Not many 16-year-olds spend their off-school time sitting in a dusty archive, weeding through original railroad records. Nor do they have the inclination to track down and develop an oral history of the first generation female law school graduates at a renowned Ivy- League institution. For ambitious National History Day participants, however, this is exactly what they love to do, and they approach their projects just like experienced researchers preparing manuscripts.
In recent months, we have tried to highlight, both in this space and in Perspectives on History, events that stress the importance of history in the public dialogue, so we would be remiss not to talk about National History Day (NHD), an event that in many ways serves as a foundation for students to begin thinking historically. NHD, for readers who may not know, is a year-long academic contest focused on historical research, prepared and presented by 6th to 12th grade students. Students pick their own topic (perhaps a key to the success of the contest), collect primary research, and write a substantive research paper, which is then evaluated by a panel of professional historians.
Recently, I had the opportunity to be a judge for the national contest, and I traveled to the suburbs of the DC metro area (a very big deal for a DC dweller) to judge the final participants and their papers. This was my first time attending an NHD event, let alone as a judge. I arrived at the University of Maryland campus and I immediately encountered a flurry of nervous students and equally nervous parents, rehearsing presentations and diligently monitoring the clock. As I bobbed and weaved through the crowd of students, I occasionally recognized a fellow judge—either an academic professor at a local university, or a historian who I knew only by reputation—making their way through the crowd to check-in. In a discipline sometimes known for being divided along professional lines, NHD is a rare event where a wide variety of history lovers and history professionals come together, bonding over a mutual passion for history.
While judging the papers is the core responsibility of a judge, the best part is meeting the students. The judging process is not merely about rating the students’ papers (that has already been done in advance), it’s an opportunity for students to share their research with professional historians, defend their thesis, and make connections between their research and today’s world. The latter turned out to be where many of the students we interviewed came alive.
It’s not just connections between the past and present that should be encouraged, however. Researching and writing a historical narrative demonstrates to them that history is, at its core, an interpretation. As one student said during their interview, her favorite part of the process was creating a history as she saw it. At a time when many feel like the value of the humanities is underappreciated, these students validate why it matters. The skills students learn during this competition equip them to analyze and form connections, think critically, and communicate and write effectively— all crucial skills in a multitude of professional environments.
But writing a research paper is not the only way to participate in NHD. Unbeknownst to me, NHD provides a wide variety of ways for students to participate, including history-themed exhibits, websites, documentaries, or dramatic performances (I bumped into a student clad as Abraham Lincoln clutching a crystal ball, making me sorely disappointed I had to miss that tongue-in-cheek (?) performance). The students were having fun, and they were having fun with history.
While NHD is all about students, it is also a unique event for the adults. It is chance for history professionals and archivists to combine expertise, work with students on critical learning skills, and demonstrate to the greater public the value of history education. It is trained archivists who are guiding our students through the process of primary research, shepherding them through the archives and attending to their needs as they would any researcher. Their care was not lost on the students participating at NHD. Many of the students we talked to specifically mentioned the archivists and research librarians who organized tours in archive stacks and facilitated their primary research. Once the student has produced a research paper and entered the NHD content, history professionals from around the region donated their time to judge and critique their research on the basis of clarity, originality, and convincing argument.
That being said, NHD needs our help. The event is only sustained by the collective work of volunteers, and they are always in need of history judges, both at the regional and national level. According to Deputy Director Kim Fortney, NHD organizers are on a continual quest for history professionals to get involved and empower students early in their academic life. If you are able, I strongly recommend that contact Kim Fortney, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for information on volunteering. As evidenced by the variety of entries, judges have a number of interesting mediums to suit their interests.
For a complete list of the 2013 winners, please visit the National History Day website.