Course IntroductionThis module starts us thinking about secondary sources, and their viewpoints.
In history, a secondary source is one written by someone writing after the fact - that is, someone writing later in time, who wasn't there, didn't experience the event (or whatever), but have read primary sources (by people who were there!) and then writes the story based on that evidence.
Those people are called historians. In this course, we're historians.
This course focuses on secondary sources. We'll be looking at what historians have already said about some important topics. In this module, we'll start slowly, with one secondary source. But as we move further, we'll look at several secondary sources on related topics so that we can get a good overview of the different questions being asked, the sources, being used, the major viewpoints that exist on this topic.
This week, we'll dive into our seminar discussions by discussing a single brief excerpt and introducing ourselves to our class mates.
- to familiarize ourselves with our seminar discussion groups
- to introduce yourselves to your fellow seminar participants (tell everyone a bit about yourselves)
- to practice identifying the argument in a secondary source
- to practice discussing the evidence to support that argument
- to begin discussing/debating these issues in your seminar
Thinking about "the past" versus "history":
I want you to think about the difference between "the past", and "history". The past is human and natural events that occurred some time ago. History is telling that story, recounting those events be it orally or textually.
When we read history, we’re not reading the past, we're reading words – stories – written by individual human beings who interpret those stories in their own way. Historians try their best to tell the story accurately. They look at evidence (which is always incomplete); they interpret that evidence; they figure out a story; they select the evidence that supports that story. Very simply, different historians will do that in different ways, and end up with different versions of the story.
To be clear, that does not mean that “it’s all relative”, or “there’s always two sides of the story”, or other clichés. It also doesn’t mean that historians disagree on really basic issues (no one doubts that the Holocaust happened, but there’s tons of debate on how it happened, or why some people collaborated with the Nazis, while others resisted, and so on). Similarly, in colonial Canada, as we'll see no one doubts that Nova Scotia did not join the American Revolution, but different historians have explained why they didn’t in different ways (we’ll look at this very question later in the term).
This is called historiography. It’s a word that many history students dread, but you shouldn’t fear the idea. It’s basic to all that we do. And if you understand that most topics have a historiography – that different historians approach that topic differently – then you’ll be a better history student. And if you’re not a history student, it’s still useful in thinking about literature reviews (of what the academic literature on any given topic – be that in political science, or biology – says about that topic). All topics have debates/discussion, agreements and disagreements, about how to understand it. History is no different.
Many people think of history as a fixed thing in the past. It's not. The past is fixed (it already happened), but its history depends on how we tell the story - and thus it depends on what evidence we have from the past to understand it. The only way we can access the past is through memory, or textual or material sources from the past. We need those things - evidence! - to understand the past. Where all this gets tricky is that human beings interpret things differently, they remember it differently, they interpret those sources differently. And thus while the past is fixed, the way we tell its stories aren't.
History, then, is always changing - not the past, it's fixed - but just our ability to interpret it changes with the evidence we look at and how we interpret that evidence. While the very basics of a story seldom change, the meaning of the story can change dramatically based on the questions the historian asks, the evidence they look at, how they interpret that evidence, whether they agree with how other historians have interpreted that evidence.
This means that there are different versions of most histories. It does not mean that people can simply have an opinion – they still need evidence to support the position – but it does mean that historians debate which versions are better, who has the best evidence, how best to understand the story.
That’s what we’ll begin to practice in this introductory module. In the next few days we’ll look at a single article and begin practicing identifying the argument, and discussing the evidence. In coming weeks, we'll expand on that by comparing different writers on the same topic. At the end of the course you should be able to write an effective historiographical discussion about one topic in colonial Canadian history.
And if you can do that, you can do that for any topic.