The Appeal of Microhistory

I have been thinking about Microhistory a lot this week, since it was the subject of the #sschat I moderated on Monday night. In preparation for that chat, I dug up some definitions of Microhistory and began reading the classic example, Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms. This week, I have also started reading a more recent work, Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages about Jane Franklin, Ben Franklin’s sister. This morning, after reading an article about how our kids brains are becoming less trained to think deeply in the digital culture they inhabit, I realized why Microhistory appeals to me so much right now. It asks us to do something we rarely do these days – think deeply and slowly about the details of the life of an ordinary person in the past or a lesser known or contained event.

In many ways, this is countercultural. We are pressed to cover more in our required survey courses, so the only way students can get true depth is in electives, which many students may not take. Many of us think we are achieving depth by taking some time to look at a case study for a class or maybe two. I am not sure that is enough for true depth. We often use stories to engage students’ interest, but we move away fairly quickly before they lose interest. We fight an attention span in the classroom that tends to want to jump from topic to topic. Indeed, fast-paced classes often feel more successful – we never quite know what is going on when students are quiet. Social media encourages the “mile wide, inch deep” mentality. Our kids know a little about a lot of things.

The promise of Microhistory is that by focusing on one subject, learning as much as possible about that subject, placing it in the context of the times and thinking about what if any generalizations can be made from the case, we can exercise our deep thinking muscles, preventing atrophy. We can also model for students how to think about doing history – what the evidence tells us, what we think it means, and what we cannot know for sure. The challenge, other than time, is that students may well resist it. It is hard, sometimes mundane and means delayed gratification.

I am not sure how I will incorporate Microhistory in the curriculum. It may not be possible to do well in a survey course, but I will continue to think about and seek opportunities to incorporate this method of doing history.

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