To Teach in Narrative, Think in Scenes

When I started teaching history on my own—working from my own syllabus rather than assisting someone else—I was thrown into a college U.S. history course just a couple of weeks before the semester started. I was still a graduate student, though I had my master’s degree, and I was replacing another adjunct instructor at the last minute. (I would eventually get to meet her at a conference. She’s nice.) She had chosen a set of textbooks that I’d never heard of, much less seen, and I found the department’s description of the course bizarre.

When I walked into the classroom, which had broken desks and obvious water damage, I still didn’t have access to my university email account or the university library. For the first few days, I had to ask the department secretary to come unlock the classroom computer any time I planned to use it.

Did I mention this was going to be the first time I had ever taught my own solo course?

I won’t keep you in suspense: That semester did not end up being my best work.

As I somehow pieced together one lesson at a time, thrice a week for fifteen weeks, commuting an hour each direction by subway to teach a single class of thirty students, one of the things I had to figure out—since the assigned textbooks weren’t going to be usable—was how to communicate history all on my own, just standing there in the room. (The Internet back then had far fewer open resources for teaching U.S. history than it has now, and the idiosyncratic format of the course compounded the difficulty.)

I had to provide whatever basic structure the course was going to have, all by myself.

Now, my graduate training had prepared me to think about history analytically, through investigation of narrowly defined topics, and in college classrooms, I already had a lot of experience leading students through discussions of both primary and secondary sources. But I had no preparation for leading students through a narrative of U.S. history that I had constructed myself.

Theoretically, the obvious option—which a lot of education experts would recommend—was to downplay narrative altogether, proceeding topically and analytically. But I quickly discovered that this would be an entirely unviable approach for that course. Too many of my students lacked the basic contextualizing knowledge that would make it possible to have satisfying discussions of subjects from various points in U.S. history. They needed narrative, both on a large scale (to make specific topics and questions intelligible) and on a small scale (to hold their interest from minute to minute).

This meant, in effect, that my students had to teach me, or at least help me teach myself, how to communicate U.S. history as a story.

That semester, many mistakes were made.

The good thing about learning to teach under these circumstances—good for me in the long run, not good for the students I had at the time—was that every adjustment I made, every modification of my teaching approach, was a response to specific challenges in a real-life classroom. This environment organically nurtured the instincts and main principles that have guided my historytelling ever since.

There was one conceptual breakthrough, above all, that has proven critical. Today, I’m going to tell you what it is.

I had been trained to think about history, as I said, topically and analytically. In the classroom, this meant I had been trained, at least implicitly, to teach propositionally. Even though I tried to give priority to questions rather than answers—I knew at least that much about teaching!—everything I did at first centered on the need I felt to have my students eventually grasp history as true ideas or facts in the form of statements.

That doesn’t work.

There’s a you-can’t-get-there-from-here problem. Propositions, in general, only work for humans as statements about things; they don’t provide access to them. Students need some more direct form of access to those things in order to understand propositions about them.

When you teach propositionally, some students may well pick up the historical propositions you’re trying to get them to learn, but most won’t really understand them. Not unless you can reorient the early stages of their learning process away from statements and toward experiences.

Recently, I’ve been watching a Great Courses video series from Hannah B. Harvey, a storyteller who holds a Ph.D. in performance studies from UNC-Chapel Hill. This course probably has limited applicability to teaching history, but early in the series, Harvey does establish a version of what I discovered in the classroom: When you’re telling stories as a speaker, you aren’t reciting lines. You’re moving through a series of images.

In practice, I think of it as structuring a history lesson as a series of scenes.

Some scenes are establishing shots; you use them to sketch a time and place in which action will take place. Some scenes introduce characters (who don’t have to be human individuals). Some scenes consist of intense action sequences. Some are debates between characters—i.e., excuses for discussion among students. Some scenes are there as opportunities for important voiceover work from the narrator (i.e., you). Some scenes are little suspenseful puzzles for the viewer to solve. Some scenes are flashbacks or bits of foreshadowing or things taking place simultaneously in another place. Some scenes are actually intermissions, during which students can interact with each other. Some scenes are endings. Some scenes are new beginnings. The possibilities are as endless as the instructor’s creativity.

(If you’re using a slideshow—which is a practice I don’t condemn—an easy way to think about your lesson as a series of scenes is simply to use your slideshow as a storyboard.)

But doesn’t this approach assume that students are just there to be entertained by stories about individuals? Doesn’t it prioritize action and spectacle over meaning? Doesn’t it celebrate great men? Doesn’t it convey nationalistic myths? Doesn’t it turn you into a sage-on-the-stage? Isn’t this what the entire historical profession and the entire teaching profession oppose?

No. Because you’re in charge of setting up the scenes, and you’ve been trained to think differently from that.

You’re arranging scenes not for the sake of mere imaginative stimulation, or as an excuse to talk without interruption, but because those scenes are opportunities to set up questions, provoke thought, problematize settled ideas, contextualize familiar things, illustrate concepts, stage debates, and interrogate sources.

And, just as importantly, your students are compulsive meaning-making creatures. If you give them the right materials (and the right commentary and other appropriate academic stimuli), many of them will not only embrace the opportunity, but demand the right, to draw true historical meaning from the scenes you arrange.

I probably couldn’t have articulated any of this clearly during that first semester of teaching. But before many more semesters passed, I was doing this without even being conscious of it—because it worked.


Image: Detail from Louis-Léopold Boilly, A Painter’s Studio, oil on canvas, ca. 1800 (Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). Public domain.