“An Introduction to Cannibal Talk”: Instructions and Questions.

In the following assignment we will break down the main elements of Chapter 1: “An Introduction to Cannibal Talk” from the book Converging on Cannibals: Terrors of Slaving in Atlantic Africa 1509-1670 by Jared Staller (Ohio University Press, 2019). 

The goal of this assignment is to practice how to identify the key elements of a secondary source. The activity is set-up to be completed as part of a Canvas course using the integration with the annotation tool “Hypothesis.”

This activity has two parts: 

Part I.

  • First, you will open the assignment called “An Introduction to Cannibal Talk”. You will be asked to open the assignment in a separate window.

When you open the secondary window, you will be in Hypothesis. Here you will be able to read the chapter and the annotations I have added to it. Pay close attention to the annotations I have added. They are there to introduce the elements of the chapter I want you to identify. In each annotation I identify one element, give you a brief explanation of it, and then assign a tag for it.

  • I have annotated some of the initial pages, your assignment is to annotate the rest of the chapter. You will be asked to identify AT LEAST ONE EXAMPLE of each of the elements tagged in the reading.  The elements you will have to identify and tag are:
    • Story Chronology: Whenever you find a date or indication of WHEN something happened in the story told in the book.
    • Story Characters: Whenever you find the name of a historical character.
    • Story Places: Whenever you find a reference to a place or geographical marker such as mountains, rivers, etc.
    • General Purpose: Any passage that helps you understand what is the general purpose of the author. 
    • Argument: Any passage that states, explains or elaborates on one of the arguments made in the book.
    • Historiography: Any passage that explains or describes what other historians have said about the questions and arguments examined in the book.
    • Primary Source: Any passage that describes the content of a primary source.
    • Primary Source context: Any passage that describes and explains the context in which a primary source was created and/or preserved.
    • Evidence: Any passage that explains the reasons why the author believes that his argument is correct. Evidence can come from the primary source, from secondary sources (for instance in the historiography), from specialists other than historians, etc. 
    • Significance: Any passage where the author talks about how his arguments or conclusions help us understand the present or the world beyond the narrow area of study in the book.
  • To annotate select a passage that you want to annotate and click on the “Annotate” button. On the right side of your screen, you will find the text box to enter your annotation and a dropdown menu to enter your tag. 
  • In your annotation provide a brief explanation of why you chose that passage and why you decided to tag it in the way you did.
  • The last dropdown menu will allow you to choose to publish your annotation to the whole class or just to yourself. Make sure you post it to all the class so I can see your annotations. 


  • In the second part of the assignment I want you to look at your annotations and those of your classmates and see if they help you better understand the chapter. Try answering the following questions:
    1. According to this chapter, the general purpose of the book is to correct some misconceptions. What are the misconceptions that this book seeks to correct?
    2. How would you articulate the main question this book is hoping to answer?
    3. How would you articulate the tentative answer he offers to his question? (This is what we can call the main argument).
    4. Have other historians asked the question investigated in this book?
    5. Which other historians have studied the history of the Imbangala?
    6. What is different about the questions asked by other historians and the questions asked in this book?
    7. Why did the author take a different approach to other historians in the past?
    8. How would you characterize this book in relation to the existing historiography? For example, does it prove that what other historians thought of the Imbangala was wrong? Does it build on the work that was previously done? What is the contribution that this book makes to the conversation about the history of the Imbangala?
  • Answer these questions in a separate document and submit it by copying and pasting your answers in the text box.

Working on Hypothesis.

Now that you have seen the overall structure of the assignment. Let me show you what I have given students in terms of annotations.

I have added annotations and tags to identify key elements of the text. The purpose of this is to get them to slow down and develop the habit of reading the text in a more deliberate and active way, continuously asking themselves what is the purpose of a word or passage.

The first two annotations, for instance, are simply calling students’ attention to a date and a name. In both cases, I have added a tag for each of these. The purpose is for them to start getting in the habit of keeping track of names and dates as they read. In these two examples I introduced the tags “Story Chronology” and “Story character.”

I also introduced tags for geographical references. As in the example below.

