The December Perspectives is loaded with informative articles. We have already blogged today about Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s presidential column. Now I want to call your attention to Caroline Walker Bynum’s piece, “Teaching Scholarship.”
I don’t teach graduate students, but if I did I would definitely take some of Bynum’s advice. In fact, I think some of her suggestions could even work well in an undergraduate historical methods course.
First, Bynum defines the kind of scholarship that she wants her students to learn. Scholarship is:
Hard work in archives and libraries without taking shortcuts through the research of others; integrity of citation from primary sources and secondary authorities; thorough grounding in earlier work (and not just that of the 1990s or later); situating of specific conclusions in complex historical contexts; genuine discoveries and original questions, not just a rehash of current theories; and always, always the struggle to ensure that the issues raised are appropriate to the material at hand, that it is not pulled out of shape by contemporary concerns or anxieties: these things are assumed by those who ask “how do we get started in the archives?” or “how do we write up our notes?”
…these values are not a natural part of the mental furniture of ordinary people, nor are they implicitly assumed even by most intellectuals, who may find something almost stodgy in such rectitude of citation, in so much work for such a small amount of prose. Where do such values come from? Are we teaching them and, if so, how? It seemed to me, as I thought about writing this essay, that I might consider not so much how I go about crafting history myself as how I go about ensuring that these values are still assumed in the next generation—that is, in my own students.
Bynum makes several very practical pedagogical suggestions for getting students to think like historians.
Many graduate-level courses ask students to write book reviews. I wrote plenty of them in graduate school. But Bynum is skeptical about having students write reviews without knowing something about what goes into them.
Instead of jumping right into the review, she first asks students to come to class with a one sentence thesis of the given book under consideration. She picks one of the students in the class to write his or her thesis on the board and then the class spends the entire class period revising the sentence until it reflects accurately what the author is saying.
Bynum then introduces her students to the book review genre by having her graduate students pick a good book review and write a paper about why it succeeds.
In another assignment, Bynum has her students pick a long footnote in a monograph and write a paper about it. Here is how Bynum describes the exercise:
I have the students find a long footnote in one of the books we have read and write an entire paper about it, checking every reference, primary and secondary. Do the sources support the point made? Are the cited passages taken in or out of context? Is the secondary material germane to the issue? The result of such investigation can, of course, be disillusionment with some great scholars whose particular note may turn out to be inaccurate or tendentious; but learning that even the greatest historians sometimes nod can be a relief as well as a warning. And in any case such an exercise leads to new respect for how much work goes into the deployment of even a single bit of supporting evidence.
Only after these three exercises are students ready to write a book review of their own.
This is history teaching at his best. Bynum appears to be a master at leading her students into the profession, step by step.
I would suggest that you check out the article. Bynum mentions several pedagogical exercises that I do not cover in this post.