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Jun 16, 2005 2:15 am

Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts

(Or, an English professor's further adventures in history...)

English professors may not see the immediate relevance of Sam Wineburg's Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (2001), an empirical study of "historical cognition" (xi)--that is, how teachers (mostly high school teachers), students, and parents think about the past.  Wineburg sensibly dismantles extreme claims that historical thinking is all about facts or all about interpretation, pointing out that while we cannot think about history without facts, we also cannot think about history if we confine ourselves to lists of dates.  He takes particular interest in what he calls "contextualized thinking" (90), in which readers "think about the past on its own terms" (90) by constructing narratives out of the sometimes sketchy primary evidence available (91). Wineburg hardly thinks that he's offering some revelatory insight here; the meat of the book lies in the case studies, which track both the pedagogical difficulties involved in thinking contextually (an "unnatural act," Wineburg argues), and the disciplinary frameworks that affect how teachers themselves understand such thinking.  Moreover, he goes on to analyze how students bring their own frameworks into the classroom--inherited from popular culture, religious influences, other teachers, etc.--and how that potentially affects the learning process. 

These interpretive frameworks can make themselves felt at odd moments in even the most formalist of literary classrooms.  For example, I occasionally teach a course called Women in the Novel.  It's not a "women writers" course, strictly speaking, but I generally teach it as such; this time around, we had all three Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, and, in theory, Mary Elizabeth Braddon.  (Not in practice, as it turned out.)  Like most Victorianists, I rapidly discovered that many students have "learned"--from TV? osmosis? random reading?--that Victorian women spent their entire lives in the house (literally, some of my students seem to believe), doing nothing but taking care of their children, cooking, and warming their husband's slippers.  Those students then interpret the novels through the prism of this pop culture "interpretation" of what Victorian women were expected to do, with decidedly quirky results.  Moreover, this pop culture framework sometimes sticks around long after you explain the far more complicated realities of a Victorian woman's everyday existence (which, of course, varied drastically according to decade, social class, religious affiliation, etc., etc., etc.).    I say this not to make fun of my students, but to point out a basic pedagogical difficulty: the historical narrative you provide in the classroom may not be the one that the students bring to the literary text, even when historicist interpretations are not even remotely at issue.  This problem becomes especially acute when the class is reading realist fiction, because it's so easy to read literary realism as a window onto social arrangements. 

But when we introduce "history" into our courses, how do we go about it? At a conference several years ago, a historian observed that historians like their literature to stay stable, whereas literary critics like their history to stay stable.  In other words, it's very easy to slip into the habit of presenting historical background stripped of its own disciplinary signposts--especially when we don't actually know the debates surrounding our history of choice.  Obviously, this danger becomes exacerbated when we're out of our element.  (Hey! Let's have the specialist in twentieth-century American literature teach British Literature I!)  But even when we do know the ins and outs of, say, the current scholarship on Victorian labor movements, I suspect that many of us--myself included--present the history as somehow denuded of disagreement, while emphasizing the complexity of the assigned literary works. 

As it happens, Wineburg discusses how a teacher's presuppositions about student abilities affects how s/he introduces historical thinking into the classroom.  Do we avoid metadisciplinary reflections in the undergraduate classroom because we think that the students can't handle it, or because we think that we don't have time? Similarly, do we try to separate formal and historical questions because we're nervous about the effects of badly digested factoids on papers, because we haven't figured out how to integrate the two, or because we've got other priorities? When I teach Victorian fiction, I point out that such novels aren't long because nineteenth-century readers just liked really, really big books--they're long because, until the end of the century, the financial incentives of the Victorian book trade both encouraged and demanded triple-deckers.  (As I like to quip, some Victorian novelists and publishers made the appropriate page length by resorting to techniques familiar to students: triple spacing, massive fonts, playing with the margins... Trollope grumbles about such things in the Autobiography.)  But I don't integrate this information as much as I would like; it's more of a stopgap, I think, designed to explain something without necessarily opening up new interpretive possibilities.  I take this route partly because I really want the students to learn how to pay close attention to the way poems or novels work as poems or novels--and because naive historicist readings reduce me to sobs of agony.  And yet, surely such naive readings are as much a product of the way I introduce historical information as they are of the students' own abilities? And yet again, if I only have the students for three hours per week, what can I reasonably expect them to accomplish?

(For an example of a site that opens up ways to talk about English disciplinary history, see Laura Mandell's Romantic Anthologies page.)

(X-posted to The Little Professor.)
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