Teaching Old Historiography

MorganI love Joe Adelman‘s piece today at The Junto: “The Significance of Old Historiogaphy in American History.”

Adelman, who teaches American history at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, writes about trying to teach fresh new perspectives on American history when his students do not know the older work upon which the authors of these new perspectives are building.

Here is a taste:

The issue arose this week in my Native American history course when we read and discussed Drew Lipman’s article on the murder of John Oldham and the saltwater frontier…As part of his historiographical discussion, Lipman distinguishes his definition of “frontier” from that of Frederick Jackson Turner’s.[2] When this came up in our conversation, I paused and asked how many students were familiar with the Turner thesis. Only three students were, only two had read Turner’s essay in a college classroom—and they both read it in an English course (the same one). That seemed a little embarrassing to me as a teacher.

On a certain level, though, that level of engagement makes complete sense to me. Why should they have read it? Very few people conceptualize the “frontier” in the same way that Turner did 125 years ago, nor do they feel a need to respond directly to his argument as part of the historiography. It is, in many ways, totally outdated, more a primary source for views about Native Americans and the West in the 1890s (that’s how my two students read it in their English course, paired with something by Teddy Roosevelt) than a work of historical scholarship that requires engagement. At the same time, however, the Turner thesis or frontier thesis had such an enormous impact on historical scholarship for decades that it still matters on a certain level, enough so, for example, that cutting-edge, Bancroft-worthy research published within the last decade still name-checks Turner. So maybe students should encounter it, or at least have passing familiarity with it.

So I wonder–is it possible to teach both new perspectives and older historiogaphy in the short time that we have with our students each week?  I think it can be done. Let’s take my British Colonial America course, for example.

In this course, I largely stick with the classics.  I still, for example, have students read Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery/American Freedom.  We read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives and Jon Butler’s seminar article “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretation Fiction.”  I have assigned Richard White’s The Middle Ground and Dan Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country.

Most of these interpretations, of course, have been challenged by more recent scholarship. I am aware of this and use my class time to discuss these texts and get my students to think about the ways these particular works have been challenged.  Sometimes I even hand out bibliographies of scholarly works that have engaged with these classics or offer a different take on the subject matter. For example, when we discuss Morgan, I also want them to know something about the work of Kathleen Brown and Rebecca Goetz, among others.

In other words, don’t judge a course by its reading list.

But I imagine that one could turn this approach to teaching American history on its head by assigning the most recent work in a particular field and using class time to talk about the older works that made these new interpretations possible.

Whatever approach is taken, we want students to be exposed to historiography and historiographical development over time, multiple interpretations of the past,  and the process by which new interpretations are created.

Thanks, Joe.  This post is making me thing.

Ice Road Truckers and American Exceptionalism

I will start this post with a confession.  A few years ago I watched an entire season of the History Channel series Ice Road Truckers.  I don’t remember much about it now, and I don’t think I have watched an episode since then, but I was entertained by the show.


Over at We’re History, Boston College graduate student Michael McLean connects “blue-collar programming” such as Ice Road Truckers and Swamp People with longstanding American ideas about exceptionalism and the frontier.  

After explaining Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis” McClean writes:

While this theme fell into disrepute among scholars in the twentieth century, the programs of the History Channel show how the idea lives on in popular culture. Surely, the shows suggest, America continues to have a frontier, and the nation must therefore still have a unique national character. Modern life, in which more than 80% of Americans live in urban areas, cannot have emasculated America if we still have brave, hardworking men. This is a powerful idea in part because it is true. People living outside modern comforts display a different kind of grit than most Americans today. But their strength represents only one perspective about American life, just as the narratives of Parkman, Turner, and Roosevelt represented just one perspective on American history. That perspective does not account for the wild variety of other stories that created the great American narrative. It overwrites the voices and struggles of African Americans, Native Americans, women, immigrants, and labor organizers, among many others. It ignores the profound importance of science, transportation, medicine, and education to American progress.

If there is anything truly exceptional about America, it is that we have one of the world’s most fascinating, contentious histories. Surely there is heroism in resistance to slavery, in the labor movement, or in the discovery of penicillin to rival the heroism of individual men in their fight against nature.

Read McLean’s entire piece here.