Tuesday, July 22, 2014


           I'd been vaguely aware of the Stanford History Education Group (or SHEG as they call themselves) and the work of Sam Wineburg.  Wineburg's work in Perspectives, for example, was useful for helping me as a TA for college students, and later, as a high school teacher.  Wineburg emphasized articulating the thinking I was doing in my head to explain how historians think and act and do history.  Wineburg's work massively improved my own teaching as I became able to clearly articulate for students what I was doing and then enable them to do those same things on their own. 
             I follow SHEG on twitter and they show up at #sschats.  Bur recently, due to this assessment that they posted on twitter, I got a closer look at SHEG and I'm not happy.  If you follow the link you get a stereoscopic image from 1907 of a bunch of rocks with three traditionally dressed peasant looking people for scale.  The image is labelled  "'The fort where native chiefs held off the 16th century Spaniards,'" American Stereoscopic Company, 1907."   What follows are questions about what the image does and not does not tell you about Inca resistance.
            On the surface, I suppose this is okay.  In a perfect world, students and teachers would have lots of resources to draw on to know about the Inca resistance.  There are first-hand accounts, several excellent histories, artwork, archeological digs and reports, oral histories, church records, and so on.  One crummy slide that recreates a very specific, racialized narrative of Inca resistance that conforms to early twentieth century racialist notions isn't really disastrous.  But, it's unlikely that students spend more than a day or two on the Inca.  This is likely the only view they'll get.
           And it gets worse.
           I went in and looked at the number of documents about Native Americans in their lesson plans.  I counted 14.  Of those, two were authored by Native Americans.  So the Inca document isn't an isolated problem or a one-off.  They've consistently had white voices speak for indigenous voices.  Lets take a closer look at the unit on Indian Removal.  They talk about "the Five Civilized Tribes" only sometimes putting "Civilized" in quotes.  Of the two documents they build the lesson on, one is by Andrew Jackson and the other by Cherokee politician Elias Boudinot.  Both documents support removal.  The question they ask is:  "why did people support removal at the time, why are our reactions to removal different now?"  They don't note that massive resistance by whites and Native Americans to removal took place (they do note that the Supreme Court found for the Cherokee).   The whole things a clusterfuck of 1960s historiography.  There's no acknowledgement of the incredible work done by Theda Purdue.
           And it gets worse.
           The key question for their unit on the Civil Rights Act?  "How committed to Civil Rights was President Kennedy."  Because the Civil Rights Act is about powerful white people.  Sigh.

Yet more proof that you can have the best methods in the world, but if you ask the wrong questions, you're still a dope. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

How to write almost anything Part 2: Getting to a thesis

        The key to any good paper is a good brainstorm.    I don't think most adults understand this.  I know that as a student, I rarely (okay-never) brainstormed my papers and generally I did just fine in high school.    Even in college, my brainstorms were really more like cursory outlines of a few sentences.  It worked fine on blue book exams, but for longer papers it wasn't that successful.   It wasn't until I was working on a museum exhibit after college that I learned the importance of brainstorming.  It was also here that I learned that I'd been thinking about  brainstorming all wrong.  And judging from the pre-made materials I've seen most people are making the same mistakes I did as a student.  So here is the secret to good brainstorming:

Brainstorming is a two-step process.

First you collect the information.  Then you organize it.  For years, I'd tried to collect and organize simultaneously.  That's hard and it doesn't work well.    So, break your brainstorming into two steps.

1.  Collect.  No piece of information is discarded at this point.  Write down everything you know, then go find more.  If it might be relevant put it down.  After you've exhausted all the possibilities, put the information away for a while.  Then come back to it and....

2.  Organize.  Generally you want to use categories of analysis to organize your information.  You can do this with a chart, a diagram, an idea map, a big piece of blank paper and colored markers, index cards, - really whatever you want that works.  Another important thing to remember here is that a piece of information can go into multiple places.  Let's say you are writing a paper on the origins of the US Civil War.  Something like the Bleeding Sumner episode might go under both differing ideas of masculinity in North and South" and the "failure of politics".  After you've organized into lots of categories pick your best four and see how they are related.  Is there one that seems to dominate the others, whose information keeps showing up everywhere?  Most of the time that's your thesis.  To see how this works, it's important to know what a good thesis.

A good thesis is:  Argumentative
                             Answers the question

Let's look at these individually.  A good thesis is:

Argumentative - as opposed to descriptive.  It takes a position that does more than tell the reader what happened, it seeks to prove something:  a cause, a relationship, significance, a role.

Clear - it's better to be smart than to sound smart.  Clear writing trumps convoluted writing any day.  Theses are no place for ten dollar words.

Overarching - This is a tough one for students.  (And we'll be talking about it more in later posts in the series).  Consider our question about "What caused the United States Civil War?"  Many students will default to "The Civil War was caused by economic, social, and political causes."  The problem is, that works for everything.  The past is complex and causation is always tied to multiple factors.  You could say the same thing about the American Revolution.  Or the New Deal.  You're hitting a checklist not making an argument.  And your essay will be a description of the causes not an argument about how they led to the Civil War.  Compare:  "The Civil War was caused by slavery."  It seems obvious, but that's actually pretty complex because you have to work through slavery in multiple categories of analysis.  For example:  "Slavery led to different economic ideologies in the North and South."  "Slavery led to different ideas about government in the North and South."  "Slavery led to different ideas about gender in the North and South."  "Slavery caused conflict over the role of expansion between North and South."  And so on.  Pick three.  They all tie back to slavery as a cause of the Civil War.

Doable -  There has to be evidence.  No faith based arguments about providence.  Faith is faith because you can't prove it.  That's what's beautiful about faith.  But Doable also means "doable in the space allowed."  You might have a great idea, that's truly original, but if you are doing a blue book exam, you only have an hour.  Save that original idea for a 30 page research paper.  Likewise, if you are writing a 5 paragraph essay and you only have one paragraph, you need to broaden that idea out.

Answers the question - This seems obvious but you'd be surprised how many folks mess this up.  Quick check.  If the question is a "why" question the answer has "because" in it.  If the question is a "How" question the answer has "by" in it.

Now that you've got your thesis and a brainstorm, the next step is the body paragraphs.  That will be our topic for the next post in the series.  

Part 2 of a series.

Part 1 is here 

Monday, July 14, 2014


Comments in this thread at LGM, remind me of my favorite food axiom.

There are five kinds of bagels:

Bagels with seeds (poppy, sesame, or salt)

Bagels from the allium family (onion or garlic)




That's it.  Anything else is a pastry.   Blueberry - pastry.  Cinnamon-raisin - pastry.  Green chile bagel?  - Not only is it a pastry, but it is an abomination against God and man ... and woman... and child. 

The test is:  would you put fish on it?  If the answer is no, it's not a bagel.

UPDATE:  RAF's Facebook discussants point out that I left salt off the list.  In the past, I included salt in the "bagels with seeds" category since the salt is kind of like the poppy and sesame on the outside of the bagel.  My tastes have changed over time (or it's harder to find Nova that isn't too salty) and thus I dropped salt from the list, but this is a personal preference.  I have restored salt to it's proper place.  I am interested in feedback on rye bagels. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Brief Hiatus

I've been laid low with strep, and am now at the House of Mouse with the family.  Let me tell you, it's a rough place for historians but a great place to vacation with Nana and the family.  Regular programming will resume shortly. 

PS.  While I was laid low, the blog crossed 8,000 page views.  Very exciting.