Professor Luther Carpenter, The Department of History

The College of Staten Island/CUNY

To those who read these words, greetings. You may be a student, curious about what Introduction to Historical Method really was all about. You may be a colleague, curious because we rarely talk about actual teaching in our department meetings and because the future of this course is in your hands. Or you may be a member of the profession who has come across this site. You are welcome to whatever you can use from this presentation. My name is Lu Carpenter and I have been one of several who have taught Introduction to Historical Method since the mid-1970s. I have gradually evolved a way of doing it. It is original, in the sense that I have experimented and made it mine. It is not absolutely original, because many educators employ ideas of active learning, informal writing assignments and learning by doing. I have learned from a lot of people over the years. I have incorporated things I learned in freshman physics and freshman composition at Amherst. Freshman physics had brilliant labs, in which the lab instructors placed a lot of apparatus in the room, gave us a problem, and walked around asking us why we were doing what we were doing. I can still see Arnold Arons, surrounded by all kinds of pendulums and balls on springs that he had put into motion, intoning his mantra: “The rest is homework”. Amherst’s famous English composition class taught me to answer abstract questions with examples and work my main idea into the examples. The junior honors course raised important issues of the theory of knowledge and of history as a discipline. That sounds like tepid praise, but isn’t; I owe a lot to John Halsted, for that course and for his brilliant course in European intellectual history and for putting up with my undergraduate thesis. I had at least five other wonderful teachers at Amherst who taught me to teach myself.

The second main source of ideas I have incorporated into the course is Prof. Rose Ortiz of the English Department of CSI. Prof. Ortiz’s seminars on the teaching of reading got me to examine much more carefully the things I do when I read and write, to break down the processes of learning and to design exercises that got students to do those things and then to say what they had done. Anyone teaching at CSI should join Rose’s movement. And the third main source of inspiration is the hundreds of students who responded to the course—fought it, made me get clearer about my intentions, helped me refine and change the exercises, helped me process them in class. Heartfelt thanks to all of you.So Introduction to Historical Method is a laboratory course, about the use and disuse of evidence. The backbone of the course is eight exercises. Each exercise raises a question about what we do when we think historically. It raises the question in the context of a chunk of evidence, because these are practical questions. The students have to do the exercises to hand in at class time; then I devote one or two hours of class time to processing each exercise while it is still fresh in the students’ minds. An exercise is not a paper. Papers focus on results; exercises focus on the process. In a paper, one suppresses the preliminary thinking and the dead ends; in an exercise, one shows them and gets credit for them. Exercises use short, informal writing methods—lists, notes, and questions. Exercises provide the raw material for discussions. The best way to say what this means is to show you the exercises and then comment on what happens when I process them in class.

ASKING QUESTIONS. I rarely assigned this as an exercise to do outside of class. Instead, I used variants of question-asking to start the semester (and often during it). In the Method class, before I handed out the syllabus, I asked “what could this course be about?” and went around the room; everyone had to answer. Michael Batson, a colleague, had more success with this than I ever had. He asked a CORE 100 class what they wanted government to do. The students’ answers gave him a framework for a whole semester which he spent examining American history and institutions to determine whether their expectations were met. Usually my Method students said that our job was to gather information and interpret it. They talked about subjects and kinds of material; I kept bringing the discussion back to our activities. I then offered a compromise; it’s about both activities and content. That’s my real position. I agree that we can’t talk about “method” abstractly, but must embed it in material. I argue that every course is a course about both method and material; in Method, the balance is weighted towards developing one’s own method. We have to do history, and asking questions is the starting place.

Then, after handing out the syllabus and skimming over it, teacher-style, I usually did another version of this exercise, one I learned from Rose Ortiz’s seminars. The syllabus told them the author and title of the first book I had assigned, nothing more. “What could you get out of this book? What questions could you hope to answer using it?” I made them write questions for a few minutes, then once again went around the room. Some students tried to evade, to say that their questions had already been given; others improvised, expanding on things others had said. The latter was a good response—it was a step towards listening to eachother, taking eachother seriously. Instead of questions, students often gave answers—things they thought they knew, conclusions or myths from their families or peers or textbooks. I tried to get those students to turn their pictures into hypotheses to be tested. Much to their surprise, we usually ended up with a good list of questions on the board, which I made them copy down for use as they read. In the next class, I returned to these questions. I asked which questions we were able to answer and which didn’t pan out. This was more than a way of reviewing the reading and diagnosing reading problems. As a next step, we generalized about what makes a good question—one with a big enough idea to be interesting, one for which there might be real evidence. I fully agree with Rose Ortiz’s points—reading is an activity; the first obstacle to overcome is students’ passivity and resistance; students have to learn to manufacture interest. When I used this exercise at the start of a semester, one of my main purposes was to establish the psychology of learning—open inquiry, experimentation, an activity shared among the students and between the students and myself. I don’t claim to have succeeded every time…

EXERCISE 1: What is a Fact?

Get the facts, the Rankeans say; facts are historians’ building-blocks. So let’s start with a simple fact. Is it a fact that Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson said “What is good for General Motors is good for the country”? I don’t know, because I haven’t done the necessary research. Your assignment is to decide whether you can prove it to be a fact, or prove it not to be a fact.

First, do the research. As you research, make a LIST of all the steps you take, even if they don’t yield information. Record each source, what you found in it (i.e., take NOTES), and any problems you have with accepting the information (i.e., think while you read and hunt). Go as far as you can. Second, write a page or more saying how sure you are that you know the truth and can prove it. What is the relevant evidence? How good is it? Why have you reached your conclusion? Is there any doubt in your mind? What is your criterion for calling a statement a fact—common consent among your sources? Provenance, the source used by a particular author? Internal consistency (there are no contradictions within the account of the events within which the statement was recorded)? External consistency (a particular account doesn’t contradict other accounts)? Plausibility? A “smoking gun”? The “ring of truth”?The list of steps, notes, and page are due (a week from the first class meeting). It may not be possible to find a definitive answer; I will reward diligence and an honest, searching assessment of WHETHER you can say that it is a FACT that Charles Wilson did say the words attributed to him above. In addition, I will reward ingenuity and following directions. Hand in your notes with the exercise. I will mark down for lateness, not just this time but always.


One of my hallmarks is that I asked the students to write on the blackboard. This practice sped up the class and made it less teacher-centered. Many refused, but after some coaxing enough have always complied. First, I asked the students to write one source that they consulted. Usually they had consulted sources that covered the gamut from encyclopedias to textbooks and monographs and web sites; often someone had consulted a parent or a friend. There was always someone who wrote a quotation or a conclusion on the board, not the name of a source. This student wanted to rush ahead to the “answer”. My purpose was to discuss what worked and what didn’t work. I wanted them to discover that encyclopedias don’t work and that they had inevitably encountered dead ends. In every class, some had shown real ingenuity and had tips to share that were useful for other assignments.

The next step was to ask them to put their best evidence on the board. In this particular case, the students had different versions of the quote. Some gave it as I had, including the (intentional) misquote. A number of students had gone to the New York Times on microfilm to locate his words. Wilson made his comment in confirmation hearings; the transcripts were released to the press eight days later. Wilson said “I cannot conceive of (a conflict of interest) because for years I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa. The difference did not exist.” (NEW YORK TIMES, Jan. 24, 1953, p. 8.) This led to a lively discussion of the difference between the two meanings.

