Local Studies and Larger Issues: The Case of Sara Bagby

Article excerpt

Historians, especially American historians, increasingly bemoan the discipline's overspecialization and lack of relevance to the wider discipline, which they contend has caused a decline in synthetic history and a rise of specialized history. (1) A 1993 survey of American historians revealed that 86 percent of the respondents agreed that "[h]istory should help us identify diverse cultural experience," but 83 percent concurred that "[h]istory should help us identify common patterns of experience." Clearly many historians believed that "specialized history" was important, but that it still must be placed within a framework. In this same survey historians complained about the loss of narrative history, that is the failure of historians to tell a good story. (2) Historians are rewarded with tenure and prestigious professorships on the basis of specialized research and writing. Some of these works connect local issues to larger issues and events, but broad syntheses analyzing major themes over extended time periods are often derided as trite or oversimplified. Only established historians, those who already hold distinguished professorships or are professors emeriti, can write synthetic works and have them widely read and criticized. (3)

The trend toward overspecialization is reinforced by the way most historians teach historical research and writing. They encourage students to undertake narrowly focused projects. Yet, to develop synthetic skills a specialized project must be placed in a larger context that clarifies larger events or issues. The project then becomes more relevant and the student less narrowly focused and more accustomed to writing a generalized, synthetic study.

In helping students to develop local studies that address larger issues, instructors have two tasks. One is to help them identify topics that can be researched with existing materials. Second, instructors must assist students with a series of questions that will lead them to develop a thesis and argument that not only answers a question but also connects the findings from local to national or international events or issues. Usually the availability of primary sources immediately limits what topics can be adequately researched. Instructors should identify the available sources, then suggest general topics, perhaps related to one group or a specific time period or event. Ideally, the instructor should select a period or event that is related to well-known national or international events or themes. For example, students may seek to study a major issue such as "How did the Civil War alter American society"? These students could be steered toward local sources that create a portrait of their county or town in the five or ten years immediately following the war. Instructors may accept a local study as the final product, which would satisfy the goal of exposing students to primary sources, but accepting this product would not encourage students to stretch their analytical thinking skills to synthesize information and make connections between local and larger issues. Instructors should require students to take their local studies and compare/contrast them with secondary sources that analyze the same period and/or theme. Students should not only develop a thesis and argument about their local study, but also must ask questions about how it relates to national or international events. Instructors can help this process by posing a series of questions: does this town reflect the general trend? Why or why not? Do the town's various groups (racial, ethnic, gender) all experience similar changes within the town, and does this reflect national change? Again, why or why not? Can we view changes in the United States in isolation or are other nations in the 1860s and 1870s experiencing similar phenomena?

There are many excellent works by noted historians that demonstrate how various local materials can illuminate larger issues. …