No Experience as a Historian? Don’t Let the Past Stop You!

A black and white photograph circa 1960 with four people gathered around the UNIVAC I keyboard, which was the first commercial electronic computer.

Grace Murray Hopper was an American mathematician who helped devise the UNIVAC I keyboard along with COBOL, a computer programming language designed for business use. The history of technology and business is one of the topics discussed in 21H.991. (Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution on Wikimedia Commons. License CC BY.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

There are many ways to investigate history, many lenses through which to look at the past: political, demographical, military, cultural, technological—the list goes on and on. Typically, instructors who teach courses on historiography assign students a writing assignment that enables students to familiarize themselves with one method or another—what are the main schools of thought, who has propounded them, what the core issues are.

But for her class, 21H.991 Theories and Methods in the Study of History, Professor Anne McCants decided that this kind of assignment, which works well for students pursuing careers as professional historians, might not make sense for her students, who were mostly first-year graduate students in the Doctoral Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society, and who were mainly interested in domains other than history. If 21H.991 was going to be the only history course they would take, McCants wanted it to be a vibrant experience. So instead of assigning the typical historiographical essay, she invited students to dive in and make history the old fashioned way—by doing research with original materials:

“I wanted my students to have a chance to think about a real problem and to actually try their hand at solving it with archival materials that they themselves had identified.”

Professor McCants discusses this assignment in the Instructor Insights of the course’s This Course at MIT page. She admits there are risks associated with asking students to engage in open-ended research: “Several students may never manage to identify a problem, or an archive to address their problem, or they might fail to understand what the literature has already said about their problem so that it becomes a trivial exercise.”

But she has found that the payoff is more than worth it. By meeting or communicating regularly with students, she was able to guide them all toward productive and interesting projects that they could complete in the allotted time.

Professor McCants discusses other aspects of her teaching, like exposing students to the various professional standards espoused by historical journals and making use of guest speakers, in her Instructor Insights.

One of the first participants in OCW’s Educator program, she also shares Instructor Insights for her course 21H.134J Medieval Economic History in Comparative Perspective.

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