In addition to keeping track of elements of the story that is being told. I also want them to pay attention to instances when the author introduces or comments on the sources he is using. For these, I created two tags, “Primary Source” and “Primary Source Context”

Another important part of understanding that the stories they will be reading about are the result of long investigation into primary and secondary sources is to identify the historiography that allowed this research to exist.

Another important element that students tend to either ignore, or confuse with either the general purpose of the book, or the main argument, are the points that the author makes about the larger significance of their work. To help with this, I created a tag for “Significance.”

It is not always easy to articulate, in a few words, what the central argument or arguments of a book are. Sometimes, it is necessary to read carefully at the different points presented by the author, and often times too, the author repeats these throughout the text. Thus, it is important for students to know that they can find that central argument in various parts of the text and often, articulated in different ways.

Finally, even in the introduction, authors start giving readers a some glimpses into the kind of evidence they will use in making their arguments. This is a good opportunity for students to be introduced to different kinds of evidence and see if this can prepare them to better follow and evaluate the arguments presented in the text. In the example below, I introduced a tag for “Evidence.”

Challenges of teaching historical thinking in the digital age.

I believe one of the greatest challenges that we face as history educators is to contend with the promise and the illusion of ease that the digital world often offers. The skills involved in historical thinking are not easy to master, they require, practice, persistence, patience, and the ability to be comfortable with not having clear and cut answers.

Digital tools provide greater and more convenient access to sources and they can help students read and understand materials more efficiently. However, they do not necessarily reduce the amount of time and effort that students need to practice important skills such as close reading and writing. 

The challenge, thus, becomes how to introduce the use of digital tools while still encouraging patience, attention to detail, and persistence? In this regard, the introduction of digital tools can be seen as a blessing in disguise in that it also forces us, as educators to be very deliberate about our goals when adopting a particular tool. The greater clarity we have about what is that we want our students to learn, the easier it will be to communicate those expectations to them. Moreover, the tool should serve as a “drill” that is, it should allow them to focus their attention on particular skills in a way that feels efficient and engaging. It should enable students to realize that they are active participants in their own learning. In this regard digital tools can be very helpful since they emphasize interactivity, active participation and, hopefully, productive and intelligent repetition, which may be the hardest sale. But given the right tools we may be able to help students cultivate more patience and persistence and realize that, though difficult, historical thinking is worth the time and effort.

Final Project Update

The goal of this activity is to teach college undergraduates how to read the historiographical context of a source and how to use that context to better understand the arguments presented in the source. For this particular activity I will use the book Converging on Cannibals by Jared Staller. In this book Staller examines how a central African community identified as the Imbangala or Jagga came to be identified as cannibals in early Portuguese sources and how the “myth” persisted until modern times. The focus of this book is precisely to re-examine sources that have been part of the historiographical conversation since the 1960s when historians first started to examine the history of the Imbangala first through Portuguese written sources, then African oral sources and now through a re-examination of the Portuguese sources.

The activity will present students with an annotated version of the Introduction that will help students identify the different elements of a book introduction. That is, where and how historians speak of historiography, how it is framed and described, and how does it allow them to introduce new questions.

This past week I worked on deciding which annotation platform I wanted to use. I tried Annotation Studio, but it was not very easy to use and it is not easily integrated with Canvas. Then I tried Hypothesis. This was a bit tricky at first, I had to use the OCR tool they provide, since I am working with scanned pages from the original book. In the end I was able to get a good enough copy and successfully load it into the assignment.

What is left now is to annotate the Introduction and figure out what is the best way of presenting it to students. I am trying to decide if a tutorial composed of screenshots will be good enough. But I may try a short video presentation that will allow me not only to highlight the annotation of the introduction, but also the way to use Hypothesis so that students can then do their own annotation of the first chapter.

Visual Media and History Education

Historical thinking includes a complex set of skills and dispositions. One of them consists in helping students cultivate greater empathy and understanding of individuals and societies that were different from ours. This is one of the most difficult goals of historical thinking since it requires that we recognize both how the past is connected to us and, at the same time, alien from us. 

