Category Archives: Teaching History

There are no gimmicks

We’re getting close to the end of the semester, which means I’m getting e-mails and questions from students who are worried about their grades.  It always happens around this point in the academic year. 

A lot of the students who contact me want to know “what they can do” to get a decent grade.  It reminds me of the rich young ruler’s question to Jesus in Matthew 19: “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?”  It’s asking for tips.  It’s asking for a list of pointers that, if followed properly, will inevitably and mechanically result in the desired outcome. 

I usually repeat what I say to the whole class at the beginning of the semester, which consists of the obvious things that apply to any college class.  Be diligent in your attendance, take copious notes, read the material carefully, get your assignments in on time, and study, study, study.  

What was it the rich young ruler said to Jesus?  “All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?”  That’s similar to what some of my students tell me.  And at that point, I usually fell pretty powerless, beause there isn’t really anything else I can tell them. 

From Wikimedia Commons

That’s the hard part when it comes to teaching—and taking—a history class.  There just aren’t any gimmicks that a student can adopt to ensure a good grade.  And in that respect, history classes are different. 

A couple of afternoons a week I tutor high school Spanish.  I don’t mind doing it in the least; in fact, it’s almost like a mini-vacation from teaching history.  I like history much, much more than I like Spanish, but I find working with students in Spanish to be a lot easier, and in many cases more rewarding.  I think part of the reason is that it’s an easier subject through which to guide someone.  There are certain rules and standard practices to a language, and once a student masters them, he’s got his game on.  You can see what areas need improvement, and you can tell him what to do to improve them. 

Not so with history.  If you want to do well in a history class, there aren’t any standard grammatical or mathematical rules that will apply in any given situation.  There’s just a lot of complex, subtle, detailed information.  Sure, there are particular ways of thinking historically, and there are certain standards that any aspiring historian has to meet.  But when it comes to the kind of gimmicks that you can wrap your head around once and then plug in when you need them, they’re just not there. 

You study until you’re staurated in it, and that’s all there is.  It comes easier to some people than to others, but that’s just because some people are good at assimilating this kind of verbal information, or because they enjoy doing so.

Jesus told the rich young ruler that if he wanted eternal life, he should sell all his possessions and take up the life of a disciple.  A lot of commentators think the point is that Jesus didn’t want rote adherence to a set of guidelines.  He wanted total, all-consuming commitment.  It was a hard lesson for the rich guy to learn; he “went away sorrowful,” as the King James puts it.  When I tell my students that a high grade requires nothing but persistent, brutal effort, they’re not too crazy about it, either.

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This just in: Columbus not as popular as he used to be

Columbus, from Wikimedia Commons

Here’s an item from the AP on how today’s schoolteachers are giving their students “a more nuanced picture of Columbus than the noble discoverer often portrayed in pop culture and legend.” 

Anybody else having a hard time thinking of instances in which Columbus has been “often portrayed in pop culture” at all these days, let alone nobly?

If that’s been the case in the past, we’re apparently making up for it with a vengeance.  From a Tampa kindergarten teacher: “I talk about the situation where he didn’t even realize where he was.…And we talked about how he was very, very mean, very bossy.”

In Pennsylvania, a group of fourth-graders “put Columbus on trial this year — charging him with misrepresenting the Spanish crown and thievery. They found him guilty and sentenced him to life in prison.”  I’m not sure what constitutes “misrepresenting the Spanish crown,” but it must be serious.  I hate to imagine what they’d do to Coronado.

Blaming Columbus for all the unfortunate side-effects of European colonization and emphasizing his character flaws aren’t news.  This has been standard operating procedure in both academic and popular circles for some time now.   Why the AP is just now taking notice of this, I have no idea.  I’ve always known that the media don’t pick up on intellectual trends until long after they’ve begun to permeate the popular consciousness, but I didn’t know it took decades.  Or maybe today was just a really, really slow news day.

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Cynicism in the classroom

When I taught a course on the American Revolution last year, we spent a lot of time talking about the ideas that shaped American responses to British colonial policy in the 1760′s.  There were several important ideological factors at work in American political thought during that period—a mistrust of power, a pervasive fear of conspiracies, and an emphasis on the need for public virtue. 

And, of course, there was the conviction that government could not deprive citizens of their property without the consent of those citizens, an idea summed up in the familiar phrase “no taxation without representation.”  Since Americans didn’t send representatives to Parliament, so the argument went, that body had no authority to levy taxes on the colonies.  No American had any role in deciding who went to Parliament, so no American had any voice in the decision to pay taxes that Parliament demanded from the colonies.

