Category Archives: Teaching History

Teaching what you know

Anybody who’s taught a history class can probably sympathize with the points raised here and here.  In some ways, it’s harder to teach the material you know really well than it is to teach material outside your immediate area of expertise.

As John Fea says, when I’m teaching the stuff I’m really into, “I always leave the lecture hall frustrated. As I walk back to my office I often obsess about everything I did not have time to cover.”  When you’re passionate about a particular topic, you want to give it the coverage you know it deserves.  Of course, this is usually impossible, especially with a survey course.  As a result, you leave the classroom feeling disappointed with yourself, and then you start wondering about whether you’re teaching any of the material adequately.

The lectures I’m most content with are the ones where my understanding of the subject falls into a sort of middle zone, where I’m familiar enough with the material to be comfortable but not so thoroughly schooled in it that I’m conscious of how much I’m leaving out.

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Some Tennessee lawmakers want to change the history curriculum

Looks like they want to see a greater emphasis on American exceptionalism, textualism, and white people:

House Bill 1129 would require school districts to adopt curriculums that stress the “positive difference” the United States has made in the world and “the political and cultural elements that distinguished America.” The measure also deletes a current guideline that encourages teaching about diversity and contributions from minorities in history classes.

The state Department of Education opposes the measure, saying curriculum decisions should be left to the State Board of Education and local school boards.

Backers of the legislation, a version of which has passed the Senate, say it remains a work in progress. But its main sponsor in the House, state Rep. Timothy Hill, conceded Wednesday that the measure is meant to leave students with certain beliefs, such as the view that the wording of the U.S. Constitution leaves no room for interpretation.…

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking in terms of we live in the greatest state in the greatest nation,” said Hill, R-Blountville.

And a-one and a-two and…

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative…

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Eric Foner on teaching history

He talks about his mentors, teaching content vs. teaching method, and the need to have a passion for the subject.

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Various items worthy of note

  • I can’t believe I forgot to mention this until now, but it’s time for John Sevier Days Living History Weekend at Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville, TN.  The action starts tomorrow and continues through Sunday—reenacting, demonstrations, food, and presentations on the Lost State of Franklin and King’s Mountain.  It’ll be a blast, so stop by if you get the chance.
  • While we’re talking about Marble Springs, let me also recommend a great way to support the site and get some nifty benefits for yourself.  Join the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association and you’ll get free admission when you visit, discounts on gift shop items, access to special events, and more.  Memberships start at just $25.
  • Late September-early October is King’s Mountain season.  If you can’t make it to Knoxville for the Marble Springs event, there’s another option for those of you in southwestern Virginia.  On Sunday, Abingdon Muster Grounds is hosting Sharyn McCrumb, who will read from her new novel about the battle.  They’ll also have living history demonstrations and the unveiling of a new painting of William Campbell, whose unit marched from Abingdon to Sycamore Shoals to meet the other Overmountain Men.
  • Some Connecticut parents are quite understandably upset over a school function where students got a taste of slavery…including the racial slurs.  What.  Were.  They.  Thinking?
  • Here’s a Rev War infographic from 1871.
  • Some folks are working to preserve the area around Kettle Creek battlefield in Georgia.
  • A supplementary AP history text is drawing criticism for the way it refers to the Second Amendment.
  • Next time you’re driving through Shepherdsville, KY keep an eye out for the new John Hunt Morgan mural on an underpass along Old Preston Highway.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Civil War, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites, Teaching History, Tennessee History

Neat visual aid for history teachers

If you’re a history or social studies teacher, check out the Periodic Table of the Presidents.  It’s got lots of historical information in an easy-to-use format, and you can get it in poster form to hang in your classroom.

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So less somehow equals more?

Tennessee officials are floating a proposal to combine geography and history.  This approach will supposedly “give students a deeper grasp of both subjects and free up more time for teaching language skills that are measured on standardized tests.”  I would’ve assumed that shoehorning two subjects into one class would mean students would get a much shallower grasp, so I’m a little perplexed here.

Of course, my perplexity is beside the point, because this isn’t really about giving kids “a deeper grasp” of history and geography, is it?  This is about marginalizing social studies to make way for math and language arts, because with the Common Core standards you live and you die by math and language scores on standardized tests.

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Textbook prices going into the stratosphere

Think the cost of health care has been going up?  Check out the cost of college textbooks.

Maybe we should all think about replacing our usual textbooks with something like Robert Remini’s A Short History of the United States.  Students would still be getting their background and context from a distinguished and reputable historian, but at a fraction of the cost of the glossy, illustration-heavy volumes put out by textbook publishers.  They’d also save time and money that could be spent on other reading material, material which would demonstrate what historians do and how they do it.

Or maybe we should ditch the background, textbook-type reading completely.  I’m gradually becoming convinced that survey-level history texts aren’t just overpriced—they’re a little superfluous.  When I teach survey courses, I spend most of my time lecturing on important historical trends, covering critical events, providing context, and so on.  In other words, I’m doing the very same thing the textbook is doing, except I’m doing it verbally.  Is the textbook really necessary when it does nothing but elaborate on the same material we cover in lecture?

