Teaching Historical Methods to Non-History Majors


This Spring I will be once again teaching my “Pennsylvania History” course.  I have now taught the course twice since we revived it as part of our relatively new public history concentration.  The majority of students who take this course are not history majors. These students are taking the course to fulfill a general education requirement in the category of “pluralism.”  The rest of the class are history majors.  Many of them are taking this course either to fulfill a 300-level requirement in American history or as part of the public history concentration.  All of these students have different needs and I am charged by the academic administration to make sure I deliver content and teach them skills related to those needs.  I try to get the pluralism students to think about whether or not William Penn’s original vision of a “holy experiment” has been successful.  I try to get the American history students to see how Pennsylvania is a reflection of the United States writ-large.  I try to teach the public history students skills such as oral history, local history, and digital history.

Frankly, the course is a mess.  After teaching it twice I still have not landed on the best approach to meet all of these needs.  Do I try to cover, in a sweeping series of readings and lectures, the history of Pennsylvania?  Or do I abandon the coverage model and focus on particular episodes in Pennsylvania history?  Or do I focus more on a semester-long project, perhaps something connected to our ongoing “Digital Harrisburg” project.  In the past I have done a little of everything–and no one has been satisfied.

So needless to say I thoroughly enjoyed public historian Christopher Graham‘s recent article at Common-Place on teaching a class on North Carolina history to non-history majors. Graham has abandoned the coverage model in favor of a research project that taught his students how to think like historians and “do history.”  Here is just a small taste of his excellent and inspiring piece:

Yet my students did have access to a less tangible, and no less important, suite of historical thinking skills. They learned that evidence has limits. They learned the value of browsing. They learned to restrict their claims to what the sources can support. They learned to adjust their question based on absences in the documentary record. They, in short, successfully confronted the iterative, revisionist, and flexible nature of information and research described by the Association of College and Research Libraries’ “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.” In fact, to non-history majors, these skills are just as important as the ability to effectively use a history database or critique an academic monograph. Indeed, I frequently regaled the class with articles from business journals praising the capacity of liberal arts majors in technical and scientific fields to deal with complexity, ambiguity, and opaque evidence. In the future, then, I will be content to directly guide them to historical questions to ask, the best sources to consult, and let them fully engage with the intellectual exercise of grappling directly with history.

At the end of the semester we invited Blandwood staff and docents, as well as university faculty who had helped us along the way, to a roundtable discussion of our findings. We presented a binder that included an editorial introduction, a glossary of nearly 100 identified individuals, the transcription itself, and copies of relevant primary sources. Much to our satisfaction, the Blandwood staff were surprised by what we had found. My students were eager—aggressive, even—to press them about how these new findings would reshape interpretation at the historic house. I can’t imagine a better end to the class.

Read the entire post here.