Using Contraries in the Classroom: Thoughts on Choosing Reading Assignments

“Without Contraries there is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion,
Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil.
Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing
from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.”
-William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

I doubt that the mercurial poet William Blake had American historiography on his mind when he penned these famous lines from his most famous poem, but I am going to use them for such a purpose anyhow. And who knows—Blake was indeed known as a visionary.

My graduate program provides a unique perspective on teaching. At Cambridge, most undergraduate courses do not resemble the American model of going to class, participating in discussion, being assigned homework and reading, taking an exam at the end of the semester, and then all of those components be compounded together for an overall course grade. Rather, we split those experiences into three: we have lectures (where faculty, um, lecture on the designated topic for an hour), supervisions (where students, usually in a one-on-one setting, are given reading and writing assignments related to that course’s topic, which may or may not be related to the lectures they are then attending), and exams (which take place at the end of the second and third years and comprise the entirety of the student’s evaluation); the former two elements are primarily and solely a preparation for the latter exam. As with any pedagogical structure, there are upsides and downsides to this, but one thing I love about it is that it allows me to work individually with students to determine particular readings and arguments that would interest them, and then engage on what they found compelling. Each week, I can assign a student a combination of books and articles (I usually aim for about 300 pages) that, I hope, will do three things: prepare them for later exams, offer a broad overview of that week’s topic, and, most importantly, introduce them to the historical craft in the form of witnessing how different historians interpret and present evidence. I’m sure those who teach more traditional history courses face a much similar dilemma.

I give this preface just to offer background to the fact that I have been thinking a lot about reading assignments lately. This has been a constant struggle for me, as I’m sure it was for all of you. When I was a freshman and sophomore, I always thought it must be so easy to choose classroom texts: find out what the popular textbook was, order it, and you’re done. (If you were really adventurous, you could also order the supplementary readings text!) Then as an upperclassman, of course, I was introduced to the beauty of monographs, and that’s where it became both exciting and challenging. It was through reading these books that I realized that history was more than a narrative of names, dates, and facts, but an argument that could be interpreted in different ways. Now that I am in the position of introducing students to that same awakening, I am constantly considering new ways to frame historical issues through my reading assignments. This has led me to experiment with second- and third-year students by offering competing historical analyses that center the question of interpretation for my students—the “contraries,” as William Blake would put it, that bring “progression.”

Now, of course, I wouldn’t continue to follow Blake’s template by using these “contraries” to prove “good” and “evil,” or even the broader question of “reason” and “passion,” but I do use contrarian books to help students determine the nature of historical reading and writing. For example, this week I had my early American history students read excerpts from two books that are known to be quite contrary: Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and Woody Holton’s Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, and the Coming of the Revolution in Virginia. Needless to say, these prompt considerable discussion, being that they offer conflicting origins to a monumental event that most undergraduates think we know everything about. Besides giving a broader understanding to the topic—and often undermining the frameworks in which students had previously understood the event—discussion of these two books also offers an acute opportunity to discuss interpretive methods, framing priorities, and historiographical debate. In short, I hope students leave the supervision not only with better historical knowledge of the origins of the American Revolution, but also better tools for developing a historical consciousness in general.

Here are a few other “contraries” I like to use:

These are just a few examples. And they don’t have to be limited to secondary works: I also like to assign primary sources from Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke so students can explore contrasting interpretations of republicanism and democracy during the Age of Revolutions.

Now, I know there are problems with this approach, which is why I am still experimenting with it. Most of all, I’ve found that most students, especially in an American classroom setting, crave a narrative and synthetic approach. Second, it is often hard to get undergraduates to grasp the complexities of these historiographical debates, and this can easily end up being more confusing than edifying. And finally, it is frankly tough to get undergraduates to read enough in order to make the most out of this type of approach, and when offering excerpts (which is necessary to making the reading load manageable) it is easy to leave out important sections of the books. All of these factors are why competing monographs are often more common at the graduate level of instruction.

But is it possible to have prolonged success with relying on competing secondary readings in the classroom, even if it is left to a limited scale? My experience has been mixed, but hopeful. Has anyone else tried something similar? And if so, what competing texts do you find work the best with undergraduates?

7 responses

  1. I wonder what the undergrads think of the approach of reading “contrary” works (beside “you mean I have to read something else?!). What is their takeaway about history and historiography?