“What convinced you?” was the third round of questioning. I wanted students to develop their own terms for their criteria for calling a statement a fact, and offered the ones in the third paragraph as hints. It’s plausible that Wilson would have said “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country”, but here plausibility let us down. One can take the New York Times account of the hearings as a “smoking gun”. I usually introduced the journalistic notion of corroboration by a second independent source, and put great weight on the “source of a source”. “Common consent” was hard to obtain in this case, since secondary sources often misquote Wilson. Of course, historians often infer “common consent” if a couple of authors agree; we have to satisfy “reasonable doubt”, not “cockamamie doubt”. Students now rarely take authors as “authorities”, which gratifies me. In any group of students, some learned from this exercise that they didn’t dig deeply enough, but I gave good grades to those who realized that they didn’t have an answer and could say what was missing. If the students gave me an appropriate opening, I talked a little about myths and stereotypes—statements that look like facts but are based on inadequate samples of the evidence.

Virtually any “simple fact” can be plugged into this format. Early in my career, I asked “When was George Washington really born?” One enterprising student found a reproduction of the page of the family bible in Douglas Southall Freeman’s biography of Washington. The date one gives depends on the calendar one uses, since England changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1759, and of course we use a third calendar (always on a Monday). As I recall, the student who found the page in the family bible said that Washington himself continued to celebrate his birthday in the old manner. Another very successful version of this exercise asked “Were there any women prisoners in the Bastille on July 13, 1789?” Students were able to find primary documents on line, and also to make inferences from various secondary accounts. In Fall 2001, I asked “Is the ABM treaty of 1972 a binding treaty?” That question led our discussion in several directions: Was the treaty duly ratified? What happens when a signatory to a treaty is replaced by another government? Who treats the treaty as binding? Different students had researched particular issues, and a far-ranging discussion resulted. Doing this exercise over the years convinced me that my definition of what a fact is is operational: A fact is a statement that has survived a process of testing. I employ all of the tests given in the directions.

In the course of this discussion, someone said “it all depends on your point of view”. That remark challenged the whole meaning of a fact and the goal of objectivity. I didn’t want to settle these issues; I wanted to keep them alive as main themes of the course. To advance their discussion, I had them look at Exercise 2. Early in my career I would throw students into each exercise without preparation (unless someone asked the magic question), but I’ve decided that that is unfair and counter-productive. Now I do a practice version of most exercises in class before they work on them.

EXERCISE 2: Point of View

I assert that everyone has a point of view from which he/she looks at reality. (The Rankeans thought that they could get rid of their point of view, but even they admitted that such a thing existed. They called it “bias”.) So—what is Eric Schlosser’s point of view, as he writes FAST FOOD NATION (N.Y: Houghton Mifflin, 2001)? What kinds of people and behavior does he like or dislike? What are his values? What yardsticks does he apply to people? Your task in this exercise is to construct Schlosser’s point of view, using ONLY the introduction and the first five chapters of FAST FOOD NATION. DO NOT do extra research; I will mark down if you do! To categorize his point of view, you may compare his point of view with that of other historians whose work you know. As you write up your answer to this exercise, cite passages that support your points and comment on those passages.


I began by having students put their best piece of evidence on the board. We processed them, looking for value-laden words, words that express approval and disapproval. One particularly telling passage read “The fast food chains feed off the sprawl of Colorado Springs, accelerate it, and help set its visual tone. They build large signs to attract motorists and look on cars the way predators view herds of prey.” (p. 65) The word “predators” jumped out at us. Was “sprawl” a neutral word, or was it also value-laden? Could we really separate the author from what he said? Moving along, by combining this passage with other ones, we were able to refine our descriptions of Schlosser’s point of view. Was he simply “anti-business,” or was he impressed by the innovations made by Carl Karcher (the founder of Carl’s Jr.) and Ray Kroc? Did he treat franchise owners differently than the corporation heads? Other revealing passages dealt with labor law violations and with the experiences of a 17 year old girl working in a McDonald’s.

One especially thorny problem is whether we could distinguish between his/her main idea and point of view. I was delighted that this problem arose, because having a main idea was a key part of their term paper assignment (see below). I argued that his personal likes and values lay behind the main idea but that they were not the main idea. Schlosser’s main idea is that we are a fast food nation, not that he doesn’t like fast food. He described the whole system of food production and the ways it has changed under the pressure of fast food. While he offered some proposals for reform, such as tighter inspection of meat processing, those proposals came at the end of the book. One could argue that those proposals were his main idea. I don’t think so, because his tone of voice is resigned at that point; the system is entrenched in our economy and culture. (Don’t take my word for this; “the rest is homework”.) In any event, I had forbidden the students to finish the book before doing Exercise 2. One student objected; she said we shouldn’t analyze until we’d read the whole book. I argued that we should analyze on many levels as we went along, and revise our provisional conclusions as we encountered new evidence.

We had at our disposal the instruction that Lord Acton sent to the contributors to the Cambridge Modern History in the early 20th century: “…nothing shall reveal the country, the religion, or the party to which the writers belong.” (Lord Acton, “Letter to the Contributors to The Cambridge Modern History”, in Fritz Stern [ed.], THE VARIETIES OF HISTORY [Cleveland: Meridian, 1956], p. 248.) Acton’s maxim gave us categories for weighing point of view: Was Schlosser’s point of view notably “American”? Was it “unamerican” to be anxious about the impact of fast food on children? Did he temper his criticisms because fast food is so central an institution in our culture? As usual, this exercise led to asking how the major sociological variables—class, gender, race–entered into someone’s point of view. This particular group of students did not think that Schlosser’s gender or race had much effect on the book; his class had more effect. Time has more effect—Schlosser is not Upton Sinclair because the context is different (see Exercise 3).

Is someone automatically and inevitably favorable to one’s generation or class? That leads me to two further sets of questions. One is the rejection of influences, the fashionable accusation of being “self-loathing” if one does not act “appropriately” for one’s class or ethnic group, and also to “free will”. I didn’t bring up these questions, because the students didn’t. The other is the strategy for dealing with one’s point of view. Acton’s maxim embodies the instruction to amputate one’s point of view. Professionalism is certainly part of Schlosser’s point of view. As a professional journalist, Schlosser is somewhat of an Actonian, scrupulous in his documentation and giving different perspectives on his subject. The opposing strategy, I argue, is to admit one’s point of view. That includes making one’s point of view a tool; modifying it when it doesn’t allow me to see a problem or a group of people; in general, taking responsibility for it. Many historians and social scientists put their point of view into a preface or introduction. I call this the “backdoor route to objectivity “. I think that we can actually be more objective this way than by following Acton’s strategy. You of course may not agree.

Even though I make my point of view visible in what I write, I don’t state my point of view directly in my classes. I don’t want to turn off students who don’t share my politics. Of course we are all narcissists, and students are curious about us—too curious. “Good” students have learned how to say what they think the professor wants to hear; I think we should disrupt that habit. I don’t want to make “clones”. So I will disclose my point of view on a specific subject where it especially determines what I have to say, and I will answer specific questions. The operational part of my point of view is my bundle of standard questions and certain moral values derived from my concepts of respect, democracy and freedom; that I will share when asked.

Another thing you may not agree with is my injunction not to do research on the author’s point of view. In this exercise, I want the students to infer for themselves and not “find” an answer—part of my war against passivity. Once students have learned to analyze texts critically for themselves, they would be ready for exercises using book reviews and reviewing the literature.