The history of ideologies always makes for a good classroom discussion, so I introduced this idea by asking my students why we modern Americans consider our government sovereign.  I assumed that they’d respond that it’s because we elect the government, therefore delegating some of our authority to them so they can exercise it for our benefit.  I’d then point out that no members of Parliament were elected by American colonists, and we’d all have a handle on why the principle of Parliamentary taxation was so controversial in America.  Then I’d go home and pat myself on the back for drawing a stimulating analogy.

What happened was that my students stated pretty unanimously that we consent to the government’s dictates because the government has the ability to enforce compliance.  In other words, we do what the government tells us not because our electing them gives them authorization to pass laws, but because we’ll go to the federal pen if we don’t.  I hadn’t planned on that response, and it threw me off a little.

This semester I’m teaching an introductory course on American history, and a similar thing happened.  Contrasting the colonial and British forms of government with the one that emerged in the wake of the Revolution, I drew a distinction made by Gordon Wood in his important study of the Revolution as an act of political creation. 

New Yorkers celebrate America's independence by pulling down a statue of George III in 1776. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-1476.

England’s government incorporated different components of traditional European society; the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the commons were all represented in some fashion.  Americans, by contrast, came to understand that the only component of their society was the people.  Having severed their ties to the monarchy, Americans didn’t need an executive who represented the king’s interests, which is what the royally-appointed colonial governors were supposed to do.  And lacking an aristocracy, the Revolutionaries didn’t have to work out the relationship between a House of Lords and a House of Commons.  Everybody in America was a “common.”  The result was, as Wood argues, a new way of thinking about politics.  The government became the people’s creation.  The people were the only real source of sovereignty, and they temporarily delegated some of that sovereignty to the government, which would act in the people’s interest.

Again, I was surprised at my students’ response.  (Remember, this is a totally different group of students than the ones I discussed earlier.)  When I launched into my little spiel from Wood about the sovereignty of the people as a unique legacy of the Revolution, they snickered.  It was clear they didn’t think the American way of doing government still worked that way.  Not in practice, where the rubber actually meets the road.

So here I had two different groups of students, composed of very different individuals, at different times, and they all agreed that the American notion of government by and for the people was nothing more than a warm and fuzzy fiction.  Every student in both of these classes seemed to believe it, whether Republican or Democrat.  It had nothing to do with who was actually in power, or which party the individual students wanted to be in power.  It was just an eternal truth of politics, as inexorable as the changing of the seasons.

On one hand, there’s some obvious continuity here with the political ideas of the Revolutionaries.  Eighteenth-century Americans responded to British taxation with horror partly because they mistrusted power and the people who wielded it.  They saw political power as something inherently dangerous and invasive, and therefore you had to watch the powerful like a hawk.

On the other hand, this attitude is quite different from that of the Revolutionary generation.  The Revolutionaries’ mistrust of power was fundamentally active.  They didn’t just harbor suspicions about authority; they moved to rectify any occasions when they believed the imperial authorities had overstepped their bounds.  Their mistrust of government led them toward political engagement.  It seems to me that this more modern form of mistrust has the opposite effect.  It leads to passivity.  All those bums in power are going to look after themselves, and they’re not like us, so we’ll keep our heads down and hope they keep the damage to a minimum.

The ironic thing is that the generation that created our American notion of a government of the people were born into a world that was far less democratic than our own.  Their parents and grandparents took it for granted that all men weren’t created equal, and that the uncommon few had more business being in control than anybody else.  And yet they were evidently more optimistic about the potential of representative government than we are today, having enjoyed its benefits for over two centuries.  I’m not saying my students’ negative view of modern America is either right or wrong.  I am saying that it seems a shame to start assuming that we’ve just gone back full circle to the world the Revolutionaries left behind.

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Too much scope can be a bad thing

I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to teach both specialized, upper-level college courses and introductory survey courses, and I’ve long maintained that doing the latter is much, much more challenging than doing the former.  For one thing, in a survey class you’re going to be covering material that’s outside your comfort zone.  For another, each student in a required general studies course will have his or her own levels of familiarity with history, depending on background, educational experience, and aptitude.

To me, though, the hardest thing about teaching survey courses is the sheer amount of material covered and the speed at which you have to do so.  Your standard World History II course will encompass five centuries.  This semester I’m teaching a section of World History I, which whirls through several millennia, from the origin of man to the Renaissance—all in just a few months.

