Teaching Students to Read Secondary Sources with Age of Revolutions

By Erika Vause

In his seminal 1961 essay “The Historian and His Facts,” E.H. Carr compared writing history to preparing fish. Carr argued against seeing history as a “corpus of ascertained facts” lying “like fish on the fishmonger’s slab,” and historians as people who “collect [the facts], take them home, and cook and serve them in whatever style appeals.” The historian is not a fishmonger, claims Carr, but rather a fisherman, and “the facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use.” [1]

Almost all historians today would agree with Carr’s second description of the historical process. Our task is not to uncover a coherent, objective, hidden story, but rather to piece together fragmentary and inconclusive evidence in a way that best explains what we see, knowing our interpretations are always provisional and tentative. Yet, while this insight may seem common sense among historians, it is far from universally recognized among the general public or incoming college students. For students to understand how historical thinking can help them make sense of the world in which they live, they must comprehend how scholars produce the history they read. So how do we transform our students from Carr’s fishmongers to his fishers?  In this piece, I argue that the articles on this website provide an excellent resource for teaching introductory college students about the craft of history.

For the past two years, I have used articles from Age of Revolutions as the basis for the first paper I assign in the modern world history survey I teach every semester.  I designed this assignment based on some reflections about my students’ existing strengths and weaknesses. I teach at St. John’s University, a Catholic research university, in Queens New York. Since the course is required for all students at the university regardless of major and my school has an extremely diverse student body, I get students with a wide variety of interests, backgrounds, and skills. Despite their varying backgrounds, most of my students are already familiar with the basics of primary source analysis and understand why primary sources are important for exploring history.  However, beyond the ability to distinguish between primary and secondary sources, my students’ familiarity with secondary sources is very limited.   While some are aware that there are different perspectives of the past and different narratives in which history can be told, few understand how historical research and argumentation works or know how to evaluate the intellectual weight of contradictory narratives.

Given the focus of pre-university history education, which is often framed by statewide standards teachers must follow, this situation is hardly surprising. Moreover, history majors generally take a class that introduces them to historical craft at some point in their university career. Yet should only majors learn that history is not about fishmongers but rather about fishermen? To me, this does a disservice not merely to our field but also to the ways a liberal arts education can broaden students’ views of the world. In learning how the past is actively revised and constructed through research and argumentation, all students can better understand why what we know about the past constantly evolves without just dismissing conflicting interpretations as “just so-and-so’s opinion.” As college educators, we can build on the foundations laid in high school not only to hone primary source analysis but to introduce students to historical craft, as well.

In making this introduction, my largest challenge was finding “gateway” pieces that follow scholarly norms while not overwhelming learners. While many textbooks include primary sources and some include summaries of various debates among historians, none include excerpts from academic articles or monographs. Giving a freshman a 35-page journal article is more likely to daunt than to inspire. That is where Age of Revolutions is particularly useful. The pieces on Age of Revolutions are short, illustrated, accessible, timely, and feature topics that are appealing to a general audience while still being written by scholars according to disciplinary norms. Moreover, they fit with class timing. In a world history survey where the first few weeks are devoted to the analysis of primary sources, I usually cover secondary sources by the time we are also reaching the eighteenth century. Revolutions, being contingent, controversial, and radical events par excellence, are also ideal subjects for thinking about the importance of interpretation and scholarly choices in framing historical narratives.

