Tuesday, July 23, 2013

How Can We Create Experience-based History? : Part II

Almost to the day three years ago I presented some ideas on the topic, "How Can We Create Experience-based History?" That particular blog post explored the different mental models that people who are not historians hold about the nature of being an historian. At the end of that post I asked what some of the implications might be for making history more experience-based and less a forced march through random dates and facts dominated by short term memory practice.

Three guiding hypotheses emerged:

1) History is NOT the past; it is the stories we tell ourselves about the past. 

2) History, therefore, occurs in the PRESENT not in the past; history is our "authoring" of the past.

3) "The past isn't dead; it isn't even past." --William Faulkner

One of the things I love most about teaching where I do is that I am given a free reign to experiment and explore. So, for the past three years I have looked at these three controversial ideas as a basis for having my students think like historians. But it is more than just wanting them to think like historians by looking at their world and the past; I wanted to find the intersection of their world and themselves. 

I started by asking them to create metaphors for their previous understandings of studying history. Many of my students come from all over the world and from very different kinds of school systems, so I wasn't sure what to expect. The results were remarkably varied. Students wrote things like, "History has been like having a shopping cart and the whole grocery store and a short period of time and you run through and throw things in the basket as fast as you can--but you don't know how much any single item is worth. You then check out with everyone else that was doing the same thing and someone totals up how much the stuff in your basket is worth. The person with the highest total wins." (Remarkably, this student had never heard of one of my favorite shows growing up -- Supermarket Sweep.) Clearly, running through the market might be fun, but the checkout would be anxiety producing.

I came across a line from E.L. Doctorow while I was reading his work of historical fiction, Ragtime. Doctorow wrote, "There is no fundamental difference between history and fiction; they are just different forms of narrative." This was reminiscent of what Roland Barthes had been maintaining when he concluded that the notion of "objectivity" that historians want to claim in their voices "turns out to be a particular form of fiction." Doctorow continued his claim in an interview in the Atlantic, "Historians research as many sources as they can, but they decide what is relevant to their enterprise and what isn’t. We should recognize the degree of creativity in this profession that goes beyond intelligent, assiduous scholarship."  The historian side of me struggled with this for quite awhile because I was not willing to give up the idea that fiction writers could simply imagine things to be true without having to worry about whether they happened. Historians could not do that. In that sense, I felt there was a fundamental difference between history and fiction, and I needed to embrace that difference.

And then in Vivian Gornick's book The Situation and the Story I read, "But memoir is neither testament nor fable nor analytic transcription. A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through he recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader come to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened." This description sounded more like what I was doing in my own historical writing and what I wanted from my student's work.

I began to reflect on all of the strategies and techniques that the memoirist/historian uses to make that narrative happen.  In the back of my mind I heard Aldous Huxley reciting, "Experience is NOT what happens to you; experience is what you DO with what happens to you."

In Patricia Hempl's memoir, I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory  she writes, "The big fiction advice is 'Show, don’t tell,' but this is not what memoir writers are embroidering on their pillows and sleeping on. It’s instead 'Show and Tell.' It’s the idea that you can’t tell unless you can show, but you don’t just show. You have to talk about it. You have to somehow reflect upon it. You have to track or respond to it, this thing that’s happening. And in the intersection of these two things is the excitement we feel about this genre. Too much show and, 'Why aren’t you writing fiction?' Too much tell and, 'I’m  not going to listen to you because you’re boring.'" History shared with memoir this fundamental characteristic--they were both SHOW AND TELL.


Excited by these ways of thinking about history, I began to use the following list (in no particular order) of suggestions - as the basis for trying to teach students how to create history :

-       select events – using analytic and intuitive techniques--that seem significant
-       assign meaning and significance – give those events weight(they cannot all be of equal weight)
-       keep your goal in mind: achieve insight and un-cover wisdom
-       know that this will be a process of discovery not pontificating on something you already know
-       the historian/memoirist has a need--articulate in precise terms what your particular need is
-       pick beginnings and endings carefully – consciously frame the events
-       choose the “container” with care--what will be the organizing principle of your narrative?
-       use the elements of fiction (setting, characters, climax, conflicts) to create your narrative
-       know your bias – you must be aware of yourself as an author--self-implicate with aplomb
-       immerse yourself in that time in the past (music, places, pictures)
-       do your research on this time period – what sources would be essential to include?
-       create a narrator and know their characteristics--you are not simply a reliable reporter
-       Show AND Tell

 I also began to invite memoir writers--Lee Stringer for Grand Central Winter and Danzy Senna for Where Did You Sleep Last Night: A Personal History--to class to discuss how they created memoir or, in Danzy's even more relevant phrase, "personal history." And then the students would craft their own "personal history/memoir" and we read each other's creations and noticed how they had been constructed using the techniques listed above.

I came to the view that history can be seen as “public” memoir... and that also means that memoir can be seen as “private” history.  

To be sure, all this attention to narrative construction put me a month "behind" in terms of covering the material of this American history course, but there was a remarkable transformation in the way in which my students read and asked questions. The most noticeable change was an increased interest in historiography ("the history of history" seen by looking at what an historian has written through the lens of the time she was writing in) and collecting competing accounts of the same event. In short, they went "meta." But, at the same time, they began to question the creation of whatever they read and assume that the author had made choices of data without being explicit about the criteria for those choices. In short, they went "inside" what they were reading. One of the things that I need to think about in terms of a principle of why some learning becomes "deep," or "transformational," or "experiential" is whether it always involves this rising above to go "meta" as well burrowing in to get "inside." Is that, in fact, part of how we make our own lives experiential?

I knew there was some paradigm shift when I read this student's observation and metaphor at teh end of the year about the work we did in class on being historians: "Playing history is kind of like playing Scrabble but you have this infinite number of pieces. And you can only select a certain number of letters--but some of them you choose and some of them seem to choose you (but it feels right). You look at all the pieces and you start to see some words you could create from the pieces that seem to fit the board. But you have to be careful to see if you are really just making up a word, or if it really exists. But then, sometimes, you have to make up a word because it is correct even though it doesn't exist. Compound this with everyone else around you playing on the same board, but with different pieces. Sometimes, it is just chaos." Hopefully, transformative chaos.

1 comment:

  1. "That's what I'm talking about." One of my more illuminating experiences as an historian was listening to Hampton Sides explain how and why "perspective" (which you call bias) very much influences aour expressions of history. I often begin my 8th & 9th Grade history classes each year with students presenting personal or family "touchstones," artifacts that reveal something significant about their family or personal history. Of course, half the students have to present some kind of athletic memento, though some transcend personal accomplishment. A handful show and tell us about an artifact that resonates with history. We can then go on with our survey of world history with a foundation of artifactual perspective that represents events of significance. With school just a shout away, I am grateful to you, David, for allowing me a brief opportunity to reflect on our charge, though now I must return to my sojourn with Big Juan.