EXERCISE 3: Context

The context of an event is the circumstances surrounding the event at the time it happened. (Often we place a document in context, examining the circumstances surrounding its writing and release; our procedure is the same.) This exercise asks you to place in its context the U.S. government’s decision not to send troops to South Vietnam in April 1975. Operationally, this means you should look at the states of mind of the decision-makers involved in making this decision. You should say who else had interests, direct and indirect, in this decision. (“Who else” may include interest groups, and is not limited to American people.) And you ought to describe what was going on at the time (and recent past) that impacted on the decision—political, intellectual, and economic currents and issues of the times. DON’T JUST DESCRIBE THE DECISION NOT TO SEND TROOPS; STAND BACK FROM IT AND DESCRIBE THE CONTEXT. Once you’ve described the context, decide whether the context determined the decision or had a lot to do with its being made, or was largely irrelevant to the decision. In part, you can infer the context from evidence in THE KISSINGER TRANSCRIPTS (William Burr, ed., The New Press, NY, 1998). In addition, you may have to do some additional library research. Keep a list of all the sources you consult and hand in your notes with the exercise. Footnote if necessary (see Term Paper directions for the rules of footnoting).


I placed the target event in the middle of the blackboard and invited students to write their best element of context around it (helter-skelter; as we went on, we moved elements around to make clusters). In this instance, we identified the players (Kissinger, Pres. Ford, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, important senators). We spent some time discussing public opinion and how it might have affected the players. Gradually students saw the need to break public opinion into organized publics (interest groups). Someone brought up congressional efforts to control the President’s powers to make war. That idea made Tonkin Bay part of the context, as well as the Paris Agreement. By this point, I had assigned about half of THE KISSINGER TRANSCRIPTS. The transcripts did not discuss the decision not to send troops, but provided pictures of Russian and Chinese interests and how Kissinger talked about the South Vietnamese. A couple of students brought up international economic conditions. The longer that we brainstormed together, the more elements of context appeared. It took a while to make the point that the U.S. was really constrained by its desire for progress in the SALT talks with the Soviet Union and in getting the Chinese government not to insist that the U.S. abandon Taiwan. That discussion brought us into the second level of the question—how important is context. I maintained that Ford’s hands were tied, whatever his formal powers were.

This exercise format opens up major issues—who has power, what causes the outcomes that make up history. It provides a way of challenging the monarchist assumptions of American history, that the President is the only begetter of events. Most of my students were hostile to government as a whole and to “bureaucrats” in particular; this exercise allowed me to argue that institutions matter. A document really works well for this exercise format. For example, each section of Pres. Johnson’s speech at Johns Hopkins in April 1965 announcing that he had sent combat troops to South Vietnam was aimed at different kinds of people—the non-aligned nations, China and Russia, New Dealers, nationalists, Christians. It even used the rhythms of speeches by Martin Luther King. The context really left its fingerprints on the speech.

I believe that context is one of historians’ main tools. Putting things in context is one of our distinctive habits, one which I wish to pass on to general education students and majors alike. In this version of Exercise 3, I explicitly had the students consider whether the context determined the outcome. I don’t feel that putting causation into the exercise made students rush past the concept of context, but I could be convinced that it is better simply to introduce causation and determinism into the class discussion.

Context has a close logical relationship to the next exercise, as you’ll see.

EXERCISE 4: Making a Fact Mean Something

I assert that no fact is meaningful in itself. It acquires meaning from being related to other facts and to generalizations. The particular fact to which you are asked to provide meanings is V-E Day, May 8, 1945. In this exercise, I am asking you to represent the meanings graphically—to draw a “web” representing connections between this particular fact and other facts and generalizations (concepts, values, historians’ explanations) that make the fact significant. Make the scope of your web broader than the immediate context of the fact. Go forward and backward in time. Make connections to facts and generalizations about other societies. The more connections you can make, the more meaningful a particular fact is. In this exercise, I reward imagination. In your web, label the lines connecting the fact to other facts and generalizations, to show the kinds of meanings you are generating. For example, “cause” is one kind of meaning; “effect”, “historical laws”, and “analogies” are others that you might construct. More meanings arise when we make judgments of “continuity” and “discontinuity”, “progress”, and historical “forces” or “processes” such as “modernization”. We may make facts meaningful by linking them to social science generalizations. I also emphasize meanings generated by a fact’s relationships to a “system” (institutions, the dynamics of a system, the rules of a system, system shifts). Don’t leave out the immediate context—some meanings are generated by context—but look far and wide as well. You may need to do a little library research for this exercise. Keep notes and make a list of all the sources you consult; hand them in with the exercise.


I really did ask students to draw a web. I find it helpful to visualize relationships as well as to write about them. Exercise 3 produced a diagram of forces impacting on decision-makers, so students were somewhat prepared for this exercise. Before they did the exercise at home, we discussed the conventions to use—placing the target event in the center; placing events and conditions that occurred before the target event to its left (or at the top, in my version below); placing events and conditions that occurred afterwards to its right (or bottom); and trying to cluster preconditions and outcomes topically. As in Exercise 3, I placed the target event at the center of the blackboard and invited students to place their best piece of evidence around it.

At first, most of what appeared on the board was causes—D-Day, Hitler’s invasion of Poland, other military and diplomatic events. We shaped these into chains of causes, with the help of the eraser. Gradually we brought in more players (the Battle of Britain, the Soviet Union’s huge efforts) and the whole notion of geopolitics as a system that produced this event. Students also had drawn in events in the next phase of the war (Hiroshima) and after the war (the UN, the Cold War). (In their individual web exercises, several caught my eye by the clever outcomes they drew in—the baby boom, Levittown, Ozzie and Harriet, Israel’s independence, the publication of the Diary of Anne Frank.) I argued that many meanings of the event are produced by what the victors did with their victory—not just reshaping the map, but rebuilding Europe physically and morally (the welfare states). At the time that we did this exercise, we were reading about the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, France, and how townspeople and the French government turned the ruins into a monument. The meaning of V-E day would be totally different if a new Hitler had arisen and started the game all over again.

Analogies are another main kind of meaning. For V-E Day, there are direct analogies with the ending of other wars. Most wars don’t end with unconditional surrender. One student cleverly drew analogies with the task of reconstructing the U.S. after the Civil War. There too a whole system was defeated and had to be replaced. This particular group of students was willing to use the idea of progress. I threw “historical laws” into the directions, but that kind of thinking has few advocates now. (There was major historical change in 1945-47, but not in 1918-22, so it’s hard to generalize that post war eras are times of openness and opportunity.)

Where I haven’t labelled the kinds of meanings, assume that they are cause/effect. “Guided capitalism” is Robert Heilbroner’s phrase for post-war capitalism, different from earlier stages because western governments are much larger and government fiscal and monetary policy have prevented recessions from becoming depressions. I then divide the system of guided capitalism into two eras, as growth slowed, inequalities grew, and preventing inflation came to overshadow creating jobs. Since the European countries and Canada are welfare states and the U.S. is not, I call the European variants of these stages of capitalism “welfare capitalism”. This web could be a lot larger, of course. In particular, I have left out cultural events that couldn’t have happened without V-E Day, from “The Best Years of Our Lives” to post-war existentialism, the novels of Gunter Grass and Heinrich Boll and the paintings of the COBRA artists.

