by Kathryn Jasper, History
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2009
As difficult as it is for me, a medievalist, to admit that the history of Europe during the Middle Ages has a reputation among undergraduates for being tedious and rote, I knew stepping into the History 4B classroom that the burden was on me to present the material in an engaging manner. This was not the largest problem facing me, however. Simply entertaining students is not the real challenge; the matter at stake is stimulating original thinking when reading primary sources.
In every history course I teach, regardless of subject, there is one point I consistently reiterate: history is not fact, but interpretation. I do so for two reasons. First, students should understand that their interpretation of documents is just as valid as anyone else’s, provided they can support their conclusions with evidence; and second, the question of objectivity encourages complexity in analysis.
Ultimately, verbal reiteration pushing these points is insufficient. As my medieval predecessors would say, one needs to teach by word and by example. Over the course of the semester, I tried several activities designed to promote the historical method. Far and away the most successful of these was a role-playing session in which students reenacted the conflict between the crusaders and the Venetians that took place in 1204. In sum, the Fourth Crusade was a complicated debacle that ended in the sack of Constantinople. As some historians argue, it was misdirected and manipulated by the Venetians. Its outcome is a constant source of debate amongst historians, and therefore it presented a perfect opportunity.
I divided the students into two groups. The first I designated the Venetians, financiers of the Crusade, while the second represented the Frankish knights. I played the role of arbitrator as Pope Innocent III. The two teams faced off on opposite sides of the room and I posed several questions to discuss. I also informed them that their evidence had to come from the document they were assigned to read for that day, a contemporary chronicle written by a French knight, Geoffrey of Villehardouin. For example, I asked both sides to defend the sacking of a Christian city (Zara) by Christian knights that preceded the taking of Constantinople. I also asked that we all behave in character the entire time. As both the Venetians and the crusaders had different motivations behind the decision to sack Zara, the students had to reflect upon these and support their arguments with textual evidence. The question was further complicated by the fact that their only source of information was a text written by an obviously biased author.
What ensued exceeded my expectations. Most surprising was the empathy both sides experienced as they identified with their characters. The students no longer saw the persons in their assigned reading as arbitrary and unknowable individuals. Primarily, I wanted the students to realize that historical interpretation, what appears on the pages of their textbook, was written by a human being who is not omniscient. The author’s conclusions are based on primary sources and informed analysis. In addition, that author is subject to his or her own biases. Moreover, the sources themselves are biased, which the students understood when they had to formulate arguments based on Villehardouin’s text. Because half the students were predisposed to side with the Venetians, and the other half with the crusaders, they were forced to confront the issue of objectivity. They also had to differentiate between opinion and informed hypothesis, because every unsupported statement was questioned either by me or (and even more often) by the opposing side, usually with a cry of “Prove it!” In the end, I was pleased with our progress and the students themselves wrote in their evaluations that this particular day had been not only one of the most enjoyable, but also one of the more valuable experiences in the class.