George Rudés “The Crowd in the French Revolution” is a text which has been loved, hated and underlined by university students all over the world. Since I have a long running in understanding how students read, analyse and write historical narratives, those grubby annotations are actually interesting, and I had an idea for a bit of work which could involve undergraduates in some research on their own metacognitive skills, and which might become an open collaborative project. I have done about three days work on it already, and realised that I have failed to create an ‘Open Research Notebook’ as yet, so this is a bit of catch up.
History constructs evidence based narratives to make sense of our actions in the past. For this, understanding the difference between evidence, the ‘club of historical facts’ and the analytical structures in which we plot them is critical. (Non Historians have no idea how many schools of history I’ve managed to deeply offend in those few words!)
For over twenty years, I’ve required students to read journal articles and map argument and evidence from them, initially as two column lists, but mostly as mind maps. I have dog eared powerpoints showing the process, and have demonstrated it on the fly on my iPad in class in more recent years.
It all arose from looking at a badly underlined text in the Boole Library and wondering what kind of ……. had underlined every fact and ignored every interpretation. This summer, I thought I would revisit that issue, but more systematically.
This shows an early example of an exercise designed to develop student critical reading in history. It was from a survey course in Irish history which was taught to visiting students from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds. It was therefore important to explain to them the way in which historians present evidence based accounts of the past, gathering facts to draw generalisations about the past.
Rather than simply demonstrating this, I made it an assessed task early in the course so that I could be sure that they could distinguish evidence from interpretation.
This paragraph, from an article on army size in the Military Revolution, is one which I have used for many years to demonstrate the relationship between argument and evidence in historical writing (although the rhetorical structure is similar in most humanities disciplines )
The first sentence refers back to the previous arguments about limited sizes of garrisons, and asserts that this was in line with theories of that era. Three examples are then offered as evidence to support this, each dutifully referenced. So this is a classic 1+3 paragraph, and while it isn’t the ultimate form of academic writing, I would argue that if a student can’t read this properly, they won’t be able to construct these very basic argument paragraphs and have no hope of either dissecting or creating more complex writing.
I also use this paragraph to explain why the facts of history are irrelevant. This seems to counter what I have just explained to them but I point out that if the historian is correct in his interpretation, then she should be able to discard these three ‘facts’, and replace them with three other ‘facts’ from the same “bucket of evidence” and the argument should still hold.
I decided I wanted to revisit this afresh, in a slightly different way. Since I first engaged with this issue, several trends have emerged – research based learned at undergraduate level, and ‘Open Science’ and open collaborative research, and I want to use this to walk my students through some of the methods and tools which we can use for open, collaborative undergraduate research.
I am beginning with one text of which the Boole, and many other academic libraries, holds multiple copies. The three parts of the plan so far is to
- Get a full, OCR, plain text of the book (Done!)
- Scan annotated chapters from multiple copies of the book (started)
- Markup the student annotations on the scans/plaintext
- Think about what this shows us.
- Present this early in term to the students in the BA DHIT
- Require them as part of their assessment to scan more chapters in other copies of the book, or in core texts in other disciplines. (So, praxis and epistemology in one task.)
- Engage them in a discussion about how we structure evidence based narrative in the Humanities
- Invite any academics who want to copy this work, and encourage them to share the outcomes openly
- Build an infrastructure to allow students in other universities to join in the conversation.
- Encourage students to write reflective research off the material
Why Rudé? Well, apart from providing a snappy title, it is a popular and important book on a key event which is widely used in universities. His work on the ‘mob’ opened fresh perspectives on the history of the French Revolution. The book was written in French, but translated into English, (and other languages ) which opens other possibilities for interrogating the text. It has a mix of styles, with early chapters which set the scene, a series of mainly narrative chapters on key events, and a closing set of analytical chapters which draw the ideas together. It is a very fine piece of very useful writing.
The work is also politically important right now. It is clear that the revolutionary goals of ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’ have not been achieved, and, indeed, are deeply in danger. Rude explored in more detail that previously have the people, hungry and disenchanted with the system, drove radical politics along. Rude himself argued that previous historians treated the Paris mob as an anonymous mob, almost like zombies, and he sought to explore that ‘mob’ more deeply and critically. Since our current political discourse is riddled with examples of such simplifications: Trump supporters, Saunders supporters, Corbynistas, migrants and others, it is very important to think more critically about the ‘mob’. So I think it’s a good text to work with, because of it’s contemporary resonance.
Next: Practicalite: the work so far
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