Assignments to turn students into historians

As a college student, I wrote a lot of history research papers. Research and writing are two essential tasks of a historian. However, when a class is only 15 weeks long, and when students are being introduced to a topic for the first time, it seems unfair and unproductive to assign them a 15 to 25 page research paper. I know history professors who don’t publish 15 pages of writing per year (or even per decade) and yet expect their students to write 20 or more pages for every 4 credit course they take. One result is a huge amount of wasted effort. Too much of the time the research paper feels like make work. Too often, history professors are not harnessing the power of their classes to produce history (and teach it in the process).

At any rate, as part of my efforts to teach students to become historians, instead of to just learn historical content, I’ve developed what I hope will be an interesting, inspiring assignment for students in my upcoming fall course on the history of U.S. markets.

The assignment is explained as follows:

(1) Identity a living, active historian who has written on markets (broadly defined).

(2) Ask this person if they would be willing to be interviewed about their work, and if they would be willing for part or all of the interview to be published.

(3) Read the relevant publications of this historian.

(4) Discuss interviewing techniques in class, and schedule an interview.

(5) Conduct the interview, schedule a time to transcribe it.

(6) Write an introduction to your interview, describing the experience of talking with a historian, and what you value in their work.

Students gain from this experience a large set of skills. They learn how to talk to other historians, to read their materials critically so as to have a discussion with the author. They learn to use transcription equipment. They learn, in general, the importance of cooperation. They may gain a mentor in the process.

The historians who will be interviewed gain the advantage of having their works read and discussed. They may see extracts of their interviews in print. They gain the satisfaction of connections with students and a professor (myself) at another university.

If any historian reading this would like to be short-listed for students to consider for an interview, please let me know. You must be a historian who has written on markets (such as business history, economic history, agricultural history, etc), willing to talk to a student for 30-minutes in a scheduled interview next fall


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