Review of After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection (6th edition) by James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle McGraw-Hill

After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection 6th edition. James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. ISBN: 9780073385489

Those familiar with Davidson and Lytle’s long-time classic, After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection, will find that the latest, 2010 edition has significant improvements and new, user-friendly features that make an upgrade worthwhile.  In addition to adding new chapters and revising, streamlining, or deleting previous chapters, the authors have created an interactive  website  with  a variety of supplementary  materials.  The Primary Source Investigator (previously offered on CD-Rom) has been redesigned and is now available online along with new documents, images, and the Research and Writing Center. The new Research and Writing Center offers tools designed to help students  acquire the skills needed  to produce well-written and well-researched papers.  Retired chapters from previous editions are also available on the  website.

The new edition of After the Fact is an excellent resource for history teachers and can be modified to work with high school, all levels of college students, and graduate students.  The authors advocate an apprentice-style approach to learning history and, just as an artisan may teach his apprentice which tools are the best for the particular job at hand, they expose readers to different methods that historians can employ in the detective work of “doing history.”  Because each chapter is a unique case study, the methodology and level of difficulty is varied and therefore can be suited to fit various students’ ability levels.  For example, the chapter on using photographs as historical resources shows students that even the simple act of choosing what to point the camera’s lens at is, in fact, an example of the selection of evidence, as are the decisions made regarding what to bring into focus and what to allow to fade into the periphery or omit from the frame altogether.  Before the advent of Photoshop it was said that a picture never lied, but anyone looking at my own childhood photo albums would see children who are never dirty, and class-conscious parents often posing in front of a then- aspirational   model of automobile.  While such photographs were definitely not outright lies (some of Civil War photographer Matthew Brady’s “staging” work is discussed in the book), a decision was definitely made as to what image or evidence to present.  This simple way of teaching students to view photographs as an example of the selection of evidence is juxtaposed by other chapters that challenge the graduate student with learning to apply various model theories when answering historical questions.

The 2010 edition of After the Fact includes a new component, “Past and Present,” that is placed at the end of select chapters.  This apprentice-style feature shows students how to apply the analytical skills they learned from the preceding chapter addressing a historical topic to a similar, present-day topic.  For example, chapter five examines the evolution of ordinary Americans’ material possessions, such as the upgrades from wooden bowls to pewter or china during the early years of the republic and offers insightful interpretations on how these items reflect on the social changes taking place over time.  At the end the chapter Past and Present invites students to use the same type of analysis on the social changes accompanying the evolution of modern-day material possessions such as the replacement of vinyl LPs by CDs and then MP3 files; or written letters falling by the wayside in favor of faxes, emails, or text messages.

In the introduction, the authors express alarm at the “growing disinterest in or even animosity towards the study of the past,” and it is true that teachers of high school and lower-division college history courses face an increasingly skeptical audience in the classroom.  Few amongst their charges plan to pursue life as a professional historian, and if it were not for the compulsory nature of high school history classes and the G.E. requirements of two-year college students, many would not be sitting in the history classroom at all.  It is very difficult to teach someone who either does not want to be there, or is  there only to trudge through lower-division requirements before they can go on to study what they are really interested in, or who generally finds the material uninteresting and irrelevant to their lives.  This latter situation can be a particular bane to world history courses, where the student finds the subject matter not only long-ago but far away.  Many students simply strive to hold on to enough rote memorization in order to get through exams before they can conveniently forget all the boring facts and dates they have had to study.

So why do high school and lower-division college students find history classes boring?  In my experience, the main reason is that traditional pedagogy is inherently disengaging.  Because most students will not go on to take multiple history courses it is common practice to try to teach them as much as possible about history in the one or two courses students must take to meet graduation requirements.  This results in broad, superficial survey courses—a collection of names, places, and dates—for the large part without the historical context needed to make students see history as what it ought to be: a great story. Without a deeper understanding of historical actors, the environment in which they lived, and the pressures brought to bear that resulted in change over time, students are not engaged with the characters.  History teachers eventually hear comments such as, “Why do I need to learn this,” and “Who cares?”  The scope of history courses must be narrowed and deepened in order to engage students, and, according to the authors, students must do the historical digging for themselves in order to find the study of the past interesting and rewarding.  For this reason, After the Fact teaches history students the analytical tools of the trade so they can apply them to their own original research.

