workshop activities that work: part ii

I've had good responses to my self-reflection on workshopping, so I thought I'd share another workshop activity that has worked well for me. As we know, teaching is often a case of trial and error, and more often than not, our best laid plans don't work out, fail to engage the students, confuse students, etc. However, this activity has worked every time I've tried it.


Students often have trouble identifying historiographical debates, and also in choosing relevant books for their topics. Also, some students often approach the task of reading a book by starting at the very beginning, and reading it page to page, cover to cover, without actually reading for gist or getting a broad idea about what the book is generally about. The index and contents page are often neglected. A whole reading list therefore causes anxiety.

big pile of history books

This exercise aims to teach students to 'speed read' historiography. It's a case of pointing out the obvious, but as I've found, the students have found it very helpful.

'Learning objectives':
  • to understand the diverse range of approaches that historians have taken regarding Britain in the 'long eighteenth century'
  • develop the skills of speed-reading, reading for gist, getting the main points and approaches of a book quickly.


I bring in my collection of the following books, and encourage students to bring along other 'survey' books from the reading list. I place them all in a big pile on the desk, often with a flourish and a big loud 'flump'. This act of theatre is especially important, as we rely so much on electronic journals today, and our 'learning resources centre' seems keen to hide all the books in favour of making the space one big computer room.
  • Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783 (Oxford, 1989);
  • Roy Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century (Harmondsworth, 1982);
  • Douglas Hay and Nicholas Rogers, Eighteenth-century English Society: Shuttles and Swords (Oxford, 1997);  
  • Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (London, 1992);
  • E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Harmondsworth, 1968);
  • J.C.D. Clark, English Society, 1688-1832 (Cambridge, 1985);
  • John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783 (1989)

I also bring copies of a few reviews of the books from history journals. 

This scares the students, who expect that I'm going to expect them to read them all in a week.
(p.s. in the back of my mind I recall my reading lists and library habits from when I was an undergrad, but never say anything, not least because I did read them from cover to cover rather what I should have done, that is, trying to get the general points and approaches first).

Then I distribute the books on the different tables in the room, and encourage the students to move round in a musical chairs style, spending 5 mins or less on each book, noting the following features:

  1. the picture on the front cover (v. important)
  2. 'the clues in the title' - key words in the title and subtitle of the books
  3. the main topics in the contents page; chronological? political? thematic? 
  4. dates and chronologies covered. Do they explain anywhere why those dates?
  5. first page of introduction and last couple of pages of the conclusion.
  6. put them in chronological order of publication. How do the later books refer to the earlier books? (clue = normally in the first few pages of the introduction - or use the index).
  7. if time, look at some of the journal reviews of the books.

She's discovered what J. C. D. Clark was going on about


- students instantly compare and contrast the different approaches;
- students get the point that historians have different periodisations according to the approach and argument they are using;
- (obvious but not always remembered) point that historians have different approaches: social, political, economic, cultural, etc.
- history is a debate that changes over time, and it is important to note the date of publication of secondary sources.
[This also helps with students who do 'drive by scholarship' using google books and the library's aging collection, so that they end up quoting old histories published in 1912 alongside new histories, without discriminating between the two.]


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Katrina. It sounds really promising. In my 'how to write an essay' talks, I always try to stress this stuff: how to rapidly 'gut' a book to extract the histographical essence. But having students do it in real time seems like it would have a much greater impact. I'll give it a try at some point and report back!

    - Brodie

    1. Just an update: I gave ‘speed historiography’ a try with my 2nd-year seminar group and it worked very well. I’m not sure it would be ideal for all topics, but for ones where the historiography is polarised and explicit (e.g. I was doing ‘class’ in early modern England), it can work brilliantly. The students really got into it and I quite enjoyed it too. Thanks again!
      - Brodie


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