Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.

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What REAL Historians Do

Bil Johnson
Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.


This is probably my favorite episode in the AP US History series, because this is about the document based question. If you know what the document based question is, some people maybe wondering how can this be your favorite episode. Well it's my favorite episode because this is what historians really do and that's really the most fun about being a historian. I mentioned it's really like being a detective, and the document based question really gives you that opportunity to kind of get down to your elbows in research and looking at things.

The basic set up is they give you a problem, they provide you with some evidence, and then you have got to use your imagination to figure out how to solve that problem, based on that evidence. It's really a pretty simple formula but it's one that because it requires your imagination, because it really asks for you to apply yourself. And so the document based question is something that I really hope that you'll enjoy tackling as much as I do, because, what can be more fun.

The key thing about document based question is to understand as with almost anything, to keep it simple. And one of the best ways to have fun, and to be a detective, is to keep it simple. So what we want to do is really, I'll follow three simple steps. And these are the three simple steps we want to use: We want to break down the question. You want to carefully look at and think about that question.

Secondly, we want to analyze the data, that's your documents. You want to take a look at these documents in relation to this question, and analyze it. That's where the analysis comes in. I want to think about how does this document relate to that question. And then finally, I want to organize my ideas to write the essay, to write the document based question response like a real historian. Really thoughtfully, putting together my documentary evidence, answering that question because I have analyzed this carefully and broken that question down.

If we have a question like this, "Presidential legacies are often focused on one positive or negative event that overshadows almost all else. Based on the documents provided, analyze the Nixon administration's legacy, as a positive or negative one." That's a big question and it seems really complex. But if we really break it down, if we really look at it, what we'll see is, we want to find out what were the positive and negative legacies. What were the long term effects of these legacies? If we go back and look at the question briefly, we get a premise. Presidential legacies are often focused on one positive or negative event that overshadows almost all else. Now if we know this about the Nixon's administration, almost anybody can say or the Watergate scandal. And of course that did overshadow things. But based on the documents provided, analyze the administration and was this legacy positive or negative. So now we can really think about it, what were the positive and negative legacies, what were the long term effects of these legacies?

So that's breaking down the question, so that we really think about what is it. The next part of course, is we're going to take a look at a documents and see how do the documents apply to responding to this. And one of the best things I can recommend you use, when you analyze documents, especially in something like this; positive and negative legacies and the long term effects, is to go to the old Venn diagram. Because it's really a great organiser, it helps us think about how to do that essay, and it goes right back to that. We've broken down our question, we've analyzed our documents, and now if we really want to write our essay, we've got essentially outline right here.

Let's take that question about Nixon's legacy being positive or negative, and let's look at our documents and see what we've got. Now we're talking about positive and negative and then of course there is always the possibility of something falling in between. As we look through the documents, what have we got? Well here is one about secret bombing of Cambodia. Pretty much I think, we've got to say that's a negative. So Cambodia bombing goes over here. They give us a document on the SALT treaty, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with the Russians. That's a pretty positive thing in the next administration. How do people don't remember that?

Another thing that happened during Nixon's administration again might be forgotten in the long run, but they've given us a document about the end of the draft. Now, for those of you who are all young and don't know about this, some of us actually were worried about being drafted and going to Vietnam. Ending the draft really gave people less concern about being drafted in the middle of going to college or losing your job. So ending the draft wasn't necessarily positive, wasn't negative, but was something that we need to pay attention to as part of the legacy in the Nixon's administration.

Something else that happened, that Nixon did that no other president had done before was that he visited China. Certainly, the China visit is something that is very positive and if we look long term it's certainly an important event even for us today. We'll talk about that in a minute. A negative thing aside from the Watergate break in, something we found out and we've got a document about here, is the Pentagon Papers. What the document tells us is in fact that members of the Nixon's administration broke into a psychiatrist office to find papers about someone who was an anti-war activist. Pretty negative and it connects to that whole Watergate cover up thing.

We can't leave out the Watergate break in and cover up. That certainly is the then Nixon's administration will probably always be remembered for, and it's why he resigned as president.

There also was, because of that break in and all it's rendered,, a number of events that concerned campaign financing. Now that's an event that's still in the news, positive negative, it certainly hasn't changed, maybe we'll just put it right in here. We don't know if it's a positive or negative thing but certainly it's an issue and it's an issue and it's an issue that we still deal with. The final couple of documents we have, one is about Vietnamization, which was the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. Nixon managed to accomplish that, probably a positive thing, we probably should have done it much sooner. And then finally our last document is about the fact that the economy was pretty steady during the Nixon administration. The war certainly helped that, but even when more troops were withdrawn. So maybe positive, certainly not negative. Maybe we can put it right in here, the economy and leaning towards the positive.

So now we've really taken a look at...can we talk about the legacy of the Nixon administration in terms of the positive and negative factors, things in between. We can start to organize our essay and here's something that I would really advise you to think about. And that is, what connections can we make to what's going on in the world today? Certainly with campaign financing, we hear that coming up every presidential campaign. In 2000, 2004, 2008, everybody is always talking about campaign financing. So we might want to make a connection in the conclusion of our essay about the fact that this is an issue that's still being debated. Maybe as significant, this China visit, the 2008 Olympics, probably wouldn't be held in Beijing if Nixon hadn't visited China.

So we might say, on the positive note, even though there were a lot of negative things here and probably the Watergate is the big legacy, we've got this big event happening here in the early 21st century that probably couldn't have happened and wouldn't have happened if Richard Nixon hadn't gone to China. And I think if you make that kind of a connection, the people who are reading your essay will be pretty impressed that you are on top of it and really recognize that history is very much alive. And in fact, they'll see that you're having some fun with history.

Lets review just briefly the document based question process, because that's really the heart of being successful at writing the response to the document based question. The key thing is, you want to break down that question. In this case we've looked at the idea of the premise that the presidential administrations are generally remembered for one thing, that they leave a lot of positive and negative legacies. Secondly we then want to analyze the data, we want to look at those documents. And what we just saw was, we took those documents and really analyzed were they about a positive legacy, a negative legacy, were they in between? Again the Venn diagram was a great graphic organiser, there are other graphic organizers we'll probably look at in some other episodes. And then finally we organized our essay

And really the Venn diagram does that for us. We can really start to say here's the positive, here's the negative. Yes he's known for the Watergate but there are also all these other things, and that big connection idea of current events talking about campaign financing, and talking about the Beijing Olympics that might not have happened hadn't Nixon not gone to China.

So with those three simple steps, by reading the question carefully, brainstorming and analyzing the documents and then just organizing our essay based on that we can really grab hold of that document based question. Have some fun with it, show how much we know and really have a lot of fun with history.

In our next episode we're going to look at the standard essay response or the free response essays, I like to call. Which I think is almost as much fun as the document based question, because it really gives you a chance to show how much smart you are, and just gives us another opportunity to really have some fun with history.

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