In general, students needed to be nudged to go beyond the immediate context and immediate aftermath, and to go past military/political sources of meaning. I had success the previous semester, when I made the financial crisis of 1873 my target event. This was an event whose meaning was much less “obvious”. Students did a very good job of drawing analogies to other financial panics; of asking whether it was an historical law that a depression usually follows a financial panic; and of tracing the effects of that depression on farmers and workers (using the book I had assigned: Charles P. Kindleberger, MANIAS, PANICS, AND CRASHES, revised ed., [N.Y.: Basic Books, 1989)]. They were pleased with how much meaning they could create for an event that was not an obvious turning point in history.

Making meaning is one of our biggest jobs. Anyone of you who is a teacher knows that we have to convince students that what we are presenting is worth paying attention to. I think that the general public wants historians to separate what are important events and structures from trivia. Citizens and public figures tend to use analogies to figure out what to do. The wisdom and constitutionality of interning Japanese-Americans during World War II is an analogy that has been in the editorial pages since 9/11. Our job then becomes debunking analogies, pointing out how they are not exact, and joining the debate. In THINKING IN TIME (NY: Free Press, 1988), Richard E Neustadt and Ernest R. May wrote a fascinating chapter on how Munich was not an exact analogy to Vietnam, and argued that aides to public figures need to know history to advise their bosses well.

EXERCISE 5: The Weight of the Evidence

Were Lydia Maria Child’s thoughts and actions restricted by laws, gender roles, and public opinion? Or did she seem to exercise quite a lot of freedom? What’s your provisional conclusion? Write a medium-sized essay on this question. Use ONLY the evidence in LETTERS FROM NEW-YORK and class discussions in making your answer; I will mark down for uses of other materials! Discuss specific pieces of evidence in making your answer.


This exercise format draws on the previous exercises, especially questioning and the nature of a fact. The question was relatively closed—it presents the student with a limited number of choices, and it suggests the relevant evidence. It dealt with a big issue—freedom, more precisely with the exercise of freedom as compared with formal freedom. Each semester, before they do the exercise, I go through the steps involved in working out the answer to such a question. First is to analyze the question, to turn it into a tool. There were three sub-questions—three possible sources of restraints to Child’s freedom. With these in mind, the students and I could read Child’s book, looking for places where she appeared to be constrained. Once they had taken notes on possible examples, they could decide on a provisional main idea and then write paragraphs handling those examples. Voila—a method for writing an essay.

Once again, I had students put their best piece of evidence on the board for us to process. Some of the evidence concerns Child’s conscious and expressed attitudes. Child wrote passages which complain of “The pressure of public opinion; the intolerable restraint of conventional forms. Under this despotic influence, men and women check their best impulses, suppress their noblest feelings, conceal their highest thoughts.” (P. 134) That quotation was followed by specific complaints about social forms, the rules of visiting and receiving visitors, and generalized complaints that imply that she felt she could not say what was on her mind. This was not an isolated passage; in several, she expressed similar longings: “It is so pleasant to run and jump, and throw pebbles, and make up faces at a friend, without having a platoon of well-dressed people turn round and stare, and ask ,‘Who is that strange woman, that acts so like a child?'” (p. 77) Child devoted one letter to a black woman who had found a denomination that would let her preach, while most did not. We inferred from a number of these passages that that there were general rules—and that Child was in a relatively free position, able to complain publicly about this injustice. The other main evidence came from what Child said about her life. In her letters (written between 1841 and 1843 and then published in book form), she described going all over the metropolitan region—The Battery, the Five Points, Hoboken, Green-wood Cemetery, and even to Staten Island. That looks like real freedom of movement. She went to a prison and interviewed the warden; she interviewed a slave-owner who believed in equality of free blacks and whites; she went to a synagogue. That looks like professional freedom as a journalist and like intellectual freedom within the abolitionist movement to which she belonged. So we handled these pieces of evidence—argued over them and what we could infer from them. Many had started with the generalization that American women in the 1840s were bound to house and home. Under the weight of the evidence, they had to modify that opinion. That’s the job of facts—to sting, to get people to change their minds. Of course, we can’t go too far in the other direction, to say that all women were relatively free. That is to generalize too much from a narrow body of evidence, which creates stereotypes. We talked about her relatively favored position, as a professional and as someone belonging to tolerant religious movements. The next step would be to do research on other women of the same era, with similar social positions and with different social positions. In this way, an essay could grow into a term paper and ultimately a thesis. I always use Exercises 1-5 in the Historical Method class. I write new exercises to give additional dimensions to the course, depending on the books I’ve assigned and my sense of what skills students need. These exercises all ask students to handle specific kinds of evidence—documents, statistics, interviews. Here are some that I’ve used in the last five years and my reasons for assigning them.


Lydia Maria Child is an eyewitness, walking around New York, talking to people, and processing what she’s seeing. We get to look through her eyes. Still, we have to process the data to make pictures of what really went on.

Here are two passages from LETTERS FROM NEW-YORK. Write a paragraph on each, saying what’s going on that she is seeing. Get on top of the reality. Refer to specific words in the passages that help you make up your mind, but don’t try to account for every word. Identify any obstacles to your understanding what’s going on, any ambiguities that make your picture uncertain. Try to separate Child’s point of view from the things she is observing and concentrate on them. See how much you can infer. You can make inferences from Child’s sense that there are people with whom she is in conflict, in particular. “Among the many objects of interest in this great city, a stranger cannot overlook its shipping; especially as New-York lays claim to superiority over other cities of the Union, in the construction of vessels, which are remarked for beauty of model, elegance of finish, and gracefulness of sparring. “I have often anathematized the spirit of Trade, which reigns triumphant, not only on ‘Change, but in our halls of legislation, and even in our churches. Thought is sold under the hammer, and sentiment, in its holiest forms, stands labelled for the market. Love is offered to the highest bidder, and sixpences are given to purchase religion for starving souls.” (P. 34.) “St. John’s Park, though not without pretensions to beauty, never strikes my eye agreeably, because it is shut up from the people; the key being kept by a few genteel families in the vicinity. You know I am an enemy to monopolies; wishing all Heaven’s good gifts to man to be as free as the wind, and as universal as the sunshine.” (P. 12.) This format is a variant on a reading exercise which I’ve used in CORE. Its goal is to get students to read between the lines. Most people read literally, word for word, when the real meaning is hidden. For example, in the CORE class most students didn’t see that the famous “Three-fifths clause” (Article 1 section 2) incorporated slavery into the U.S. Constitution. They just substituted different words for “three fifths of all other Persons.” From the “St. John’s Park” passage, I inferred that there was an elite, separating itself from others. I inferred this in part from Child’s conflict with the holders of the keys. From “genteel families,” I inferred that they laid claim to cultural leadership. Teaching passive readers to infer is quite difficult, but I think that it is an important part of our job at any level from high school on. In the CORE example above, we made the inference from other words in the passage (it includes “free Persons” and explicitly counts indentured servants as free) and from our general knowledge of the conflicts surrounding the writing of the Constitution. In the “St. John’s Park” passage, we used our general expectation of social stratification, and reinforced this with other passages in the book. I’ve included the “spirit of Trade” passage, because you may feel that we can’t distinguish between Child’s point of view and what she is observing. As in the St. John’s Park passage, I want to infer the existence of something nonmaterial—the spread of market relationships into all of life. Child did not offer direct evidence of which thoughts were for sale. Love for sale refers to both marriage and prostitution, if you’ll let me make the inference. I think we must make the inference or be stuck in a literalism that binds us to merely reproducing what an author says, but I am often accused of over-inferring.

