Teaching Historiography and Methodology: The Electronic French Revolution

Jack R. Censer, January 1997

Student 1: “As long as we are trapped in our minds, there will be no certainty.... Anything that we perceive must be perceived by our minds.”

Student 2: “Your attack on absolute certainty reminds me of Novick,1 who sets up a position of absolute objectivity and then tears it down and acts as though he achieved a major victory.... You and Novick achieve victories over phantom opponents. Very few, if any, would argue that we can have absolute certainty.... The fact that we can’t know with 100 percent certainty does not preclude the possibility of reasonable certainty—nor does it weaken the objectivist argument that we should use objective means to arrive at these reasonably certain conclusions.”

Student 1: “There is no escape from the mind. It perceives. It may also create. We cannot be certain.”

Student 2: “You speak of truth as being subjective.... [Y]ou cannot talk (as you have earlier) about Louis XVI as being unjustly treated, because that would presuppose some standard of right and wrong that transcends culture.”

This stimulating and sophisticated electronic mail exchange is typical of the kinds of discussions that occur among the students who take my course on methodology and historiography at George Mason University. Using the computer for student exchanges was part of an experiment I designed to improve the quality of learning in my course. I was able to proceed with my experiment both because George Mason has a culture that encourages experimentation and because there is some support on campus for training students to use e-mail. George Mason’s computer services unit allows classes to reserve labs in which orientation sessions on the basic techniques of e-mail can be presented. Students can also easily obtain e-mail accounts, and their access to computer labs on campus allows them to participate in electronic discussions without having to own their own computers.

I often teach the methodology and historiography course, which is required of all history majors at George Mason, by focusing on the French Revolution. There are generally 25 students in the class, which meets twice a week for an hour and 15 minutes. I use two basic approaches in teaching the class. The first one is traditional; I will describe it below to demonstrate the broad nature of the course. The second one is centered upon an innovative use of e-mail, which seems to bring out the best in students. The excitement and sophistication that I believe are so evident in the exchange cited above came about as a result of requiring students to use electronic mail in a class I taught in 1994.

The Traditional Approach: A Chronological Overview

I began the course with a simple narration of the revolutionary decade. I assigned readings that included a textbook and a volume of general interpretations of the Revolution, and I used class time to discuss these assignments. Afterward, students selected a subject for a 10-page paper that was to consider in-depth the historiographical debates on their topic. This work forced students to deal with conflicting schools of thought and called for intensive writing. About a month into the course, I met with every student individually to review a summary of the subject selected and a bibliography. At a second meeting, three weeks later, each student turned in a one- or two-page description of the major controversies under investigation. In the last two or three weeks of the course, all the students presented an in-class report of the main arguments of their papers and the questions their papers answered. Finally, at the very end of the course, students submitted a final draft of the paper.

The Nontraditional Approach: Communicating Electronically

While the term paper forced students to scrutinize and learn historiography, I directly addressed the other major component of the course—historical methodology—in a completely different way, which reflected my interest in new technologies and in what I believe is an extraordinary emphasis on independent student learning. Further, as will become apparent, this latter approach contributed to an understanding of historiography as well as of the meaning of the Revolution itself.

In 8 weeks interspersed throughout the 14-week semester, using the base of knowledge the chronological overview provided, the class pursued the following format. On Thursdays the class (which met on Tuesdays and Thursdays) assembled in groups of 6 to 10 students. These groups discussed the same assigned reading, a selection of primary sources. The assignment usually consisted of about 50 pages from The Old Regime and the French Revolution, edited by Keith Michael Baker.2 All the students composed and brought to class a substantive question that could be answered by the documents. For example, after reading a group of documents that explained the theory behind the Old Regime’s religious, social, and political systems, one student asked, “Is the Old Regime like Hinduism?” Another queried whether religious ideals contradicted political ones. Each group had a moderator assigned (this post rotated) and the questions that it would address. During the remainder of the hour and 15 minutes, students collectively formulated answers in their groups. Each group had a secretary (changed weekly) who posted the minutes of the group discussion by the end of the next day (Friday) on e-mail to the entire class. E-mail was critical to this process; requiring the groups to post minutes forced them to work seriously toward a defensible result. After the minutes were posted, students electronically debated the issues raised, usually focusing on only one or two salient points. My involvement up to this point consisted of briefly checking on the groups while they were meeting to ensure that moderator and secretary were in place. I also read the e-mail chatter to guarantee punctual postings and to assist discussion when it was needed. But basically, and extraordinarily, the class, in part by using technology innovatively, was made responsible for the results. I in turn encountered no significant problems with the process.

