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A Moment of Empathy

Last updated on January 30, 2017

There is a moment every semester in which a student steps up to the desk after class to ask, “Prof, I heard a lot of different answers to the discussion questions today. Which one was the right answer?” At which point I smile in my most professorial manner (which may or may not include a touch of condescension) and remind the student that interpretation is the heart of history. I tell them to revel in the multitude of answers! Look for different perspectives from which to understand the source! Don’t worry so much about being wrong – think boldly!

I’m starting to think that’s an obnoxious answer.

While I stand by my insistence that interpretation is the essence of history, I’d rather there weren’t quite so many possible interpretations when it comes to my own research. My dissertation, for instance, will have something to do with the topic “historical thinking.” What’s historical thinking, you say? Well. Depends on who you ask:

The ever-helpful Sam Wineburg (Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts) strikes at the heart of the issue,

“To researchers, historical understanding can mean anything from memorizing a list of dates to mastering a set of logical relations, from being able to recite an agreed-upon story to contending with ill-defined problems resistant to single interpretations.” (p.29)

Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke’s alliterative answer in “What does it mean to think historically?” is perhaps most useful for it’s brevity:

“the five C’s of historical thinking: change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency.”

However, their definition does not take into account more recent concerns with students’ abilities to recognize historical significance (was that event important? why?) or historical empathy (can students think their way into a worldview distant from them in time or space?).

So. Multiple interpretations of a foundational concept of my dissertation. This doesn’t bother me so much; for me, trying to reconcile definitions is half the fun of deep historical work. (No really! I love it.)

The greater difficulty is the question of how to teach students to think historically – and here I am in sympathy with my student’s discontent with my insistence that there are many right answers. Some writers recommend more time with primary sources; others proffer the usefulness of historical fiction. (Some suggest the benefit of both sources and historical fiction in the same short article…) Some insist analyzing textbooks with students is beneficial; others insist the textbooks are useless. Historian-educators ask students to write their own autobiographies, role-play legal battles, backchannel on Twitter, and “think aloud” as they read through the primary sources. Also, researchers have been trying for over a century to determine how students develop the “historic sense.” Results are still…inconclusive.

So, to adapt a question we’ve been discussing in class: How then shall we teach? I don’t know yet – and that is as aggravating a feeling as my students occasionally tell me it is. Ideally, I’ll have my own perspective among the multitudes by the time this dissertation thing is complete. For the moment, I will simply appreciate the opportunity to empathize with my students.

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