The final assignment in the methods course I teach almost every year is a historiographical paper on a subject of the student’s choice. Earlier in the term, as a first step toward that final paper, students have to create a bibliography of primary and secondary sources from which we’ll choose, together, the books and articles that they’ll weave into that historiography.
For a long time, my students struggled with this task, and I struggled to figure out how to help them. Building a bibliography was second nature to me, an easily iterative process, so much so that I had trouble stepping back and thinking of what the project looked like to my students. For them, I realized, they sat looking at a vast world of citations, databases to look at, primary source collections to explore, and had no real means to sift through all that information to find the material that would best help them. The task was overwhelming.
After a couple of times stumbling through this assignment together with my students, I stopped, rethought things, and started at the end of the process.
Now, instead of sending my students off to intuit how to build a bibliography, I first give them a bibliography stripped of all information that might help them determine what book it came from. (Often, I use the bibliography from my own book, as it’s available to me in manuscript form, but any bibliography from any monograph, with the title of book obscured, would work.) Your task, I tell my students, is to work out what kind of book this bibliography belongs to. Start with broad ideas, and work down to the particular – by the end of class, you should make up a title for this mystery book.
My students generally jump on this task like true history detectives. They quickly spot where there are concentrations of sources – in my own bibliography, around Dakota and Ojibwe communities, for example, and around issues surrounding marriage. But then they begin to notice books that seem like outliers. Why a book on the Western Apache or the Tlinget? Why John Winthrop’s writings? What does any of this have to do with John Locke or Jean Jacques Rousseau? Why a series of readings on enslaved men and women?
By looking at the manuscript collections that I’ve used, students generally narrow the geographic area I’m studying down to what’s presently called Minnesota, and then pinpoint most of my interest as being in the nineteenth century. They figure out the book has something to do with Native communities, and probably women and gender. They come up with creative ways to solve the problem of the outlying texts and manuscript collections. They always have some sources that they cannot account for at all. Their book titles are uniformly fabulous, especially because without exception they’ve internalized that History Books: Have a Short Title And Then A long One After the Colon.
As a group, we talk about what they found. I confirm their big findings (which are always accurate), and then we talk about the difficult-to-understand sources. (The benefit of using my own bibliography is that I can speak to exactly why every source is there.) It becomes clear that the most obvious sources are not the only things we put in bibliographies – that understanding a time period, a place, a community, or a person requires that we think creatively. Bibliographies are about establishing context, be that theoretical, historiographical, or temporal, and that means thinking broadly as well as deeply, and adding to them as we research. We talk about chasing down footnote references, and browsing the shelves of the library for books that might be spectacular but not show up in our particular keyword database search. We conclude that bibliographies are living entities that grow and change as we grow and change. By the end of class, creating a bibliography has hopefully become less of a chore, and more of a creative, problem-solving project.
It’s easy to adapt this exercise to examining footnotes or endnotes. In addition to having my students figure out what kind of book the footnotes are from, I often have them read Ann Curzan’s “Permission to Footnote,” a column at the Chronicle that explores all the things footnotes might be for. We talk about footnotes being the starting point for a conversation, a moment where the historian stands back to let you figure out if you agree with their scholarly interpretation. These approaches hopefully elevate writing footnotes from an onerous, tricky citation exercise that’s imposed upon unfortunate students by their unsympathetic professors to something more creative and important.
I’m a big believer in letting students see the workings under the hood, and these exercises let them do that, and tinker with the engine, too. It’s a great way to demystify a historian’s job, especially as my students are historians, however inexperienced. They’re about to start up the car – and they’re better drivers for knowing what gives that car its horsepower before they begin to drive.