Tag Archives: Teaching History

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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Of individuals and their eras

Lately the historical Interwebs has been talking about the new Grant bio by H.W. Brands.  I read his life of Andrew Jackson several years ago and thought it was pretty good, even if the availability of Robert Remini’s one-volume abridgment version of his multi-volume work made another popular Jackson bio seem a little superfluous.

The Grant and Jackson books are both part of a series of biographies which will constitute a complete history of the United States, with Brands using each individual exemplifying a particular era.  It’s a pretty interesting idea.

I wonder if you could do the same thing for a survey course, organizing each lecture around the life of some historical figure.  Could students learn history just by getting acquainted with individuals whose life stories reflect their respective time periods or subjects?  Here are a few possibilities:

  • Pocahontas for early colonial Anglo-Indian relations with her first encounters with the Jamestown colonists, her capture, baptism, marriage, and eventual death
  • Jacob Leisler for the evolution of the colonial-English relationship in the late seventeenth century
  • Jonathan Edwards for the intellectual/religious developments of the early eighteenth century
  • John Adams for the Revolutionary and Federalist eras, with the emergence of his commitment to independence and the development of his ideas on government
  • John Sevier for the trans-Appalachian frontier, with his career as Indian fighter, leader of a dissident separatist movement, land speculator, and state governor

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Filed under Historiography, Teaching History

Butterflies

My classes kicked off this week.  In the days leading up to the start of the semester, I get this weird mix of anticipation tinged with a little nervousness.  I don’t know why I should be nervous; I’ve done this plenty of times before, and I’m the one in charge of the class.  But it happens anyway, and lasts until I walk into the room, crank up the projector, and get rolling.  After that, I’m fine.  Better than fine, actually; I really enjoy myself.

It always reminds me of this scene from Collateral in which an L.A. prosecutor talks about the night before she has to stand up in the courtroom.

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One of the reasons American history is hard to teach

…is because it keeps getting longer.

Of course, his lessons didn’t change on the day of the attacks, but once students started showing up who had completely forgotten about it — “18-year-olds who were about seven when 9/11 happened” — he knew he had to teach it. But there are only so many hours of instruction in the semester.

That meant he had to start making cuts in his lesson plans. Take Watergate. Once, he used to spend an entire lecture on the political scandal, but now, he covers it in 10 to 15 minutes. “The New Deal is another really good example,” he says. “When I first started teaching, I think I had three lectures on it.” Now he’s down to two, and that’s changed the way he teaches, too. “I try to do it differently so that I won’t overwhelm people with lots and lots of facts. And then they’ll be able to understand more history, hopefully, through only having to know a little less.”

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Mississippi’s elected officials engage in a remarkable waste of time

From the Associated Press, with a tip of the hat to Way of Improvement Leads Home:

JACKSON, Miss. — Some House members want to ban Mississippi school history courses from promoting “any partisan agenda or philosophy.”

Sponsored by House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, the measure is supposed to keep history teachers or textbooks from indoctrinating students according to a particular partisan viewpoint.

“We’re trying to protect the history of our nation in its purest form,” said House Education Committee Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon.

Great.  Now who’s going to determine what constitutes the promotion of a “partisan agenda or philosophy,” and how do they go about enforcing it?  What would be the penalty for indoctrinating students—a fine, prison time, community service, a stint in a re-education camp?

The measure says in part that “public school history courses may not promote any partisan agenda or philosophy and may not be revised for the purpose of significantly changing generally accepted history to create a bias toward an ideological position.” The bill moves forward to the full House after being approved Monday by the House Education Committee on a 10-5 vote.

How does a teacher “significantly change generally accepted history to create a bias toward an intellectual position,” I wonder?  By informing students that the Soviet Union won the Cold War, or that the Constitution mandates a belief in God for all elected officials?

Oh, and get this.  The guy who’s sponsoring the legislation

said it’s a reaction to Texas disputes over what should be included in textbooks that climaxed in 2010. He said he’s not aware of any similar problem that currently exists in Mississippi.

If it’s not a problem, then why in the name of all the deities on Olympus is the legislature fooling with it?

Let me suggest that for a state consistently ranked at or near the very bottom in national assessments of education, biased history teachers should be the least of your worries.

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Filed under History and Memory, Teaching History

Getting oriented

It’s our first week back to class at LMU, which means it’s once again time to deliver my little beginning-of-the-semester spiel at the first class meeting.  I’ve developed a tradition of opening my survey classes with a somewhat crude metaphor.

Imagine that a complete college-level education in history is a big shopping mall, with a variety of stores that cater to different needs and tastes—Ancient Rome, the history of Nazi Germany, the American West, the history of women or warfare, and so on.  Students who decide to major in history, to devote their college careers to the study of the human past, get to go into these stores and spend some time browsing, trying on the merchandise and perhaps finding a few items that suit them.

A gen-ed survey course, like the ones I’m teaching this semester, is different.  In a first-year world history class, we usually don’t spend enough time on any one subject for students to get much of a feel on it.  Students thus don’t get to do much of what historians actually do, which is developing interpretations to answer questions about the past.  A survey course is all about getting oriented to the general contours of human history as a whole, just as the word “survey” in another sense denotes scoping out the general contours of a physical landscape.

If the upper-level elective courses are like stores in a mall, then a world history survey class is more like a mall directory sign, which tells you where the stores are located and what you can find in them.

This distinction is significant to me as a teacher, because it reminds me that I will inevitably have to make sacrifices in content due to the nature of a survey course.  But I explain it to my students because I don’t want them to confuse the experience of taking a survey course with the experience of doing history.

It’s a tragic irony that the very classes in which we’re able to engage non-history majors are the very same classes in which students don’t get as many opportunities to see what makes history so captivating.  In survey courses, there’s so much material to be covered that you can’t delve deeply into the kinds of problems and issues that occupy the attention of historians and advanced-level history students.  The students who really get to have fun with history are the ones who take the upper-level electives, and yet students who sign up for those classes have often done so because they already know how much fun they can have doing it.

I do my best in my survey classes to try to give students a taste of the discipline of history, even though most of our time will necessarily be spent doing the less appealing work of laying a foundation of basic historical knowledge.  But I realize that many of them won’t be inclined take a history class beyond the gen-ed requirements, and thus won’t discover that history is more than mastering general concepts and facts.  That’s why I spend a few minutes on the first day explaining my shopping mall metaphor.  The orientation that we do in survey courses is necessary and I try to make it compelling, but if possible, I want students to use my introductory class to find a few stores that intrigue them, so that when it’s time to take some electives they might consider going in for a closer look at the merchandise.

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