Saturday, July 19, 2014

Doing History

The historian is no different from anyone else in that she cannot shed her point of view (POV). POV is how a person sees the world. It is the lens of perception that colors and filters how a person interprets. POV is shaped by one's culture, experiences, and values. Historians approach the past from a position in the present. The historian is not a detached observer of the past, simply reporting what happened. Unbiased accounts or so called objective histories do not exist because historians are not able to shed their point of view, and the sources they use to inform their interpretations are colored with the point of view of those who created them in a different time and place.

Newly created sources and sources that happen to have survived for decades or even centuries retain both the intellectual imprints of their creators, as well as the times they were created. This is what makes sources valuable. This is also what makes reading sources an exercise in inference and reading between the lines.

The interaction between the historian and the past is far from simple. Equally complex is the interaction between the reader and the works of historians, and the reader and his attempt to makes sense of original sources, which are fragments of the past.

The sources historians handle to answer their questions about the past will also have been created at particular moments in time by people with particular points of view. How historians approach sources depend on the questions they are asking. As a prerequisite, obviously, the historian always needs to be sure that a source is what they think it is. This is the process of authenticating a source. Is this actually a letter written in 1917 by an English soldier to his mother? The process of authentication is not typically performed by our students, though if you are using sources that have been adapted to modern language or excerpted for brevity, it is necessary to talk to students about this process.

Once a source is determined to be authentic, not to be confused with a determination of primary vs. secondary, a series of questions needs to be asked and answered. Most of the questions you ask are going to be tied to the big question that you are trying to answer. Some general questions that you are going to want to ask of all sources include the following:

What kind of source is this? Is it a letter, a diary entry, a newspaper article, government statistics, another historian’s perspective on this topic?

Why does source type matter? The inferences a researcher derives from sources are shaped by the type of source. First, it is necessary to make sure that the sources you are using align to the question you are researching.

For example, if you are reading soldiers' letters home you must remember that these letters were often read by the military before they were allowed to be sent home. Soldiers were aware of this and often self censored. To pursue a research question about soldiers' attitudes during World War I, you would have to rely on more than just letters. Other writings help to inform this question, including works of fiction such as stories and poems.

If you are looking for evidence of changes in economic conditions in post civil war America, you might look at newspapers or tax data. In both cases, you are not interested in the motivations of the authors of these sources in the same way as you were when reading the soldiers' letters. This is because your research question is different. If you were looking for evidence of anti Semitism in post WWII America and you were examining various newspapers, you would scrutinize much more closely the people responsible for publishing the newspaper and its contents, as well as information about its readers.

And how does the type of source I am reading, in the context of my research question, impact my reading of it?

Keith Barton and Sean Lang remind us that questions about a source's reliability are often misplaced. Reliable for what? Questions about reliability must always be asked in the context of one's research question. Remember, reliability is not the same as authenticity. And, unfortunately, reliability, in the minds of many students, is code for bias. Teachers need to be thoughtful about teaching students that point of view and bias are linked. Reliability, on the other hand, has to do with how well a source informs a research question. A source may be reliable for one research question and unreliable for another. Reading tax data to learn about soldiers' attitudes during a war is an example of using a source in a way that is unreliable in light of the research question.

Other questions to consider...

Under what circumstances was this source created? And how does this contextual information impact how I read this source?

How might I be able to use this source? As evidence of…..

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