Small Acts of Storytelling: Why We Need More History

The discipline of History is in crisis. The signs are everywhere. Jobs are scarce. The number of History majors at U.S. post-secondary institutions has declined more than any other since the Great Recession. Once one of the core divisions of university education, now History programs have fallen in prestige, placed on the chopping block along with other “expendable” liberal arts majors, in favor of more career-driven credentialing. Meanwhile, the History Channel runs a whole lot of programming on aliens.

As academic historians, we are told that we have contributed to our own plight. On the one hand, we have allegedly diminished our relevance to contemporary issues of pressing importance by abandoning traditional topics focused on war, diplomacy, and Very Important Men. But if we do continue to study and teach such topics, then philosophers and neuroscientists are there to tell us that the kind of decision- and personality-driven historical narratives that might at least still sell books nonetheless get everything wrong. There appears to be no consensus as to whether historians have erred by pandering too much to passing trends, giving in to “short-term thinking” and identity politics, or—more likely if you’ve ever met one of us—by stubbornly ignoring the present altogether.

Amidst this many-sided crisis, self-justifications for the teaching and study of history often give an uncomfortable feeling of protesting too much. Guru of historical thinking Sam Wineburg exhorts us to learn history—even though “it’s already on your phone.” Those who teach history with passion and skill often nonetheless fall back on vague platitudes to justify their practice. Even if educators could consistently explain what the terms mean, paeans to “critical” and “analytical” thinking or “citizenship skills” do not shed much light on what history has to offer that is unique from other humanistic disciplines.

These lines of self-justification reflect broader changes in curricula and an attempt by history departments—often too timid to defend their discipline in its own right—to speak the institutional lingo, while only sometimes fundamentally changing what they actually do in the classroom. The restructuring of undergraduate distribution requirements at many institutions has moved away from stand-alone requirements that students take a semester or two of history to more flexible skills-based expectations in which history is but one of many options—placing introductory history courses in competition with other offerings in the humanities and social sciences. As a result, we are less likely to think of the study of history as a good in itself, and more likely to think of it as but one of many ways of practicing core competencies in communication, cross-cultural understanding, and research. Other education buzz words like “STEAM” and “problem-based learning” seem to exclude the study of the past as anything but a repository for instructive examples and genealogies. We are all Thucydides again.

In an environment in which history classes struggle to compete, some historians have found opportunities for relevance and outreach by adapting to new information environments and integrating public history projects, digital literacy, and information management into their courses.

These projects are producing much that is exciting and valuable. In my field of German history, an initiative like Black Central Europe encourages instructors and students alike to actively and publicly engage in reshaping our understanding of the past through direct encounters with primary sources and projects like interactive maps. Tools like the Clio app break down the walls between the classroom, the museum, and the wider world, encouraging the best kind of public history. But these kinds of projects, as exciting as they are, do not hold the answer for the whole discipline. While historians are well-positioned to teach some research and communication skills online, the truth is that the tools that have allowed us to evaluate print sources do not always translate well to the high-speed digital world.

Identifying Historians’ Habits of Mind

The good news is that we needn’t all learn new digital skills in order to defend the value of our discipline—though it might be nice if more of us did. Even those historians who have been trained to work in the most traditional of off-line archives have something of particular value to offer students in our current information environment. But we need a clearer and more precise understanding of what makes historians different—as researchers, as writers, but especially as thinkers—in order to convincingly defend our ongoing place in higher education. Doing so will require formulating and applying our own vocabulary of skills rather than simply adapting our goals to the existing institutional language.

So, what do historians do? Work from the American Historical Association’s Tuning Project gives us a valuable starting point for defining a set of broad learning goals for our discipline. The project’s 2016 History Discipline Core provides an admirable guide to classroom practices, reaffirming the skills of source analysis and research that most historians are already teaching, integrating emotional skills like empathy and comfort with uncertainty, and also encouraging us to stretch further to connect those skills to the habits of active citizenship. But several years of defending the value of history in higher education using these core concepts as a guide have left me wanting something both more and less—something more essential, less elaborate. The Tuning Project’s Discipline Core, like most other such projects, doesn’t quite capture how essential history is to the human experience.

