Even cod can make history

One of the greatest challenges in any history class — from both the students' and the teachers' standpoints — is what to do with content.


All those dates, names, places, occurrences, causes, consequences, more dates, more names… it can all become overwhelming, particularly if the students do not have much background to anchor their learning. All too quickly, the students are confused and then tune out.


Once they’re lost, it’s incredibly difficult to re-engage them, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Yet without content from which to draw, how can students put the pieces together? How can they begin — just begin — to grasp the complexities behind an event, much less an epoch? Most important, how can a teacher pique their interest without spending time on the details that make up the stories make history?


I know very little about 12-century India. I have a vague notion that there were many different kingdoms (Is this accurate? How many? Am I completely wrong?) that went to war with one other once in a while. I know Indians had a relatively advanced grasp of medicine and mathematics and that they traded extensively with peoples to their east and to their west. Beyond that, however, my knowledge is pretty much bare. Yet this does not matter if I know how to ask the right questions and where to find the information I need to answer them. If I know how to organize my thoughts and my research, I can tackle any topic and become an expert in any area.


A historian is nothing more than a glorified detective or investigative journalist. A good historian learns about her topic — is motivated to learn about her topic — because she has a question she wants to explore, one that resonates with her professionally and personally (perhaps a connection or an interest). Her knowledge expands as research to answer the first question leads to new sets of questions, ones that she did not know she had at the beginning of the process because she did not know enough about the topic to know what to ask.


I wrote my dissertation on French colonial policy-making in Indochina during the Second World War. When I started, I knew next to nothing on French colonialism, but was curious about whether Vichy France exported its policies to its empire. I started with a question and unlocked content, and then more questions popped up. I did more digging and then my questions changed and then I was able to do all of this because I knew where to start by asking one particular question.


This brings me to my point: the most important thing about learning history is not the content itself; it is what to do with the questions we have. History becomes enjoyable once we see knowledge as an empty space we want to fill and we are motivated to fill the space simply because we stumbled across a topic that we want to learn more about.


Historian Mark Kurlansky wrote a book on how the cod fish was a driving force in world history. How can anyone write a book on that? Kurlansky probably started with a question and then did some digging. That, I believe, is how to engage students. Have them ask the right questions about a topic in which they are interested (the key sometimes is to help them discover that topic). Once teacher and student embrace this approach, the content follows naturally and more enjoyably.

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