Collectively then, through discussions linked through e-mail, students learned to read documents closely and critically, to ask questions, to construct and respond to narratives, and to marshal evidence to defend their positions. In other words, they taught themselves historical method, and often in an impassioned way. Because the students were capable of fascinating interchanges, my most important contribution was to encourage and enforce civility. There was never a serious problem, but some students, carried away with the discussion, occasionally became overly aggressive. This proved to be my main difficulty with class and e-mail discussions. There were only a few students who were either not committed enough or who struggled intellectually with the class assignments. The former I prodded through low grades; the latter also suffered in that way, but I counseled them individually, reviewing the past week’s work and providing additional direction.

* * * *

On the Tuesday following the group meetings, my role was far greater. That day we met as an entire class to continue to advance the debate. The students came to class after having completed an additional assigned reading that led to a greater in-depth knowledge of the Revolution and its historiography. Most often the class turned to the specific methodological issues brought up by the readings. To stimulate a genuine engagement with the readings, I asked the students to come to class with a one- to two-page paper to be turned in at the end of that class. The syllabus specified the paper questions along with the readings, so students had these assignments well in advance. After assigning a series of articles on the activities of various revolutionary legislatures, for example, I asked the students to write about the political practice of the Revolution compared to that of the Old Regime. Here, too, they were working on the necessary historical skills of analysis and synthesis. These formal activities completed the training in method that independent efforts and electronic communication had begun. Yet, for the most part, the students independently continued the e-mail discussion, even after the Tuesday class, although outside the Thursday-Tuesday cycle this interaction became more informational than argumentative. This had the effect not only of retaining everyone’s attention on the issues, but also of connecting one week’s discussion with the next.

A Close-Up

Perhaps the best way to understand the functioning of the innovative part of the course is through a detailed examination of two separate weeks of the class, followed by some more general information and reflections.3

Week 1. One particularly fruitful week relied upon materials that documented the political climate from 1787 to 1789, into the early meetings of the Estates General. The readings that week represented the viewpoints of the king, the Parlements (the judicial opposition), and the Third Estate (an excerpt from Siéyés’s famous pamphlet, What Is the Third Estate?, was particularly useful). Student questions initiated the group meetings, and these meetings, along with the students’ responses, provided the hors d’oeuvres for the electronic main course and interaction. In all the groups combined, students confronted some 20 to 30 questions and attempted to answer about three-quarters of them.

As usual, some of the questions led to more productive discussions than others. For example, one student referred to the “radical reforms in the government” mentioned by Siéyés and queried, “Do you think he is calling for ending the monarchy and replacing it with a democracy?” This struck me as both a fair and stimulating question because the issue was a large and important one that could be handled, quite intelligently, with the assigned readings. And, indeed, the response of the students, that Siéyés was mainly seeking greater representation for the Third Estate, is an answer that many scholars would accept.

But some students asked big questions—such as “Why was there a sudden need for reform?”—that completely outstripped the documents’ ability to shed light on the subject. Other students came up with narrow, dead-end questions—such as “How does the salic law [that guarantees male succession] influence the role of women?”—on which class discussion could not progress very far. Such queries are inevitable whenever an attempt is made to encourage independent analysis; one must expect that students will sometimes use some fairly naive approaches.