Here is another example, taken from THE KISSINGER TRANSCRIPTS: “Let me give you our view on Cambodia. First, we cannot control what the Lon Nol people are saying. But they do not know what we have said to you…, “I want to speak frankly. What we have proposed to you—a ceasefire, if necessary for only 90 days, we believe takes care of the situation. We have no interests in Cambodia other than what the Prime Minister said to Ambassador Bruce the first time he saw him. This is our objective. We have no objection—in fact, we would welcome it—if the Government in Phnom Penh is on very friendly terms with Beijing and would refuse to participate in great power hegemonial activities in Southeast Asia. “As I have expressed before, it is a delicate problem for us as to how to manage the transition…we think it important that the matter in Cambodia be ended in a way not necessarily wounding for the U.S…” (P. 141., July 6, 1973, Kissinger speaking to Chinese ambassador Huang Zhen.) Most scholars would infer that Kissinger was telling Huang that China could oust Lon Nol and impose whatever government it wanted on Cambodia. We would infer that from the context (the U.S. desire to get out of Vietnam, its inability to protect Lon Nol, and the priority the U.S. government gave to its relations with China) and from specific words (“manage the transition”, “We have no interests”). If we don’t make such an inference, the diplomatic exchange is meaningless.


R.G. Collingwood tells us to make statements about a body of material on our own authority. So let’s do that. Make ten statements about Lydia Maria Child, the New York and the U.S. that she lived in, and her times. These statements should be ones that you can back up with evidence. I’m setting one limitation to the statements you can write: Don’t make statements about women.

The first rationale for this exercise is to get students to be active, not just reproduce material. The second is to get them to see how many statements they can make, rather than just stopping with their first ideas. When they wrote their favorite statement on the board, the variety really became visible. Child’s LETTERS FROM NEW-YORK lends itself to statements about Victorianism, about the 19th century struggles over rationalism, science and faith, about the varieties of New Yorkers and the slums of New York. She wrote thrillingly about a fire (a Freudian could have a field-day with that passage).

The rationale for the limitation is that my students tended to focus on ethnicity and gender to the exclusion of everything else. Things written by women must be about women; things written by black Americans must be about blacks. When I did this as a class exercise in the Spring 2002 semester, one student complained that I had made the course into a women’s history course. I felt very flattered; then I gave my rationales for making women’s history a dimension of “mainstream” history. Here are three arguments you can use when someone makes this objection: The status and conditions of women are an indicator of the quality of life of the whole society; the functions usually assigned to women are essential to the functioning and replication of a system; and women are important actors in their own right. I intentionally put the last argument last, because my point for this exercise is to use the writings of a woman to make all kinds of inferences. In the same way, I’ve used Martin Luther King’s WHY WE CAN’T WAIT (N.Y.: Harper, 1964) in several courses to discuss changes in the labor market, liberal values, and the political structure of the U.S. in the 1960s.


Most people form their pictures of the world through conversations with friends, family and neighbors. Oral history has become an important part of the profession. Learning to do this systematically and critically can lead to jobs (market researcher, public historian) and can be an objective of Historical Method. The particular version that I have employed is to bring in someone I know (an older student, most often) for the class to interview. Before bringing them in, we brainstorm about what we can learn from them. We generate a number of questions to ask, and vote to determine the ten best. We discuss interviewing protocol, not arguing with our respondent and asking follow-up questions to get at significant details. Of course we offer the respondent complete anonymity. After the interview comes the exercise—having the students derive conclusions from the interview—and processing our results together.

This exercise can work very well. It raises the main issues of several other exercises (point of view, context, meaning, and fact). Once I got in over my head. I came to feel during an interview that the respondent was lying to the class. He contradicted things he had said to me at other times, and he gave mythical accounts of experiences that made me feel that he hadn’t been in Vietnam. One savvy student reached the same conclusion. I didn’t know how to handle this and did not turn my suspicions into the useful class discussion that could have resulted when we processed our results. Often interviews give us codified myths, the conclusions that have become common in the society rather than what really happened. That in itself can be useful, and using interviews can get us past the myths (for example, Ophuls’ “The Sorrow and the Pity” helped revise the myth of the French Resistance); but that’s a lot to ask of one segment of a sophomore level course.

I have frequently included an interviewing exercise in CORE, and I think it would work well in high school. In CORE, I have students interview someone about his/her experiences in high school when school integration was an issue and tabulate the results in class. Vietnam, the sixties, the experiences of women in the 1970s are all good sources of interview questions. On long bus rides in the midwest in the 1960s, I used to ask the person sitting next to me how he or she got through the Depression.


YOUR QUESTION: As more women have been going to work over the last 40 years or so, has there been a corresponding reduction in the number of women on welfare? (“Welfare” means “aid to families with dependent children” or AFDC; “public assistance” is a lso used in official statistics.)

Try to figure out a way of answering this question, using STATISTICAL ABSTRACT OF THE UNITED STATES and HISTORICAL STATISTICS OF THE UNITED STATES. Both are located in the reference section of the college library. As you go along, keep a LIST OF STEPS you follow, including the key words you look up in the indexes to these volumes and the titles of the specific tables you examine, even if they turn out to be dead ends. You may be able to locate a single table from which you can generate an answer, or you may have to connect two or more tables to eachother (that’s a hint!). Copy the relevant tables.

Include in your list of steps short answers to the following questions:

What’s your initial “hunch”?

How far back do the relevant figures go? How far back do you have to go to establish an historical trend?

At the end, write a paragraph stating your conclusion and the evidence that shows it to be a valid conclusion. Hand in everything: conclusions, list of steps, notes.

My overarching rationale for this exercise is that many history majors and other liberal arts students are afraid of numbers. I don’t want someone who is afraid of numbers teaching high school students. Those who are afraid of statistics cut themselves off from one of the main sources of information about modern mass societies. This exercise format aims at introducing students to simple, commonly used statistics. It tries to be accessible and critical at the same time. The subquestions tried to get students to brainstorm about relevant variables and to go backwards in time.

I prepared several versions of this exercise, so that several students had done the same question while thinking that they had a unique assignment. All those with the same question caucused in a group to agree on their results and then report to the class. One way of answering my sample question was to look up the numbers of women employed and the numbers of families receiving AFDC and plot these two series on a sheet of graph paper. When I did this, using Table 607 and Table 588 of the 1988 Statistical Abstract, I got dramatic results in only a few minutes. Between 1975 and 1986, the number of women working increased by some 16 million, while the number of families on AFDC oscillated between 3.5 million and 3.8 million. The number of AFDC recipients spiked in 1980, which led to questions about the effects of recessions and changes in AFDC eligibility.

You probably can come up with a better format for this exercise. I frequently use a format in which the student is asked to research a particular statistic (unemployment rate, national debt, median family income); say what the statistic measures and how it is compiled; and report on significant variations. That format requires them to pay attention to definitions; many students don’t even pay attention to the units (millions or billions of dollars; real dollars or current dollars). I’m happiest with the format above, because of the way that it put the question first and used numbers to solve the question.