According to the authors, students also find history classes boring because textbooks present history as a “done deal” and are typically devoid of any controversy.  Indeed, it is common for textbooks to give the impression that all the information has already been sorted and figured out, the “truth” has been ascertained, there is universal consensus, and that all the student needs do is memorize the information as given.  It is usually not until upper-division college levels or graduate history courses that the student is asked to contribute to his or her own learning by delving deeper into a subject, reading critically, analyzing the reasons behind the selection of the historical evidence presented, and considering other perspectives—let alone adopting and defending a position on the subject.  Yet there is no compelling reason to wait for students to reach these levels of study before making the study of history interesting.

Dr. Melodie Andrews of Minnesota State University, Mankato, successfully taught an integrated history course consisting of all four levels of college undergraduates, along with graduate students, during the spring 2011 semester using the new edition of After the Fact as a main component of the class.  With each chapter and case study, in tandem with Davidson and Lytle, Dr. Andrews explained to students the possible difficulties with evidence that a historian may encounter while endeavoring to reconstruct the history of a particular situation.  This included discussions about opposing viewpoints in both primary and secondary sources, motives, biases, and multiple interpretations of the facts.

Rather than teaching students historical facts such as names, places, and dates, Dr. Andrews taught students about a variety of historical controversies, all the while never declaring any one perspective to be the “correct” one.  Students were required to come to their own conclusions based on the evidence and to participate in student-led, instructor-moderated class discussions.   The primary course requirement was a research paper on a controversial historical person or subject of their choice, and also to deliver a class presentation on their research.  The freedom to choose their own topics permitted lower-division students to simply use a case study from After the Fact as a jumping off point if they desired, or, for the graduate student, to use the many tools introduced by Davidson and Lytle on their controversial topic of choice.  (Longer paper length, an annotated bibliography, and greater depth of analysis were required for graduate students.)  No two students were permitted to write on an identical topic view point, thereby avoiding redundancy in class presentations and competition for library resources, and a research topic sign-up sheet operating on a first-come first-serve basis was utilized.  For presentations, a document cam (a.k.a. overhead projector) was used in lieu of PowerPoint or other presentations methods to avoid the seemingly inevitable AV or computer difficulties.

Class discussions and presentations were interesting and lively since it was not uncommon to have students defending opposing positions on a particular topic.  Dr. Andrews, like Davidson and Lytle, never declared anyone to have discovered the “truth” on an issue, passing judgment only on the soundness of argumentation and research, and on the strength of sources used for support.  Students found the research interesting since they were free to choose topics that were of interest to them or that were relevant to their own lives or family history.

In addition to making the study of the past interesting to high school and lower division college students by introducing the mapping and analysis of contentious issues, After the Fact’s apprentice-style approach makes it a superior resource for upper-level historical methods courses.  And although the chapters move chronologically through American history, the authors teach readers a variety of impartial analytical approaches and address the universal challenges involved in  using films, memoirs, and oral interviews as historical sources.  Thus the material is applicable to other genres of history.  This is also true of the chapters using the study of material possessions, ecological data, and psychohistory as interpretive tools.

With the 2010 edition of After the Fact and its accompanying supplemental resources, Davidson and Lytle have created an updated, interactive, and highly versatile tool for the study of history that, fortunately or unfortunately, makes the typical high school or lower-division college history textbook look even more boring than it previously did.


Reviewed by Yvette Adele-Spratt, Minnesota State University, Mankato
Edited by Dhara Anjaria

(c) The Middle Ground Journal, Number 4, Spring, 2012. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]