As is generally the case, the array of questions generated at the beginning of the group meetings proved broader than the e-mail discussions that followed. One or two issues raised in the class minutes entirely captivated the students over the next few days. Discussions that had been more diverse in small groups tended to narrow and focus as the week progressed, generally toward one or two questions with the widest meaning. In this particular week, students focused on Louis XVI and his options. The opening broadside concerned the level of power the king possessed. After defining the extent of royal authority, the students turned to what Louis XVI could have done to prevent or at least to limit the Revolution. Early in this debate, a student declared, in a rather long epistle, that “cracking down militarily” might have reassured the aristocrats “that they were in control and kept the Third Estate in line.” He closed with the assertion that “the king could have kept his power if the Second Estate had been more flexible.” But another student retorted that the king did not need to do more, but less. Specifically, this student faulted the monarchy for its high-handedness and cited as an example Louis’s statement that the only edicts would be those pronounced by the king.

Hard-line suggestions returned when yet another student recommended The Prince as required reading for Louis XVI. “He would have recognized that his only goal was to maintain and expand power and [that] the ends justify the means.” Fewer than nine minutes later, another student reminded the class that the power of monarchs was limited: “Didn’t Calonne [the chief minister, 1783–87] get pressured out of office?” Joining this conversation were several advocates of a middle ground in which the king relented and let reforms take place, but without appearing to have done so: “an effective politician makes concessions without appearing to.”

All this interchange depends on guessing, or at least imagining, what the king might have done—the counterfactual history that historians avoid in print but often make much of in class. More important, the students clearly were trying to use evidence to resolve the question as indicated by the direct quotation of Louis’s that only the monarch could issue edicts.

Week 2. During another week about a month later, students read a small group of documents, mainly speeches from the trial of the king, by the Girondins, his temperate supporters, and the Jacobins, his hostile attackers. Once again, from the series of questions a fairly clear focus of discussion emerged: the reasons behind and validity of the Jacobin decision to have the legislature (the Convention) immediately conduct the king’s trial and pass a capital sentence on him. Students quickly deduced several motives, and some agreed with the sentence: “The king, by sending letters to other monarchs and asking them to help restore the French monarchy, made a direct attack against the constitutional monarchy put into place in 1789. The king’s attempt to get rid of this representative body was an attack against the people of France.”

Although this student completely justified the execution of Louis XVI by finding him guilty of opposing the Revolution, others came to the support of the Jacobins in a more subtle way that was not far from how historians have understood the radicals’ own reasoning. Conceding the legal innocence of the king because the existing constitution had granted him immunity against prosecution for any past crimes, they argued that he had to be executed because he symbolized resistance to the Revolution. For example, one noted: “Of course it was not fair to the king, but he was a living symbol of the old government.... He could escape and start a counterrevolution.”

Yet other students, in seeking an explanation for the execution of the monarch, criticized the Jacobins. Essentially, these participants asserted that the Jacobins acted against a defenseless king, not for the Revolution, but to defend their own personal power. Some critics of the Jacobins, however, had no appreciation for royalty. One student, for example, quipped, “I love France and its people a lot more than I love its former monarchy.” But some of those holding negative views of the Robespierrists also felt a certain sympathy for the king as an individual. A typical expression of this view stated: “I did feel sorry for him because he was a person who seemed to try his best (that part is arguable), who had to live his life as an inanimate symbol and then die as one. Of course, maybe I am being too sentimental.”

Here, again, students focused on a “big question,” the kind of issue that has been a major part of the public fascination with the French Revolution. This particular topic is one that many professional historians have also continued to discuss. But it seems to me that the way that students approach such topics may improve on the issues that historians commonly raise. Our more carefully delineated questions perhaps remain too esoteric. Yet, in classes, I always pointed out the issues that scholars are currently investigating and added them to the approaches already presented by the students.

