Designing a Course on the Roots of the Modern World

Amid the general disruption, a university has hired me to teach my first fully online history course this autumn: an introductory-level undergraduate survey called Roots of the Modern World. This is a course I’ve taught once before, about three years ago, in a traditional face-to-face setting. I will be redesigning it mostly from scratch.

As usual, the opportunity to design a course is very exciting. But this course presents some special conceptual challenges.

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75 Years of “Inner Liberation”

steinmeier-endofwwii

Today marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of V-E Day, when German armed forces surrendered, ending World War II in Europe. Public celebrations in various countries have been dampened by the pandemic.

You should definitely take fifteen minutes of your day to listen to this extraordinary address (dubbed in English) by Germany’s current president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

We had made enemies of the entire world. Today, seventy-five years later, we are forced to commemorate alone. But the difference is, we are no longer alone. And that is the happy truth of the present day. …

It has taken us three generations to admit it whole-heartedly. 8 May 1945 was indeed a day of liberation. But at the same time, the vast majority of Germans did not perceive it as such. … This country had descended too far into the evil and the guilt. …

It is a struggle, though, that continues to this day. A remembrance can never end. There can be no deliverance from our past. For without remembrance, we lose our future. …

This country can only be loved with a broken heart.

Watch the whole speech here.

(Update: The advance text of the speech is available in various languages directly from the Bundespräsident’s office.)

The Liberal Arts, the People, and the Pandemic

coronavirus-collegecampus

When the COVID-19 emergency began, a strange thing happened in U.S. public opinion. For weeks, bizarrely, acknowledging the emergency’s existence meant taking sides on a partisan issue.[1] But something else has divided public opinion, too.

Cutting across partisan differences is the ability to conceptualize the emergency. That means not only grasping some very basic medical science, but also understanding how it relates to our economic and legal systems, our demographics, our psychology, and our moral responsibilities.

The novel coronavirus has exploited and aggravated the fault lines in American society. Other than professional experts, the Americans who understand the crisis best—regardless of political ideology—are those who have a well-rounded imagination. They have not been limited to taking orders from political leaders, but have been able to act responsibly and creatively in the moment—making enormous sacrifices to do it.

The crisis, in other words, provides vivid lessons in the need for a comprehensive liberal arts education for ordinary citizens. By “liberal arts,” I mean not just training in certain disciplines, but rather a whole package of reasoning and imaginative skills. An integrated liberal arts education is important for citizens to live responsibly together during a crisis while maintaining their own personal freedom and respecting each other’s humanity.

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Help Students in the Crisis

If you’ve found Blue Book Diaries useful in the past, I’d like to make a special request. Could you spare $5 for La Salle University’s Student Emergency Fund?

La Salle, my current employer, is located in a poor part of Philadelphia. While dealing with serious financial challenges of its own, it serves many students from vulnerable populations. Many of them want to enter careers in nursing, social work, education, and other fields crucial to the resilience of their communities.

Without help, some of our students may not be able to complete their college degrees due to the COVID-19 emergency and its economic fallout. As I write this, Philadelphia is bracing to be hit hard by the pandemic.

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‘Demics, Two Weeks Later

Since I last wrote, a lot has changed, and a lot has become more clear.

First, virtually all of my friends working in schools and colleges are teaching remotely for the rest of the spring. It seems clear now that American higher education, as a whole, acted with admirable foresight in closing our campuses before public authorities recommended it, and indeed, in acting far more aggressively to protect our communities than officials advised at the time.

In fact, here in the United States, the federal response to this crisis has been disgraceful. Key politicians, including the president of the United States, have persisted in spreading blatant disinformation and delaying critical action for the sake of their own political benefit, endangering millions of extra lives and tens of millions of livelihoods. Theoretically apolitical federal agencies, notably the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have also failed dramatically. The CDC was caught unprepared for the pandemic despite weeks or even months of specific advance warnings. Its recommendations for educational institutions, until recently, appear to have been entirely wrongheaded, being based on a presumption of widespread testing of affected individuals and communities—testing that we all already knew wasn’t happening anywhere in the United States.

A largely preventable disaster is unfolding. It appears that many American leaders are determined to let the very worst happen. On the other hand, many state and local officials are rising to the occasion, and so are countless millions of ordinary people.

My students and I are scheduled to reconvene next week after an extra-long spring break and spend the rest of the semester working online. So far, my students appear to be rising to the occasion. I am moved by the sacrifices they have already made, and I’m determined not to waste their time or money as we complete our tasks.

I don’t know what the future holds. I do assume that some people I know will die in the next year. I also strongly suspect that the pandemic, which is likely to cause a global economic depression, will end my teaching career in higher education, which was always tenuous. But those are problems to address when they arise.

 

‘Demics

Desks in an empty classroom

This week, the nature of higher education in America changed, at least for the rest of the spring. Nobody knows what the long-term effects will be, or whether the choices our institutions have made will turn out to be worthwhile. Indeed, given the complexity of the situation, we may never get to be sure.

As recently as Monday morning, I could muse aloud that I had seen very little public discussion of the effects of spring break—when countless thousands of young Americans (and often their families) travel long distances at about the same time—on the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. Within hours, I could no longer say anything of the kind.