I usually tell my students that we should always grant the subjects of our study the benefit of the doubt. That is, we should depart from the premise that they were rational human beings. By rational I mean they had good reasons to behave in the way they did. Whether what they thought as good reasons is different from what we would consider good reasons is a different matter. Thus, the work of historical thinking is precisely to learn what counted as good reasons for the individuals that we try to understand. 

Film and television are particularly well suited to help students cultivate this particular disposition. Stories told through films are typically centered on individuals that operate in a broader historical context. A good film maker has to elicit an understanding of the subjects presented in the film, this means that the actions of the characters should seem rational in the context in which they are portrayed. When it comes to historical films, the presentation of a story is a form of narrative argument, it is presenting a version of people and events. Everything in the film, from the language used to the clothes worn by the actors, should advance the argument being presented.

The power of film to convince us of the reality of reality of an interpretation often relies in its ability to create an internal logic. This logic, however, may have little or no connection to historical facts. The verisimilitude and relative simplicity of a story presented in film can create the illusion of accuracy. This is why, I believe, using film and other popular culture depictions is very important in the classroom. The visual narratives that we encounter in film, television and, increasingly, video games are key means by which students are exposed to interpretations of the past. It is important that we help them understand what is that they can learn from film, television series or even video games and how to approach them with critical eyes. 

A couple of years ago I taught a class on ethics and history and I used quite a few films or scenes in films to examine how historical events were depicted and the moral judgements that were embedded in such films. For instance, I used a film by the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar called Parallel Mothers together with a documentary also produced by Almodovar called The Silence of Others. Both examine a movement led by victims who were either torture during the dictatorship of General Franco, or women whose children were forcibly given up for adoption. In general, both works look at the question of what it is owed to the people who suffered these abuses? And how should their stories be remembered? Both works, are, in themselves an answer to these questions, but said answers are, of course, validated differently in the movie as opposed to the documentary.  In class, we examine the tools used in both work to present the arguments. For example, the documentary used interviews with victims of the dictatorship, while the movie presents the story of two fictitious women. I encouraged students to reflect on their reaction to the stories told. Which story did they trust more and why? Which story did they find more compelling in terms of accepting the argument that surviving members of the Franco government should be tried for crimes against humanity? Is it enough that victims’ stories are told in this manner? More than anything I want students to become aware that stories told in film compellingly elicit empathy largely through an emotional response to the recreation of a historical universe. If this is the case, shouldn’t we make sure that the reconstruction of such universe takes into account all known aspects of the past, and not just the ones that can easily elicit an emotional connection? This may not be the function of films, but it is, nonetheless a question that we should ask ourselves as educated viewers of visual narratives.

It is in this regard that Digital Story Telling can be a great tool. In traditional teaching we ask students to read historical interpretations, analyze which sources were used, who wrote them and when they were written. We hope that by reading and understanding how historians create their interpretations, students will be then equipped to produce some interpretations of their own, or, at the very least, summarize what other interpretations have offered. Digital Story Telling offers students the opportunity to reflect on how to tell a story using visual media. The main mechanism for them to learn the language of moving images accompanied by a script is through movies, documentaries, television series and video games. By asking students to create short historical films, as those presented as Digital Story Telling projects, we are asking students to understand the questions and challenges that any film maker has to face in the process of telling a story. This is a great way of making students more critical about the films they watch either on the movie theater, television or in the games they play.

Review of Episode 6, Season 2 of The Crown: “Vergangenheit”

The Crown is a historical drama series that dramatizes the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II. It was created by Peter Morgan and produced by Left Bank Pictures and Sony Pictures Television Studies and distributed through Netflix. The first season was released in 2016 and the last season on 2023. The series starts with Queen Elizabeth’s wedding in 1947 through the wedding of Prince Charles in 2005.

Peter Morgan was also the writer for The Queen, a film focused on the response of Queen Elizabeth, her family and her Government to the death of Princess Diana. The Crown is a much expanded reflection on the character and history of the monarchy as seen through the many changes experienced during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

The seasons of the Crown are organized chronologically. Season one covers the ascension of Queen Elizabeth, her coronation and her struggles trying to understand and fulfill her obligations as queen. Season two focuses a lot more on the challenges posed by decolonization and the attempt of the Crown to assert its meaning and value on the face of a changing world.

