Anthony Grafton’s “From the President” column of the April 2011 issue of the American Historical Association’s monthly journal, Perspectives on History, features my history majors’ seminar on Guatemala in the 1950s.

Here’s the link:

…and a few of the opening paragraphs are excerpted below.

“It’s a rainy Thursday afternoon in early March, and I am sitting in a small, cinder-block classroom in Camden, watching sophomores learn to do history. Around 20 of them are taking a “Perspectives” course, required for everyone who wants to major in history. It centers on the 1954 coup that overthrew the president of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. The students have already gone through a fair number of primary and secondary sources about the events…

The students don’t leap to talk. But as the professor starts asking questions, most of them join in, and they make clear that they have grasped the point of the exercise. Historiography, one says, is about “Not so much finding the answer as finding how the guy before you found the answer”—as good a working definition as you could really hope for. One after another, they show that they have learned to read their sources in a new way: not just to mine them for names and dates, but to ask what their biases are and what they leave out as well as what they include. Quoting an English professor, a student makes a useful distinction: “In history courses I usually take notes. In this course I make notes.”

One point of the course is that events live on—or, as in the case of the 1954 coup, fail to do so, at least in American public memory—and that their afterlife matters. For the last 40 minutes or so the class takes apart a New York Times article on violence in Guatemala, written by Raymond Bonner in the early 1980s. Engaged and observant, the students note what look like contradictions between an optimistic main headline about the decline of violence and the body of the text, which dwells on mass killings of peasants outside the cities. It’s a good session, led by a professor who manages to be warmly interested, stern, and demanding all at once.”