On the opening vignette as pedagogy

A passage I wrote for one of my online course discussion boards:

One of my pet peeves about textbook, history, and journalistic writing is the use of the “opening vignette,” a scene or personality introduced at the beginning that somehow humanizes the discussion, and often (as used here) foreshadows something coming later in the chapter. In the last fifteen years, particularly, it seems to have become nearly universal in academic writing oriented to wider audiences — textbooks, op-ed pieces, magazine articles, etc. I find it unhelpful, at best, and often misleading with regard to the chronology, intent or import of what’s going on (I know because of what students write on their tests). The opening vignettes in this book seem mostly harmless, but I’m a little surprised by how obviously “dropped in” these openings are: it’s not clear why these dramatic moments were chosen over others and there’s no reference back to them in the rest of the chapter. I understand the value of storytelling and humanizing in making historical points to wider audiences (and even we historians can be entertained and even educated by good stories) but when it’s an imposed pattern instead of growing organically from the argument and material it loses its power.

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