I spent this past Thursday participating in this year’s state competition for National History Day. I never competed as a student and this was my first year helping as an adult. Like a Science Fair, National History Day is a chance for teacher-guided but student-directed research into a topic of history and the presentation of that history. Students have to tie the topic they choose to a theme and their product, whether an ‘exhibit,’ a paper, a performance, a documentary, or a website, has to stay within certain parameters. It’s a test in research, finding a compelling historical question and thesis, and communicating your knowledge.
Open to junior and senior categories, grades 6 to 8 and 9 to 12, I see how this must be a big thing to learn for the junior category especially. I know that for me, history was stories and facts to learn for the tests for most of my school career. I remember finding different histories interesting in school and out of school, but not any more than I found science, math, or grammar interesting. I cannot for the life of me recall a history research project I did before 11th grade that wasn’t about international holiday traditions (that 3rd grade diorama of a Norwegian Christmas did stick with me). I loved reading and I recall doing extensive research into my favorite topic — geology — as an elementary student, but I didn’t glimpse the interesting possibilities of historical research until late in high school, and it wasn’t until college that I realized how to compose a compelling historical question and get research done effectively. In grad school, I stretched into historiography and using theory in historical analysis. I’m still practicing how to communicate effectively.
When I first looked at some of the student projects at National History Day, I was seeing with professional eyes and, while it sounds terribly obvious and unfair, all of them fell short. Once the demographics of age, experience, and access to research material for the students and the constraints of the competition sunk into my brain, I was massively impressed with how close several of the projects really did come to asking interesting questions and finding interesting answers.
It was a pretty wonderful day. I learned from future colleagues’ research (one hopes that some will become historians) and mused over what makes for ‘good’ history work. I shared the day’s tasks with college students and other professionals who I did not know at all, but who felt like colleagues in short time. I reflected on my life and on my chosen profession. And then, because I had never walked around South Dakota State University before, I went on a short, windy, and cold tour to do a little architecture-gazing…
Photographs by the author, April 2016.