J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Damn Good Article: Wineburg on Reading Barker

I heard about the article "Teaching the Mind Good Habits" on a list devoted to children's literature, and I was delighted to see it had Revolutionary Boston content as well. It comes from Sam Wineburg, a professor of Education and ("by courtesy") History at Stanford University. He studies how our schools teach history, and I now have his book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts out from the library (which is almost as good as having read it, right?).

Wineburg originally published this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is password-protected, but I found it reprinted in an old list archive. One incisive passage reads:

Not all intelligent people read the same way—not even all people who spend their working lives with written texts. I was able to demonstrate that point clearly in a workshop I conducted for an interdisciplinary group of scholars assembled by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Four of the roughly 20 participants were historians; the others were mathematicians, biologists, psychologists, engineers, or literary scholars. It was from the last group that I recruited a volunteer to read aloud a primary source in a public demonstration of my research technique.

The document came from one of my earliest studies, in which I had asked historians to reconstruct the events at Lexington on the eve of the Revolutionary War. I presented my volunteer, a specialist in 19th-century British literature, with a diary entry from John Barker, a lieutenant in the British army. In the entry, Barker said he was writing on the same day as the bloody encounter at Lexington and the even bloodier retreat from Concord. Barker blamed his own men for "rushing in and putting to flight" the minutemen gathered in Lexington, and he explicitly denied giving the order to fire.

My volunteer gave a dramatic reading, commenting on archaic figures of speech, the density of the prose (the first sentence has more than 150 words), and linguistic mannerisms indicative of social class. As she read, she made many astute comments about the language but seemed at times confused about the narrator's identity. On reaching the attribution at the end, she said, "Ah, yes. From a British soldier. That's what I thought."

The listening historians confessed to me privately afterward that the reading had shocked them. It had cast doubt on their core assumptions about the reading process, for checking the source before reading the text, which was second nature to them, never occurred to our intelligent and careful reader.
Of course, a literary scholar is trained to find clues about a voice from what it says, not from its source. Moll Flanders was not Daniel Defoe, and even a literary narrator who bears some resemblances to his or her authorial source must not be equated with that source.

As for Lt. John Barker's diary, first published in book form under the title The British in Boston, Harvard offers a complete digital edition.


Chaucerian said...

I don't know how old the volunteer was: but as a budding literary scholar studying at Harvard in the late '50's, I was taught that knowledge of the source of the piece of literature was a comfort only to little minds and that as readers in depth we were to rise above that. That approach made for some odd understandings of literature (and some scorn for historians).

Becky said...

Many thanks for the link to the article. Makes for some very interesting reading, and something worth discussing with my kids.