The Importance of Continually Reading about Historical Content AND Methods

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When I completed my undergraduate studies in 2011, I did so without the benefit of taking a historical methods class. There was no requirement to take one when I started my studies five years earlier, and I was later grandfathered from having to take one when the requirements changed while I was still in the history program. Sure, I learned a lot of historical content and got better at writing papers while in undergrad, but I lacked the philosophical, theoretical, and methodological foundations necessary for thinking critically about the bigger questions that dominate a historian’s thoughts: what is historical objectivity, and can it be achieved? Is the past a foreign country, and if so, when do we find ourselves back in our native homeland? Can we separate the past and the present? What does it mean to think historically? What is truth? Is there such a thing as multiple truths? Who owns history? What is the importance of history in understanding the human condition?

I don’t necessarily have clear answers to all of these questions today, but my graduate training–especially my studies in public history and museum studies–did much to raise a sense of awareness about the need to always keep the “Why?” questions of history in close proximity to the how, what, and where questions that surround any historical inquiry. Books from the likes of Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier, John Lewis Gaddis, and Michel-Rolph Trouillot exposed me to the importance of source criticism, the power structures the shape the documents we use in our research, and the artistic and scientific qualities of historical study. More generally, these books showed me the importance of historical thinking as a way of understanding our contemporary world. Quite frankly, I am obsessed with talking and writing about historical methods these days.

You can only learn so much and be a student for so long before you must move on from graduate school, however. I would surmise that some history graduates probably do away with their historical methods books after graduation, and I don’t blame them. But now that I’m a practicing public historian I think it’s more important than ever to keep pushing myself to think about the “Why?” questions of history because the public audiences I work with ask those sorts of questions all the time. People often come in with a specific conception of history as facts, dates, dead people, and dust, which challenges me to find ways to teach them about history as an interpretive act that is continually up for questioning and revision. Many visitors also ask me questions about things they learned growing up and whether or not they were true. And every once in a while I get questions about the evidence and methods I use in crafting my own interpretations of nineteenth century history.

A good history teacher emphasizes process and method in addition to content. Public historians should also strive to teach their audiences–most of whom don’t engage with the stuff of history on a regular basis–process and method in addition to content whenever possible so that they are empowered to start their own exploration into the past.

Now that I’m out of school and able to read any book I want, I follow a simple method for ensuring my continued growth as a nineteenth century historian, interpreter, and educator. For every two books I read about history, I read one book about “method,” whether that be historical methods, philosophy of history, public history, museum practices, educational theories, or something along those lines. So, for example, I just finished reading Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism and Brian Matthew Jordan’s Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending War. Now I am currently reading Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum.

To be sure, the best history books teach us much about historical methods! Broadly defined, what I mean by “history book” is a work of scholarship in which the central thesis contains an argument about historical content and our understanding of the past, whereas “method” scholarship focuses primarily on discussing the specific practices scholars and practitioners employ when they interpret the past.

It’s hard to be a good historian if you omit reading one or the other. Having a lot of knowledge about educational theories and interpretive practices is important, but it’s hard to be an effective communicator if you don’t have any historical knowledge to communicate. Likewise, it’s great to have a lot of historical knowledge, but if you don’t know how to effectively communicate that knowledge to your audiences, you will struggle as a teacher and/or public historian.