Tag Archives: 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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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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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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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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