Bringing out historical thinking

Tutoring often has the benefit of putting me in the way of assignments designed by teachers devoted to helping their students think creatively.  These assignments interest me especially when they do two things: 1) ask students to apply skills and knowledge across disciplines and 2) allow for choice and ingenuity in application.  Because students and educators alike resist memorizing dates and events as ways of learning history, these types of assignments mobilize historical thinking skills that allow students to develop sophisticated understandings of historical information.

I recently encountered two of these smart assignments that I will summarize briefly here.

The first came as a question on a forum, with a student asking for advice on a question her teacher had posed.  She asked: “Is it possible to apply Newton’s Laws of Physics to interpreting history?”  I thought about this for awhile—though I certainly understood these scientific laws at some point during school, I was never the most intuitive of science students.  It seemed to me that the question must be metaphorical, asking something more like: how can we use the relationships that Newton posed between forces, actions, reactions, and so on to understand the forces that guide how historical events come into being?  In that sense, for example, the Third Law, in which “every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” suggests a particular way of looking at cause-and-effect relationships to determine how events beget other events and multiply outward into historical memory. 

The second came during an in-person tutoring session, where I was asked to help a student write a paper that required him to choose a historical object.  The student was then asked to use this object to stand in for an entire historical era.  By discussing the characteristics of the object, its uses, and how it came into being, a well-chosen object could therefore explain the most important trends in thought during its era and present an argument about how that era’s historical events transpired.  The example provided by the teacher used signs from nuclear fallout shelters in the 1950s to illuminate the events of the Cold War—by describing the circumstances in which it became necessary to build fallout shelters and label them with those signs, a student could make an argument about how the threat of communism actively influenced daily life for Americans during that era.  This assignment was, in fact, a research paper for an English class—but one grounded in the object-based inquiry that characterizes Museum Studies or Art History courses and which students usually don’t encounter until much later in their educations.

With assignments like these and careful guidance, students naturalize so many useful thought processes.  They begin to understand not only the nuts-and-bolts elements of history (the people, places, things, and dates), but also how events reach across time and bleed into each other and create influence.  They learn how arguments can be crafted through evidence and logic.  Consequently, they (hopefully) come to understand which sources are better than others, how to extract information from them, and also how to vet this evidence to make sure it is reliable.  These are skills that cross far beyond disciplinary boundaries, and when arguments are made about the importance of the humanities in any society, these broadly applicable skills bolster those arguments.  By moving between specific details and broad issues, by learning to make decisions and interpret information, these are the kinds of assignments that assert the necessity of historical thinking for all students.

Documenting Kurt Cobain, Part 1: Biography

(This is the beginning of a series of four posts presented on the occasion of the premiere of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck on HBO on May 4.  The press coverage surrounding the film’s theatrical premiere on April 24 has raised numerous thematic questions about how documentarians, writers, and/or scholars treat issues of biography, intimacy, and self-fashioning that I will pursue in this series posts over the next two weeks.)

Writing biographies can be deceptively difficult.  The genre requires authors to negotiate the divide between how people are seen and how they see themselves.  Biography, as a guiding research method or question, is often eschewed by scholars seeking a measure of objectivity in their source material—in art history, this often occurs as devotion to the formal elements of the artworks themselves (color, line, structure, among others) and a resistance to theorizing artistic intent.   Critics often pejoratively classify treatments of a subject’s life and emotional capacity as “psychobiography”—accusing the authors of delving too deeply into the uncertain innerworkings of the mind, creating imaginative fiction in place of fact.  This accusation may be particularly salient when the subject is a prominent figure like Kurt Cobain—the embodiment of a regrettable nexus of exceptional creativity, unfulfilled potential, and inarguable tragedy. 

The subject of my dissertation, the painter Frédéric Bazille, also exhibited these qualities, including an early death at the age of 28 on a Franco-Prussian War battlefield in 1870.  I have spent years considering how to talk about such a tragic figure without unnecessarily mythologizing his life in the name of doing justice to addressing the significance of his art.  This similarly seems to be the primary challenge faced by Brett Morgen, the director of the new Cobain documentary Montage of Heck, and indeed, much has been made in the press of Cobain’s daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, making the demand that her father be “humanized” through the process of making the film.  And yet the onus remains on Morgen to construct a portrait of Kurt Cobain, with the materials at his disposal, that answers the requests of his family, that serves as a compelling documentary film, and that proposes a theory of Kurt Cobain, the man, that works with and against the legends that dominant his pop culture persona.

In answering the question of how to write biography that is squarely in the realm nonfiction, I found the most substantial assistance in the work of sociologists which describes how individuals are affected by the environments that surround them. Barbara Laslett wrote that the key to biography is understanding consciousness, “how it is constructed and its relationship to action.”  The famous sociologist Pierre Bourdieu described “the world of objects” and how bodies and these objects define each other in relation to the evolution of the spaces that they share.  Which is to say, very simplistically, that we are the books we read, the music we listen to, the places we visit, and the people we love and tolerate, and we are defined, wholly, by the intersections of these items/ideas and the actions that these “objects” move us to take.

In this sense, Montage of Heck’s unprecedented access to the carefully curated objects that Cobain left behind—cassette tapes of experimental recordings and spoken thoughts, drawings and diaries, banal ephemera of daily life—seems to distinguish it from biographies that embrace the hagiographical impulse to view Cobain as a martyred grunge poet.  In Rolling Stone’s recent interview with Frances, the only interview she will give about the documentary, she describes an experience of going into the storage facility holding Cobain’s belongings and finding a guitar case full of his art supplies.  She speaks of a paintbrush and how the case “smelled like he smelled.”  She says, “He became humanized to me.  He actually painted with this and touched it.”  Here, again, we see the strength of objects—these art supplies, probably used to make some of the archival material so prominent in the film, substantiate the human connection between father and daughter.  The objects excavated from the storage facility outline connections between man and legend, a distinction deliberately blurred by both man and the tastemakers who have crafted his legacy.  Even if we cannot find true closure from these objects, their individual significance and their relationships to each other can provide a useful biographical outline.  It takes a tactician, like Morgen, to turn that outline into a credible and complete biographic portrait.