Category Archives: 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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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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America’s youth are still ignorant when it comes to history

The latest bulletin from the Bureau of “We Get It, We Get It”:

A recent study called “The Nation’s Report Card” said less than one quarter of all students is proficient or shows a solid academic performance in American history.

Shockingly, while most quizzed could identify a photo of Abraham Lincoln, hardly any could say why he was an important president.

If there’s anywhere students would be able to answer a question about Lincoln, many would think it would be at the Lincoln memorial, in Washington DC.

But the study and a field trip made it clear that kids aren’t learning history.

Interesting that kids could ID a picture of Lincoln but couldn’t say anything significant about him.  Lincoln’s face is one of the most visually distinctive in American annals, so on a perverse and twisted level, it sort of makes sense.  For kids weaned on reality TV, historical figures are not unlike modern pseudo-celebrities, famous for being famous.  “Hey, isn’t he that guy from the $5 bill?”

That furious clickety-clacking you hear is the sound of keyboard commandos announcing the discovery of yet more evidence that history teachers are incompetent and our school systems irreparably broken.  That’s because they haven’t read the rest of the story, or they have read it and they don’t care.

Why that’s the case, and how to fix it, is up for debate.

Possibilities include apathetic students, how history is tested, and the No Child Left Behind Act squeezing history out of the classroom in favor of math and reading.

As crazy as it sounds, lousy testing standards and policies that minimize history requirements may actually contribute to the problem of historical ignorance. History teachers have to play the hand they’re dealt, and that hand isn’t always pretty.

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For globe-trotting Americanists

It’s time for those of us who make a living by teaching to get back to the business of turning America’s youth into godless Marxists who despise their country.  A lot of us who are specialists in American history will find ourselves outside of our comfort zone, teaching the world history survey courses that have become mandatory at many colleges and universities.

I’ll be teaching two sections of pre-1500 world history this semester, trying to cover everything from the dawn of mankind through the medieval era before Christmas break.  Teaching these surveys is fun and challenging at the same time.  As I’ve said before, history is a big tent, and the difference between studying classical Athens and studying the Revolutionary War is as profound as the difference between geology and zoology.

I was lucky enough to be able to take a pretty diverse array of world history courses as an undergraduate, but in grad school I focused on the early history of the U.S.  Now that my bank account’s replenishment depends heavily on teaching world history, I’ve spent a lot of time going back to subjects I’d neglected for a long time. That has meant reading a lot of general works on ancient and medieval stuff.

Since there are probably quite a few other Americanists out there who’ll find themselves in the same boat, I thought I might change gears here and recommend a few of the resources which have been particularly helpful to me in preparing these courses.  Let me stress that these are only general works; I have neither the expertise nor the inclination to build comprehensive bibliographies of this kind.  I’m approaching this post not as a seasoned trail guide, but as an often-bewildered and very green hiker who just happens to have found some decent maps to share.  I make no claims that any of these books are the best of their kind, only that I’ve found them handy as I’ve grappled with the Herculean task of walking a classroom full of students through the first few millennia of the human past.

The New Penguin History of the World (5th ed.) by J.M. Roberts and Odd Arne Westad.  This acclaimed work has gone through several different updates, and the latest revisions actually came after the death of its original and primary author.  It’s much stronger on modern history than it is on earlier periods, and much stronger on the history of the West than it is on other civilizations.  As a one-volume overview, it’s necessarily brief on pretty much everything, but it’s a handy volume to have on hand when you find yourself putting together an outline on some subject that’s not that familiar to you.

Egypt, Greece, and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean by Charles Freeman.  Anybody who’s teaching the first part of the world history survey should get this book.  It’s clear and comprehensive, covering the political, social, and cultural aspects of three of the major civilizations that shaped the ancient world.  I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Ancient Iraq (3rd ed.) by Georges Roux.  This is a very popular introduction to early Mesopotamia, written by a former petroleum company employee who acquired a love of the ancient Near East.  It’s quite readable, and covers most of the major developments in the Fertile Crescent from the beginning of civilization to the later first millennium B.C.

The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, ed. by Ian Shaw.  This book, which covers Egyptian history from the earliest archaeological traces through the Roman era, is the result of a collaboration by a group of Egyptologists, each of whom contributed a chapter.  Like many such books, the quality of the individual chapters is somewhat uneven, and the text as a whole is pretty dry and sterile.  If you’re unfamiliar with the basic outlines of Egyptian history, I’d recommend you read the Egyptian chapters in Freeman’s Egypt, Greece, and Rome before tackling this volume, since the authors seem to assume that the reader already has some familiarity with the subject.

Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History by Sarah B. Pomeroy, Stanley M. Burstein, Walter Donlan, and Jennifer Tolbert Roberts.  There are, of course, several good general works on ancient Greece in English.  One of my professors assigned an earlier edition of this text for a college course I took on the ancient Mediterranean, and I recommend it highly.  It’s very inclusive in its coverage, but it’s also clear and well-organized.  The same publisher came out with a similar textbook on Rome that I haven’t read yet.

The Civilization of the Middle Ages by Norman F. Cantor.  This has become the go-to introduction to medieval Europe for the interested layman.  Cantor is best at guiding the reader through the major intellectual and religious developments, but the whole book is worth the investment of time, and it includes a great list of recommended readings.

A History of Medieval Islam by J.J. Saunders.  This book is a little old, and it doesn’t have the high profile of more recent works on the Islamic world by such eminent scholars as Bernard Lewis.  But I like it for its conciseness and clarity; it offers a very helpful refresher in an easily digestible package.

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin.  The forgotten half of Christendom that maintained the legacy of the Romans after the empire in the West fell tends to get short shrift in historical memory.  This is a fine guide to a surprisingly vibrant society.

I’m still in the market for good overviews of the major eastern civilizations, so if anybody out there would care to recommend some general works on China or India, feel free to do so.

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