This approach invariably means that you have to make serious sacrifices in terms of content.  Nobody can responsibly cover everything in the survey textbooks in the short time allowed, and the textbooks themselves often reduce complex issues down to the barest minimum, simply out of sheer necessity. Last semester I taught the second half of World History using the fourth edition of Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past, by Jerry H. Bentley and Herbert F. Ziegler.  In terms of similar books, I think it holds up pretty well. 

Yet it does what so many textbooks have to do, which is boil things down to the point where there isn’t much left.  The entire American Revolution takes up a mere three pages.  The war itself is wrapped up in two paragraphs:

     It was one thing to declare independence, but a different matter altogether to make independence a reality.  At the beginning of the war for independence, Britain enjoyed many advantages over the rebels: a strong government with clear lines of authority [I wonder if Burgoyne and Howe would agree!], the most powerful navy in the world, a competent army, and a sizable population of loyalists in the colonies.  But to wage a war in a distant land full of opponents, Britain had to ship supplies and reinforcements across a stormy ocean.  Meanwhile, the rebels benefited from the military and economic support of European states that were eager to chip away at British hegemony in the Atlantic Ocean basin: France, Spain, the Netherlands, and several German principalities contributed to the American quest for independence.  Moreover, George Washington (1732-1799) provided strong and imaginative military leadership for the colonial army while local militias employed guerilla tactics effectively against British forces.

     By 1780 all combatants were weary of the conflict.  In the final military confrontation of the war, American and French forces under the command of George Washington surrounded the British forces of Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia.  After a twenty-day siege, the British forces surrendered in October 1781, and major military hostilities ceased from that point forward.  In September 1783 diplomats concluded the Peace of Paris, by which the British government formally recognized American independence.

And there you have it.  On to the French Revolution!

Of course, I’m being more than a little unfair here; I doubt anyone could adequately handle this material in so little space.  And when I set up my lectures, I was able to devote only about half an hour to the American Revolution.  There was simply so much to cover.  That’s why I’ve started to wonder whether the World History survey course is too unwieldy for its own good.

I understand the purpose of replacing Western Civ or American History classes with World History courses.  The world isn’t as big as it used to be, and college graduates can’t afford to be as parochialas their parents and grandparents. 

There comes a point, though, where inclusivity stretches a class so thin that it snaps.  Consider that history is one of the few disciplines that tries to cram an overview of its entire body of knowledge into two semesters.  “World History” pretty much equates to everything that’s ever happened.  It’s equivalent to having “Science I” and “Science II,” instead of breaking first-year science courses up into different sub-disciplines (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.), which is the standard practice.

There is, of course, a very important role for international history, utilizing a comparative approach to politics, religion, and so forth across various times and places.  But in terms of an introductory survey class, I think aiming for “the world”  is casting the net too wide.  Maybe we should emulate the sciences and pare down our introductory classes into manageable subjects.

This will undoubtedly mean that non-history majors will graduate with a narrower perspective on history than they would by taking a World History course.  I think, though, that the benefits would more than compensate for this loss.  Students taking survey classes so rarely get to do history, to take the time to examine contradictory explanations for things and sort them out, to become comfortable enough in a subject to poke around in the corners and see what’s there.  So many people see history as a set of facts to be learned, rather than a means to arrive at an understanding, and it’s little wonder.  Only history majors get to experience the thrill of learning to think historically and do what historians do.

I’m sure there are many instructors teaching World History surveys who are able to engage students in thinking historically, and who take the time to make the subject come alive; I was lucky to have such instructors.  But I’m also pretty sure that many of them do it by sacrificing the comprehensive approach.  They do in the classroom what we might want to start doing in our course catalogs, sacrificing some breadth for depth.  The guy driving a speedboat covers more territory than the guy wearing fins and a snorkel, but he doesn’t get to see much, except for the waves.  Deciding when and how often to stop the boat will be one of the toughest decisions instructors make this semester, and one of the most important.

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My report card

Last night I finished grading final exams, averaged all my scores, and posted my final grades.  But I’ve still got one more grade to assign, and that’s for me.  Here’s how I’d evaluate my performance as an instructor over the past semester.

