Close Reading: Footnote Edition!

In a recent lesson my librarian friend, Tasha, and I taught, we focused on asking students to examine footnotes in order to see how historians use sources to build arguments. How could two historians come to two different understandings of what slavery was all about? The answer is that they use different source material for different purposes, and that perspective can determine a lot.

After the students had read an article by Drew Gilpin Faust, and another by Eugene Genovese, we talked about how history is created through a series of conversations among historians over what the historical record means and how it all hangs together. In order to illustrate how this happens (and how to write citations in Chicago format) Tasha brought two citation examples up on the screen:


In the first, Faust is leaving a paper trail for other historians to follow. She’s examining documents from the Hammond Plantation of South Carolina, and she’s explaining that to her readers. In the second, she’s having a conversation with Genovese, and with other historians who’ve read him (the second and third sentences do this job). She’s participating in a conversation about the historical record. And then she suggests: if you’re interested in this, you might check out these other books. We also hoped to point the students to the fact that the titles she cites are from the ’70s, that Faust’s article is from the ’80s, and as with medicine and physics, our understanding of history has evolved since then (we followed up with more recent explorations of slavery, worry not).

Now I realize that this may seem sort of geeky and feels like minutia. But! What we hoped students would realize when they performed this kind of close reading was that history is constructed. We also pointed out that when they conduct seminars around their own interpretations of primary source material, they too construct history—they create their own interpretations of the same record with which historians grapple. Furthermore, we emphasized having this skill will save them hours of headache when it comes to turning in their first college term paper. (Thanks to Professor Jim Merrell for the memories of walking across the quad with a term paper in hand, only to realize that a semicolon was out of place and I needed to march back to the library to redo my footnotes at the midnight hour.)

I will concede that when we delivered this lesson, it was a lot for students to take in. They hadn’t really examined scholarly sources as their own unique beasts, and it was clear that we need to do more scaffolding in the future. It got me thinking, though, about how a high school history class might be built around understanding types of sources rather than sets of facts, with the goal of helping students to see how history gets built over time.

Lastly, some excellent quotes from our seminar discussion to send off the weekend:

“God, I sound like Andrew Jackson.”

“Resistance happened in everyday ways.”

“I know we want to say that slavery is over, but slavery is not really over.”

It’s very gratifying to hear students drawing conclusions and reflecting on their thinking like this, all on their very own.



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