Save Historiography for the Last Year?

by Scott Manning on June 14, 2013

Historiography: Contesting the Past; Claiming the FutureIn trying to understand why students dread historiography, I came across several works by Jeremy Black, a prolific military historian. In his recent Historiography: Contesting the Past; Claiming the Future, Black describes the current approach to teaching the subject and why it often fails.

The conventional pattern at present is that of a compulsory first-year course on historical method and theory, including historiography, with no other course being compulsory. In many respects, these courses are failures, in part because the students are often bored, being relatively uninterested in theory. Moreover, the students have relatively little experience of studying history at an advanced level, and thus much about the course does not make sense (233).

In my current graduate work, as was the case with my undergraduate work, the first two courses I am supposed to complete are HIST500 – Historical Research Methods and HIST501 – Historiography.

Are these courses failures? I would not go that far, but I do not think they are raging successes. Students learn methods and theories predominately through anecdotes.

Black suggests a different approach with teaching historiography.

I suggest, instead, that this teaching be switched to the final year when the students are more mature intellectually and have done more work on which to base their arguments and assessments. I would make such a course the last of a sequence of compulsory core courses (233).

The idea is intriguing. Instead of a student learning these concepts through spoon-fed anecdotes, the student would bring forth his or her own experiences and studies, or at least be forced to look at their studies in a new light.

Black then breaks down how he would teach history in Britain, but the approach can apply to other programs in different countries. For example, applying the concept to my current Ancient and Classical program at AMU, my order of courses would appear as follows.

  • HIST597 – Graduate Seminar in European History
  • HIST531 – The Greek Civilization
  • HIST532 – The Roman Republic and Empire
  • HIST533 – Late Antiquity and Byzantium
  • HIST500 – Historical Research Methods
  • HIST501 – Historiography

By the time I would have reached research methods and historiography, I would have a slew of historical background at an advanced level with which to discuss methods and theories.

I ran the concept by a several fellow students and the responses were borderline defensive. Most of them cannot even conceive of a world where you do not start with research methods and historiography. As one told me, “You have to learn to walk before you can run.”

Yet, I am knee deep in a seminar course of European History and thus far, I have digested three books:

In some instances, I have sought out other works to understand the histories of the periods, as these works are almost entirely historiography. Meaning, this single course has exposed me to a slew of historiographical analysis using fresh examples, which will stick with me longer. In addition, bringing my experience from this course to a pure historiography course, I am equipped with plenty of examples with which to understand the methods and theories.

Black’s idea is radical, but I think he is onto something.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jimmy Dick June 14, 2013 at 9:57 AM

This depends on perspective. There are two levels here that need to be brought up. The first is the undergraduate degree and the second is the graduate degree. There is a huge difference between the two degrees. The approach to thinking and writing undergoes a fundamental change as one moves from undergraduate to graduate courses. At the undergraduate level the student is learning their history after thankfully being removed from the detritus that accompanies what is presented to them in K-12. Unfortunately, local school boards and political ideology often inhibit what is taught in high school, but that is an entirely different subject. Suffice it to say that undergraduate students are learning history that isn’t sugary sweet and that our past is often very violent with a lot of bad things that happened along with the good things.

I took my BA at Columbia College. At the time they had Research as one capstone course which was linked to the second capstone course of historiography. The two were taken back to back in the senior year. This was a huge mistake and I made recommendations that this be changed and believe it or not, they changed the whole program around. (I know, like it was all due to my suggestion!) Now Research is a 200 level course which is exactly where it needs to be. There is no sense having students write the term papers with no knowledge of how to search for sources. By switching Research to the 200 level and making it required the students now are taught what sources are and how to write a term paper.

The Historiography course is still the final required course. The reason for this is due to the fact that at the undergrad level the students are not interpreting the past and placing their own opinion on it so much as they are basically writing fact filled papers on what actually happened. Some do begin to advance into interpretation. My own experience had me take the capstones where I had about a year left at Columbia. There was a huge change in how I wrote papers after that. Our coursework at that time also included how to write a graduate level paper in those courses. This came in very handily at AMU.

Undergrad students are not working with historiography like a grad student is. There is a key difference between the two. UG students are expected to learn and return the facts. Grad students are expected to learn more facts, more interpretations, and where their own interpretation fits into the historiography of their study, plus the overall historiography of history itself. How can a grad student understand the historiography of anything if they haven’t learned what historiography is to begin with? The Research course should go without saying in my opinion.