Yet, historians are often understandably reluctant to engage with the question of what we do in its general form. The best practitioners of any discipline are critical of its construction and limits. Furthermore, one of the great strengths of historical practice is its diversity in both topics and methodological tools. As historians we are omnivorous in our appetite for sources—from quilts and folk songs to philosophical tracts to big data—and capacious in our methods, often shared with sister disciplines in the social, human, and sometimes even natural sciences. An individual historian might also operate as an anthropologist, an economist, or a literary theorist.

Behind this diversity—in fact, enabling it—is a set of shared historical habits of mind that we could use more of in our contemporary world. Rethinking the foundation of our discipline in terms of “habits of mind” or “practices,” instead of career readiness, is an important first step, taking the lead from educational practices more common in mathematics than the humanities or English Language Arts.

So, what cognitive habits or practices do historians share?

  • First, historians view all information as having a source, and hence positionality.
  • Second, we tell stories that unfold over time. This requires attention to the specific choices entailed by identifying origins, endings, and turning points: we, at some level, make “narrative sense” out of the stuff of human life.
  • Third, we empathize with those in whose footsteps we can never walk ourselves—those who lived in another time.
  • Finally, we are always aware of the contingency of narrative choices on particular sets of available, inevitably incomplete, sources, and see this as an opportunity for constant revision and interpretation.

While these habits of mind overlap with other disciplines in both the humanities and sciences, history is unique in the way it has turned these core practices into a disciplinary methodology that prioritizes the construction of explanatory narrative. Whether or not we’re the kinds of historians who believe in grand narratives or metahistories, whether we write biographies or climate histories, the narrative sense we make of the past is built through small acts of preliminary storytelling through which the stuff of history becomes available to us as knowledge. This is profoundly important because it is through such small acts of storytelling that human beings understand the world, and their place in it. And it is through the failure to create narratives, especially those based on evidence, that we also collectively fail to confront the realities and challenges of our world.

We need historians to help us tell compelling stories about not just human lives, but also ice, animals, and trees. Sea Ice in the Arctic (2009) Wikimedia Commons.

From Sources to Stories in the Digital Era

Historians tend to tell our students ad nauseam that they must read their primary sources “in historical context.” We give them lists of questions to ask—posing as historical investigative journalists. What did the author know? When did they know it? Who was their audience? What were their biases? Getting caught up in the details of this investigative method can obscure a fundamental and profound truth: All information comes from a source, and every source is produced at a particular position in time and space, or with a particular perspective, or set of interests. That is true whether your source is an oral interview with a witness, a political cartoon, a statistician’s table, or the rings of a tree.

Today, in our polarized information environment when no one seems able to agree on a common set of facts, my students increasingly tend to see a source’s perspective or bias as mutually exclusive with containing any kernel of “truth.” A source is more reliable, they assume, if it betrays less about the conditions of its making and the perspective of its creator. A text that expresses an opinion cannot also be a source of information. Because the historian’s craft is precisely to take the human past as it is—with those imperfect sources from across the centuries—we don’t have the luxury of being quite so precious about to whom we listen, or where we get our evidence. Our discipline is one of compromises, of reading for what an author did know and see, through all the things they didn’t. We read every source for both what it reveals and what it hides. As seemingly neutral a source as population statistics reflects a point of view—who is worth counting?—and as seemingly “unbiased” a source as a tree records the climate data specifically relevant to its own flourishing—the moisture and molecules by which it builds its bark and grain. Hence, the historian can teach the kind of critical evaluative skills the contemporary citizen needs—we can’t impose a Manichean view of “opinion” as mutually exclusive of “information,” that rejects as “fake news” every word from someone whose worldview you do not share.

In addition to tolerance for complexity and uncertainty, the historian’s process of evaluating and stitching together our imperfect sources requires a special kind of empathy that values and imagines the experiences of people in the past without collapsing the distance between the researcher and her subjects, always retaining the strangeness of human life in another time rather than inhabiting another’s experience as oneself. As historians, even our empathy must remain in context—not inviting us into tempting anachronistic assumptions about our subjects in the past. This in turn is better practice for the kind of intellectual empathy that allows for and celebrates social differences in the present.

