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The (In)Visible Author in History Texts

A selection from an American History textbook. NHEC

Written history, whatever the concern for objectivity, is inevitably shaped by the perspectives of its authors. Consequently, the first move historians often make when approaching a document is to identify its author. Yet in the high school history classroom where the impersonal voice of textbooks is often the norm, students can be unaware of the importance of author. As a result, students can see history as a story to be learned and recited rather than a mosaic to be assembled, rearranged, and interrogated.

In designing this study, Richard J. Paxton of Pacific University hypothesized that the presence of a visible author would change the way students read texts. But, he wondered, would it also influence the way they constructed historical understandings? Would it transfer to other texts and to the act of writing? To find out, he designed an experiment in which he worked with 30 high school sophomores and juniors to explore what effect authorial presence had on a reading to write task.

What Paxton found was that students from the visible author group said more than twice as much about the documents as their counterparts...

Exploring the murder of Julius Caesar, students were divided into two groups. The first group read an authoritative textbook narrative by an anonymous author followed by a set of six documents written from various perspectives. The second group read a text containing similar information but featuring a more visible author; they then read the same set of six documents. Students were then asked to write one-to-two page essays.
What Paxton found was that students from the visible author group said more than twice as much about the documents as their counterparts, they referred to authors more than three times as often, and they were more than twice as likely to attempt to interact with authors. In their own writing, students who read the visible author text also tended to write longer essays, ask more questions, and think more deeply about the historical events in question.

Interacting with texts

Students from the experimental group began with a first-person account rather than an omniscient textbook account. Having thus “primed the pump,” these students displayed greater interaction with documents and reflected a higher degree of interest. While Paxton was not surprised to see students make more interactive comments while reading the first text, he was surprised to find that this extended to the six documents that students read afterwards. Further, in their own writing students displayed higher levels of interaction with texts and authors and wrote longer and more substantive essays.

Awareness of authors

Students from the experimental group also interacted more with the authors of their six documents. Working with the same texts as their counterparts, this group paid more attention to authorship, evaluating style, speculating on author trustworthiness, and reflecting on the various perspectives offered. In their essays students were not only more likely to demonstrate recognition of audience but also displayed higher degrees of personal agency and original thinking.

Asking Questions

Overall, students who first read the visible author text tended to ask more questions than those who began with third-person textbook narratives. As they read subsequent documents they considered the purposes and goals of each text and, recognizing competing narratives, tried to place them within the context of the historical issue as a whole. In their essays the trend continued, with students from the experimental group asking 12 questions to the one asked by their counterparts in the control group.

In the Classroom 

  1. Have students read more than the textbook in your classroom. Use many varied texts including primary sources.
  2. Use texts in your classroom with visible authors. Authors can be visible through:
    • clear attributions on documents,
    • use of first person in the text and statements of personal beliefs, and
    • authors’ statements about how they know what they are writing about.
  3. In discussion and on handouts, refer to texts and sources using the author’s name and coach students in how to cite sources similarly. Ask questions that prompt students to have ‘conversations’ with a text’s author.
  4. Teach the skill of sourcing to your students. Explicit lessons will help them understand how knowing the author, date, and genre of a source matters to understanding it.

Sample Application 

Paxton found that reading texts with different degrees of author visibility heavily influenced how students read subsequent documents and wrote historical essays.
Students who began with a textbook passage by an anonymous author tended to be intellectually disengaged. For example:

  • Textbook: “The two most successful generals were Pompey (PAHM pee) and Julius Caesar (SEE zuhr). Pompey was popular because he cleared the Mediterranean Sea pirates. He also added Syria, Phoenicia and Palestine to the lands Rome ruled.”
  • Susan: “Well, I’m thinking that it’s kind of boring. I mean, who cares really? I mean, I can’t even read those words.”

The case of the visible author text, however, was quite different:

  • Visible author text: “To those of us looking back at the ancient past, Julius Caesar remains one of the most controversial figures. I, for one, have a hard time deciding if he was a great leader, or a terrible dictator.”
  • Lisa: “Um, I’m thinking that I don’t know much about this guy.”
  • Visible author text cont’d: “Other historians have the same problem. Let’s see what you think.”
  • Lisa: “Well, right now—right now I don’t think much. I guess I’m like consumed. I mean, like who is writing this? Who is this ‘I’? I mean, he asks what I think. Hm. Well I don’t think much yet.”

The students responded differently to the two different kinds of texts. The first, a traditional textbook excerpt, produced passive and mildly negative responses from students. The second, in which the author is much more visible, produced questions and engagement. That engagement, or lack thereof, also extended to other texts:

  • Susan responding to text by Dio Cassius: “I don’t know. So this is like from one of his books.”
  • Susan responding to text by Cicero: “I liked that one the best.”

Now look at how Lisa, who read the visible author text, responded to the same documents:

  • Lisa responding to text by Dio Cassius: “So, I kind of think this writer was for Caesar. I mean, even though he was alive after Caesar. I mean it says he was pro-imperial.”
  • Lisa responding to text by Cicero: “Well, this is a letter to Atticus. So he supported Pompey and later Brutus and Cassius. So he was on their side, well, that’s pretty obvious.”

Reading first-person narratives by visible authors did not transform all students into expert historians. However it did tend to raise student consciousness about the role of the author in history and prompted them to view themselves as active players in the construction of historical narratives.

For more information 

Watch our What is Historical Thinking? video for an overview of using multiple sources in the classroom and teaching sourcing. Available on our home page.

Watch sourcing in action to see how a historian considers the author and circumstances of a source’s creation to help her understand the document.

See this lesson plan review for an approach to challenging the authority of anonymous omniscient textbook accounts.

This approach to using textbooks helps students see differences between them and consider how their perspectives can contrast.

Bibliography 

R.J. Paxton, “The Influence Of Author Visibility On High School Students Solving A Historical Problem,” Cognition and Instruction, 20, no.2 (2002): 197-248.

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