Here are three things you may not be aware of. One is that some schools do not teach either course at the UG level. Two is that many of AMU’s students in history have a significant gap between the UG graduation date and beginning at AMU. These courses often did not get taught at most schools until 2000 or so. I know quite a few people that never had them and it shows in their knowledge of history. The students I encountered in those courses almost all were taking those subjects for the first time. Most had been out of school for over ten years. The third thing is some students are taking a history course for the first time. They didn’t earn a BA in History. They have their UG in some other lesser subject. They need Research badly.

As an educational professional (At least that’s what my Ed.D program is all about) I would not change 500 or 501 from where they are nor would I remove their required status. Bearing in mind that I had taken the two subjects as part of my BA, I still learned a lot from both courses. I learned quite a bit from the 501 because it went into much greater depth than my UG course did. How can a student write about the historiography of what they’re studying if they don’t know what historiography is? I saw that a lot at AMU and that’s after they had taken the course. How can a student write a 25 page paper telling the professor what their take on a subject is if they don’t know how to research or what the difference between a primary or secondary source is? Look at how many people are stumped by Turabian. Many never wrote in it during the UG phase.

You have to understand that no two people are alike. People learn at different speeds. You may be capable of learning in a faster and more efficient manner than someone else. As you’ve indicated in your blog you learned a lot through your research. Did you have these courses at the UG level? If so, try to realize that you did and most others did not. Then factor in learning capability. I have some issues with how AMU ran the MA program, but I think they’re changing it for the better. In any event the 500 and 501 courses are where they need to be.

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2 Scott Manning June 14, 2013 at 10:43 AM

Jimmy, as usual, a well-reasoned argument. I will admit that without any historiography courses during my undergraduate degree, I spent a lot of time studying the topic. My senior thesis was on the historiography of a battle. No one really directed me down that path; I just found it fascinating when I began connecting the dots of how threads of history passed from historian to historian, or generation to generation.

With that said, I have gleaned so much from the period-specific works on historiography, more so than from any straight historiography works. That is why Black’s concept resonates with me. It may not be the best for AMU given the reasons you pointed out, but it seems like a viable approach in some instances.

Riddle me this, you seem to be approaching the concept from the notion that graduate students need historiography prior to diving into any history. This will obviously aid them in other courses. Yet, if we look at it from Black’s approach, he is really pushing a core set of history courses to precede historiography, so that those history courses aid the student’s eventual study of historiography.

The question, essentially, is it better for a student to study historiography before studying some history? Or is it better for the student to study some history (with some historiography mixed in) before studying historiography. I understand why AMU must do the former, but with students fresh off a BA in history, the latter seems like it would be more beneficial.

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3 Jimmy Dick June 14, 2013 at 1:30 PM

When you write the thesis one section of it will be over the historiography of the topic in question. What they should be doing in this program is running an overall thesis guide on the side. Currently they now have a course on how to write a thesis before you actually take the final course. This in effect gives you a semester and a half to write it in. Taking the historiography course at the end of your work would not be conducive to writing a good thesis. Not only would you have to study your topic, but you would also have to study the historiography of it at the same time. That could easily change your view of the topic.
Again, no two people learn the same way. When a program is designed it takes into consideration a lot of different elements, one of which is what do students need in order to learn the most from the courses? Do they have the basic skills and knowledge they need from day one? The answer is most of them do not have the basic skills and knowledge they need.
500 has to be taken first. If my memory serves me it can be taken with another history course in that first semester if one is taking 2 classes at a time. Then 501 in the second semester. I recommend getting them both done immediately though. If I were the program supervisor or dean, I would make 500 a required first semester course and 501 a required second semester course for every reason I have explained to this point.

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4 Rohan June 14, 2013 at 10:56 AM

Historiography shows students what history is really about and it weeds out those who wouldn’t want to do it. Take that course first. If you hate it, switch majors. Daddy will foot the bill.

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5 Christopher Shaw June 25, 2013 at 2:50 PM

Black’s idea makes perfect sense to me at the graduate level. I am doing both Methods and Historiography now. However, my thought is that Research Methods should stay at the front of the line. I think it serves the purpose as one of the first classes to build on the research methods already learned and that which will be needed in the rest of the graduate program. Here is where I differ, somewhat.

Take a section of Historiography and place it within the Research Methods. It introduces the subject and gets some discussion on the importance on how it relates to your research. You have to know the historiography of your subject when writing and researching.

The full Historiography course should be placed near the end and could possibly be focused on our concentration while still introducing the make concepts throughout the ages.

Just my two cents – great blog and glad I found it, I have been thinking of doing something similar.

Chris Shaw – AMU Grad student, U.S. Military History w/certificate in the Military Revolution.

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