I always like to know what an author is trying to figure out, the problem that he or she is trying to solve. This helps me assess what the author argues and compare it with other possible interpretations. So—what did Fareed Zakaria really try to figure out when he wrote FROM WEALTH TO EMPIRE (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998)? Put his main question into your own words. You’ll have to infer his question from what he said; back up your inferences with quotations. This exercise had several rationales. It embodied my emphasis on question-asking. It was appropriate to Zakaria’s book; Zakaria used a formal social science methodology, designing hypotheses that purported to explain why states took actions to expand their influence (grabbed colonies, meddled in other states’ affairs). This kind of thinking was foreign to many of the students, who thought that our job was to tell stories; I wanted them to look at his method, not just convert what he did into what they thought he should have done. His real question wasn’t obvious; he phrased a large question, then ultimately shaped it into a narrower hypothesis for testing. I’ve used versions of this exercise for books by post-modernists as well (e.g. Judith R. Walkowitz, THE CITY OF DREADFUL DELIGHT [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992]), where the author’s intentions clearly drive the ‘discourse’.

EXERCISE 7: “WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?” (Apologies to T. Turner)

Was international politics, as practiced in the late 19th century, immoral? Or was there some kind of morality in it? Write a couple of pages or more exploring this question. Consider what kinds of moral values might be relevant, Zakaria’s overall pictures of what drove international politics, and the specific examples he gave.In this exercise, I wanted to raise the issues of imperialism and get the students to focus on the “reasons” that American politicians gave for events such as the annexation of Hawaii. Then, in class, I wanted to get to the question of whether we, as historians, may or should make moral judgments. Zakaria felt that major powers cannot stop from encroaching on smaller states. He wrote in a non-judgmental, realpolitik tone of voice. His tone of voice therefore was also useful for discussing whether one could eliminate one’s point of view.


The exercises must be embedded in historical moments, which in turn are embedded in books. I strongly believe that Historical Method should not be a course in my speciality (France as a welfare state since 1945). I have to be able to interest a variety of students in the material as well as the exercises. I tend to look for topics that will contribute to a student’s general or liberal arts education. Secondly, I want variety of approaches as well as content. I want one “primary source” or a documents book. I want something dealing with political history, something dealing with economic history, and something dealing with social history. I want some variety in time and place. Many students would prefer not to leave the confines of the U.S., but our department has (correctly) emphasized geographical diversity. Thirdly I look for books that can interest me. I want to extend my knowledge and see things differently (my liberal arts education). I do best with topics that overlap with my thinking but let me expand outwards. For example, I am basically a “western” historian (I’ve taught both European and American history), and basically a 19th-20th century historian. So I have enjoyed reading with a class two books by John Dower, WAR WITHOUT MERCY (N.Y.: Pantheon, 1986) and EMBRACING DEFEAT (N.Y.: Norton, 1999), because they involve issues of modernization, democracy, and race in a setting that I didn’t know. Dower is an admirable comparative historian, dealing with how Japan has interacted with the U.S. Leila Ahmed’s autobiography, A BORDER CROSSING (N.Y.: Penguin, 1999), similarly asks what is modern and contrasts her life in Egypt with her life in Britain. Occasionally I venture into earlier times (e.g. Steven Ozment’s THE BURGERMEISTER’S DAUGHTER [N.Y.: Harper, 1997]). All of these books were well-written and easy to justify to a class. More frequently I have used this course to read new books about the Nazis, the French Revolution, and the Vietnam War. When I focused on Vietnam, I paired a veteran’s memoir (e.g. Albert French, PATCHES OF FIRE [N.Y.: Anchor, 1997]) with something political (e.g. Robert McNamara’s IN RETROSPECT [N.Y.: Vintage, 1995]. There are many useful books of documents, but I want to mention three that proved especially rich. Harry Maurer interviewed 80 Americans—civilians and soldiers–who had spent time in Vietnam for inclusion in STRANGE GROUND (N.Y.: Henry Holt, 1989). Benjamin Sax and Dieter Kunz, INSIDE HITLER’S GERMANY (N.Y.: D.C. Heath, 1992), is marvellous, and Michael B. Stoff turned his own historical method course into THE MANHATTAN PROJECT (N.Y.: McGraw-Hill, 1991).

In Spring 2002, one student asked me why I assigned LETTERS FROM NEW YORK. I answered that I wanted a primary source; that Child is “hot” in women’s history now; that I wanted to think more about abolitionism, freedom and other moral issues that Child’s generation faced; and that I wanted them to wrestle with a Victorian sensibility. That answer will give you an idea of how several considerations shape my choice of a book.

I assign three books in a semester of Historical Method, less than I assign in other sophomore-level courses because I require more writing. When I assigned two books on Vietnam, my third book was always European and preferably gave women a prominent role. THE WOMEN OF PARIS AND THEIR FRENCH REVOLUTION (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), by Dominique Godineau, would fill the bill. My best-balanced triad was made up of Godineau’s book, FROM WEALTH TO POWER by Fareed Zakaria, and FAREWELL TO THE FACTORY (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997) by Ruth Milkman. Zakaria analyzed the changes in the U.S. government’s desire for world power between the Civil War and World War I, trying to test an hypothesis rigorously (see WHAT’S THE QUESTION above). Milkman did a sociological study of workers who took a buyout from a General Motors factory and set the buyout in the context of economic change and changes in workers’ aspirations. Taken together, the three books did social history, political history, and economic history. The only thing missing was a book of documents, but the three authors used primary sources well. Here is the course calendar that resulted:

Feb. 2: Introduction (Our Questions)

Feb. 9: Read Godineau, Preface and ch. 1-3 (pp. 75-91 optional). Do Exercise 1 (What is a Fact?).

Feb. 16: Read Godineau, ch. 4-6. Do Exercise 2 (Point of View). Conferences on term paper topics (in office hours and at the end of class).

Feb. 23: Read Godineau, ch. 7-9. Read Ranke/Acton/Bury xerox.

March 1: Read Godineau, ch. 10-13 (pp. 256-267 optional). Do Exercise 3 (The Weight of the Evidence).

March 8: Read Zakaria, ch. 1-2. Do Exercise 4 (What’s the Question?).

March 15: Read Zakaria, ch. 3-4. Read Becker xerox.

March 22: Read Zakaria, ch. 5-6. Do Exercise 5 (Context).

March 29: Do Exercise 6 (“What’s Love got to Do With It?”).

April 5: Read Milkman, ch. 1-2. Read Collingwood xerox.

April 12: First Draft of Term Paper due.

Spring Break

May 3: Read Milkman, ch. 3-4. Do Exercise 7 (Making a Fact Mean Something).

May 10: Read Milkman, ch. 5. Do Exercise 8 (Doing Our Job).

May 17: Unification of Course.

May 24: Second Draft of Term Paper due.

Reading assignments averaged about 75 pages a week, and I tried to space the exercises out through the semester. You will have noticed the references to the Term Paper and to xeroxed articles. My term paper directions appear below. The three xeroxes provide three different approaches to the problem of objectivity. Acton tried to arrive at objectivity by suppressing one’s point of view; Becker mocked that approach and reinstated the historian’s point of view; and Collingwood tried to resolve the conflict by saying that our questions drive the doing of history but that we can reach certainty. You probably have your own favorite articles about method; if you want copies of these, we’d be glad to send them to you. The xeroxes referred to in my course calendar are: Excerpts from Ranke, Bury, and Acton, taken from Fritz Stern (ed.), THE VARIETIES OF HISTORY (Cleveland: Meridian, 1956), pp. 54-58, 211-223, 246-249; Carl L. Becker, “What are Historical Facts?”, in Hans Meyerhoff (ed.), THE PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY IN OUR TIME (NY: Doubleday, 1959), pp. 120-137; R.G. Collingwood, “Who Killed John Doe?”, in Robin Winks (ed.), THE HISTORIAN AS DETECTIVE (NY: Harper, 1970), pp. 39-59. Winks took his selections from Collingwood’s THE IDEA OF HISTORY (NY: Oxford University Press, 1956).

