History, Causality, and Evidence

I left the second class with that sinking feeling.  I had over-prepared the specifics and had not brought home the main ideas in the compelling way I had hoped to.

I had wanted to spend this first week engaging students in the current situation, challenging them to think about evidence and argument, and setting the stage for new kinds of processes in the large lecture arena.  In the past, I had launched into background information about Islam and early Muslim history.  Over time, I have been unable to rationalize this.  I want to emphasize the role of economy and society and politics and global issues in the history of the Middle East, and I see religion as an element of many things.  But focusing on Islam at the very beginning of the course implied something entirely different–the primacy of religion in the region.  I have wondered whether my US History colleagues begin their courses with an intro to Christianity.  This year I would experiment with beginning in the present.

The first class had really exciting, and this time, I wanted to get specific.  What kinds of explanations had been offered for the so-called Arab Spring?  How was someone to judge among them?

I spent a lot of preparation time on PowerPoint slides: Demographer Emmanuel Todd explained that gains in literacy, a falling birthrate, and the decline in cousin marriage marked significant cultural shifts that led to the events in Tunisia and Tahrir Square.  The Financial Times insisted that it was economic and political grievances.  Political Scientist Mark Lynch disagreed, claiming it was about the demand for dignity in the face of corruption and abuse.  Allen West (R-Florida) asserted that it was an Islamic totalitarian movement, anti-American, and the opposite of a call for democracy.  And I played them an audio clip of Wael Ghonim (blogger-in chief and Google executive) thanking Mark Zuckerberg and emphasizing social media.

I asked them to talk with the students around them to figure out how we could assess the varied explanations.  But instead of responding with the MEANS of comparing these varied possibilities, students fell back on claiming that each one was relevant and a contributing factor.

This was what I should have been preparing for–how to confront the tendency of students to accept all explanations as equally valid.  I had long marveled at how, given two opposite alternative possibilities, students seemed to want to either choose an alternative located in the absolute middle or to claim that all were important.  And, in front of 200 students, I was unprepared to provide compelling examples of why that wouldn’t work.

I had prepared a more general response, though, and fell back on my colleague Jonathan Katz’ explanation: “Historical study is primarily concerned with cause-and-effect, that is, uncovering factors that explain how particular events or circumstances came into existence. However, unlike the ‘hard sciences’ the explanations that historical study offers are generally framed as interpretations—not concrete facts. As a consequence, the study of history implies thinking critically about historical explanations rather than simply learning concrete facts.”

The difference between OPINION and INTERPRETATION, I argued, was evidence.  Historians don’t begin their arguments with “I believe….”  Believing is simply not adequate as a basis for historical argument, I insisted.  Then I followed with an admittedly lame discussion of how we use different kinds of sources depending on the questions we ask, and how we assess the accuracy of those sources.  Clearly, I’ll be spending a lot of time this semester trying to not only give students the tools to critically analyze sources, but also empowering them to realize that they are actually capable of judging between varying possible explanations.

Next week we begin the “Modern Middle East” with Napoleon’s invasion, and I was really pleased to find the transitional image back into the past.  Omar Makram was my man, not only as the Muslim scholar known for his opposition to the French invasion in 1798, but also as the statue overlooking Tahrir Square.  And he offers so many options for a historian!  After opposing the French invasion, he worked with the British.  He was instrumental in recognizing Muhammad Ali, but was then exiled by the new Egyptian ruler because of his opposition to the new leader’s land confiscation policies.  Moreover, the Tahrir Square mosque bearing his name had not been built until the 1940s (by an Italian architect), and the statue had been unveiled only in 2003.  So here was a possibility for analyzing how the memory of historical figures are mobilized for contemporary purposes.

At the end, I began the newest innovation: a Question slide that would allow them to tell me what they still wanted to know.

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One thought on “History, Causality, and Evidence

  1. Sarah, this is fabulous! I’m getting all sorts of ideas from you as I think about offering larger classes down the road.

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