  • I desperately need to be more of a tyrant.  I included the standard dire warnings in my syllabi about the possible consequences of frequent absences and late work, but I was too much of a softie to follow through with the cold, indifferent, retributive sense of justice that these things require.  Next fall, it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy, or at least Mr. Not Quite as Nice as I Have Been.
  • My love-hate relationship with PowerPoint is a continual source of irritation.  Students tell me they like it.  To me, it’s a considerable pain in the hindquarters.  As a simple and effective way to include the necessary maps, illustrations, and key terms, it’s fine.  But one needs to know where to draw the line.  Slides are for things you can’t convey by speaking.  Everything else should be in my lecture outlines and in the students’ notes, not up on some screen where it’s reduced to simplistic bullet points and sentence fragments.  It makes your class meetings too inflexible, reduces spontaneous interaction with students, and tends to lead to less effective listening.  They’re so intent on copyng down the information from those blasted slides that they don’t actually hear what you’re saying.  No more outline slides next time.
  • Apparently I’m very loud.  Everybody in my family is, so I come by it honestly.  My volume was a subject of conversation when I ate lunch with a couple of friends yesterday.  One of them took a class across the hall from where I’ve been teaching World History II.  The intervening distance and two closed doors failed to keep his class from being subjected to my oratorical projections.  He gave me a taste of what it’s been like.  “TODAY I’M GOING TO TELL YOU ABOUT GANDHI,” he bellowed across the table.  Perhaps I need to make an adjustment.
  • What do you do to improve retention in your survey courses?  I’m becoming convinced that you include more of the fluff that no self-respecting historian wants cluttering up his work.  Anecdotes and human-interest stories aren’t just ways to liven things up.  They’re also handles that students can get their hands around and hang onto.
  • On a related note, I’ve been trying too hard to be comprehensive.  You can explain imperialism just as well by looking at India, Africa, and Latin America as you can by hitting all three of those along with the Pacific Islands, Central Asia, Indochina, etc.  My new motto is going to be “depth, not breadth.”
  • For a long time I’ve wanted to design a course on the American Revolution.  This semester I finally did it, and there’s a lot that I’ll do differently next time.  I need to spend more time on constitution-making in the states and on administrative issues in the Congress at an earlier point in the course, as a way of establishing a more thorough context for the push toward a stronger national government in the 1780′s.  I think my use of Middlekauff’s Glorious Cause as a core text caused me to make the class too narrative-driven.

In all honesty, I think I’d probably give myself a C+, or possibly a generous B- for this semester.  I got the job done, but I’m still far short of the history profs I had who got me interested in this stuff in the first place.

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Pithy insights from outside

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m teaching an elective course on the American Revolution for non-history majors this semester.

Last night we discussed the taxation controversies of the 1760′s.  We spent a lot of time on eighteenth-century notions of power and liberty, the fact that the colonists were  predisposed them to see conspiracies and tyrannical plots with every exertion of government authority, and the violent response to the Stamp Act.  I wrapped things up by explaining that although Parliament repealed the act in 1766, they also explicitly asserted their sovereignty over America, and mentioned that at our next meeting we’d explore the controversial measures Parliament employed after the repeal.

I noticed that one girl in the class was shaking her head, a puzzled expression on her face.  When I asked her if she was confused about something, she said, “That’s just stupid.”

“What is?” I asked.

“That they just kept doing the same thing when everybody got so mad about it the first time.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is just about the best and most concise summary of British imperial policy in the 1760′s that I’ve ever heard.

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Teaching and Technology: The Rise of the Machines

I’m not an especially big fan of TV, and there are only a handful of shows I watch on a regular basis.  One is the original “Law & Order,” which I enjoy because it’s very story-driven.  One of my new favorites is “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” based on the film franchise in which a homicidal computer system uses cyborg assassins to carry out its plan to destroy mankind with nuclear weapons.  I have yet to miss an episode.  Three aspects of this show particularly appeal to me.  One is the fact that I love the original movies.  Another is Summer Glau, the highly attractive young lady who plays a re-programmed cyborg working for the human resistance.  Third, the dominant machine theme resonates with a dilemma facing those of us teaching in college classrooms nowadays.

When I started teaching college courses, the only gizmos I used were a dry-erase marker and an overhead projector for the occasional map or photograph.  It was a flexible system that worked pretty well.

Later I attended a faculty conference in which an outside speaker assured us that our students had the attention spans of small terriers, and that if we wanted them to understand and relate to the material, we had flipping well better start talking to them on their level.  (I should have been more skeptical when the sound unexpectedly kicked in during his PowerPoint presentation, scaring the living daylights out of his audience and causing him to leap two feet into the air.)  So when I had one class that was struggling with a survey course, I started creating PowerPoint presentations for each session, which I projected on a screen during class and posted before each meeting on a course website.  My lectures, bound as they now were to bulleted lists and images, became disjointed and shallow, a recitation of Greatest Hits of World Civilization since 1500.  The students, meanwhile, stopped assimilating the material into good, thorough notes.  Some of their grades actually got worse.