And you’ve not yet seen Exercise 8, so here it is.

EXERCISE 8: Doing our Job

You’ll go on to do history, as someone turning her/his life into history, and perhaps as a teacher. This exercise asks you to think about how you’re going to do history. Think over the articles we’ve read and the exercises we’ve done. Ponder the ways that Godineau, Zakaria, and Milkman did history. Then write paragraphs describing some of the approaches and concepts that you will use. To jog your imagination, here are some possible subquestions. Are you a Rankean, a follower of Becker or of Collingwood? Where are you going to grab hold of the past—the functioning of the economy, the decisions of elites, the lives of ordinary people? What makes historical actors tick—gender, race, class, nationality? Do you think big forces or heroic individuals or systems or masses shape the action? Is each event discrete, or are there basic patterns that social scientists can discern? Are there “mindsets” or a “spirit of the times” that you want to focus on? As you write your exercise, make specific references to the books, articles, and class discussions. I will grade on how well you express your points. Due May 10.


The subquestions shaped how I processed this exercise. At times, I polled them on the choices offered to get the discussion going. In every group of students, some were Rankeans and some were relativists; some said they would seize history from below and others through the actions of elites. Some were presentists; others were interested in a distant era for its own sake. It’s easy to change this exercise depending on the class and on the exercises I (or you) have done; “mindsets” appeared in the Spring 2000 version of the course but not more recently. The purposes of the exercise were to review and to reinforce their examination of their own practices and choices. I then read what they wrote and incorporated comments into the summary of the course that I presented in our last session.

In my Introduction to Historical Method, half of the student’s grade came from the exercises and half from the term paper, which they worked on through the semester. In keeping with the philosophy of the course, my term paper directions emphasize the process:


A term paper is a long essay on a historical subject of your choice. The minimum length is 2000 words. Since it is an essay, it must present a definite interpretation of the material, rather than merely tell a story or be a scrapbook of materials copied from various sources. The interpretation should be stated as an hypothesis or a question at the start of the paper. The interpretation doesn’t have to be absolutely new, but it must be original in the sense that it has been thought through by the student and represents his/her own judgment.

The interpretation must be supported by evidence. The interpretation should be visible in the way the evidence is organized, commented on, and evaluated. This evidence is subject to the normal rules for the fair use of quotations and footnoting: All quotations must be acknowledged as such, with quotation marks; they should be brief; major ideas which are uniquely the product of one author’s mind should be identified as such; and quotations and statistics must carry footnotes. A minimum of ten sources must be consulted and listed in an annotated bibliography.

I will grade the term paper on:

1–How well does the student support his/her main idea? Is he/she aware of the difficulties in the argument?

2–Is the student on top of the material, or dominated by the material?

3–Points will be deducted for failure to attend the conferences required at different stages of the project (see below); for not including the annotated bibliography; for not handing in your notes.

4–Does the paper use some of the tools developed through the exercises.

STAGE 1–by February 13, you must CHOOSE YOUR BASIC TOPIC, in terms of time, geographical space, and people you wish to investigate. You do not have to have a definite hypothesis in mind at this time, but it would help if you had a provisional question to guide your research and note taking. You have all of human history to choose from, but I would prefer that you choose a topic from US or European history of the 1950’s – 1990’s. If you have a strong interest in another subject, I’m glad to negotiate. You are not limited to political history. You may choose a topic from intellectual history (e.g. the development of a major thinker, or the meaning of a major idea, such as democracy, at a particular point in time), literary history, social history, labor history, Afro-American history, business history, women’s history, urban history… Some illustrations of potential topics: Lady Bird Johnson’s political roles; the Yonkers desegregation cases; the career of Michael Harrington; the “contract with America”. You may not present the same term paper for two classes (at the same time or serially). You must have a CONFERENCE with me on or before February 13 during which we will discuss your topic, help you decide on a topic if you don’t have one, and discuss the first sources you are going to investigate.

STAGE 2–RESEARCH and note taking. Set aside a few hours each week for research. As you do your research, think about it; decide on some categories so that you can index your notes for easy retrieval of information; take notes on interpretations as well as facts. These notes must be handed in with the final draft.

STAGE 3–Formulate your HYPOTHESIS, the main point you want to prove in the paper. You must do this by March 13, when I will hold a second round of REQUIRED CONFERENCES with students individually.

STAGE 4–Write a FIRST DRAFT. This draft is due April 10. This is a firm deadline, to give you time to rewrite after I read it. The first draft will not be graded, but I will write comments on it.

STAGE 5–Write a FINAL DRAFT. After you get your first draft back, read it carefully and critically, as if someone else wrote it. Reconsider your ideas and your organization. Don’t just recopy what you’ve written with minor changes with minor changes. The final draft is due during final exam week.


Most of my students had never written a credible term paper before. My goal was to provide them with a method that is infinitely expandable, from a term paper to a thesis to a book. Without checkpoints, the less able students will just sit down at a table with two or three books and take a paragraph from one, then a paragraph from another. They won’t take notes; they won’t really think about what they want to say; they won’t rewrite. Collingwood would call such a term paper a scrapbook; it would be a huge waste of time (theirs and mine). My secondary goals were to prevent cheating and to reinforce the points raised by the exercises.

In the first conferences, some students have been enthusiastic; they already had ideas from other courses or their general curiosity. I quizzed them briefly about what interested them about the topic they proposed. I challenged (gently) those who said “Vietnam” or some other pat topic, to be sure that their interest was real. A large topic such as Vietnam had to be broken down—the politics of the war? The experiences of soldiers? Whether the war was ‘right’? Then I could suggest some preliminary bibliography. With the more reluctant or passive ones, I had to start with “who are you interested in”, in the manner of the term paper directions, to try to get them to identify something they could put some effort into. A friend of mine in graduate school tried three times to write her thesis, but broke off each time. The reason? She was doing topics suggested by her advisors—good topics, but not her topic. The topic should be negotiated. I won’t dictate a topic to a student, but I should not leave a student to flounder aimlessly. I should be able to tell the student that he/she has a real question or issue and that there should be an adequate volume of evidence readily available.

Having a second conference keeps students from putting off their research and decisions. I made them focus on the main idea, which had to function as the backbone of the paper. I helped them rephrase the main idea to give it some bite. A number of students invariably had a formula in mind—introduction, then I’m going to talk about so and so…making a report, but having no main idea. I wrote the main idea in my records so I could see how they changed it. Students weren’t penalized for changing their main idea, but a sudden jump from one topic to another made me fear that they had “found” something that they were going to follow too closely.

The first draft is a must. I never graded it; I wrote a page of comments, more if the student had said something I could sink my teeth into and less if the paper was lifeless. I first focused on the main idea. Was it clear? Did the student end up with another idea, which had become the real main idea and therefore should be moved to the beginning? Papers like that delighted me because they showed the student had discovered something while writing. Next I focused on the relationship between the main idea and the evidence—the handling of the evidence. Did the author get the main idea into how he/she retold the evidence? Did the student put the evidence in his/her own words? Were the quotes kept to a minimum? At times I told students to get more evidence on weak points. I commented a lot on organization. I thoroughly agree with my friends in English that students should write multiple drafts, hence the comments on the Final Draft in my directions. I don’t believe in simply recopying a paper with stylistic corrections. A paper should grow and change from draft to draft.

