "hard" science, it is also seems to be not too hard to find a job with a PhD in that field. But in History, English, Sociology, and the like, it's still pretty awful. So bad that I feel it would be professional malpractice to encourage even my brightest, most able students to pursue grad school. The problem goes well beyond the current crisis and will eventually affect people in all fields, as the traditional tenure track job is being steadily undermined by casualized, short-term, temporary work that universities place on the shoulders of grad students, adjuncts, and postdocs. It's a cheap labor model that has obvious appeal for university administrators, and no one seems to know how to stop it.

  3. The best histiography class I took (albeit in art history) promised a "geography" of art history. By treating each method/theme/perspective as its own entity, I got a sense of how I could begin structuring my own work, and how these other 'places' might receive it.