“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:
- When discussing the Great Awakening, I assign portions of Thomas Kidd’s The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America along with Jon Butler’s “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as interpretive Fiction.”
- On the Constitution, I compare portions of Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 with portions from Woody Holton’s Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution. (Another appearance by Holton; but then, he is my favorite contrarian.)
- On religion and politics in the early republic, I assign competing chapters from Nathan Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity and Amanda Porterfield’s Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation.
- On Native Americans and United States politics, I assign the roundtable on the “Iroquois Influence” thesis that appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly.
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?