In mobilizing Age of Revolutions in my classroom, I begin with a close in-class analysis of how one article works. This semester, I chose Meghan Robert’s “Hats Off for The History of Science: Rethinking the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Claims about the Lavoisier Portrait.” [2] This piece has many advantages. First, it is short enough that it can be read by students in small groups in class. Second, Roberts clearly highlights the argument being made with key words. I tell students to be on the lookout not just for giveaways like “I argue,” or “in this piece, I will explain…”  but all places at the beginning or end of a piece where the author introduces a disagreement or oversight through terms like “yet” or “however.”  I suggest students start by carefully reading an academic work’s title for clues to what the main argument will be about and then finding a sentence or two in the text that seems to relate to the title.  Roberts’ extremely clever title is perfectly suggestive of her thesis. Third, Roberts’ argument is very clearly positioned against a rival interpretation of this primary source, the one offered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Lastly, the central evidence under consideration is a painting allowing students to see the details in the primary source, which are of specific importance to Roberts’ argument. Since this primary source is visual and therefore more quickly accessible than text, students can observe how the picture itself drives Roberts’ disagreement with the Met’s interpretation.  All these factors make it a good choice for an initial exercise in reading academic articles. In class, I divided the students into groups of three and had them read through the piece. Then, as a group, they filled out a graded worksheet designed to walk them through the process of finding the author’s argument, understanding its historiographical context, and evaluating the use of primary source evidence.

This close in-class analysis of an Age of Revolutions article serves as an introduction to the first major writing assignment in the class, which is also based on the pieces on Age of Revolutions. In this assignment, I allow students to focus on a particular theme of their choosing: race, religion, material culture, gender and women’s experiences, or rethinking the American Revolution. I then provide them with 3-4 essays taken from Age of Revolutions’ special issues on these topics and ask them to pick two to analyze in their responses. After the students read the two articles, they respond to a series of questions. First, they summarize what happened in the article. Then, they must identify one or two sentences that represent the argument and why these pieces qualify as such. Lastly, they think both about the use of secondary sources and primary sources and compare the main findings of the articles. Typically, I also devote a class to short one-on-one appointments with students so we can talk over their drafts. 

The lessons instilled by Age of Revolutions are subsequently reinforced by other class assignments and activities. In addition to assigning other, longer academic works, I also spend one class talking at length about my own research process and highlighting the twelve-year process by which my initial idea for a dissertation eventually became a book. Since scholarly work is often very abstract to students, such details can make concrete the idea of scholarship as an experience of labor and make it clearer what the authors of each piece they’ve read from Age of Revolutions was doing when they cited historiography or how long it probably took them to find this perfect picture from an archive. Later, I also use a book from the Oxford graphic history series, such as Abina and the Important Men [3] and The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt [4], which include primary sources upon which the graphic history is based, to think about the choices historians make in interpretating evidence. Lastly, for the past three years, I have used the film Denial (2016) to highlight the importance of responsibly using historical evidence [5]. Age of Revolutions remains a fundamental touchstone in all these conversations, and I have students think back to what they learned about evidence, argumentation, and argument contextualization from reading and writing about these pieces.

In an era when “alternative histories” abound and expertise is widely distrusted, it’s more important than ever to teach students to understand and appreciate how historical knowledge is produced. This means that we need to go beyond showing them the kinds of primary sources that we use. We also need to reveal what we do with these sources. This is how students learn that scholars are not fishmongers but rather fishers. This initiation should take place even in very introductory classes and should include even those students with no interest in ever taking another history class. Fortunately, to help with this challenging task, Age of Revolutions provides abundant and rich resources.

Check out the assignment materials here:

Erika Vause is Associate Professor of History at St. John’s University in New York City and the author of In the Red and in the Black: Debt, Dishonor and the Law in France Between Revolutions (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018).

Title Image: Image of Rosalinda Dominguez. Photo taken by Bryan Banks.


[1] Edward Hallett Carr, “The Historian and His Facts,” from What is History? (London, Penguin, 1961), 7-30.

[2] Meghan Roberts, “Hats Off for the History of Science: Rethinking the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Claims about the Lavoisier Portrait,” Age of Revolutions (October 2021). https://ageofrevolutions.com/2021/10/04/hats-off-for-the-history-of-science-rethinking-the-metropolitan-museum-of-arts-claims-about-the-lavoisier-portrait/.

[3] Trevor R. Getz and Liz Clarke, Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[4] Michael G. Vann and Liz Clarke, The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empire, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[5] Mick Jackson, Denial (Bleecker Street Media, 2016).

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