Episode 6 “Vergangenheit” (which, interestingly, translates as “the past”, in contrast with “geshichte” which would be “history”) was written by Peter Morgan and directed by Philippa Lowthorpe. It is available on Netflix where I watched it. This episode starts with a scene with two cars driving on an empty road surrounded by forests. On the screen, we see a caption identifying the place as “Thuringia Forest. Germany 1945.” The cars are driven by soldiers, some of the them speaking in English, and, at least one of them dressed in a German uniform and speaking in German. The cars stop, the soldiers start to search. The German soldier indicates a spot on the ground and the other soldiers start digging until they find something. They unearth a metal box and drive away with it. In the next scene we see the same cars arrive on what the caption tells us is “Marburg Castle”. We see many soldiers sorting through boxes and files. An American officer in the castle opens the box where he find letters, files and several reels of microfiche. He asks one of the American soldiers accompanying the German officer what is that he wants. He wants freedom and enough money to retire, responds the American soldier. To this, the American officer responds that they will have to see whether there is anything good in the documents provided by the German officer, and orders the documents to be translated. We never do find out if this German soldier got what he wanted, but we do find out that, what was contained in that box were the Marburg File.

The Marburg File contained information about the connections between the Duke of Windsor and his wife Wallis Simpson, and high ranking members of Nazi leadership. The Duke of Windsor had abdicated the throne of the United Kingdom in 1936 after choosing to marry Wallis Simpson an American divorcee. In previous episodes, we have seen the contentious relationship between the Duke and members of the Royal Family and other members of the British establishment who blame him for the premature death of his brother, King George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth, and for bringing the monarchy to the verge of a major constitutional crisis. You would think that Nazi sympathies would be a major black mark on an already blemished record, but somehow, information about the Duke’s Nazi connections had managed to stay hidden.

At the beginning of the episode, the Duke, who lives in a comfortable exile in France, is planning to visit London in search of a job, a way in which he can “continue to serve his country.” Unfortunately for him, the Marburg file had been recently rediscovered by a group of British and American historians. The file was first presented to King George VI and Winston Churchill shortly after it was found. The then King and Prime Minister decided to keep them secret. Years later, however, this principled historians were determined to see the information in the file made public. If British historians could not publish the information, American historians could since they had copies. In light of this threat, the file make its way to the new Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and the Queen herself who then has to decide whether she can allow the Duke of Windsor take up a position in the diplomatic core. In her meeting with the Duke, Queen Elizabeth confronts the Duke with the contents of the file (36:05- 41:28). The Duke tries to explain his actions arguing that his connections with Hitler and Germany pre-dated the abuses of the Nazis and were guided by his desire to avoid another war with Germany. He questioned the reliability of the files referring to them as Nazi propaganda. This is the first key moment of this episode where two versions of the past are being confronted, and as a viewer one has to ask oneself how can Elizabeth evaluate the explanations of his uncle in light of the evidence she has read in the files. Most importantly, in his attempt to justify his actions, the Duke also gave Elizabeth an interpretation of the war where England had contributed to the radicalization of Hitler and pushed him into another war. This was not an uncommon view on the eve of the Second World War, and one that is defended by the Duke from the point of view of someone who had experience with the previous war.

The episode who simply be about these contrasting interpretations of the war, however, Peter Morgan adds another layer. The episode also portrays a parallel story where the American Evangelist Revered Billy Graham visited England. Queen Elizabeth arranged to meet with him in a couple of occasions. In the Episode, the Queen is seeking a way to forgive her uncle as a gesture of her Christian faith and, in what she thinks should be the spirit of a Christian nation. However, she is discouraged to do this and, in turn, advised to speak to the retired private secretary of the Duke, Tommy Lascelles, to ascertain whether his explanations were to be believed. Here is where we see a second key moment in the episode where Lascelles tells the Queen what he knows of the the Duke’s involvement with the Nazis, including that the Duke had not only provided classified information to the Germans, but that he had done so in exchange of the promise that he would be re-instated as King on the event of Great Britain falling to the Nazis, effectively dethroning King George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth (44:14- 48:32). Stunned by these revelations, the Queen denied the request of the Duke to assume a position in the service of his country and sent him back to France.

