Assignment 2

Video Assignment [text version]: How Do Historians Know Part I: The Slave Experience 

  • Now that you listened to my introduction, I’d like to introduce you to the study of history. After I make a few remarks, you’ll get a chance to do some hands-on historical research on the slave experience.
  • To do well in this course, it is critical to understand how historians conduct research, evaluate evidence, and write about the past.

The Study of History: Why People Do It

  • As with other disciplines in the social sciences, historians practice the scientific method to understand human behavior—both individual and group—across space and time.
  • The great historian Marc Bloch put it well when he observed that history is both a human science and a time science.
  • Bloch also wrote that history connects the past with the present; that is, people study history in order to understand current events, crises, or trends.
  • I’d go a step further. History to me is innately human, one of the traits that distinguishes us from other mammals and sits at the core of civilization. Human beings are learners, we analyze our individual and collective decisions in an effort to survive and thrive in an otherwise hostile environment. It is this ability to learn, remember, analyze and then adapt our behavior based on previous experiences—and to record that learning so that we may share it with others—that makes us human.
  • History, in this way, has developed mutually with civilization: studying it gives us a sense of right and wrong, identifies good and poor decision making, and shows the consequences of human actions in the long term. And because history requires us to confront the connection between actions and outcomes, our sense of history sits at the core of our moral, ethical, political, cultural, and social values.

How We Study History: Research, Analysis, and Writing

  • Let me describe the practice of history that you have the opportunity to learn in this course.
  • History applies the scientific method to understand human endeavors over space and time. The scientific method requires the gathering and evaluation of evidence, a logical analysis of that evidence, then an explanation of what the full body of evidence tells us about human events in the past.
  • Studying humans is, of course, messy. Humans lie, or cheat, or have prejudices, or refuse to speak, or forget or change their recollections of events. And, evidence gets lost or destroyed. So historians consistently confront the challenge of reconciling divergent accounts or trying to compensate for missing information.
  • A good analogy for history is detective work. Detectives must gather and reconcile incomplete, faulty, or contradictory evidence in order to reconstruct a crime. To make a case stick, they have to corroborate evidence from more than one source. Furthermore, they must provide a persuasive explanation of who committed the crime, how it was done, and why it was done. And, like detectives, new evidence can later surface that shows they got it wrong.
  • Historians therefore strive to be thorough in gathering evidence, methodical in evaluating it, and logical in their interpretations. They also document where they got their information very carefully. This allows others to confirm that an argument is based on evidence and, importantly, can be checked for accuracy.
  • In this course, you will learn history through two types of sources, primary and secondary sources.
  • Definitions are necessary here.
  • Primary sources are original documents or data produced by witnesses to the events or individuals reporting on those events at the time they happened. This can include letters, diaries, newspapers, government documents, memoirs, art, cartoons, poems, music, objects, and other materials. Primary sources are the building blocks of historical research. Sometimes called original sources, they enable us to, in effect, gather and weigh the merits of conflicting accounts. Your research project will be based on primary research.
  • Secondary sources are fundamentally different and used in a different way. Secondary sources are books, articles, essays, web sites, videos, etc., that are written or created by scholars in order to make an interpretation of the past.
  • Secondary sources normally combine both primary and secondary research. To see an example of this, open James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, to page 364. Look at footnotes 43-45 at the bottom of the page. McPherson cites both primary documents (letters from the Barlow and McClellan papers) and secondary sources (books by Foote and Williams). Normally when a scholar cites a secondary source, it is because their own primary research agrees with a previous author’s findings. This is an important part of scholarship: acknowledging your own debts to scholars who have conducted research on similar topics.
  • Historians also consult secondary sources to develop a broad knowledge of the past and how scholars have interpreted it. Historical knowledge is important, as it enables a scholar to establish the context in which events took place. Knowing how other historians have interpreted the past enables a researcher to compare his or her conclusions to previous work. They can then challenge, amend, or confirm previous results.
  • Reconciling sources is a final step that must always be taken by historians. You will always find conflicting accounts in a large body of primary sources. And, your evidence may not agree with that of other authors. How do you reconcile such disagreements? You must be a skeptic and weigh carefully the reliability of the evidence you have at hand. Are your primary sources reliable? Do the authors have an agenda? Are there objective ways (e.g., numerical data) to establish their reliability? Is there a preponderance of evidence that agrees with your sources? With secondary sources, you must identify an author’s point of view, potential biases, and evidence. Can you affirm their findings? If so, you may agree with an author and support her/his argument. If not, you may raise questions about that interpretation. This part of the process requires systematic thought and careful assessment of all of the available evidence.
  • Having gathered, reviewed, and confirmed a large body of evidence, historians offer an interpretation of past events. They always try to explain who acted, why they acted, how they acted, what the outcome was, and what the significance of the event was (that is, why do we need to know this).
  • I have a last point to make. You will note that I have not said that historians use evidence to support opinions. This is important. The art of great historical research and writing lies in one’s ability to allow objective inquiry to override one’s personal opinions or beliefs. When I tell you to write a persuasive essay, I mean a scientifically persuasive essay—you must clearly show you have drawn the most logical conclusion based on a rigorous gathering and review of the evidence.

