Unit 2 — History and Historical Thinking

“History is nothing but a pack of tricks that we play on the dead.”
— Voltaire

“History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we are literally criminals.”
— James Baldwin

“Historical truth . . . is not what happened. It’s what we judged to have happened.”
— Jorge Luis Borges

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.”
— Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Photo by Smart on Unsplash

During the next couple of weeks, we’re going to think about what *History* is as a field of study and how historians approach the study of the past. All too often, history is portrayed or considered as a static field, a collection of events that already happened, a set of “names and dates.”

As the above quotes suggest, however, history is not static. It’s never settled. Yet, it’s something that all of us as human beings and members of certain cultural, religious, political, social, groups have claims upon. We all define ourselves, at least in part, by what we understand to be our history.

During the first week of class, we thought about the ways that we each personally define history, as well as the ways that we keep our own histories. We’re going to build on those conversations by reading about the ways that historians define their field of study and how they do their work.

For a broad overview of history, historical thinking, and sources, read the information at this Google Site that I created a few years back: “History and Its Sources.” Also, read “Historiography and Historical Skills” from the West African Senior School Certificate Examination digital textbook. Also, if you get the chance, read Mr. Hart’s “What is Historiography?” as well.

As you read (or right after you read, depending on how you work), tweet your thoughts about the following: How has your definition of history changed after completing these readings? What are the main differences between the two readings in terms of how they approach historical study? Why isn’t history “set in stone”? In other words, what are some of the reasons for revising history? Remember that the class hashtag is #CNM1103. [As a bonus question, what is the definition of “historiography.”]

Next, watch the two short videos posted below and read “What does it Mean to Think Historically,” a 2007 article by Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke.

As you read and watch the video clips, consider the following questions and post your ideas on Twitter: What is Historical Thinking and how is it both similar to and different from critical thinking? What are “legitimate historical questions”? And, why is it harder to ask a good historical question than to find the answer? Remember that the class hashtag is #CNM1103.

Our conversations on Twitter about those sets of questions will help us to flesh out our understanding of the field of History and the basic building blocks of Historical Thinking. It’s a good idea to tweet your ideas as you read and as you view the videos, meaning that you may post a couple of tweets each day over the course of the first week of this Unit. All tweets for this first part of Unit 2 are due by the First Sunday of the Unit (September 12) at 11:59 pm.

During the second week of the Unit, we’re going to think about Andrews and Flannery’s “5Cs of Historical Thinking” model as a means of applying historical thinking skills to different historical questions and sources.

As a reminder, the 5 Cs are:

  1. Change over time
  2. Context
  3. Causality
  4. Contingency
  5. Complexity
  • *Extra Mile* opportunity: use Hypothes.is to annotate the Andrews and Flannery article. Join our class Hypothes.is group with this link. Be sure that you’ve selected the group “Intro to Historical Study” when you add your annotations to the article so that we’ll be able to see your comments and respond to them. Consult the tutorial video contained in CNM Learn for more information about how to sign into and use Hypothes.is. There are also Help articles and FAQ here. Remember that we will be using the platform next week for a required assignment, so this is a good opportunity to try it out and make sure that you address any issues you may have with using it.

Once you have an understanding of the 5Cs and how they apply to the study of the past, identify a historical site, location, book, film, website, etc. that you visit, pass by, read, watch, or otherwise interact with on a (semi-)regular basis. What about that item catches your interest? What more would you want to learn about it in order to understand its historical value, and why? Which of the 5Cs does your historical item address (it may illustrate more than one, but you only have to choose one for this exercise)? What is the historical significance of the item you’ve identified?

Photo by Uriel Soberanes on Unsplash

[For more on historical significance and the trouble with the idea of “objective” history, see Kevin Gannon’s post “Objective History is Impossible. And That’s a Fact.”]

To round out our study for this Unit, write a post on Medium that tells the rest of us about the historical item you’ve identified. Do your best to address the questions I’ve posed above, including the one about historical significance. Because, as Gannon indicates, significance is bestowed rather than inherent, you’ll need to make your case to help us understand why you find your particular item to be important.

Also, recognize that Medium allows for multi-modal forms of expression, including videos, images, and hyperlinks. If you’re more comfortable with creating a video or photo essay to address these questions, you’re more than welcome to do so. The written word is not the only means of expression.

As an example, here’s my entry on a historical item. I made a video to emphasize that you can create Medium posts using other means than the written word. (Of course, you can write your post — feel free to do so).

Your Medium post is due by the Second Sunday of this Unit, September 19, by 11:59 pm. As always, please don’t hesitate to send me an email, a text, or a tweet, whenever you have questions or need some help.



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Brandon Morgan

Brandon Morgan

CC History Instructor, father of three, and researcher of the Borderlands, U.S. West, and Modern Mexico. Working on a book about Violence and the rural border.