Historical Research Workshop

Introducing Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (2001)

If you’re signed up for this class, I’m confident that you believe history is more than answering multiple-choice questions.  However, you may still question the necessity of reading a book entangled with the debate over history pedagogy.  Before we dive into the thick of our research, let’s step aside and ask ourselves what questions we try to answer with historical research and how we about enriching, modifying, and critiquing our own historical understanding.

Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (2001)

Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (2001)

Let’s practice the first touchstone of a historical education by applying the “sourcing heuristic”, which Wineburg defines as the “practice of reading the source of the document before reading the actual text”.  So, before we set out: Who is Sam Wineburg?

Wineburg conducted his undergradate studies at UC Berkeley and Brown University, and received a BA in the History of Religion.  In Historical Thinking, he professes that though he had no formal trainining in psychology, he entered Stanford’s PhD program for Psychological Studies in Education.  Wineburg differentiates himself from the tradition of historiographical literature (i.e. Collingwood) which focuses on “skilled historical practice” and the “endpoints” of historical cognition and takes historians as its audience.  Instead, his book seeks to unearth the middle processes of historical thinking – “the false starts, the half-baked ideas, the wild goose chases that are edited out of historians’ monographs, as well as their methods books for novices” (xi) .  Approaching history from the lens of cognitive studies, one of his primary methods of collecting data is getting his subjects to “think out loud” – making their examination of primary source documents audible.  He examines the questions his subjects ask and how they deal with confusion and incongruous sources.  The chapters of Wineburg’s book address originate from a variety of sources that address different audiences, such as psychologists, new teachers, and academics.

Consider what skills a trained historian applies to an area outside his area of expertise:
“His expertise lay not in his sweeping knowledge of the topic but in his ability to pick himself up after a tumble, to get a fix on what he does not know, and to generate a road map to guide his new learning.  He was an expert at cultivating puzzlement” (21).

We consider the research journal an additional tool for keeping track of your “specified ignorance.” What skills have you identified from the Wineburg reading that are most applicable to your area of concentration? Do you agree with Wineburg’s characterization of historical thinking or his methods of eliciting and measuring historical cognition?

Due to the time constraints associated with late enrollments, we do not expect an exceedingly thorough reading of Wineburg.  However, please pay special attention to Chapter 3, “On the Reading of Historical Texts” because it will be particularly relevant to an exercise on Wednesday.

Each week we’ll be posting an introduction to that week’s reading with a little info on the writers’ academic or historical backgrounds.  Once you have your WordPress accounts set up, please post your discussion questions and comments in response to this blog entry.

1 comment for “Introducing Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (2001)

  1. Clifton
    November 26, 2013 at 12:21 AM

    Until reading Weinburg’s book I had a vague understanding of what “sourcing heuristic” was when I took a “Critical Thinking in History” class at community college. Weinburg’s book augmented my understanding and I have used this method as often as possible. I always find out as much as I can about the author before reading to try and find out his motivation for writing the book. That’s usually the easy part. The part that is most challenging is tracking down some of the sources the author uses, especially when a claim seems dubious. Once I was able to discover that the source an author was using was taken out of context and, even though the majority of the book was credible, the misinterpretation of that one quote made me more skeptical of what I was reading.

    The main point is that history books, even lectures by tenured Professors, should be vetted with additional heuristic methods.

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