The Role of Field Studies in Historical Thinking
A good field study provides students with access to three experiences important to historical understanding.
1) First is the experience of “being there.” As history is part story, “place” is the stage on which the story played out. In this sense, the field study allows students to step onto the stage and imagine how the story unfolded – to walk through the same space (whether a building, a community, or a landscape) and to develop what Baron (see below) refers to as empathetic insight. Watch people when they visit a site like the Coliseum in Rome for the first time. How many of them do you see touching the ancient stones? Why do they do that? Because it puts them literally “in touch with” the thousands of others – slaves, gladiators, patricians, and emperors – who touched and walked in that same space in past millennia. Being in the place enriches and deepens the answer to the question “What must it have been like?” But this experience is mere fantasizing if it does not draw as well from a reservoir of historical knowledge of the time and place, as well as a means of investigating the historical significance of what they are seeing – using the place as the object of investigation.
2) A second role of field studies, then, is the use of place as a three-dimensional primary source, providing evidence to use in historical inquiry. What visual evidence does this place offer that locates it in time and space? How does it compare to other similar places, and how do its differences with similar places provide clues to its historical significance and its story? Is there three-dimensional evidence that supports historical accounts drawn from other sources? If one had to rely solely on the place to make historical inferences, what would one look for? What hypotheses about the history of the time would one make based on the visual record displayed at this site? How would one test these inferences? These are all questions that historians ask when they seek to interpret the story (or, more accurately, “stories”) of a place.
Sam Wineburg, professor of education and history at Stanford University, outlined heuristics for developing historical thinking using primary sources – specifically, documents.1 According to Wineburg, we use documents for corroboration, comparing documents with one another to confirm or reject an account. When we analyze documents, we also engage in sourcing, looking first to the source of the document before reading the body of the text. Finally, we seek contextualization, situating a document in a concrete temporal and spatial context (Wineburg, 1991, p. 77). These heuristics provide a framework historians use to make sense of documents, discern patterns, and differentiate types of evidence. While these heuristics play an essential role in document analysis, their application to historic places is problematic, as shown in Christine Baron’s study on the use of historic places in historical understanding.2 Her study sought to apply and adapt Wineburg’s model to historic places and, in doing so, provided guidance for the design of field studies. As we will see, Baron’s adaptation of Wineburg’s heuristics comes into play during a well-conceived field study.
3) A third role of the field study, flowing from the inquiry-based use of historic places, is the means by which students can see a site across the sweep of time, from its origination through its transformations to the present day. A field study allows students to explore a place through strata of time and its multiple contexts,3 in addition to examining its original state.4 What is original and what has been changed over time, and how does this help to identify the historical “strata” necessary to understand the place across time? How do the architectural elements reveal the values of the time of origination, and the changing values reflected in elements incompatible with its origination story? “Why was it put here?” “How did it change?” “Why is it still here?” Fundamentally, why is this place still here and why has it been preserved? What is the purpose and value of preserving this and other historic places?
In planning a field study, the methods professor needs to consider how these dimensions of teaching with place can be applied to the goals of preparing future teachers to uncover the richness of history for their students and to think historically.