This episode is a good example of how Peter Morgan addresses some big topics by combining known episodes in the life of Queen Elizabeth. The Marburg Files do exist and they do document the connections between the Duke of Windsor and the Nazi Regime. These connections have been in fact documented through other means and it is now well established that the Duke and his wife visited Nazi Germany in 1937 and maintained correspondence with various Nazi officials during the course of the war. What has remained a rumor is the idea that the Duke’s cooperation has motivated by the promise that, after the fall of England to the Nazis, he would be restored to the throne. What makes this episode quite interesting is that most of the facts are accurate, where Peter Morgan is presenting us with an interpretation is with regards to how these facts were experienced at the time by the people who were learning them, and what they may have meant to them, in contrast to what they mean to us today. We do not know, for instance, that the Queen was seeking for a way to forgive the Duke of Windsor. In fact, there is some evidence to the fact, that she had not inclination to do so. We also have not reason to believe that the arrival of Reverend Graham would have had any influence in that decision. But Peter Morgan connects two relatively unconnected episodes to reflect on a larger theme, the confrontation between the past and the present and the struggles of a Monarch to confront the consequences of what the Duke of Windsor has represented in the course of the series, a forward-looking individualist who seeks for the modernization of the Monarchy, especially if it benefits his personal interests. This in contrast to the self-less and dutiful role that Elizabeth has been taught to perform, in the service of the preservation of the monarchy and its tradition. In the end, the question that this episode punctuates is what is the price of change? and how much should the monarchy change in order to survive?

I think that the first step in getting students to understand the themes explored in this episode would be to build a chronology of the events. This is one of the tricks used by Morgan, and other writers and film makers, events get moved around to punctuate certain themes or questions. Once a chronology is clear students can see that it would have been possible for members of the Royal Family and the Government to realize that the abdication, was the least of their problems when it came to the Duke and that the major task was to protect the legitimacy of the Crown in light of the clear betrayal of the Duke of Windsor. Once that becomes clear, it is easier to understand why the Marburg file had to be hidden. I think this would also be a good opportunity for students to investigate the laws and regulations around archives and documents and use this episode to gain a greater understanding of how history is built from documents, and layers of memory.

Were there Cannibals in Africa?

Teaching undergraduates to think historically is difficult. Teaching them to think historiographically is even harder. As an undergraduate, I was taught that historiography is the “bread and butter” of the historian. Our introductory courses were not survey classes, but introductions to either world historiography or Mexican historiography. One of the first papers I had to write was an analysis of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars and it was not very good. Historiographical analysis takes time because it requires a lot of reading. This is difficult to justify in an undergraduate course that covers diverse topics and questions. 

However, I do believe that reading how historians locate their work and justify their questions and arguments within a larger conversation is essential for students to learn how to do this. They may not need to read all the books mentioned by an author, but it is important for them to know that historical arguments do not exist in a vacuum. Moreover, it is important for them to understand that questions change with time, new sources appear or are reconsidered and, most importantly, our present circumstances change our perspective on the past.

To illustrate these questions, I typically try to do in my courses is to identify a source, book or article, that makes the historiographical conversation a central part of the story that is being told. Sometimes there is a prominent historiographical survey in the introduction, other times there is an appendix. In most cases these sources deal with a question that has captured the attention of historians for some time. I recently read a book that does this very well and I am contemplating using it for my project. The book is called Converging on Cannibals. Terrors of Slaving in Atlantic Africa, 1509-1670 (Ohio University Press, 2019). This book revises the history of the Jagga or Imbangala, a society that lived in areas of central Africa who came into contact with the old kingdom of Kongo and were described in several Portuguese accounts. In this book, Staller re-examines the history of the Jagga by questioning whether the practice of cannibalism, as described in many European sources, is in fact justified by the historical record.

