Thoughts half way through the session

This winter session class is my first experience with teaching Lendol Calder’s “cognitive moves” and, frankly, I don’t know how the students are getting along, but I am learning a lot. This week’s assignment submissions will be critical in assessing how its all working, but I’ve already started to get a sense of what is going on.

The cognitive moves exercises are revealing to me a great deal about students, how they think about history, and that thinking’s place in their historical education. Let me try to lay it outI have paid close attention to the default ways students approach the past (through primary documents.) So far, there are two main things (more may develop in the last three weeks of class.)

  1. Students, naturally, will want to identify with an historical actor or event. They will immediately assume that their task is to agree, or disagree, with a claim made by an historical actor, and then apply that claim to examples in their own lives.
  2. Students, naturally, will want to explain historical events with simple moral judgments. People did things because of greed, stupidity, or virtue. I believe this is because the natural inclination to understand history primarily as the source of moral lessons in the form of stories.

Taken together, these tendencies reflect Sam Wineburg’s assertion that historical thinking “is neither a natural process nor something that springs automatically from psychological development.” “Its achievement,” Wineburg continues, “actually goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think, one of the reasons why it is much easier to learn names, dates, and stories than it is to change the basic mental structures we use to grasp the meaning of the past.”

As a history teacher, I have to address this “mental structure.” These last few weeks have given me the sense that the students are in an intellectual boot camp. They are learning (I hope) to:

  1. Detach themselves from personal involvement with the primary sources. Here I use a term not much in fashion among academics—objectivity. This is basic stuff. Students need to realize that to work with historical material they have to keep that stuff at arms-length. That way they can begin the processes of arrangement and description 
  2. Search for complex answers to historical problems. Don’t describe things in terms of man’s venal sins, but respect the complexity and contingency in the unfolding of historical events. (If that sounds like part of the 5 Cs of historical thinking, that’s because it is.)

I don’t know how this will develop in the next few weeks. They might reveal that I am mistaken and they are not getting it at all. But their final assignments might show that this is a smashing success. I want to speculate as if it worked and I want to figure ways to integrate it into a larger history program.

The first question is… should students go through this historical thinking boot camp (I hate that term, by the way, but it works for the moment) before they encounter full-out survey or narrative history in class? I think, at this point, that if you throw a student into an upper level class with them thinking that they’ve got to identify with sources or explain actions as simple moral tales, we have missed something. I have seen this in past classes, as students at the 300-level still don’t quite know what it means to research and interpret a topic for a paper, or at least handle the evidence necessary to produce a quality research paper.

I would structure the history curriculum in such a way that history majors get all this in their very first class. That’s easy. The problem is that most of our students are not history majors and they only take a history class to check off a humanities or global studies requirement. These later students don’t start at the beginning, but parachute into any number of survey or upper level classes. They’re not going to get this foundational instruction. Can I give the first two or three weeks of any class in a semester over to introduction and rehearsal of these skills? I might like that idea.

 Anyhow, I need to figure out how this all fits together because I’ve got to keep up with Lendol Calder and next figure out how to re-introduce narrative back into the history classroom.



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