Monday, February 24, 2014

Musings on integrating the various histories

Historians were once a fractured state in the academic nation.  They published or perished in their own clannish enclaves.  Oddly, they were less divided by chronologies and geographies than by styles.  There were intellectual historians, political historians, social historians, environmental historians, and others.  A generation has risen, however, who seem less obsessed with the Balkanization of professional worlds.  The historians I meet at professional conferences proudly sit atop the ruins of Cold War era walls and make the best of both sides.  I'm not saying our generation is a neo-Hofstadter coalition of the willing (this one, not that one), but neither do I see much obsession with identity amongst historians of my generation.  Indeed, consensus may be our cutting edge.  Perhaps, as one recent president of the Southern Historical Association pointed out, we have become too consensus driven.  But I digress- this is a blog about teaching, not writing.

How do we teach the integration of the various strands of history, since we are increasingly willing (and even excited) to research across methodological boundaries.  

I am less stating than asking.  Here is what I do, but what do you do?  

Quite without meaning to do so, I discovered that my teaching tendencies contradicted my methodological convictions.  I tend to think of ideas springing from particular social moments, thus privileging social history over intellectual history.  Yet, I found that my teaching moves in the opposite direction.  In Monday/Tuesday classes, I give sweeping intellectual overviews on the big ideas of an era (Race, Religion, Romanticism, Realism, Progressivism, Pragmatism, and lots of other Ps, Rs, and isms).  Then on Wed/Thurs/Friday blocks of time I move into the detailed historical periods: the changes over time, the conflicts, the causalities (and lots of other fun words that begin with C).   Thus, I build social and political history on top of intellectual history in the classroom. 

I presume I did this because it gave students a mental map on which to place the endless array of historical events.  There are flaws.  Students too often assume that belief leads to action, rather than actions (and self interest) shaping beliefs.  

This is the d├ętente I have made between the various types of history - all of which deserve full attention - none of which I can fit into 16 weeks.

I am curious to poll our readership.  What do you do?  Is it better to jettison all approaches in favor of one so that students get a clear methodological guide to history?  If you do blend approaches, what do your students gain by doing so?  What do they lose?  

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for this Joseph. This is a question that I haven't considered, but upon reflection, I feel like congratulating myself for my disciplinary ecumenism. As a historian of religion, I do think that I emphasize religion more often than many of my peers, but other than this, it seems like my course tacks pretty wildly from the various methodological vantage points. These past few weeks, during discussions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I have foregrounded changes and anxieties in American gender, but this came on the heels of a fairly politically driven discussion of Reconstruction. Today's lecture on World War I was filled with intellectual and cultural history, as I find the formation of the Lost Generation, the rejection of the Enlightenment, and all of the cool modern art stuff of the era to be irresistible. I even dabbled in bit of military history, my least favorite corner of our discipline, during our discussion of Civil War, as I was tired of hearing about the inevitability of Confederate defeat (my Texas students seem to have really subconsciously absorbed some Lost Cause nonsense) and wanted to highlight contingency. I'm interested to hear what others do.

    ReplyDelete