Comparing Chronologies of the French Revolution


Students compare chronologies of different historians of the French Revolution to understand how it has been interpreted and understood by generations of scholars. 

The activity occurred about halfway through the semester, when the students had a basic familiarity with the events of the French Revolution, gained from lectures and readings over the previous weeks of the course. Hannah Callaway broke the students into groups, and gave each group 3-4 chronologies. A few were common across all groups, but each group had 1-2 unique chronologies.

During the activity, students looked for common dates across the set of 3-4 chronologies they had been given. They looked for events that appeared in all the chronologies, events that overlapped only in a few, and events that appeared in only one. Then, they made a master chronology of the events that had appeared most frequently in their chronologies. They also discussed students' impressions of their findings. The activity was designed to help students see how something as basic as choosing the most important events in the French Revolution still implies a point of view on the part of the historian. It showed that interpretation is inseparable from our knowledge of the events themselves.

According to Hannah Callaway, it is worthwhile to draw students' attention to the publication dates of the secondary sources, and to choose works across several generations of scholarship, so students can also see how trends influence our sense of what's important.