What Do Historians Do?

What Do Historians Do?

Background image: rows of dozens of old wooden drawers in an archive
Image credit:
Carolina Prysyazhnyuk via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/qBVcyE

Here are interviews with six different historians. They describe what they love about history, how they define history, details about their job, and how the study of history can change people's lives.

One important thing to know before you listen is that historians have traditionally divided the human past into two periods: history and pre-history. Pre-history refers to the time in any society before written records existed. History, as a discipline, focuses heavily on evidence recorded in the form of writing. This presents some complications in a World History course, since some parts of the world had written records 5000 years ago, whereas writing didn't exist in others until 500 years ago (or more recently). People without writing interacted across regions, migrated, and exchanged ideas and goods with others. In some places - where people who used writing wrote about their neighbors who did not use writing - we can access a one-sided written record. In other places, we have archaeological and biological evidence of interaction, but no written evidence.

 As you listen to the interviews, note how each historian defines history. What types of evidence do they use to construct an understanding of the past?  Also, see if you can pick out ways each historian speaks directly or indirectly about historical thinking skills.

Link to interview with Rainer Buschmann

Rainer Buschmann is a historian whose work focuses on "European perceptions of the Pacific Ocean" and more broadly on the Pacific Basin in world history.

Link to interview with Keith Camacho

Keith Camacho is a historian of Chamorros and other Pacific Islanders. His work focuses on "empire, gender, militarism, race, and sovereignty in the Mariana Islands, Oceania, and the broader Asia-Pacific region."

Label for Getz interview

Trevor Getz is a historian of Africa and a world historian, who also focuses on history education.

Link to interview with Elizabeth Pollard

Elizabeth Pollard is a historian of Roman history and a world historian. Her work focuses on witchcraft in the Roman world and interactions between the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean regions in the first few centuries CE.

Link to interview with Lisa Sousa

Lisa Sousa is historian of colonial Latin America, especially "indigenous peoples, languages, and cultures of Mexico." Her work also addresses women, gender, and sexuality.

label for Hanks interview

Merry Wiesner-Hanks is a historian of early modern Europe and a world historian, with a focus on women, gender, and sexuality.