Category Archives: Teaching History

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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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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A month’s worth of the War of 1812

Check out this fascinating item from NPR on the differences between teaching the War of 1812 in U.S. schools and teaching it in Canada.  A teacher in Utah spends “a couple of days” on the war, with doses of the national anthem and Johnny Horton.  A teacher in Ontario, by contrast, devotes “three to four weeks” to it.

Three to four weeks!  As a pre-Civil War kind of guy, I’d love to have that much time for early American subjects in my survey classes.

Canadian units on the war aren’t just longer.  They’re qualitatively different, full of important victories and heroic characters like Laura Secord.  You’ve never heard of Laura Secord?  Don’t sweat it; neither had I, and I’m supposed to have a master’s degree in this kind of stuff.

Here are a few other items from around the Interwebs on the War of 1812 and the way we remember it—or fail to:

  • One reason our memory is selective might be because America didn’t come out of the war’s first two years looking particularly good.
  • Donald Hickey is editing a series of books on the war for John Hopkins University Press.
  • Baltimore kicked off the bicentennial with maritime festivities…
  • …and hosted a ceremony where reps from the U.S., Britain, and Canada buried the hatchet.  I’m still not forgiving them for Russell Brand.
  • Finally, a Pennsylvania schoolteacher and his students suggest that we should re-christen the conflict the “Second War of Independence.”  Not bad, but maybe we could add a little Hollywood-style pizzazz.  I’m thinking WI:2 or War of Independence 2: War Harder.  Too bad The Empire Strikes Back is already taken.

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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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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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Keep the doors open

I’m of the opinion that history departments need to be more open to the possibility that students may want to pursue career paths outside academia, so I’m pleased to see that this was one of the subjects of discussion at the AHA.

Professors need to avoid discouraging budding public historians, of course, but they should do more than that—they should be actively encouraging them.  They should familiarize themselves with the career paths open to non-academic historians and equip themselves to guide interested students along those paths.  To assume that all roads originating in higher historical education should end in a tenure-track teaching position is, I submit, irresponsible.  Jobs for history majors are scarce enough without mentors closing possible doors before their students can consider walking through them.

If academic historians are looking for ways to bridge the chasm between the ivory tower and the public, they should remember that  their classrooms are full of potential public historians.

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Stopping to smell the roses

I had to drop one of my adjunct gigs because of some additional responsibilities I was taking on, so the only college classes I’m teaching this semester are world history courses. I’ve been neck-deep in ancient history books for months, letting my to-read list on early America gather dust. I feel a little like an expatriate who’s lived overseas for so long that he starts to forget his own language.

We’re getting to a point in these courses that I both anticipate and dread—the classical era. I like it because it’s interested me since I was a kid, before I was really into “history” as a discipline; I dread it because in a survey course you generally don’t have time to get into the details, and the details are the fun part when it comes to the classical age. It’s a period that threw up more than its share of compelling people and incidents—Marathon, Syracuse, Alexander’s march to India, Hannibal crossing the Alps, Antony and Cleopatra, the fall of the Roman Republic, and all the rest of it.

It’s all very well and good to pooh-pooh dramatic narrative, but most of us who get into the history business did so because at some point in our lives we got caught up in the stories. I can’t tell you how many students of the Civil War have told me that they owe their obsession to Bruce Catton; I’ve never heard anyone tell me that an analytical monograph is what set their imagination on fire. At some point, budding young historians must (in the Apostle Paul’s phrase) “put away childish things” and learn to enjoy theory and analysis, since a love of dramatic episodes and colorful characters won’t sustain a career in history. But the fact remains that it’s just such episodes and characters that create historians and history enthusiasts.

Now, this brings us to a maddening Catch-22. Survey courses are full of potential history enthusiasts who are susceptible to the lure of these incidents and characters, but they’re also the very history courses where it’s hard to indulge in such things, because there’s so much material to get through. It’s hard to stop and smell the roses when you’ve got to cover everything from the Neolithic through the Renaissance. The pressures of time and the knowledge that storytelling doesn’t constitute history combine to make many of us reluctant to meander along these pathways in survey classes. When it happens, it’s often in spite of our attempts to avoid it.

That’s what happened to me the other day when my lecture went off the rails during my afternoon class. I got sidetracked in the Greco-Persian Wars and went off on a tangent, and my students actually enjoyed it. They were sitting up and paying attention. In terms of imparting information it was my least successful lecture of the semester so far, but in terms of student engagement it was my most successful. Maybe I should be guilty of dereliction of duty more often.

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Bits and pieces

One of the mainstays of history survey courses are collections of primary source excerpts that profs assign to supplement the textbook. The excerpts are invariably short, since the only practical way to expose students to a wide array of important primary documents is to cut them up into tiny little bits.

I’ve secretly wondered much students really benefit by reading these little snippets.  When it comes to shorter works like the Declaration of Independence, the excerpt system works pretty well.  But some longer sources don’t take to dismemberment.  How much insight can you really get from a few out-of-context paragraphs of Ben Franklin’s autobiography or the Lincoln-Douglas debates?  It’s like driving a golf cart through an art gallery at top speed while trying to catch glimpses of the paintings along the way. You can assign longer selections of fewer works, of course, but that’s a trade-off.

That’s the thing about teaching a survey course.  It’s all about trade-offs.

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Virginia textbooks: Now with less horseflop

Remember that Virginia history textbook that had us all in a tizzy last year, the one written by a non-historian who used SCV websites as a source?  The new edition is out, and it’s slightly less inaccurate than the old one.  High fives all around!

They’ve evidently whittled down the errors in Our Virginia and a similar textbook on general U.S. history to a manageable hodgepodge of “dubious quotations, misleading images and maps depicting inaccurate borders,” sort of like when McDonald’s decided to cut down the trans fat in its fries while leaving all that lip-smacking overall fat and salt content in place.  Virginia’s Board of Education has put the two books back on the list of approved texts for use in elementary classrooms.

Oh, and earlier this year, the Old Dominion changed the textbook vetting process. “Under the new rules, publishers must certify that their textbooks have been checked for accuracy by subject-matter experts,” according to the above-linked article. “They also have to agree to fix mistakes discovered in their texts.”

This seems to suggest that getting qualified authorities to check the books before printing them has not been a standard procedure for textbook publishers.  I’m visualizing this scenario where a manuscript for a new history textbook has just arrived by FedEx at a publishing office, and the editorial staff are passing it around a conference table.  One of them finally says, “Sooooo, should we, like, get an actual historian to look at this, or should we just start cranking out a few thousand copies and let the chips fall where they may?”

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