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Uncovering Human Agency

Photography, High pile of hardcover books, 22 Jan 2006, Alberto G., Flickr CC

Academic language is used in specific ways in history textbooks. A lot of complex information is often packed within a single paragraph. History teachers may feel the need to have their English Language Learners (ELLs) read less than other students, simplify some texts for ELLs, or use different ways of presenting some of the same information to ELLs through graphic organizers. While these ways of presenting information to ELLs may be helpful for them at very low levels of language proficiency, ELLs still have to deal with the reading challenges of complex language in textbooks. They also need to be prepared for assessments that are not simplified or represented visually for them. Therefore, history teachers must understand how academic language is used in textbooks so they are able to assist their students, and particularly ELLs, to access this discipline-specific language. One strategy for assisting teachers and their ELLs to focus on this complex language is Uncovering Human Agency.

What Is It?

Uncovering Human Agency is a strategy for focusing on nonhuman participants that appear as actors in history texts. This strategy helps students identify who did what to whom in a history text, critically reflect about who the real historical actors are, and ask questions about why history writers often “cover” those actors’ identities in a text. Students can have really powerful conversations about the nature of history discourse and the interpretation present in every historical text.

Why Use It?

History writers use abstract participants such as institutions, ideas, things, or places as actors, removing agency from the real historical actors. By analyzing the actors in a text, students can see who (or what) the history writers represent as having agency. Students can then recognize the interpretation that is always built into historical discourse.

How to Use It?

Consider the following paragraph from an 11th-grade U.S. history textbook chapter on the Vietnam War:

United States forces also used chemical weapons against the Vietnamese. Pilots dropped an herbicide known as Agent Orange on dense jungle landscapes. By killing the leaves and thick undergrowth, the herbicide exposed Viet Cong hiding places. Agent Orange also killed crops, and later it was discovered to cause health problems in livestock and humans, including civilians and American soldiers. (1)

Step One: Identify the Actors and Action verbs in the text.

Here United States forces is the first Actor, being presented by the textbook author as the ones doing the action of using chemical weapons. The second Actor, pilots, is less abstract, and shows who the actual actor was. However, this agency is removed from the rest of the paragraph, when the textbook author presents the nonhuman participants the herbicide and Agent Orange (a thing) as doing the actions of exposing and killing. In this example, the real historical actors are given less prominence, making it more difficult for the reader to recognize or identify them. To understand the real historical actors, the reader must process who used the herbicide. Actors are in bold and action verbs are underlined.

United States forces also used chemical weapons against the Vietnamese. Pilots dropped an herbicide known as Agent Orange on dense jungle landscapes. By killing the leaves and thick undergrowth, the herbicide exposed Viet Cong hiding places. Agent Orange also killed crops, and later it was discovered to cause health problems in livestock and humans, including civilians and American soldiers. (1)

Step Two: Be more interpretive and critical—Move the discussion beyond the literal aspects of the text.

Teachers can discuss the literal aspects of this text by talking about who/what is doing what to whom. But this text provides excellent opportunities for students to move the discussion beyond the literal to a more interpretive and critical level of analysis. The text uses nonhuman participants as actors doing things, downplaying human agency.

History teachers can help students uncover who the real historical actors are by asking a series of questions, such as:

  • Who is acting?
  • Who is being acted on?
  • Who is the real historical actor?

By asking questions like these, students can reflect on who the actual actors in historical events are by recognizing the human agency concealed by the use of abstract participants.

Step Three: Discuss the intentions of the history writer.

A further topic of discussion with students can be the intention of history authors in their use of such language:

  • Are nonhuman participants being intentionally used in textbooks so as to    reduce the possibility of assigning blame or cause to identifiable human    actors?
  • This question can raise interesting discussions with students and reflections about the nature of history writing.

    Footnotes
    1 Cayton, A., Perry, E. I., & Winkler, A. M. America: Pathways to the Present. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 1998.
For more information 

de Oliveira, L. C. "Nouns in History: Packaging Information, Expanding Explanations, and Structuring Reasoning." The History Teacher, 43:2 (2010), 191-203.

de Oliveira, L. C. Knowing and Writing School History: The Language of Students' Expository Writing and Teachers' Expectations. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2011.

Read more on the language of history at Teachinghistory.org in "The Grammar of History Textbooks, Part I: Language Analysis" and "The Grammar of History Textbooks Part II: Questioning the Text."

 
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