W[ta]F: teaching historiography

Updated: May 9, 2018


Having a teaching assistantship was one of the many things I was excited about when coming into my masters. As an aspiring CEGEP professor - in a long list of things I aspire to be - I was looking forward to the experience. While I've worked with primary and secondary school students in the past (and daycare groups - but I would much rather not remember that... never again...), either tutoring, as an art instructor, or as an in-class aid, I've never had my own classroom and never got to work with the age group I would be teaching in a CEGEP. My first day, I was so nervous that I literally wrote down every single word of what I wanted to say, including jokes and sarcastic remarks about the readings. Thankfully, I abandoned those notes in the end. But just the fact that I had prepared them was cringey enough. And I don't do that anymore, by the way.


Depending on the reading, sometimes I'll have them do group work or smaller discussions before reconvening as a class. Other days, when I feel like a reading brings up particularly interesting questions, methodological issues, or ideas, we just talk. Tutorials are only 50 minutes long, which doesn't always leave a lot of time for a sustained, deep discussion. Although some days, when your class is particularly quiet (aka a particularly large number of students have not done the readings), it can feel like an eternity. This wasn't a problem when it came to historiography -- I think we spent 2-3 classes making sure everyone understood. I showed them Youtube videos, made examples, talked and talked and talked, and answered questions. And sometimes, I felt like those who did understand stopped understanding the more we spoke about it. You know what I mean? I feared that I was explaining it so much and in so many different ways, I might even lose track.


So what is historiography? It's the study of historical writing.


What does that mean, exactly? It means that the subject you're studying is actually the writing of history.


Why is that different from history? Because you're not studying the event, or place, or person, but what other historians have written about that event, place, or person. Basically, you are looking at what other academics have had to say about that certain subject.


When you write a historiographical paper, then, you are not looking at "what happened" but who is writing about it, what they're writing, how they analyse it, and what their theories, methodologies, and conclusions are. While this distinction might seem clear now, as it was to the students, it's not always as obvious in practice. I had to explain historiography to them because they had to write a historiographical paper, a first for many, if not all, of them. And while they nodded along and understood as I explained what the heck this is in class, as I read their draft thesis statements, I realised that they didn't necessarily know how to then implement this into their writing. So they could identity a historiographical text, but couldn't necessarily write one themselves.


Here's what happened.


They had to read these three texts about John A. Macdonald: Donald B. Smith's “Macdonald’s Relationship with Aboriginal Peoples,” Timothy J. Stanley's “John A. Macdonald’s Aryan Canada: Aboriginal Genocide and Chinese Exclusion,” and Thomas B. Symons, “John A. Macdonald: A Founder and a Builder.” Then, they had to compare what these three scholars had to say about him. Most of their thesis statements ended up reading like this:

John A. Macdonald did some good things, and some bad things. He represented the attitudes of people at the time.


Obviously this is a super crude version of what the students submitted, but this was at the heart of what many of them were proposing they would argue. It's still an argument about JAM himself, and not about the three pieces they had read. I could see, then, that maybe I taught them what historiography was, but not how to do it. Back to the drawing board for the next tutorial. I soon realised that they didn't know how to use the texts historiographically. Many used them as they would any primary or secondary source for writing a research paper. So, they read these texts for the "historical information" they provided about JAM's life and policies.


What worked, in the end, was actually going through the articles together in class. We made three columns and dissected the arguments and ideas in each piece so that we could then look at the bigger picture: What were the similarities and differences, not just in the stories they told, but the way they told them? And while I don't think this is an exercise you would have to do every time, it definitely helped make thinking historiographically (for the first time) concrete. Because what we did as a group helped them learn how to read these texts as part of historiography, what to look for, how to talk about it... And they could take it from there.


I can't remember how I learned what historiography is. It becomes second nature at a certain point, and sometimes those are the hardest things to explain. Or to realise that you have to explain in the first place. I didn't get to read their final papers, but I know the prof was quite happy with how they turned out. It was his first time assigning this type of paper for a predominantly first-year class, so we weren't sure how it would go. A lot of students did find it difficult, and I held many office hours trying to demystify the whole concept to a few of them, but I can tell that, in the weeks to come, they were thinking differently about history and writing history.


What have you done to effectively teach historiography, or other tricky concepts to your students? Comment below!


#teaching #history #historiography #university #artistorian

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