It so happens, however, that the historiography of the Jagga is, in itself a storied one. Some of the revolutionary work in African history was done by historians, such as Jan Vansina and David Birmingham, who investigated who were the Jagga and what was their role in central African history. These historians worked primarily on establishing a chronological framework for the history of central Africa but also chose to largely ignore European sources and preferred to use oral traditions. Historians of this early generation did not trust the accuracy of European sources precisely because they presented what they thought were exaggerated and prejudiced depictions of African culture, cannibalism being one of the many forms of violence and barbarism that Europeans sources presented as typical in African societies. However, as Staller shows, a careful reading of European sources can inform a new interpretation of African sources where the image of the cannibal is not purely a European creation but one that even some African leaders deployed to their advantage. 

What I would like to do is present students with extracts from two secondary sources. First, an article of Joseph Miller that re-interprets the chronological framework for the history of the Jagga. In this article, Miller looks at the arguments presented by two other historians (Vansina and Birmingham) for certain dates, while he presents a new set of possible dates. What is interesting about these arguments is that they are largely based on oral traditions and openly dismiss the use of European sources. Second, I would use an extract from Staller’s book to illustrate how history is not necessarily cumulative, in other words, the use of new sources does not necessarily answers all the questions we used to have, but allows for new questions and maybe even complicates the old ones. 

In terms of the exercise, I would present the Miller text annotated by me, and I would ask students to annotate the Staller text to identify where the interpretations overlap and where they are different. 

In terms of images I think it would be interesting to use some of the maps created by old historians like Miller or Vansina and compare them with the ones created by Staller. Some of them are slightly modified, which shows how the work of Staller both builds upon the work of Vansina, Miller and Birmingham but also departs from it. There are also some great images included in Staller’s book reproducing European depictions of cannibalism among Africans. Depending on what excerpts I choose from Staller, some of these images can illustrate how a careful reading of diverse types of evidence can open new and unexpected questions.

How to read history as conversation?

The key factor that digital media contributes to the teaching of historical thinking is, in my view, accessibility and flexibility. More than ever, it is possible for instructors to find and collect secondary and primary sources for use in the classroom and also to use these materials in combination with an abundance of digital tools such as text mining, mapping and other kinds of visualizations. 

The main target audience of my project are college students. From the beginning of my career as a teacher of African history I struggled to find primary sources in my courses. I also struggled compiling secondary sources that I could use since I always refused to use text books. The availability of digitized articles, books and book chapters has made it a lot easier for me to expose my students to the debates of historians and to emphasize the study of historiography and thus, the understanding of historical thinking as a way to learn about multiple interpretations and the means to analyze and evaluate them. 

Not surprisingly, this same abundance and availability also requires that I carefully curate the readings I present and that I help students develop tools to successfully navigate them. I believe this can be achieved using annotation tools where students can use annotations to identify different elements of the argument that is presented by the author. However, in my original pitch, I had only identified elements of the story and argument that I wanted students to annotate. After giving it some thought, I believe the annotation tool can also be a good tool for students to identify the historiographical content that most articles contain. In fact, I was thinking that it may be useful to annotate two articles at the same time. This would enable students to identify the differences in the presentation of the story, the sources used, and the framing of the argument. Pedagogically speaking, I could use one article to present an example of how to annotate, and then use an article that is in conversation with the first, for students to annotate. 

“Historia Magistra Vitae”

The idea of “history as a teacher of life” is a truism that many of us learned from a young age. However, the what and the how is history supposed to teach us are not as self evident as it may seem. In the United States history started to be taught in schools as soon an educational system started to be created. However, there have been many changes in terms of who has been responsible for teaching history, what should be taught, and what should be the goals pursued and methods used by teachers is history.

Since the nineteenth century, we have seen an abundance of reflections on the nature of history, many of them in response to the view that the role of history was simply to compile historical narratives aimed at helping students become proud and law-abiding citizens. This was to be achieved, however, by making sure students learned these narratives without always having an understanding of how said narratives were produced. This version of history as a teacher was partial to the idea that to learn history or to think historically was equivalent to knowing the facts of a story. In this version, questions about contextualization, interpretation or sourcing were often ignored or secondary. The emphasis given this aspect of historical thinking was reinforced by the development of textbooks as the main tools for history teachers. As history became a required part of school curricula and history teaching was professionalized, states started to create standards that were to dictate the content and approach of text books. Over the years, debates about what should be included in the history curriculum have become increasingly political; much less concerned with teaching historical thinking and more with history as a collection of well-defined narratives meant to cultivate students’ moral character and national identity.

