Book Review: The Methods and Skills of History by Conal Foray & Michael Salevouris

Topic & Content

A textbook discussing the theory and practical skills needed for history students or people developing historical skills. The second edition of this book was published in 2000. It moves topically and is divided into four parts with chapters addressing individual historical skills and methods:

  1. Historical Thinking
    • The Uses of History
    • The Nature of History as Reconstruction
    • Continuity and Change
    • Multiple-Causality in History
    • Thinking in Time: Context
  2. Confronting the Historical Account
    • Libraries
    • Reading History
    • History on Film
  3. Doing History
    • Evidence
    • Oral History and Statistics
    • Interpretation
    • Writing the History Paper
  4. Histriography
    • The History of History
    • History and the Disciplines

Each chapter begins by addressing the broad theoretical ideas and concepts that the reader should be aware of. Following this, a series of exercises are provided to allow the reader to practice what they just learned. These exercises can address different aspects of the concepts and range from simple identification to short-answer writing pieces. For example, exercise 3 of Set A in chapter 2: History as Reconstruction, asks the reader to examine different excerpts and identify if the opinions in them are supported or unsupported.

There are also capsules throughout the book discussing different parts of the history paper, such as the introduction, body paragraphs, etc. These are all tied together in chapter 12 which discusses writing a history paper in detail. The book ends with chapters that broadly examine the historical development of history as a field and its relationship to other academic disciplines (sciences, arts, etc.).

Thesis

This textbook doesn’t have a thesis, per se, but it’s goals are to introduce the student to the concepts and methods used in history to further their appreciation of historical writing, and to provide students with a broad range of communication skills that are applicable to a variety of fields.

Author’s Background

Given that this is a textbook for use in history classes, the authors are clearly professors in higher education. Conal Furay is a Professor Emeritus at Webster University who has taught courses in American historical folklore and Western film. Michael Salevouris is a history professor at Webster University and teaches courses in historical method, European history, military history, and medical history. Suffice it to say that these authors are qualified to talk about the subject of history as a field of study.

Critical Observations

Positives

As a whole, the positives I have to say about this textbook outweigh the negatives. It’s clearly meant as a college undergraduate, history 101 text to introduce students to the basics of reading, interpreting, and writing history (the pages are perforated so they can be easily torn out and scanned). While some may deride this book as being basic or obvious in its content, the reality today is that many students aren’t taught these “basic” skills or are only given a cursory education on them (I know I was). I would further argue that the history skills presented in this book are equally valuable for students at the high school and middle school level.

My reasoning is three-fold:

Firstly, the amount of topics the average social studies class needs to cover in a quarter, semester, or school year is far too broad to go into any real depth. For example, in a World History class, I’ve got three months to get through the Renaissance period, and later in the year, I spend about a month each on World Wars I & II. That’s barely enough time to scratch the surface on any of those topics. Teachers these days juggle so many different balls besides teaching the curriculum content that teaching at the primary and secondary level is less about subject-matter expertise and more about managing classes full of growing bodies and developing brains. If you want subject-matter expertise, then go take a college-level history course. Therefore, the benefit of this book is that it doesn’t presume to rely on any specific content and instead focuses on the broad acquisition of academic historical skills.

Secondly, I’ve taught many students who possess very poor reading, writing, and research skills for their age and grade-level. Often it’s to the point where they need remedial instruction for whatever reason. Maybe it’s because they have some kind of disability, were never taught it, or didn’t learn it properly in the first place. It’s hard to teach history to 16-year olds with a third-grade reading and writing level. No joke. While I wouldn’t call this book remedial, it at least covers the basic skills needed for history students.

Thirdly, a lot of current theories on education have encouraged primary and secondary-level teachers to move away from lecture-based teaching methods and towards more experiential models. This doesn’t mean teachers shouldn’t lecture about the content anymore, rather, it means that teachers should try to “put the learning in the students’ hands.” Put simply: teach the students the skills, give them the materials and the assignment, and make them responsible for their own learning. If the teacher is doing all of the work, then the student isn’t doing much of the learning. Lectures do have their utility, and they’re more viable when you get into higher education because undergraduate and graduate students can sit still and absorb information for long periods of time. The exercises in this book are designed to be practical and easy to apply the learning to. Essentially, they allow the reader to directly work with the learning material.

For these three reasons, I’ve often argued for a high school, freshman-level, introductory social studies/history course that focuses on giving students the basic skills to conduct historical research. These would be things like how to identify and use different types of sources, how to properly cite sources, how to use the internet for research, how to identify bias, how to analyze context/causality/continuity, how to form a thesis, how to choose evidence to support your thesis, how to make inferences and develop interpretations, and so on. All things that this book teaches with emphasis on practical application. Here’s the theory and here’s an exercise to practice that skill on. The students could then apply those skills to many other subjects, especially ones that involve research and writing. In this way, the class could devote more energy to understanding what makes a good thesis, analysis, interpretation, etc.

Anyway, this book is valuable because it gives the reader (student) the skills necessary to make them responsible for their own learning when it comes to history. Armed with these historical skills, they can go and study a topic in history that interests them to a greater depth than we could ever cover in class. They could improve their reading and writing abilities which would help them in other classes, as well. I only wish I had been taught these basic history skills when I was in high school so I could’ve been better prepared for college and graduate school.

On to my problems with the book.

Negatives

My first issue is that the edition I have (2nd edition) was published in 2000 and is now, effectively, out of date. However, the broad skills that it covers with regard to researching and writing history are durable and applicable, even today. The out-of-date section mostly refers to using the internet as a source and speaks in generalizations because the authors couldn’t possibly have predicted what the internet would become. So it’s pretty forgivable.

My second issue deals with how parts of the book are organized. In part I, chapters 3 – 5 were a little vague in some places. These chapters discuss continuity and change, multiple causality, and context. They’re all concepts that are interconnected when analyzing a historical narrative, but the exercises in each chapter are treated separately. For example, one of the exercises in chapter 3 asks the reader to identify whether a following passage emphasizes continuity, change, multiple causality, or context. The problem is that the reader has only been introduced to the first two concepts in this chapter and doesn’t really know what to look for in the other concepts because they’re introduced in the following chapters. I think those three chapters and their exercises could be more logically introduced with better examples to illustrate what the reader should be aware of.

My final critique is that the book could do a better job at providing examples of what to avoid when reading, interpreting, and writing history. In other words, a lot of ink is spilled on what makes history worthwhile and readable, but not much is mentioned on what constitutes bad history. Since the book works hard at establishing a basic methodology and providing tools for the historian, it could give more concrete examples of pitfalls that researchers fall into. Some mention is made of things to be wary of throughout the book, but I would like it to be further expanded upon or given its own chapter.

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

As a textbook, it works well and I would definitely consider using it in a classroom setting. There are similar textbooks out there that cover the skills related to studying history, so this one certainly isn’t the final say in the matter. I am curious as to whether or not updated editions of this text improve on the content, but overall, it’s a worthwhile guide for those looking to freshen up on the nuts and bolts of reading, interpreting, and writing history.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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