Some things I might raise:
*Situating a person/place/thing/event in time and space.
*The science of context (what would be the humanities corollary for those who consider history more of a humanity than a social science?)
*History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. (Mark Twain)
*As Varad mentioned in a comment–the past only exists in the present.
*Impossible and necessary. (Peter Charles Hopper)
*As Varad mentioned in his guest post–“The compulsion to coordinate past and future so as to be able to live at all is inherent in any human being.” Reinhart Koselleck
I think it’s important for students to understand the relationship between the past and the present, as well as the way that history writing contextualizes events.
Also, particularly important for the methods class I am teaching in the fall, students need to understand that history is constructed, but that does not mean it is purely relative. Rather, it is based on something “real” that is established through documents and accounts and then written down only through many choices about what to include and exclude.
An assignment I might do the first class to push students to think through the construction of history: I have a student in my seminar who is studying abroad in South Africa this summer. I helped to plan the internship that he is on as part of my postdoc. I was thinking about asking the class to work in groups to briefly reconstruct his trip–what types of sources would they search for? What kinds of questions would they ask? Would it be best to tell it from his perspective? What other perspectives could be taken? There are a lot of online sources, plus one group could interview him during class. Part of the point will be to see how each group emphasizes different elements of his trip based on the sources they found. It will also be a good way to assess where their research skills are at the beginning of the course.
Anything to add to my list of how to explain what history is the first day of a new class?
*Picture from here