Now that I’m back in the classroom, I’m faced with the technology dilemma again.  Here are the conclusions I’ve arrived at so far:

1) I’m not at all opposed to having classrooms loaded with instructional aids.  Far from it.  The more in each room, the easier our jobs become.  There are times when pictures, maps, film clips, and sound not only enhance a lecture, but are necessary in order to fully grasp the material.  If the best way to incorporate these elements is to embed them into a PowerPoint slide, then so be it.  If classrooms offer us the flexibility to choose between a computer port, a document camera, and an old-fashioned marker board, then so much the better.  The content should determine the medium, not the other way around.  The more options instructors have available, the more effective they’ll be in the classroom.

2) The biggest obstacle to utilizing technology in the classroom is generally not the instructor, but the classroom itself.  We’ll gladly use what’s provided, but lugging your own projector to every class and hooking it up gets a little old.  The fact that facilities sometimes differ across the same campus makes the problem even more vexing.  What do you do when one of your classes is in the glorious new building equipped with screens and computer ports, but your other class meets in the antiquated building across campus?  Do you take it when you can get it, or do you try to keep your classes consistent?  It’s extremely difficult to prepare for your classes when each one requires a different methodology: PowerPoint for your Monday class in the new building, handouts for your Tuesday class in the old building, etc.

3) I believe we should all think twice before converting our lectures into PowerPoint presentations just because it’s the hip thing to do.  Some material is very ill-suited to the cookie-cutter, headline, bulleted list format of a computer slideshow.  History, for example, is complex, subtle, and interpretive.  I lecture from an outline that I keep before me on a lectern, but any student who simply copied that outline would be no more prepared for an exam than a visitor to a stadium would be prepared to relate the ebb and flow of a baseball game simply by copying the numbers off the scoreboard.

4) As instructors, we owe our students the most comprehensive, clear, and effective presentations we can prepare.  We don’t owe them fifteen weeks of non-stop entertainment.  We should keep their interest and stimulate them, but at the end of the day, learning takes work.  One of the purposes of a college education is learning how to think.  It takes a well-rounded, well-informed individual to function as an adult in the real world.

So-called “smart classrooms” are wonderful.  Let’s use them wisely, lest our smart classrooms churn out dumber and dumber college graduates.

(The nifty photo is from the Terminator Wiki.)

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Reading the Revolution

Next semester I might get the chance to design and teach a class on the American Revolution.  It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and I’ve had the assigned reading for a course like this worked out in my head for years.

My favorite one-volume history of the Revolution is Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause, part of the Oxford History of the United States.  An updated edition just came out a few years ago.  Comprehensive and readable, it’s the logical choice for the main textbook. 

I’d supplement that with Bernard Bailyn’s classic The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, or maybe just the first few chapters.  It’s a very important study that clarifies a lot of otherwise puzzling aspects of the period’s rhetoric.  I don’t want to focus on politics to the exclusion of military affairs, so Joseph Plumb Martin’s firsthand account of life in the Continental Army would be a good middle-of-the-semester read.  I’d love to assign Charles Royster’s magnificent A Revolutionary People at War, too; it’s one of my all-time favorites.  Of course, I’d probably have to pick a chapter or two in order to fit it in with everything else.  I’d wrap things up with Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, assigning a final paper asking students to assess the Revolution’s results in light of Wood’s arguments and the other material covered during the class. 

This class, though, will be aimed specifically at non-history majors who are interested in taking an upper-level U.S. history course for one of their required electives.  I don’t want to smother their enthusiasm with too much reading material.  The Glorious Cause is massive (the new edition is over 700 pages), so if I stick with it, I’ll probably have to jettison some of the supplemental readings.  I could abandon a main text altogether and rely entirely on chapters and excerpts, but as a student I much preferred the convenience of a short stack of assigned books to the hassle of downloading or copying a different assigned reading every week.  My problem is that all these books are very near and dear to my heart, so I’m faced with some agonizing choices.

It’s therefore time for a little audience participation.  Chime in with any suggestions you might have, but bear in mind that this class will cover political, military, and social aspects of the struggle for independence.

(My thanks to the always-handy Wikimedia Commons for the Trumbull painting of the surrender at Yorktown.)

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