General Advice for History Classes

Step One: Read the directions.

The first and best piece of advice that you can hear as you're preparing either for a history course or to put together a research paper is to follow your instructor's expectations. Teachers do not put guidelines and directions together on paper for you so that you can lose it or throw it away. Read them. Understand them. And your first point of contact, after you check with your classmates, is not YouTube. It's your instructor. Go ask them for clarification. Not only will you gain a better understanding of what they want, they might also realize that they need to clarify their directions for their students for later. You might be doing your classmates and the students of classes future a favor.

Make it matter to you.

One of the most common complaints about history is a statement that history is boring. The quickest and easiest antidote to that is changing your frame of mind. Sure, some of us history teachers can drone on or get stuck on tangents, and sometimes the work requires a lot of reading that might be hard to understand, but look at history from the point of view of the people that lived it. The world you live in is not static, and it's not black and white. It's dynamic, alive, confusing, fascinating, beautiful and terrible all at the same time. So was the world at any other time. Find something that's relevant to you, and explore it. Your teacher can and will help you.

If you're having trouble, get inspired by doing one of the following things:

  1. Find the Images. Especially if you're studying anything in the last two hundred years or so, find images related to your subject. In particular, color/colorized photographs are particularly powerful. The Library of Congress has a great archive of photography, including a wide variety of color photographs from the 1930s and 40s that you wouldn't expect to exist. We've all seen Migrant Mother, but what about this street corner?

    Headlines posted in street-corner window of newspaper off[ice] (Brockton Enterprise) ... Brockton, Mass.  (LOC)

    People going about their daily lives in another time is, despite lacking the glamor of kings and queens and guillotines, can really connect you to the past. How about imagining the sounds and the smells of this roundhouse full of trains in Chicago?

    In the roundhouse at a Chicago and Northwestern Railroad yard, Chicago, Ill.  (LOC)  

    Perhaps you need to reach further back. Why don't you try imagining yourself standing in a cave with a tribe member working on these paintings in a cave in paleolithic France? What would you think? What would your concerns be for later that day? How would you see the world?

    Lascaux Cave Paintings 03

  2. If your subject is before the advent of photography or there's very little to go on, find a primary source and just read it. Even if it's not part of your assignment, this has value. Find a person who lived during that time, and figure out what they thought about things. We have journals, letters, newspaper articles, essays, and even shopping lists from some of the oldest civilizations we know of. There are certainly a lot missing, but odds are you can find someone's perspective to be interested in.
  3. Maybe you need a little more drama. Historical fiction might be for you. Find a book from the time period in question. There are plenty of books of historical fiction that can help you connect with a time period that you otherwise might not. 
  4. Ask your teacher. This is a piece of advice that you're going to see a lot. Your teachers didn't get into this field because they didn't know how to connect with the past and help students do the same. Quite the opposite. Let them know that you want to be curious but don't know where to start. 

Take your time.

One of the most common mistakes among history students is thinking that it's something that can be last priority, and that you can complete your reading or writing in the last day before it's due, or in the hour before class. Sure, you might just barely make a deadline, but you missed out. History requires time (pun intended). You must set aside time to really get into your documents and your readings, and you can't use your brain to its fullest potential if you have a complex subject to write about but you gave yourself a simple subject's amount of time. 

Be clear on your historical terminology.

History requires an understanding of some terms that are necessary to keep the engine of study running. If you're unclear what a primary source is, or what economics is, don't skip over that term in your textbook and hope it doesn't come up again. Look it up. Ask someone who knows. You'll save yourself a ton of confusion and add to your understanding at the same time.

Ask someone.

There is always someone that can help you. It might be another student in your class, and it might be your instructor. Get help before you feel so lost that you give up.