III. Research Exercise

  • Now that you have been introduced to the basic foundations of historical research, it is time to become familiar with primary sources and what their strengths and limits are.
  • Primary research is the basic detective work of historians. They use it to search for new evidence or find errors in previous interpretations. Success at either can change our view of history.
  • For students in a class like HST 304, primary research helps one develop critical thinking skills. In particular, it allows you to see that history is not simply a neat, tidy narrative woven around well-established and irrefutable facts. Conducting your own research helps you learn for yourself the complex nature of human history and challenge the general historical understandings of the society in which you live.
  • For our course an excellent subject to investigate is slavery. How do historians know what slavery was like for those who lived under the system in the U.S. before the Civil War?
  • To start our exercise, write down what you believe slavery was like for African Americans who lived under the system. Use the following categories, with no more than two sentences for each:
  1. Region of the US
  2. Place slaves lived and worked
  3. Type of labor slaves performed
  4. Work conditions or rhythms
  5. Food, clothing, shelter
  6. Family life
  7. Education or training
  8. Religion
  9. Freedoms , liberties, rights
  10. Slave views of whites
  11. Slaves’ views of slavery and freedom
  12. The source of your understanding of slavery
  • Now that you have written down what you currently know about slaves and the way in which they experienced slavery, it is time to conduct primary research to determine whether or not you would alter any of your current conclusions.
  • There are a range of sources that one might consult to learn about the experiences and views of African American slaves before the Civil War. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Most were not written or recorded by slaves themselves. These could include slaveholders’ diaries, letters, and account books; travel accounts by Northerners or Europeans; anti-slavery or abolitionist writings that attacked slavery; political speeches or debates; newspaper articles; court records; etc. Virtually all of these would be written by whites whether pro- or anti-slavery. Obviously those actors had not lived as slaves. They therefore would not be the best source of information on the slave experience. Fortunately, other bodies of evidence exist that allow us to read how slaves described slave life.
  • During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal government funded the Federal Writers’ Project to help assist unemployed Americans. Among the special projects that they undertook was interviewing former slaves to record their recollections of life in the plantation South. The Library of Congress has made a substantial set of these interviews available online in transcript form.
  • Go to the web site “Born in Slavery” at
  • Find the “Browse Narratives by” box, then click the link “Narrator”.
  • Select one of the interviews, click on it, and read the transcript. What does the former slave being interviewed say that seems new to you? Are there any surprises? Do any of the ex-slave’s recollections challenge the views of slavery that you wrote down in your 12 categories?
  • Go back to your list. For each of the 12 categories, add a new sentence that describes any changes or adjustments you may have made to your thinking about the slave experience.
  • We cannot stop here, however, as this is a single source and we do not know if it is representative.
  • To test your source’s representativeness, you will use a slave narrative published in 1849 by Henry Bibb as a comparison.
  • So how do you find Bibb’s account? Fortunately, the library has it readily available to you digitally. Here are the steps that you need to take to find Bibb’s account.
    • Start at the MSU Main Library web page:
    • Click “Library Catalog”
    • Pull down “Author”, enter “Bibb, Henry”, click Search
    • Click the second Bibb, Henry link
    • Scroll to entry #4, click Web Link
    • Read pages 11-45—you don’t have to be super thorough, seek points in the text that Bibb addresses similar themes as your FWP source
  • Go back to your list for a second time. For each of the 12 categories, add a new sentence that describes any changes or adjustments you may have made to your thinking about the slave experience based on Bibb’s account.
  • Now it is time to reflect on what you have read. What are the limitations of the interview you read? Can you consider it to be representative now that you read Bibb? Are there factors (age, time between the interview and the experience, questions about how the interview was conducted or by whom) that could influence the ex-slaves’ account of slavery? If you think about Bibb’s motives as an abolitionist, what factors do you believe might color his description of slavery? What additional research would you have to do to reconcile the accounts?
  • Having considered these factors, write a short summary of what you have learned about slavery by conducting this preliminary research (4-5 sentences are all that is needed).
  • This is how historians practice their craft. They use primary sources to test what they think they already know. If they consult multiple sources and find a consistent pattern they refashion their arguments and attempt to persuade others to do so too.
  • Before they any argument, they carefully assess the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence they use.
  • Last, historians always compare their findings to those who wrote before them. When they write their own essay or book, they take time to demonstrate how their argument differs from previous authors’.
  • For your research project for this course, you will read secondary sources to help you interpret primary sources and, importantly, determine whether your primary sources are representative or cast new light on a historical problem.
  • Only after considering multiple primary and secondary sources can a historian begin to develop a thesis.


The purpose of this exercise was two-fold. First, I wanted to familiarize you with the way that historians conduct research and how they use it to logically and persuasively explain human events. Second, I wanted you to have a chance to learn firsthand the way that scholars find, evaluate, and interpret evidence.

I hope too that you can appreciate my earlier point that history is messy because its subjects—humans—may be complicated, in conflict, or inconsistent. Researching and writing about them is not a simple exercise of learning and organizing a set of facts. Rather, historians attempt to rigorously vet their evidence, find independent corroborating evidence, and then draw conclusions.

This leads me to a final thought. Failing to practice history with rigorous attention to evidence, logic, reasoning, and context nullifies its value. That is, without the scientific method, history cannot fulfill its primary function in society: to help people take critical lessons from their shared experience to better navigate the human and natural environment in which we live.

Guideline for Assignment 2

  1. Completed on time (this has two parts, as outlined below; always check schedule for due dates)
  2. Use the 12 points from the video to record your initial understanding of slavery; how your FWP interview altered that view; and how Bibb’s account amended your understanding further. End with a 4-5 sentence summary of what you learned
  3. Posted in D2L
  4. Comment on at least 4 of your colleagues’ blog posts for this assignment
  5. Assignment is graded on a point scale [maximum points=5]

Leave a Reply