I put my grading criteria into the term paper directions, because I wanted the students to know what I was really looking for. I’m not looking for agreement with my point of view. When I was a student, I wanted to be my own person (sometimes excessively); now that I’m in the other seat, I’m afraid of the whole cloning process. I argue that many reasonable hypotheses can be made about a body of material. That doesn’t mean that all hypotheses are of equal value, but what matters is how we argue for them. If I really felt that my point of view interfered with my reading of the paper, I gave the student the same amount of points that he/she earned from the exercises, then deducted for missed steps in the procedure.

Like several of these specific directions, being open about criteria is partly aimed at deterring cheating. It’s easier to deter cheating from the beginning than spend hours searching for what a student plagiarized from. I’m sure that students have gotten away with cheating in my classes. Students cheat in so many ways that I can’t cover all the holes; I can keep my eyes out for new tricks and try to prevent the most obvious ones. Thus it’s easy to circulate a list of term paper topics to my colleagues, to block a student using a paper twice. It’s harder to prevent transfer students from recycling papers. The other criteria—conferences, notes, the annotated bibliography, and above all doing two drafts—are more effective. Most papers that students buy are terrible and have no ideas; it’s hard to bluff through the second conference without an idea. Notes show that someone has read a source; if someone can’t annotate a bibliography, he/she didn’t read the works cited. And if someone just prints the first version all over again, ignoring my comments, that makes me very suspicious. I mark down substantially for all of these sins. If I set up my criteria in advance, they can’t complain that they haven’t been warned. Most students cheat out of timidity—they don’t trust their own skills, they’re afraid of being wrong—and laziness—not caring enough, falling behind. We can deter the lazy by making the cheater have to do more to comply with the directions of the assignment. Some, eventually, will reach the point where they agree with Pogo: “If things gets so bad that I have to use your brains, I’ll use my own”.


You can and may use any one element of this presentation by itself. I used the format above any time that I assigned a term paper, even in classes in which there were no exercises. You can take my formats and plug your own cases into them. If you’ve read this far, you probably already use parts of this methodology; these ideas are in the public domain. I believe that exercises work on all levels, from high school to freshman level courses to graduate school. At all levels, I like having students work out their own pictures of reality through various forms of short writing. Prof. Howard Weiner uses short writing in class as a kind of brainstorming to get students ready to discuss a subject. Often I think students learn more from short writing assignments than from term papers, with their attendant dangers of tunnel-vision and cheating. Many of my colleagues fear that exercises take too long to grade, but I can grade a set of exercises more rapidly than a set of papers, and term papers should take a long time to grade. When I grade exercises, I’ve already had the discussion to help me identify relevant points, and I can do “meatball grading” (apologies to the doctors on MASH, who performed “meatball surgery”), focusing on a few points and not requiring perfection of style and organization. Of course, exercises shouldn’t be the only teaching style. But I argue that lecturing works best with students and colleagues who already know a lot about a subject and can tell what you’re sidestepping or provide counter-arguments. Exercises give me more focused class discussions, in which students have already done some of the work and identified important evidence and ideas. What might be unusual about my presentation is my emphasis on processing exercises in class, and the way these exercises are weighted towards historical method. You can rewrite them to change that balance. But I ask you to consider the argument that we teach content and method in every course, and so we ought to make analyzing the process part of our course objectives.

I hope that some of you already teach a course like INTRODUCTION TO HISTORICAL METHOD. If you want to design such a course, you have to analyze your own method and the range of your students. My course is aimed primarily at sophomores. My department wants students to use this course to learn how to learn, early in the major, and go on to more specialized, term-paper writing courses and a senior seminar which draws on these experiences. Our sophomores have a wide range of experiences and skills. They range from adults who have a sense of time and skepticism about how the world works to nineteen year olds who have potential but are passive, afraid, and overwhelmed by the obligations imposed by part-time work and the pressures of maturation. From each graduating class, a couple enrolled in Ph.D. programs; one or two went to law school; several used their degrees to advance in their jobs; and a number became high school teachers. All needed to work on the issues of empiricism—how do I know what I just said I know, what’s valid evidence, how do I grab the past. These philosophical and general education issues will always interest me. I don’t think that we can answer them abstractly, but I think that we can work out practical or operational solutions to them. I like working with students who aren’t always history majors; like Becker, I believe that everyone must do some history, must turn the events of their lives into history. These exercises aim at breaking my practice into its components: Asking questions and making them into tools; locating facts; handling different kinds of evidence; examining the points of view of any author or source; putting matters in context; and deciding what’s important and what’s not. I’m still refining my notion of what a fact is; how to modify my point of view and use it as a tool; trying to make my own research and teaching meaningful.

You can design your own version that fits you and your students better. You may feel that my exercises are too involved, too multi-dimensional to work with sophomores. Fine—pare them down. Or, like my colleague Prof. Catherine Lavender, who teaches our senior seminar and our graduate method course, you may work with students who already have faced the issues that matter to me. Your course could put more weight on the different kinds of materials available, on line and in archives; it could put more weight on what other historians have done (“the literature”). R.J.B. Bosworth designed a course for upper-level students which had them gather and analyze treatments of World War II by historians living in several participant countries. He published his results in EXPLAINING AUSCHWITZ AND HIROSHIMA (London: Routledge, 1993). Prof. Lavender’s senior seminar combines the review of the literature together with making meaning and doing original research in the writing of a more professional term paper.

If you were a student, now you’re a member of the profession (whether you teach or not), and now you know more about the motives behind Introduction to Historical Method and this style of teaching. If you’re a colleague in another college or high school, I’m interested in finding other ways to spread these ideas; your suggestions are welcome.

If you are a member of the History Department, I hope you’ll consider these ideas for your teaching and help keep Introduction to Historical Method alive. Two or three people in the department ought to adopt this course and make it their own, adapting it to new technologies and new epistemological concerns. I believe that our department now puts too much of its energy into 300-level courses and graduate courses. The changes that you are proposing to the major ignore general education and the needs of “less advanced” students. Helping students figure out their overarching pictures of the world can be just as rewarding as introducing them to our specialties. I believe that Historical Method should be kept a sophomore level course, not pushed into the junior level, and that it should be oriented in part towards the uses of and difficulties with empiricism. I believe that arguing through evidence is the only way that we can convince eachother when we disagree (speaking as a citizen as well as an academic). Even if you don’t agree with this proposition, perhaps you’ll agree that students should discuss empiricism before discarding it. I believe that students should be helped to develop their own methods for teaching themselves and doing research as well as learning the latest academic fashions (which will inevitably be superseded. “Nudge, nudge”, as they said on Monty Python).

Teaching historical method isn’t as difficult as many of you seem to feel. Many of you use documents and visual evidence. You’re teaching students to infer, I infer. It wouldn’t be hard to turn some of your methods into exercises, if you haven’t already done so. You wouldn’t have to assign eight exercises. You could assign fewer—or more, because this is really a pleasurable way to teach. It doesn’t take more work—it takes a different kind of preparation and a different role in the classroom. Ciao.


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