I love putting history on trial in my undergraduate courses. These students still typically think of history as finding, identifying or uncovering a set of hard facts, but, as Hayden White reminds us, history has a subjective dimension—historians construct claims, create narratives, interpret facts, build cases, possess agendas, have pre-dispositions. History is much more interesting than students sometimes think.
Well, there's no better place to put history on trial—that is, to experience the role that invention plays in the writing of history—than the massive digital collections in the Archive of Americana®. And while working with these collections there is a generic assignment I have found valuable in assisting undergraduates be critical thinkers about history that I call "Testing the Scholar."
Let's test the scholar, I say, by first understanding the scholar's argument and then forming our own judgments by investigating virtually the same bundle of data, tapping the inherent power of access to rich primary materials.
Let's take a representative example of this exercise from Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800. Let's say we want to learn about execution sermons—a topic sure to have "curb appeal" for undergraduates.
If we click through the "Genre" tab to the healthy list of subcategories under sermons, there is a category for execution sermons. There are 90 such sermons in this grouping, about 65 first editions, not an impossible task for a class of, say, 20 or 30 students to divide up, read and hold in their group consciousness.
The first thing I would do is have the students read Ronald Bosco's "Lectures at the Pillory: The Early American Execution Sermon"—an essay that covers precisely the time period as Early American Imprints, Series I—and, as a class, identify all Bosco's claims, both major and minor.
This class-generated list of claim statements, which I would post as individual threads on the class electronic discussion board, might in this case contain about 12 direct quotes (with page numbers for easy reference) like the following:
- "the execution sermon emerged as a form through which to chronicle what was then seen as the specific effects of declension during the mid-seventeenth century" (162)
- "the execution sermon [was] one of the principal examples of jeremiad form" (163)
- "The Wicked mans Portion and The Cry of Sodom Enquired into . . . are representative of the execution sermon as employed in New England for the next 75 years" (166)
Next, we go to Early American Imprints and, again as a class, read—with Bosco's claim statements clearly in front of us—as many of the primary materials in the collection as manageable, as practical. If there were 20 students in the class, I might assign everybody three. If there were only ten students, I might prioritize a top-30 list on some appropriate criterion (say a time range) and assign everybody three.
Now, the crucial step—as or after they do their own reading in their share of the primary sources, the students would post comments relating to positive or negative evidence they found under the appropriate claim statements on the discussion board. In a class of 20, one might expect a half-dozen comments under each claim, and this pool of, say, 75 paragraph-length posts then becomes the text for all to read in preparation for class discussion.
My job in class discussion would be not only to help synthesize the various comments based on student textual investigation but to introduce such meta-questions that can't be answered in the archive as…What is at stake in the truth of Bosco's major claims? What use are his claims? What value are his claims? To whom do his claims have use and value? Is his material part of a controversial issue, a debate, a trend, an agenda? Is there any reason to suppose that Bosco is pre-disposed in some way to find the answers he does? Where might subjectivity enter in? For example, I might point out that Bosco seems anxious to prove that there is a Puritan legacy and that this sermon genre is "fit" for study—well, what were contemporary attitudes, both popular and scholarly, towards the Puritans in the 1970s, and how do Bosco's conclusions play into them?
I might end here, asking each student to formally evaluate Bosco's essay. In short, were Bosco's claims substantiated by their readings in the archive? Hold his feet to the fire!
Or I might up the ante, asking the students to read another essay on the same topic, Wayne Minnick's "The New England Execution Sermon, 1639-1800," written a decade earlier.
Reading Minnick complicates considerations considerably. He works with the exact same bundle of data, yet only about five of the 20 or so sermons he references overlap with Bosco's, and their claims are not only different but seemingly unrelated at all. Though analyzing the "leading characteristics" of the execution sermon, for instance, Minnick mentions nothing about—that's nothing about—the breach of a national covenant that Bosco finds "verified repeatedly." It would be understandable and even valuable if the essays argued with each other over the meaning of the execution sermon, but they don't seem to touch at all. Now, class, what do we do with that?
Different people from different decades from different disciplines with different theoretical frameworks see different but equally valid things in the archive—that can be an important recognition. Without the archives we have no past. But we need people not only to make sense of the past but to make senses of the past.
And one of the things that I would want students to do with that realization is to feel somewhat free, even at their level, from the yoke of the expert scholar and the notion of one interpretation of "history." I'd ask them what other stories could be told from that group of sermons. What other claims could be made from the material they read? What optional, alternate, complementary or contesting claims might they make on the basis of their original research in the collection?
In short, I'd like even undergraduate students to feel actively engaged in making knowledge, to feel confident in their own visions and to chant—as one recent graduate of the archive experience did on a course evaluation—"I am scholar—hear me roar! Primary materials rule."
Works Cited and Consulted
Bass, Randy, and Bret Eynon. "Inquiry Activities: The Novice in the Archive." Intentional Media: The Crossroads Conversations on Learning and Technology in the American Culture and History Classroom. Works and Days 16.1-2 (1998): 42-50.
Bosco, Ronald A. "Lectures at the Pillory: The Early American Execution Sermon." American Quarterly 30.3 (1978): 156-76.
Gallagher, Edward J. "Teaching with the New Technology: Three Intriguing Opportunities." A Companion to The Literatures of Colonial America. Ed. Susan Castillio and Ivy Schweitzer. Malden: Blackwell, 2005. 110-20. [see the section on investigation]
History on Trial. Ed. Edward J. Gallagher. 2006. 3 Dec. 2006.
Minnick, Wayne, C. "The New England Execution Sermon, 1639-1800." Speech Monographs 35 (1968): 77-89.
Towner, Lawrence L. "True Confessions and Dying Warnings in Colonial New England." Sibley's Heir. A Volume in Memory of Clifford Kenyon Shipton. Boston: Colonial Soc. of Massachusetts and UP of Virginia, 1982. 523-39. [on the execution sermon]
White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1974.