Dave Salmanson, over at his blog, has just written a post serving notice to Sam Wineburg and the Stanford History Education Group about their omission of recent historiography in many of their historical thinking activities, particularly their most recent one about Columbus Day.
I’ve used (and extensively adapted) materials from Wineburg and SHEG over the years and like the ways that many of their “Reading Like a Historian” lesson plans emphasize the conflicting narratives of the past, thereby pushing the student to act as the historian and give shape to the messy reality of the past. Many of these lesson plans subtly push students to prioritize paying attention to a source’s attribution and then keeping those external details in mind as they then make sense of the source and understand its content in relation to its author, audience, historical context, etc. These lessons also push students to synthesize multiple sources and integrate those into an argument, so I’m all for the historical thinking skills underlying these lesson plans. Wineburg deals with a lot of these concepts and how to foster them in his book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, which I’ve read and enjoyed.
SHEG also has another project called “Beyond the Bubble,” which offers shorter assessments focused on analyzing one primary source and addressing some question about its sourcing. SHEG calls these activities “Historical Assessments of Thinking,” or HATs for short — therein lies the title of this post.
For me, these are less substantive activities, not only because they only address one source, but also because they often lack substantive attributions that would, for example, allow a teacher to foster a class discussion about authorial background and its influence, or consider the role of print publications over the course of the nineteenth century. As a result, I’ve used infrequently and rarely check the site to see what new materials they’ve posted.
So after reading Dave’s post tonight, I was reminded of an incident last year where I sought to adapt a HAT about the execution of Louis XVI for my Western Civilization classes and gained some insight into the sloppy and (ironically) poorly sourced lesson plan material that actually made meaningful historical analysis less possible as a result of the assignment’s structure.
In checking back on the Beyond the Bubble site tonight, it looks as if SHEG has since removed the HAT in question, but I fortunately downloaded the assessment, so below is a screenshot of the image and the prompt:
“Death of Louis XVI” HAT, screenshot of SHEG “Beyond the Bubble” Activity
So, not to ruin the surprise or anything, but the HAT wants students to focus on the chronological gap between the event presented by the image and the date of publication. Ideally, this prompt pushes students to consider issues of historical context and whether the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth century context of this image shaped the presentation of this event and, if so, in what ways.
I was, however, bothered by the fact that this activity had no author listed. So, I decided to do a little digging and see if I could flesh out this attribution to help my students offer a more nuanced analysis of this source.
Finding another version of this image proved to be pretty easy. Simply searching for the title took me to the Library of Congress page for this image, which is clearly where SHEG drew its attribution info.
“Mort de Louis XVI, le 21 janvier 1793 Place de la Concorde – on voit à gauche le socle de la statue de Louis XV déboulonnée” courtesy of the Library of Congress
While these images seem essentially identical, I quickly noticed that the SHEG version of the image cropped out the original title, caption, and parenthetical reference to its original source. So, it turns out that this image does have an author (or at least a place of publication) — a newspaper called Révolutions de Paris. That piece of information seems like some pretty low-hanging fruit that would have been helpful to include in the HAT’s attribution.
A quick search for the name of the newspaper yielded a link to Dartmouth’s digitization project for that publication, which revealed some useful context about the newspaper, its dates of publication, and its context:
Révolutions de Paris was a weekly newspaper published and edited by Louis-Marie Prudhomme. It began publication July 18, 1789; its final issue is dated 10 ventôse Year 2, i.e., 28 February 1794. This run of over four and a half years, a total of 225 issues, makes it one of the longest running Revolutionary newspapers.
And because we know the date of the event depicted in the image, we can then check out the publication from that week and see what they published the week Louis XVI was executed. Lo and behold, look what Révolutions de Paris ran in Issue no. 185:
Unsurprisingly, discovering the context of this newspaper provides students with much richer material for analyzing this image. Furthermore, considering (or even including) details about Prudhomme would enable students to grapple with the complex array of conflicts and agendas that shaped the various stages of the French Revolution. It might even be possible to make something of the fact that this image did get republished over one hundred years after its original publication, but that analysis can’t happen meaningfully without the original contextual details.
While I still think that many of the SHEG assignments have value in the classroom or as quick assessments, teachers need to be really on guard about how these primary sources get presented and what details SHEG includes or omits. And if nothing else, working to clean up the (in this case quite sloppy) attribution details helps teachers keep their own historical research and thinking skills sharp!