How Do We Talk about History?: Questions for Consideration
My students initially had a difficult time discussing Robert M. Collins' account of the Reagan years, Transforming America. In large part, this was so not because the students did not understand the reading, but rather because many of them had never been given the tools that they need to critically and constructively talk about history. For many of these students, history was taught as a series of dates, places, figures, and events that they had to memorize and recall, rather than as a series of invested narratives that must be interrogated in much the same way that we interrogate political discourse, literature, or even the media. This page contains a list of questions that the class and I collaboratively generated as a means of engaging with a historical text, like Collins' Transforming America. While by no means exhaustive in their scope, these questions are intended to be used as a guide for interacting with and understanding any secondary historical text that readers might encounter and they offer a very useful starting point for historical inquiry.
1. What makes a certain moment, event, or personage stand out enough to be recorded in history? Why are some moments, events, or personages remembered in history and others are not?
2. What “argument” about a moment, event, or personage is being made in a given text? What kinds of “themes” (or “reasons”) emerge to support this argument?
3. Is there any reason to be skeptical of this version of history, of this argument?
4. What parallels can be drawn between the historical moment, event, or personage under study and other historical moments, events, or personages? What differences can be seen when the historical moment, event, or personage under study is juxtaposed with other historical moments, events, or personages and what kinds of conclusions can we draw about those differences?
5. Who “makes” (writes, publishes, etc.) history? What ideological choices undergird the making of history? And how might those ideological choices impact the making of history?
6. How are moments, events, and/or personages linked together? What kinds of trends, intellectual and/or socio-historical currents, commonalities emerge from these links?
7. How can historical moments, events, and/or personages be interpreted in different ways?
8. How would this historical moment, event, and/or personage impact “everyday people”? (For that matter, who is the “everyday person” in any given historical moment?) What would this “history”/argument look like if told from the point of view of or focused on another person or group of people?
9. What is the purpose of this history/argument? Why was it written/recorded?
10. What parts of this history cannot be documented? Why? And in what ways do those omissions impact the shape and trajectory of this history/argument?
11. How “accurate” is this author’s perspective/argument regarding this history? What factors impact this author’s point of view on the topic? How might these factors impact what the author focuses on (topic-wise) and what the author chooses to exclude (again, topic-wise)?
12. Are we capable of putting normative evaluations (i.e., “good” vs. “bad”) on historical moments, events, and/or personages? Why/why not? And what value might such evaluations have to the reader/interpreter of history?
13. How does (Does?) this history/argument make me more (or less) aware of my biases as a historical subject?