Teaching History Students to Read Between the Lines

Tags: , , , ,

Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Lisa Kaborycha, History

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2003

History 1R, The Reading and Writing of History, is a course in which undergraduates are introduced to the works of great historians from Herodotus to Hegel, while at the same time learning to carry out their own historical research and writing. The challenge, as I saw it, was to inspire the students through the readings of great historians of the past, while keeping them from being overwhelmed with the task before them. How to demonstrate that history is a lively endeavor, and the day-to-day study of history is being practiced all around them?

I devised an exercise for the first meeting of section, which I hoped would not only work as an icebreaker, but also set the tone for the entire course. The first day of section is always awkward because not only are students somewhat shy, but they have done none of the readings yet so there is not much to discuss. After mutual introductions were over, I decided to start off the section by describing by own research to the students, on the principle that the best way to get other people to open up is to reveal something of yourself. In any case, it has always seemed odd to me that students can attend lecture after lecture given by professors about whose research interests the students have not the slightest idea. First I gave a brief overview of my work with medieval manuscripts, discussing such forbidding codicological issues as dating a work by identifying a terminus ante quem and a terminus post quem. I explained how you look for a signature, if possible, and described what a colophon is. I chatted a little about finding watermarks and palimpsests; then I started the show and tell portion of the class. I brought out photocopies made from microfilm of a document I had been studying, a copy of Ovid’s Art of Love copied informally into a 15th century Italian scrapbook collection. The students could see quite vividly how the copyist had responded to the text by the proliferation of drawings of little fingers (manicules) pointing at interesting passages, brackets surrounding certain phrases, and particularly by a very explicit doodle in one of the margins. We discussed how this kind of study could contribute to our historical knowledge of the past, and add to our understanding of Renaissance culture.

Next, I explained that the students would have to do their own historical research, and had them break into groups of two or three, as I initiated the second portion of the show and tell exercise. I had brought with me a dozen or so well-worn books picked up at second hand shops, selected because they were heavily marked up. In addition, many of these books were in foreign languages, so as to further distance the students from the texts themselves, concentrating instead on sleuthing about the books’ former owners. I tossed the books randomly around the table, asking the students to take twenty to thirty minutes to try to learn whatever they could about whom the owner or owners of the book had been, their age, sex, occupation, and if possible, when and why they had read the book and what they may have gotten out of it. They would present the “findings” of their research in short oral reports afterwards. The students threw themselves enthusiastically and noisily into this exercise, while sometimes concluding that the former owners of these books had been “boring” or “superficial,” and had used the books only for classroom study, in other cases they discovered interesting marginalia, which sometimes revealed the extraordinary personal interaction of a past reader with the text. The ensuing discussion was extremely lively.

My students’ evaluations for this section were very positive, and a number of students singled out this exercise as one that had personal meaning for them. One student wrote: “Unlike other GSIs, she discusses her personal experiences as a historian and this has opened my mind to the history major.”