An introductory exercise that mimicked the learning process I would be teaching permitted prospective students to decide if they wanted to remain in my course during the scheduled drops & adds period. The result for me was also positive. Within a week, I had a stable group of students and an initial overview of their strengths and weaknesses in documentary historical analysis. I experimented with various exercises, tailored for specific classes, for almost two decades before settling on the one described below, first suggested to me by Paul Haynes when he was a Master’s student in Interdisciplinary Programs in Health and Humanities at Michigan State University (Paul is now a physician).
“In a Grove” (1922) — by Ryonosuke Akutagawa, in Rashomon and Other Stories (New York: Liveright, 1952).
Seven witness accounts relating to events in a bamboo grove constitute this short story. I transferred these accounts onto separate sheets of paper, numbered them, and distributed the resulting packet to every student at the beginning of the first class meeting, along with an instruction sheet.
I asked the students to shuffle the sheets of paper in a random fashion to reduce potential bias that might be introduced if everyone read the accounts in the same order. Students were free to mark pages as they wished (the link is to my preparation copy, as is this one).
I then distributed 11 x 17 inch Structure of Argument (SoA) “cluster” sheets, one per student (again, the link is to my preparation copy). The task was to compose and enter short-hand notes on evidence from the accounts in the appropriate slots on the 11 x 17 sheet; a sample entry is given in the instruction sheet.
I walked around the room as the students worked on this exercise, making suggestions as needed when they began to cluster evidence on the 11 x 17 sheet. After 25-35 minutes, I asked the students to organize their desks in groups of four (unless we were in a room where I could set up tables & chairs in this manner from the outset). The point of the discussion time was to have students exchange views on how they had clustered evidence and, if challenged, to justify their choices by citing relevant witness accounts. They could make changes to their cluster sheets if they wished, but I insisted that no one should be pressured to do so. Instead they should note on the cluster sheets when they were aware of alternative, potentially contradictory, and problematical explanations of the evidence.
The first homework assignment was to use the SoA cluster sheet as a basis for completing a worksheet that schematically summarized what the student believed had happened in the bamboo grove. This SoA worksheet (my preparation copy is displayed in the link), due at the beginning of the second meeting, became the basis for introducing the process they would utilize in preparing thesis-driven historical essays in the rest of the course.
Akutagawa’s story is the primary source for Akira Kurosawa’s film, “Rashomon” (1950), as well as a Chinese operatic interpretation presented at the Taipei Theater in New York City in 2002.