This awareness is especially important today in our world of search engines and databases. We live in an age of largely decontextualized information, in which it is easier than ever to forget that knowledge is created by particular processes in particular contexts. What once was a Google search result, at least pinned to a url, has become the even more disembodied answer to a question, plucked from its context on a particular website: the bare answer ever more prominent, indication of the source and authorship receding more and more from view. Advertisements for smart speakers depict a utopian information environment in which parents and children shout out questions—How far away is Pluto? Do babies dream?—and receive instant answers, spoken in a soothing voice, from, it appears, thin air. Of course, that frictionless access to information is an illusion, obscuring the processes and choices that make some information available, and other information invisible. Algorithms too have contexts and authors with their own predilections and biases. Just because the processes are less visible, doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

The historian’s craft is, in part, to make these processes visible, to reveal and examine one’s sources of evidence as part of storytelling—even if sometimes we do relegate it to the footnotes. To engage students in the patchwork process of stitching together an account of the past with a quote from one source, an impression from another, an inventory from a third, is to make them struggle with the relationship between the sources of information and what we do with them, to re-estrange the process of making sense and story that is not just the stuff of academic history, but is also at the heart of the human experience.

Finding Use in the Scrapbook Stories of our Past

The historian’s omnivorousness for sources and her respect for each source’s unique positionality go hand in hand. Even while exercising systematic methods for the selection and collection of evidence, the historian is by necessity a bit of a bricoleur—assembling the scraps and pieces available to construct a plausible narrative consistent with the available sources.

In this too, the historian’s method provides a powerful response to some of the greatest challenges of our time. For example, stories that allow us to understand and confront climate change must incorporate different kinds of sources and scales of information, attending to both trees and humans, climate data and first-person experience. When we stick to climate data alone, it’s hard to imagine human agency within an avalanche of measurements. When we stick to stories at the scale of human lives, it’s hard to appreciate the reality and magnitude of the change and the challenge. New histories like Bathsheba Demuth’s Floating Coast about the Bering Strait use the strengths of the historian’s bricolage method to tell a compelling story about the real lives caught up in planetary systems both natural and human—a story that captures the majesty and terror of the large-scale while retaining a sense of how much power we have to choose and change our paths through the world.

Stories aren’t all Mother Goose.
Louis-Lèopold Boilly, “And the Ogre Ate Him All up!” (1824) Wikimedia Commons.

To talk about historians as storytellers is, of course, to engage numerous antecedent debates over historical methods of sense-making, about whether narrative is found or given and, more recently, whether the historian’s interest in, as Jonathan Wilson beautifully puts it, “story-shaped things” is itself a problem. I certainly remember how, throughout graduate school, my faculty advisors tried to clean the word “story” from my professional vocabulary: You’re not writing a story, they’d say; have more confidence in yourself. You’re making an argument.

Their intentions were good, but I think we all know at some level that to juxtapose story-making and argument-making is to turn the discipline of history into an ouroboros. My favorite quotation to share with my students about the nature of history comes from the American historian Jill Lepore, who writes that “History is the art of making an argument about the past by telling a story accountable to evidence.” Stories are not simple; they are complicated and ever changing, just as our present end point is ever shifting. They help us negotiate between complexity and clarity, between, as Lepore goes on to state, argument as pedantry and chronicling as mere antiquarianism.

“History is the art of making an argument about the past by telling a story accountable to evidence.”

Jill Lepore, The Story of America: Essays on Origins (2013)

When we reflect on these historians’ habits of mind, the habits of little, provisional acts of evidence-based storytelling, I think it is easier to see what history can offer the great majority of our students who will leave the dedicated study of the past mostly to the college classroom in order to pursue careers in medicine, public service, education, engineering, business, or the arts. These skills go beyond research, or communication, or critical thinking. They are made up of the many small acts of storytelling that constitute the historian’s professional practice, but also make up the way we all confront and understand the world. While many academic disciplines do this in some way, it is history that takes these small acts of storytelling as our core method.

To see how the practice of history is linked to the habits of mind that make it possible for us to navigate our world, try engaging today in a small act of historical storytelling. Use a story to make sense of your world, and how it is changing. Practice the rigor of holding your story accountable to the evidence you can document. Think about your sources. Think about when you choose the beginning and the ending. Think with empathy for the version of yourself who did not know how it would turn out. Know that your story might change tomorrow. Think about what you are doing as a tiny act of history making, a tiny act of making provisional narrative sense out of our world, taking the first step to understanding and solving its problems. You are practicing the skills of the historian, the skills we all need.


Featured image: Arnoldius, Tree rings seen in a cross section of a trunk of a tree (2006) Wikimedia Commons.

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