    I fear that the student takeaway might be that historians disagree on the same level that contrary pundits on a political talk show disagree. You might be able to answer this better than I, but to what depth do you go to explain the causes of interpretive differences? Certainly much of it can owe to a larger interpretive super-structure, but what can be attributed to the base nuts-and-bolts work of historians…the methods, the choice of sources, the analytical approach and other even more mundane choices like, say, geographic reach of the topic studied, that we want students to appreciate?

    What I have seen in my past classes with contrary reading is kind of a ambiguous shoulder shrug, with a comment like “well, the truth be somewhere in the middle.” That’s not what I want them to learn.

    Looking deeper into the historiography, maybe the big attention-getting oppositional works like Wood and Holton distract from the fact that interpretive differences are the result of conversation and evolutionary change that “bring progression” as much as “contraries” might. That is less sensational and thus less gripping of the students’ attention, but might open the way for the kind of discernment we try to convey in the academic setting. I might offer, for instance, from my own topic area, Frank Owsley’s Plain Folk of the Old South, Bill Cecil-Fronsman’s Common-Whites, and perhaps Timothy Lockley’s Lines in the Sand. None are interpretively contrary—in fact, all three conclude that non-elite people in the south had a thriving cultural and social lives apart from planter hegemony—but all are so different in their methods, questions asked, and analytical approaches that each have wildly different interpretations, if not conclusions. In terms of promulgating historical thinking skills this might work just as well. The downside, I suppose, is that approach will not likely prompt heated classroom debate about the Big Important Things or get them thinking about important historical narrative.

  2. Great post, Ben.

    The difficulty with competing secondary sources, in my experience, is that they don’t really work apart from a basic narrative and an array of related primary sources. If I just present my students with two possible interpretations, they have no way of picking between them (or even detecting the differences, in many cases). If I give them a story, then present them with primary sources to explore, and then offer competing interpretations of that evidence, the whole thing often makes sense. The really hard part, for me, is delivering a clear and interesting enough narrative in the beginning without skewing the interpretive discussions at the end.

    I think it works best to work in bits of the primary and secondary sources as I lecture—previewing the difficulties, paradoxes, and areas of debate that I want to dig into later.

    You’re absolutely right about the importance of using contrasting secondary sources, even if we have to do it at the most rudimentary level. And I don’t think we should be above using tendentious popular sources if they’re influential today; a bad popular history, in fact, may be just the thing to help undergrads understand the basic architecture of interpretation.

  3. I use this kind of strategy in reading assignments, too, but I think that if the readings are too long (or what’s more likely, they don’t know how to read secondary sources), then students might lose the rationale behind the assignment. They’re also very slow to pick up on the arguments that are motivating the disagreement, unless they’re actively constructing their own arguments. If you’re into this argumentative approach, I’d suggest you look into Graff and Birkinstein’s They Say/I Say to see how they model the students’ entry into academic discourse, which is argument based. You might get more of a lift this way, by tying it to a productive assignment like an essay or annotated bibliography, by forcing them to compare, evaluate, and synthesize sources themselves in a brief, directed assignment.

  4. As a student who has recently completed his undergraduate work in history, I feel compelled to mention that it was this approach to instruction that made me fall in love with the discipline. In a course on slave rebellions, my professor taught Douglas Egerton’s He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey. After we finished reading the text, my professor assigned us Michael P. Johnson’s lengthy review, “Denmark Vesey and His Co-Conspirators,” which reveals substantial errors between the original trial manuscript and Edward Pearson’s published transcription. After revealing this discrepancy, my professor introduced us to William and Mary’s roundtable on the Denmark Vesey Conspiracy.

    I found that this approach was incredibly effective because it demonstrated that historiographical conversations can take place between books, book reviews, and articles (as opposed to needing to set aside time for two competing monographs). I’m not sure if this helps you plan, but I figured I’d give my two cents.

    Thank you for mentioning the texts you had in mind, Benjamin. I’ve been meaning to pick up some of Woody Holton’s books and I appreciate the reminder.

  5. Strangely I only do this with my freshmen and graduate students. For my graduate students they can handle competing monographs on a topic (and supplementary articles). But for my freshmen (in a summer survey, which is very time constrained), I assign Taking Sides. Every week they are assigned a “side” and have to debate it out. It’s fun, and they actually get a lot out of it appropriate for a freshmen survey at a local state college.

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