The political dimension of these debates has also increased the calls for accountability, which in turn has led to the development of types of assessment aimed at measuring what students learn in history classes. Not surprisingly, measuring history learning, has been largely limited to measuring how many facts a student can remember at the time of the test. Although, more states have included contextualization and sourcing into their standards, history teaching and assessment continues of favor a “coverage” approach in which the amount of knowledge is meant to reflect the amount of learning.

The prevalence of this version of history as a teacher cannot be blamed on the fact that historians don’t know any better. Political and logistical factors have conspired to reinforce this particular approach to teaching history. Historical thinking is complex, it requires the use of a variety or materials, primary and secondary sources, maps, artifacts, even field trips; and it requires a significant level of historical as well as historiographical knowledge from the instructor. There is no wonder textbooks have been so successful. They have successfully created the illusion of coverage and convenience in a not-so-neat and not-so-little package.

The explosion of the internet and the proliferation of historical information has, however, shattered this illusion. More than ever, history as a teacher of discernment and reasoning needs to complement history as the teacher of facts. Ironically, modern technology has made historical materials more abundant and accessible and, in doing so, it has also made it possible for teachers and students to bypass the authority of the text book and try to make sense of primary and secondary sources on their own. The question is whether these technologies can also provide the infrastructure for a new kind of history education that not only increases access but can also enhance students willingness to embrace the complexity inherent to historical thinking. We are still on the early stages of this particular phase, but I do not think it is casual that, as we have seen this explosion of information, there is greater emphasis on the teaching of history more as a problem solving discipline and less as a memory contest. The complete shift towards a more well-rounded understanding of history teaching will not happen quickly, and there is no proverbial pill that will make it happen, no longer can we rely on the textbook as the deceptive solution to all our problems. However, shattering this illusion is, in my view, a most promising sign that we are ready to let history be a much better teacher in our modern life.

Historical Thinking

The literature on historical thinking highlights the needs for both history teachers and students to develop a better understanding of the difference between “learning about the past” and “knowing the past.” While the first one can be achieved simply by reading historical literature, and watching movies or documentaries; the second requires some understanding that the past is the product of a particular process of inquiry which can be called historical thinking.

Some important aspects to this literature speak of the necessity to “decode” or “deconstruct” the discipline of history. That is, identify the multiple mental operations or habits that historians perform when they read, research, and write. For example, Sam Wineburg’s research on how historians read primary sources (by asking them to describe their thoughts as they read a document) has shown that historians engage in a kind of reading that largely relies on their habit of interrogating not only the content, but also the context and subtext of the source. This decoding, can enable teachers to break down the mental operations that historians use, and teach students the different practices and habits that will lead them to be better historical thinkers.

Another important insight points to the fact that, is the case with other mental habits, historical thinking is something that is better learned through observation and practice, and even though it may seem solitary (as a mental process) it has an important collaborative element. The dialogue that historians learn to hold in their heads as they read, is similar to discussions they have read in the writings of other historians. We learn to think historically when we see other historians do it. We learn to to read and write as historian when we learn that historiography is not just a collection of writings, but a conversation among historians, a conversations we can join if we learn to rules of the game.

The last point that I found interesting about historical thinking is that It has both an epistemological and an ethical dimension. Understanding the past means not only learning what may have happened, but also that our present questions and values affect the meaning of the past. Learning to think historically requires a clear understanding of how these two aspects of the discipline affect one another.

These insights leave me with three questions which I would like to explore during this class: First, what are some of the operations or mental habits that have been identified as constituting historical thinking? And, what techniques and/ or assignments have been used to teach this operations?

Second, to what extent have historians been able to leverage the use of digital tools to teach the habits of historical thinking?

Third, most of the literature emphasizes the importance of using primary sources to teach historical thinking. Even though I completely agree with this, I feel like not enough attention is given to teaching students to read secondary sources, and to learn about historiography and historiographical analysis. I would like to learn if more has been done on this question.