Category Archives: Teaching and Learning

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. 


My Name is Esperanza Brizuela-Garcia, I am an assistant professor of history at Montclair State University. My areas of interest are intellectual history of Africa, historiography, philosophy of history, and historical methodology. My work on historiography and methodology led me to become interested in digital history.  I have also been in charge of teaching many of our prospective teachers, so I have thought a lot about the concept of historical thinking. I am interested in exploring further how I can help my students, and the public at large, cultivate the habit of thinking historically, especially in an environment where most of their historical knowledge is mediated through digital means. 

I am mostly interested in becoming a better teacher in the classroom, but also a practitioner who can help students become better communicators and consumers of history. I am particularly interested in finding ways of using digital tools to help students become better readers and writers. I think digital literacy should complement and reinforce traditional literacy, not replace it. 

One major takeaway from previous courses is how the process of digitization itself can be a useful tool to help students reflect about the sources they use. For example, I am interested in developing assignments that help students create better metadata. Writing useful metadata requires good reading, writing and general critical skills. It also requires students to have an overall understanding of what is the audience and purpose of said metadata. Ultimately, it is a great way for students to understand the different dimensions of a source, and an indispensable first step towards our ability to think historically.