Teaching the Historical Methods Course

I’m currently teaching an historical methods seminar for several of our seniors, a course that will be repeated in the fall semester as we move it from senior year to sophomore year. I enjoy teaching the course because it allows me to help students understand how to practice history.

I assigned the following books for the course:

Conal Furay and Michael J. Salevouris, The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide, 3rd ed. (Harlan Davidson, 2010)

Mark T. Gilderhus, History and Historians: A Historiographical Introduction, 7th ed. (Prentice Hall, 2009)

Peter Charles Hoffer, Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Frauds – American History From Bancroft And Parkman To Ambrose, Bellisles, Ellis, And Goodwin (PublicAffairs, 2007)

Mary Lynn Rampolla, A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, 6th ed. (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010)

Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 7th ed. (University of Chicago Press, 2007)

I’ve used the Furay/Salevouris book several times and have been pleased with it overall. Students sometimes balk at the homework, but in my experience, they need to practice some of the fundamental steps of the historical process. The Gilderhus book is a great concise overview of historiography. I’m especially pleased with the most recent edition, which addresses some of the culture wars over history that have taken place in the United States in the past two decades. Hoffer’s book is the best treatment of academic dishonesty among historians that I’ve found. I don’t particularly care for the first part of the book, which focuses on the “new history,” but the chapters on Stephen Ambrose, Michael Bellesiles, Joseph E. Ellis, and Doris Kearns Goodwin offer excellent summaries of the issues. The Rampolla book is too elementary for this group of students, but would be appropriate for freshmen or sophomores.

And then there’s Miss Kate. Love her or hate her, history students can’t live without her.

Have you had success with other historiography/historical methods books? If so, let me know–our fall book orders will be due soon.

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11 Replies to “Teaching the Historical Methods Course”

  1. I’ve always used Davidson and Lytle’s After the Fact with very good results. Bernard Bailyn, On the Teaching and Writing of History (1994) is also very nice.

  2. As a Ph.D. candidate, I haven’t taught my own methods course yet, but I already know that I want to teach more about critical use of digital primary sources than most courses I’m aware of. I’ve got some ideas about helping students think through what manuscripts can tell them, what historical newspapers (the objects) can tell them, and what different things they can learn from using the database facsimiles versus the original objects. I’d love to hear more about how other people are teaching these topics.

    For handling some of these issues (but not really a research-methods book), you might look at Rosenzweig and Cohen’s Digital History, available free online and also in print.

    1. Shane,

      Digital sources are a challenge for some undergraduates. Differentiating Google Books from Google and a .pdf of a journal found in J-Stor from a Wikipedia article are two obstacles I’ve encountered.

  3. Neat list! I will check out the first book — I haven’t seen it before and it might be useful for my own teaching or my colleagues’.

    I normally teach methods at the graduate level and build off of Miles Fairburn’s Social History: Problems, Strategies and Methods which blends historiography and critical understanding of methodology in a dense but helpful blend. It’s not just for social historians, either.

    Our undergrads read Tosh in the second year methods course and Rampolla’s the handbook we use for majors starting in the first year. By the time they get to the senior year, they’ve gotten most everything useful out of the handbook they can manage.

  4. My two favorite books for this course for a long time – I was teaching seniors as well – have been Marc Bloch’s Historians Craft (the first, and for a long time only, historiography work I ever read) and John Tosh’s collection Historians on History which excerpts substantial pieces from some of the major schools (and opponents) of 20th century historiography. I haven’t taught it in a few years, but I may be picking up our graduate historiography course soon, and I definitely want to add something like Hoffer to the mix, as well as possibly Novick’s That Noble Dream.

    I used Gilderhus along with Bloch and Tosh once – I think it was the earlier edition – but it felt repetitious.

    1. Jonathan,

      The latest edition of Gilderhus is better than the older edition I used the last time I taught the course.

      I love the Novick book, but it would be a bit over the heads of our undergrad students, esp. as we move the course to sophomore level.

      1. Yeah, I wouldn’t assign Novick to Sophomores. Maybe not even most seniors.

        My biggest problem wasn’t with Gilderhus itself, but how much Bloch and Tosh covered as well. But I might bring it back as a framing text for them.

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