Future Research Directions
Spurred on by the new trend of historical thinking studies, and in line with the prevailing reconsideration of the unitary national history textbook, research on the critical reading of historical documents in Korea now provides opportuni?ties to reflect on how to teach students on the basis of their understanding of and response to historical texts. However, this also disclosed theoretical and methodological shortcomings that need to be considered carefully for future studies.
First, critical writing has been stressed in parallel relation to critical reading. Kim and Lee (2002) argue that the capacity to critically read leads to writing history and telling student’s own narrative as a way of producing active historical knowledge. It is interesting that while the researchers found more deficiency in students’ critical writing than reading, teachers have reported a positive improvement in students’ writing after monitoring activities in guided lesson plans, such as TSCRWH (Yang, 2014). The potential for student improvement and its lasting effects on critical reading and writing should be more actively investigated. It should be examined also whether students responded more sensitively to the rhetorical expressions or to evaluative terms, and whether this inclination was related to or has affected their writing. Researchers should also be careful not to use students’ written works to evaluate the effects of their teaching on the pitfalls of reading documents too hastily without having interviewed students regarding their answers.
Second, the question of contextualization should be more clearly defined. Contextualization has always been emphasized in critical reading. It is said that historians and students alike should try to understand the source documents in context. Upon closer examination, however, it is not very clear what understanding context means. In Korean research trends, contextualization means to locate events in the time and place that they occur in order to attain proper understanding or to analyze and interpret documents by considering the writer’s own position in the contemporary political, social, and cultural milieu. The questions that follows is: how could students possibly know this context without having first studied it? For example, in the aforementioned study by Kang (2013), students were asked to infer the writer’s intentions by using information about the given texts, their knowledge about the period, events, authors, and so on. Simultaneously, they were asked to express their understanding of the people’s thoughts and culture during the period relevant to the excerpt under analysis. In other words, they had to know both the text and the context.
This approach of evaluating student’s capacity for contextualization is flawed because “there is no way to know the past prior to reading text” (Ziemann & Dobson, 2009: 13). As Gabrielle Spiegel has insisted, “historical contexts do not exist in themselves: they must be defined, and in that sense constructed, by the historian before the interpretive work of producing meaning, of interpreting the past, can begin” (1997: xix). How should students be expected to “contextualize” the documents or events without considering the textuality of the past or intertexuality? That is, the past can only be interpreted by the surviving texts, and the text can be written only by reading other texts, which interrelate and interact. The questions usually asked to students, such as “Why does a writer say this?”, “What does that mean?” or “What is the writer’s inten?tion?” are suggestive of much more complicated issues surrounding the multiplicity of meanings and interpretations. These questions can hardly be reduced to just identifying the right clues or missing parts of puzzles. In addition, the surplus of meaning—that is, the meaning contained in the text is always much more than an author could have intended to invest—may produce misinterpretation (Skinner, 2002: 113).
This does not mean encouraging students to think that the context is worthless. Rather, it is important to note that they cannot contextualize without reflecting what it means or how to do it. Context and text cannot be clearly distinguished as assumed and premised in the aforementioned studies. Text is not just a reflection of context; writer’s utterance can also cause changes. So both a diachronic perspective of meaning that changes over time and a synchronic perspective of competing connotations of a term’s usage at any historical moment should be considered (Ziemann & Dobson, 2009: 6). Future studies should pay attention to the writer’s “engagement in an act of communication”. A writer’s intentions should be recognized as an intervention “to uphold some particular position in argument, to contribute to the treatment of some particular topic, and so on” and a writer’s utterance can never be viewed as just strings of propositions but as an argument for or against a certain assumption or point of view (Skinner, 2002: 102). By dealing with more specific questions like, “What is the topic or issue that the writer is talking about?”, “For or against whom is the writer speaking?”, “What question is she or he trying to answer?”, “What is she or he trying to do by saying this?”, students are better equipped to investigate the convention and the situation of the writer’s discourse instead of simply picking up phrases or sentences in the texts that fit their preexisting assumptions or reasoning.
Thirdly, text reading is also related with the tradition of writing and researching history. In Korea, past dynasties authorized official historiographers to produce detailed, official “annals” on state affairs, of which the most typical case is “the Annals of Joseon dynasty (1392-1910)”. They recorded what they saw and heard in line with the spirit of Confucian historiographical tradition of “transmitting but not creating”. These annals, which remain in almost perfect legible condition and compiled in the order of the successive reign of kings, have been used as confirmed sources of reliability. It is not yet part of the tradition of Korean history research to read a text critically in the ways discussed above. The traditional posture of regarding source documents as evidence for the reality of the past has prevailed in history classroom in a similar ways. So, historical documents have usually been used as source evidence for validating and confirming the related textbook accounts. Such a position hinders the possibility of revealing multiple perspectives and interpretations, or, for that matter, raising doubts on the “reality effects”. Without taking this culture of reading “true records”5 into account, recent studies on the critical reading of historical texts exposed insufficient consideration for the selection, editing, and presentation of source documents. Merely relating the temporary and tentative characteristics of historical knowledge or the nature of the histori?cal account to students can hardly stand for the actual practice of critical reading. Future studies, therefore, are expected to investigate how to apply critical reading to source documents like annals.