Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"They say in the novel . . .": What Students Think about History Books and the Authors Who Write Them

Randall Stephens

Every semester I encounter, to paraphrase Oliver Sacks, the student who mistook his history book for a novel. A novel is a work of fiction. How many times do history professors have to explain the difference?

What is a Novel?

Why would a student think that a history book, say Eric Foner's A Short History of Reconstruction, qualifies as a "novel"? (Hint: It has nothing to do with postmodernism or new historicism.) Students don't mistake cricket for baseball or a minivan for a sports car. They are familiar with those, though. Maybe the average undergraduate thinks that if a book has a title and an author--and if it's not a phonebook, cookbook, or a dictionary--then it must be a novel. Perhaps he or she has read The Grapes of Wrath or Don Quixote or Island of the Blue Dolphins. The memory of reading those novels--with so many pages, and with an author's name on the cover--forms how the student thinks of a "book." A history book looks like a novel, smells like a novel, ergo it must be a novel.

What is an Author?

Another common misunderstanding: Students struggle with the idea of history being anything other than a natural force or a collection of unmediated facts. In my experience, quite a few students in history surveys have a very hard time thinking about how works of history--not textbooks--are produced by individuals who have a particular point of view and who develop an argument. I've often found that when students write a review of a book, they will not seem to grasp that there is an author and a thesis behind all that text on the pages they have read. So, summaries will make no reference to the author, as if the facts of history fell from the sky like meteors. Maybe this is why students have pronoun problems: "It says in the book . . ." "They say on page 25 . . ." Do students imagine that all books are like textbooks, written by anonymous committees? "They" sit around a table and figure out how to tell it as it actually happened. Or, "it" bubbles up from the deep and creates history. That might be reading too much into it.

As if Historians Wrote History Books in a Particular Context

Perhaps the average, or below average, student in a history class should be encouraged to think more about how historians or journalists write their books. It might seem like a kindergarten exercise, but . . . A history professor could describe how a historian like Nancy Cott came to write The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780-1835 in 1977. She could then explore with the students the social context of the 1960s and 1970s, the rise of the new social history, and then look at how the field of women's history and gender studies in later years added to what Cott wrote about. (Heather's post on historiography ably gets into these issues.)

I'm still trying to figure out how to deal with these matters. True, I might have to push this boulder up a hill, myth of sisyphus-style, for as long as I am in the classroom. But, if I can change how a few students conceive of the world, it might be worth it.


hcr said...

My most successful route into this issue is teaching Black Hawk's autobiography. The students can always tell me what he said, but when I ask why he dictated his memoirs in the first place, they're like deer in the headlights.

It takes all class to get to the idea that he wanted to defend his actions when his rival Keokuk had been so much more successful at keeping his band alive, and that his motivation colored the way he recounted events. This is a revelation for the students, one they always mention in course evaluations.

At my age, it seems painfully obvious that history is written from a particular perspective, but I do recall having a terrible time understanding the concept of historiography in college (although Professor Donald tried very hard to teach it to us). Perhaps the problem is related to maturity-- you need some time and experience under your belt before you begin to understand that the world is full of nuance (and that being in print is not a sign that something is automatically true).

Jonathan said...

I see both of these problems with my undergraduates.

In a way, the "novel" problem is the more interesting one. It suggests to me that our students just don't read much of anything. (That, of course, also explains some of the stranger mechanical irregularities I see in their papers.) There is only so much a history teacher can do about this problem in a given course. But the problem underscores just how important it is to keep the students reading.

The perspective problem is a little easier to understand. It's been a lot longer since I didn't know what a novel is than it has been since I learned that writers argue. This problem, I think, reveals the importance of having our students read *multiple* things.

I simply don't believe in giving my students a single perspective on anything. Undergraduates will only learn to look for an author's point if they actually see for themselves that different authors have different points.

Randall said...

hcr and Jonathan: Thanks for those examples. Gives me a better idea of how to meet these challenges in the classroom.

I agree that few students actually read much of anything outside the classroom. I also wonder how we can expect some students to develop as writers when they have no intrinsic interest in writing or reading.