History Methods

This blog has been inactive for a while, in part because I was writing in other public venues, and in part because I was in a little lull as I shifted from my old project to a new one. As that’s now up and going, however, I’m getting back to it. I did not get to go to Ghana this summer, and I’m very disappointed that our study abroad program was cancelled this year. But I have spent the summer writing, and I’m excited to be making progress on this next book. But more about that later. First…teaching (which, for me at least, is intimately connected to the research anyway).

I, like many (I hope most) of you, am teaching online this semester. My course – an intermediate history methods course on slavery in Africa – is asynchronous, and I am foregoing video lectures and synchronous chats for other forms of engagement that I may feel more confident about than some because of my involvement in digital humanities. Regardless of my degree of comfort with digital platforms, however, this shift to online education required me to do a lot of rethinking of a course that I laid out/structured but mostly invented on the fly last time around (see the syllabus).

Since I last taught this course, I’ve thought intensively about what it means to teach historical methods, proposed and co-led a workshop on Intro to History courses for the American Historical Association, facilitated a workshop in my own department on the same topic based on the Decoding the Disciplines process, and drafted a syllabus for a new Intro to History course that would come before this intermediate methods course. I’ve also learned a lot from my awesome History and SoTL colleagues, including the wonderful David Pace who has been a partner in crime through much of this (and the man who first taught me how to think about teaching and learning in History many years ago).

In the process of doing that, I’ve thought a lot about what historical methods are because, let’s face it, historians aren’t super clear about them. I am maybe more attuned than some folks, having gone from a very different undergraduate degree program (International Studies and Philosophy) with very few history courses on my transcript into a History PhD program. My “methods” course was really historiography.

Methods, it seemed, were something one figured out yourself, or by talking to your grad school classmates, or by asking professors in professional development workshops (if you were lucky). African Studies and Anthropology rescued me, gave me conceptual tools to think about what fieldwork and archival research required and what historical analysis and historical thinking were. Historians of Africa had long been thinking about what methods historians used, critically reflecting on the silences and biases of the archive as a social, political, and cultural construction (“reading against the grain”); developing methods for the collection and analysis of new sources that opened up new arenas of inquiry and counterbalanced some of the biases and gaps in the colonial archive; borrowing methodologies from other disciplines like anthropology, linguistics, and art history and using them to ask/answer historical questions. In part because historians of Africa could not take some of the assumptions of other subfields for granted, they had to reflect on what those methods actually were, what they accomplished, and what their limits were. When I think about history methods I’m thinking about members of the early generations of African historians who helped establish the field like Jan Vansina, A.G. Hopkins; the second generation of social historians who expanded the field like Fred Cooper, Luise White, our history-anthro colleagues like Jean and John Comaroff, and our colonial history ally Ann Laura Stoler; and more recent generations who have shaped the pedagogical texts of our field, including Antoinette Burton, Lynn Hunt, Trevor Getz, and Jonathan Reynolds. There are, of course, many others. And I’ve benefitted greatly from David Pace and Sam Wineburg and the many other thoughtful SoTL scholars who have helped us think about how we translate these skills into effective pedagogy that facilitates student learning.

So, I really enjoy thinking and talking about methods with students and helping them develop and apply historical thinking skills. But, you might ask, what are they? In order to help answer and clearly communicate that question, I created a series of infographics that I utilized throughout my courses as sort of visual touchstones to illustrate the process and keep us thinking about how individual exercises were connected to our overall goals in the course. You can create your own (I used Canva – it’s great!) or you can use mine. If you’re interested in seeing how they worked within my course, give a shout and I’ll gladly add you as an “observer” on the Canvas site so that you can see the course.

As some of my colleagues in other fields have indicated, these graphics are not only helpful for history instructors/students but may also be useful in allied fields like Anthropology. While I’ve long been an advocate of applied history and interdisciplinary research/analysis, the enthusiastic response I received from a recent Instagram takeover I did for @thearchitectsproject highlighted more than ever that other fields outside of our anticipated allies in the humanities and social sciences benefit from thinking historically and are hungry for the kind of insight that historical analysis can bring. We just need to engage them (which is a longer rant that is coming soon). So, please use them, and if you’re going to use them in anything other than a classroom (f2f or virtual) setting (e.g. a public website, a publication etc), please do credit me. If you alter them or create your own, please share them!

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