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American Narratives and Identities: Another Primary Source Activity

Last month, I wrote about how I used four primary sources—images and texts from revolutionary-era America—to introduce students to the concept of “cultural narratives” in my American studies course. Now I’d like to talk about another primary source discussion I found valuable this semester: one designed to shake up students’ mental picture of the United States at the end of the Revolution.

In 1783, around the time the American War was formally ending, the London publisher Carington Bowles released a “new map of North America and the West Indies” that attempted to capture the boundaries and larger context of the newly independent colonies. The Library of Congress has helpfully provided a high-resolution scan of the map, which has an almost alarming wealth of detail.

(To take an example at random: In what it considers western North Carolina, the map shows not only rivers and settlements but also notes about history and future prospects, labeling a “remainder of the Natchez allies of the English,” a putative location for the 17th-century Fort Prudhomme [“dest.”], and “a fit place for a [trading] factory.”)

1783mapofnorthamerica-caringtonbowles

In class, using the classroom computer and projector, I pulled up the map’s webpage.

Continue reading “American Narratives and Identities: Another Primary Source Activity”

History the Aggressor

gilbert-personalistphilosophyofhistoryFrom the recipient’s point of view, the past is intrusive. It can be soothing, but not for very long and only at the cost of ignoring its terrible misery and destruction. The history that presents us these quandaries is not merely a propaedeutic to metaphysics. We find that it is history the aggressor. Apart from our fantasies about history, we fight history. We fight over it, and we fight against its influence. In order to be inspired by it—that is, by what past actors have done—we have to fight a way through the difficulties of temporal distance, through the complexities of their circumstances, and through feelings about our own freedom or independence. In this sense, historical experience, whether it comes from disciplinary research or from other ways of engagement, is a battle. And, in turn, by battling with the past we intrude into it. Aggressor history rouses our counter-attack strategy of intrusion into the past. As much as we ‘love’ and enjoy history, it is absolutely necessary to realize that we fight its awful burden. It attacks with its puzzles and invades with its unending causality; we defend with research or data, we counter-attack with theory. The motive for those who hate history and reject the past is deep down close to the motive for those who study and cultivate it.

— Bennett Gilbert, A Personalist Philosophy of History (London and New York: Routledge, 2019), 28

The Power of PowerPoint

As you may recall, I’m a defender of PowerPoint, rightly used. Today I came across a highly entertaining classroom video from Tom Wildenhain, a computer science student at Carnegie Mellon, demonstrating just how much is happening underneath the hood of this program (with hints that there’s more to learn).

Great Impractical Ideas in Computer Science: PowerPoint Programming

Wildenhain’s lecture includes some theory for those who are interested, but mostly it comprises a series of captivating demonstrations, including one where an audience member asks a question that prompts a brand-new discovery. The video is 52 minutes long, and it’s simply charming. (via)

How Did You Learn to Tell Stories in the Classroom?

storyteller-tiepolo

This semester marks seven years since I taught the first college course of “my own”—being solely responsible for writing the syllabus, choosing all the readings, designing all the assignments, and planning all the lectures and activities. I was hired at the last minute. On the first day of class, I didn’t even have password access to the classroom computer yet. The bookstore was still selling my students books that somebody else had chosen, which I didn’t intend to use and didn’t have copies of anyway. I don’t think my university email address had been activated.

I’m not absolutely sure, though, because at this point, I barely remember anything about that semester except a general feeling of panic.

What I do know is that one of my biggest challenges was simply learning to narrate history in the classroom. This was crucial because—in a single-semester U.S. history survey course—my students wouldn’t have a traditional textbook to carry that burden outside of class. (And The American Yawp had yet to be written.) The course’s narrative of U.S. history, all of it, both in the overall course arc and in each topic we covered, had to subsist in whatever I could accomplish in the classroom or through short readings scavenged from different sources and posted online.

I had a fair amount of teaching experience, but almost nothing of that nature. I had never been a gifted storyteller in person. (Not even close!) And to my recollection, despite a fair amount of pedagogical development in graduate school, I had never been provided with any specific instruction or advice relevant to this situation.

That first course … probably wasn’t great.

Even if my last-minute hiring made the need unusually acute, I don’t think my situation then was unique. I can’t speak as much to the experiences of primary- or secondary-level educators, but my sense is that in college, many people trained to teach history (or trained in the many other academic disciplines that also teach historical topics) never get any training in the basic task of building a historical narrative in the classroom until they show up in their own classroom for the first time.

But I want to check whether my intuition is right.

If you’re willing to leave a generous comment on this post (or email me if you need to communicate privately), I’d like to know what your experiences have been as a teacher (primary, secondary, college, university, whatever)—in history or any other field where the need comes up.

  • Did you have any formal training in how to build a historical narrative in the classroom?
  • Is this a problem you’re still trying to solve for yourself?
  • Have you found any instruction books, online courses, etc., helpful?
  • What aspects of storytelling or narrative-focused course organization have been the most challenging for you?
  • If you are a naturally gifted storyteller, have you faced any challenges bringing this skill into an academic setting?

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Image: Detail from Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, The Storyteller, 1770s. Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas; via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.