Evaluating Reliability in Historical Accounts

One of the challenges in teaching American Literature is creating relevance when studying very old texts with antiquated language.  A strategy I have found to be useful is creating connections to more contemporary texts and videos, particularly in my Warm Ups.  While there is definitely value in using pop culture references to engage students, I sometimes like to use videos from before their time.  This way, it modernizes the topic but is still new and maybe outside of their comfort zone.  One of my favorite types of resources to pull from are fifties sitcoms!  In this lesson, I use The Dick Van Dyke Show to help students recognize bias and evaluate reliability in historical accounts.

A common genre in American history is literary nonfiction, whether it be in the form of an exploration account, a diary, a slave narrative, or more.  Rather than simply accepting these texts as accounts of history, I challenge my students to constantly evaluate the reliability of the speaker based on his or her purpose, audience, and context.  I also ask students to consider the biases and prejudices of the author.  While this may seem like common sense, many students are so used to simply accepting what they read on the Internet, or even in a textbook, that they oftentimes forget that every message has a speaker and a purpose.  I typically first introduce this concept at the beginning of the year when studying exploration accounts, such as La Relación by Cabeza de Vaca.  In order to introduce the idea of bias, I love to show clips from my favorite episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, called “The Night the Roof Fell In.”

In this episode, Rob and Laura have an argument and then separately describe the argument to their friends, with very different interpretations of what happened.  I begin class by showing the two different descriptions of what happened (I don’t typically show what actually happened since there is no way to have an unbiased account of history).

Then I ask them to write in their Writer’s Notebooks in response to the following questions:

  • How and why did the two accounts of what happened differ?
  • Whose story do you find more reliable?  In other words, what do you think really happened?  Why?

After giving students a few minutes to write, I might have them share in partners, or just discuss as a class.  During this conversation, we explain how each character’s purpose was to make themselves sound better for their friends (their audience) and to justify their behavior.  As we discuss this idea of them interpreting or altering facts based on their perspective, I introduce the idea of bias.  Then I explain that our task in reading excerpts from La Relacióis to evaluate the reliability of this source as an accurate account of what took place.

Throughout our reading of the text, my students engage in a Numbered Heads discussion where I pose a question to the class, students discuss in a small group, and then I randomly call out pre-assigned numbers so that one spokesperson from each group shares what their group discussed (see more detailed instructions here).  I ask questions such as:

  • How much time passed between when the events Cabeza de Vaca described actually occurred and when he recorded them?  Does this make his text more or less reliable?   Why?
  • How might have Cabeza de Vaca’s audience for his account have affected his credibility?
  • What cultural biases does de Vaca reveal?
  • How do de Vaca’s language and tone affect your view of his credibility?  Why?

These discussions basically allow the class to create something like a pro/con list, where they record things that make de Vaca’s account reliable, and things that don’t.  What I love about this process is that some aspects of the text simultaneously make it reliable or unreliable depending on the interpretation.

For example, I usually draw attention to the fact that de Vaca uses very specific details in his descriptions, such as times, distances, and measurements. I ask my class whether this makes the text more or less reliable, and most students typically respond that it makes the text more reliable because he “couldn’t make up numbers.”  But when I remind students that de Vaca didn’t write his account until about ten years after he left for the expedition, most change their mind and determine that he must have made up the numbers and he is not reliable.  However, then I ask them if there are any ways he may have remember those numbers, and some students comment that he could have kept detailed records and notes to report back to the king, so his account must be reliable.

This back and forth process continues throughout the entire reading until I ask the final question: Is the text a reliable source of information?  This question is very challenging to students who like viewing things in black and white.  Once they weigh all the pros and cons, they realize that there is no wrong or right answer.  And that is when I share that the most important part of determining reliability of historical accounts is not the final evaluation, but the entire process of identifying biases and prejudices and analyzing how those could have affected the account.

Although exploration accounts can sometimes be dry, my students typically really enjoy reading La Relación and remember it even months later!  How do you teach recognizing bias and evaluating reliability?  What skills do you focus on when teaching literary nonfiction?


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