Some Reflections

Compared to my traditionally conducted classes, a far higher percentage of students in this class rose to the challenge presented. Why this may have occurred I discuss below. The strongest point I want to make is that incorporating electronic discussions into my historiography and methodology course encouraged students to read closely and analyze materials. Students learned to glean information from documents to develop their positions; their various views of the Jacobins clearly depended on close, critical readings of speeches. For example, those who supported the Jacobins by citing the symbolic import of the king had to sort through and analyze texts. Indeed, as noted above, the students’ efforts sometimes paralleled those of professional historians, though with more, and perhaps too much, commitment and passion. In addition to improving their analytic skills, students gained practice in summarizing and synthesizing information when they created the minutes of group discussions. I might also note that the use of e-mail in this process encouraged much more writing than would otherwise have occurred. Moreover, the electronic mail discussions seemed to encourage a seriousness of purpose among students, a quality for which they are not well known. They had an opportunity to care about intellectual matters and they took it.

An excerpt from one very rich e-mail transmission, in response to a rare complaint about the group meetings, can shed additional light on the subject of how the process improved skills and created commitment:

Sorry but I can’t agree that the discussions are breaking down, running nowhere, or drowning out. Group two discussions have been very spirited of late, but you notice we handle each question in turn, try to achieve some group consensus or at least a stalemate, and then move on.... We all came into this knowing very little about the Revolution and judging from our discussions, it looks like most of us have learned a great deal. At least I have, and yes, this process required changing my preconceived notions about what the [Revolution] even was really all about.

I also do not agree that all we do is run off on tangents. Our group has been, if anything, fixated on the big picture. Every new detail has been scrutinized and ripped up in terms of what bearing it has on the cause and nature of the Revolution. I don’t see a morass of conflicting opinions and pointless tangents. I think we have hit some very basic and important themes: top-level power shift,... opportunism [among all classes], bread and taxes discontent, new discourse born out of the Enlightenment. They are all important. There are no simple answers. We have some great differences of opinion in our group, but I think we have been exceptionally civil and constructive in our expression of them—both in group meetings and on e-mail.

Offering still more evidence of students’ analytical efforts and passion for this subject, this long quote also suggests that the students’ own interventions may explain the very positive results gained from encouraging students to engage in group meetings and electronic discussions. Intimated by this message is an omnipresent scrutiny, perhaps more stringent coming from equals than from professors, who have to be careful not to stifle debate. Surely, the intensity of the discussions sharpened students’acumen and led to improved skill in reading and deploying evidence.

Moreover, this kind of engagement closely relates to commitment. Proposing and then defending one’s point of view leads to a sense of ownership and responsibility. Vigorous interchanges strongly encourage a stake, a sense of possessing knowledge that one seldom sees. Consequently, self-reliance—the centerpiece of this course, enabled in part by computer communication—likely contributed directly to the interesting and promising results produced. Students seemed to get involved and create analyses beyond what the incentive of a grade would commonly produce. Perhaps the best evidence for this is the continuation of quiet discussion when the required electronic interchange had ended. Happily, all this work and observation by other students seemed not to have negative effects, for fewer than usual students shortchanged this class.

Concluding Observations

Wider applicability of these techniques beyond a methodology and historiography course appears reasonable. It seems to me that most classes, even those that emphasize content instead of method, could benefit by extending student debate and involvement, as well as by using computers. Perhaps such classes may communicate somewhat less information—the benefits in enhanced understanding and independent use of information ought to outweigh that. In any case, let the experiment begin.

—Jack R. Censer is professor of history and chair of the department at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia. His most recent work is The French Press in the Age of Enlightenment (Routledge, 1994).

Notes

1. Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988).

2. Keith Michael Baker, ed., The Old Regime and the French Revolution, vol. 7 of University of Chicago Readings in Western Civilization (1987).

3. I should add that in weeks other than the two I focus on here, my class also covers more specific methodological issues—quantitative techniques, the new cultural history, and the like.