In the past, I’ve tried to save my students’ money by replacing the supplementary source reader with material from the Internet History Sourcebook or another online primary source collection, and assigning the main text as the only book to buy.  Maybe I’ve been doing it backwards.  Perhaps we should all ditch our textbooks instead, and assign a good primary source reader along with an accessible monograph or two.  Thus we’d have lectures for background coverage, and assigned reading to learn interpretation and historical thinking.  Some professors have been doing this for a long time.  Is it time to take that approach mainstream?

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Commentator alerts us to looming threat of history standards that actually involve history

There’s a hubbub brewing over new social studies standards for Minnesota’s schools.  As is generally the case in these situations, there’s a fair amount of knee-jerk alarmism mixed in with the legitimate concerns.

Lawyer and commentator John Hinderaker is upset because the new standards emphasize the different impacts that the American Revolution and the Civil War had on various groups.  He writes, “One might have thought that events like the American Revolution and the Civil War would affect Americans generally, but such a concept is foreign to today’s academics.”

Well, certainly the Revolution and the Civil War did affect Americans generally, but it didn’t affect all of them in the same way.  If you were a white male living in Pennsylvania, the Revolution probably resulted in a greater exercise of political power.  If you were a white woman living in Massachusetts, you took on new roles as a republican mother and citizen.  If you were an enslaved black male who managed to hitch a ride with the British as they evacuated the seaboard cities, you got freedom.  And if you were an Indian of any gender living in the Ohio Valley, the Revolution wasn’t exactly a bonanza.  There’s nothing wrong with teaching kids about the varied effects of important events.  Indeed, history teachers need to introduce the complexity involved in significant events like the Revolution.

Hinderaker also charges the standards with attributing “institutionalized racism” to big business.  But that isn’t exactly what the relevant passage says: “As the United States shifted from its agrarian roots into an industrial and global power, the rise of big business, urbanization and immigration led to institutionalized racism, ethnic and class conflict, and new efforts at reform. ”  The standards are clearly dealing with a number of transformations in the U.S. during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of which the rise of big business was only one.  The rise of big business, the growth of cities, and immigration resulted in a number of changes in American life, including racism, class conflict, and reform efforts.  And, of course, shifts in immigration patterns and urban growth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did result in institutionalized racism, as evidenced by the emergence of measures like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the restrictions on Asian immigration in the Immigration Act of 1917.

Perhaps, then, the problem isn’t with the standards, but with the reading comprehension of the people criticizing them.  Or perhaps the problem is something else.  Hinderaker writes that when he saw Joseph Brandt’s name on the standards’ list of “historically significant people” from the American Revolution, he had no idea who he was and had to look him up.  He notes only that Brandt was “a Mohawk Indian,” which is sort of like saying that Stonewall Jackson was “a guy from Virginia.”  Since Hinderaker had to look up the name of one of the most important figures of the Revolutionary frontier, might I suggest that he isn’t the person to be assessing standards for teaching history in Minnesota’s schools?

Joseph Brant, noted “Mohawk Indian,” as painted by George Romney, via Wikimedia Commons

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Teaching Lincoln again

Every undergraduate student at Lincoln Memorial University is required to take a one-hour credit course called “Lincoln’s Life and Legacy” which serves as an introduction to the university’s namesake, his significance to the history of nineteenth-century America, and the story of the school’s origins.  (In case you’re wondering, the required texts are William Gienapp’s short but solid Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America; a one-volume selection of Lincoln’s writings; and whatever supplementary essays, articles, and excerpts the instructor wants to add.)

I haven’t taught this class in a while—not since a previous tour of duty at LMU a few years ago—but I’ve got a section next semester, and I’m really looking forward to it.

I used to end the course with a short overview of Lincoln in memory using the five themes identified by Merrill Peterson, and then I’d show clips from some of the more notable Abe-related movies.  It’ll be interesting to see what impact, if any, the past year’s Lincoln films have had on the 18-22 set.  I’m guessing it’s not a whole lot.  Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter didn’t draw big crowds, and most of the people I saw at screenings of Spielberg’s movie were quite a bit older than me.  Maybe I’ll add a scene from AL:VH to my last lecture just for the heck of it.

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Down from the top shelf

I once heard my pastor (who also happens to be my uncle) quote another minister to the effect of, “The preacher’s job is to reach up and take it down from the top shelf, and put it in people’s hands.”  The preacher, in other words, must not only have a certain level of expertise in his subject matter, but also the ability to translate it into a usable form for people whose expertise is in some other area.  When I worked in museums, I used to see my job in pretty much the same way. The public historian’s job is to take it down from the top shelf and put it in people’s hands.

There’s an unfortunate tendency in academia to look down on public historians, as if curators, park rangers, and their colleagues at museums and other institutions are engaged in a less demanding enterprise than those who earn a paycheck from teaching and publishing.  But in many ways, the demands placed on the public historian are greater. The public historian, like his academic counterpart, must be able to conduct original research and make sense of the relevant secondary literature—to reach the top shelf. But his success will also depend on his ability to get that stuff down from the top shelf and into the public’s hands. That’s what distinguishes the public historian from the ivory tower historian.

A few days ago, however, it occurred to me that although I’m not in the museum field anymore, my job still consists of taking things down from the top shelf.  I make a living by teaching college survey courses.  My audience isn’t composed of colleagues or apprentices; it’s made up of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, each with different levels of interest and differing aptitudes when it comes to the study of the past.  I’ve therefore decided that teaching a college survey course is essentially an exercise in public history.

Wikimedia Commons

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