Teaching History As the “Great Unknown”

critical-creating thinking banner 2015by Doug Boin, Assistant Professor, History

There’s a cliche among people outside the historian’s guild: History is about names and dates, memorization of facts, and the knowledge of content crammed into textbooks. Ten years ago, there were probably some truths to this cliche, back in the era before YouTube and Wikipedia. These days, the same content can be streamed anywhere, anytime. And some of it is really cool! (For a stop-motion animation of tiny figures building Trajan’s column in Rome, see National Geographic [http://www.nationalgeographic.com/trajan-column/article.html]).

Clearly the history professor’s role is changing. Students don’t need us to get their basic information anymore, and that’s causing a ripple in the field. It’s also important for people outside the guild, across the university, to recognize that, too. What our first-year history students need is for us to help them practice and refine their thinking and analytical skills, and that’s exactly what my colleagues and I at SLU now do in our core classes and in our large introductory courses.

Because, when it comes to history, I want even the most beginning-level undergraduate to know how we know what we know about the past. I don’t just want them to accept information uncritically.

Taking a pro-critical thinking stance is not a controversial position, of course. What I’d like to do in this post, however, is give an example of how many of us inside the discipline of history are transforming the older lecture model—of the first-year classroom as a content delivery system (“Read! Memorize! Repeat!”)—into a laboratory that helps students acquire skills that will last beyond the final exam. The goal is to give them a toolkit that they can take with them whether they choose to dig deeper into history or not.

My favorite way of doing this is to ask students to write a commentary on a source they’ve never seen before. This source can be snippet of text, or it can be an archaeological object. I just asked my large lecture class this fall to write on a fragment by the Roman poet Horace, who celebrates the death of Rome’s enemy, Queen Cleopatra, even though he’s too proud to mention her by name [Horace’s Odes 1.37 here: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0025:book=1:poem=37]. My students, who had read about Roman aversions to “the queen” in Virgil’s great national poem, the Aeneid, picked it up naturally. The Teaching Assistants and I were really impressed!

The aim of an exercise like this is to give students an opportunity to draw upon broad themes and specific knowledge they’ve acquired working with us throughout the semester and to apply that information to something they weren’t “required” to know. (Hat-tip to my teaching mentor Prof. Adam Rabinowitz in the Department of Classics at UT-Austin [https://twitter.com/adamrabinowitz], who gave me an excellent model for how to accomplish this sort of exercise in a 300-person lecture.) By introducing students to the “great unknown,” I can even model for them how I do my job as an historian—not because I’m asking them to demonstrate a vague notion of critical thinking but because I’m asking for them to use critical thinking to read and interpret a piece of historical content.

In short, the “unknown” exercise requires students to make connections between something they know and something they’ve never seen, and that’s an important skill they can take with them whether they stay in the discipline or not.


s200_douglas.boinDouglas Boin, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of History at Saint Louis University and Reinert Center Teaching Fellow 2014–15. He is the author, most recently, of Coming Out Christian in the Roman World: How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar’s Empire (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015).

To accompany our 2015-2016 theme of Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively, fall contributors were asked to share their thoughts about two questions: 1) What does critical thinking look like in your field or discipline? And 2) How do you teach students to do it?

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