“It’s Made Me a Very Proud German”

In this short video, Katharina Matro, a high school teacher who works in Maryland but grew up in Germany, reflects on the benefits of confronting hard truths about the national past. The video was recorded for the American Historical Association’s “Teaching History with Integrity” project.

Matro refers in this video to a great line in the 2020 memorial address by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the president of Germany: “This country can only be loved with a broken heart.”

French Summers in Austin in the Age of Abu Ghraib

The Rio Grande (downtown) campus of Austin Community College
Cropped from a 2014 photograph by Larry D. Moore (CC BY-SA 3.0)

When I recall my time in college almost two decades ago, I remember scenes and moods.

The prickling of my damp skin when I stepped into air-conditioned buildings in August in the Piney Woods. The odd thrill of sneaking into classrooms late at night to watch classic movies on the projector screens while student security guards turned a blind eye. Basking in the love of my new friends as I walked back to my dorm through pouring rain, which seemed to keep coming down throughout that October. But also the loneliness and impotent anger I felt as an antiwar student at an evangelical Christian college in Texas during the early 2000s. Then the exhaustion and euphoria that hit me in the middle of each week around 3 a.m. during the misbegotten semester when all seven of my classes met on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And then, as looming storm clouds forced the outdoor ceremony into the basketball arena on the day I finally graduated, feeling as happy, sad, confident, and scared as I’ve ever been, then sensing catharsis as the rain started while our new local congressman, Louie Gohmert, gave our commencement address.

A few days ago, I learned about the deaths of two people who defined two of my summers during those years.

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How to Study a History Textbook

In my work as a college teacher, students often ask for advice about how to study their textbooks. Since I keep offering the same advice, I thought I should write it here in case it’ll be useful to other students. I’ve asked some other college and high school teachers what advice they would offer, too.


Let’s be honest: Using history textbooks is hard.

By “textbook,” in this case, I don’t mean just any kind of history book. Sometimes instructors do ask you to read other kinds, and we may refer to all of them informally as textbooks. But in many of your courses, a textbook may be a special kind of oversized, expensive book, designed exclusively to be used for school. You’re probably never going to read a history textbook for fun. Often, you’ll have to take quizzes or exams based on it.

Now, a lot of history teachers today don’t assign this kind of textbook at all. But there’s a good chance yours does. And these books can be deceptively difficult to use. They’re supposed to be relatively easy to read. But if you’re trying to sit down and read one straight through, you’re likely to find it boring, overwhelming, or just impossible to follow.

Students tell me all the time that they’ve carefully read a textbook chapter, even studied it more than once, only to discover that they can hardly remember anything they’ve read. Or that they studied part of a textbook and thought they were ready for an exam, only to discover that the questions on the test were completely different from what they had expected.

These are common problems. So let me offer some advice from the perspective of history teachers.

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Things I’m Reading to Prepare for Fall

We’ve somehow reached that the point in the summer when I suddenly have just four to six weeks left to finish planning all my fall courses. That means I need to find my focus and motivation … fast.

Typically, for me, that means reading things that could fire the imagination, generating excitement about what’s possible in the upcoming semester. This week, I’ve queued up a few freely available publications—open resources that don’t require access to a library (or venturing out into the heat).

First, there’s The APA Guide to College Teaching: Essential Tools and Techniques Based on Psychological Science (PDF), published in 2020 by the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Associate and Baccalaureate Education. (It was inspired by an earlier publication for K-12 teachers.) This 46-page report identifies 21 evidence-based principles for teachers working in higher education, pairing each principle with brief but specific advice.

For the sake of balance, though not necessarily contradiction, I’m also reading a brief appeal the English instructor John Schlueter wrote for the AAUP’s newsletter in 2019, called “In Search of What We Do”—together with a classic article that helped inspire it, Elliott Eisner’s 1983 essay on “The Art and Craft of Teaching.” Both of these texts warn against overly prescriptive and rationalistic (“teacher-proof”) theories of undergraduate education, which run the risk of making us forget that getting a college education is about liberating one’s imagination as a member of specific and dynamic communities of students.

Next, to assist with my effort to do a better job helping burned-out COVID-era students identify the importance and relevance of history—and perhaps also to teach U.S. history more persuasively in the current political climate—I’m studying the American Historical Association’s 2021 report History, the Past, and Public Culture: Results from a National Survey (PDF). This 112-page publication offers very detailed information for thinking with, as well as a series of ten summary statements on the “challenges and opportunities” the data reveal.

I’m also revisiting a great article by Kimberly D. Tanner, “Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity,” which was published in CBE Life Sciences Education in 2013. Why am I reading an article for biologists? Because it’s applicable to any undergraduate course. Tanner’s article is an especially clear and well-organized discussion of basic challenges and almost two dozen practical techniques for encouraging participation from students who otherwise might be left out.

Finally, because I’m teaching at two Catholic colleges again this fall, I’m rereading a 1993 educational statement released by the Society of Jesus: “Ignatian Pedagogy: A Practical Approach” (PDF). Most history teachers, of course, don’t need to worry about the specific theological commitments than animate this text. But the Jesuit order has a 500-year tradition of conceptualizing education as an imaginative, reflective, and aesthetic enterprise that prepares learners to become leaders in the world. Though not a Catholic myself, I always find this text energizing.

History’s Half-Finished Sentences

The heroes of history are so decked out by the fine fancy of the professed historian; they talk in such measured prose, and act from such sublime or such diabolical motives, that few have sufficient taste, wickedness, or heroism, to sympathise in their fate. Besides, there is much uncertainty even in the best authenticated ancient or modern histories; and that love of truth, which in some minds is innate and immutable, necessarily leads to a love of secret memoirs and private anecdotes.

We cannot judge either of the feelings or of the characters of men with perfect accuracy, from their actions or their appearance in public; it is from their careless conversations, their half-finished sentences, that we may hope with the greatest probability of success to discover their real character.

— Maria Edgeworth, author’s preface to Castle Rackrent, 1800 (paragraph break added for clarity)

Dial 988 for Help

Blue-and-white logo for the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline

I’m excited about this development, which (so far) seems to have gotten less publicity than one might expect. Starting today, 988 is a new nationwide telephone number for free mental health crisis support in the United States.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) has been rebranded as the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. You can reach your nearest crisis center by calling or texting the new three-digit number, 24 hours a day. You don’t have to be thinking about suicide to use this service, and you can call if you’re trying to help someone else, too.

The lifeline fielded 2.6 million calls in 2021.

Update: Some activists have pointed out that 988 operators may sometimes send emergency services—including police officers—to a caller’s location against their wishes. Perversely, this practice may itself endanger lives, trigger mental health crises, and result in involuntary confinement or criminalization of people seeking help.

From what I can tell, the 988 system, unlike 911, does not yet have access to precise geolocation technology. However, the 988 Lifeline’s FAQ says that “currently, a small percentage of Lifeline calls require activation of the 911 system when there is imminent risk to someone’s life that cannot be reduced during the Lifeline call. In these cases, the crisis counselor shares information with 911 that is crucial to saving the caller’s life. … Currently, fewer than 2% of Lifeline calls require connection to emergency services like 911.”

Sadly, this may be important information for using the 988 Lifeline safely.

“Inherently Corrupt and Possibly Unsalvageable”

I want to talk about two pieces of writing that have appeared online in the last few days. Both focus on the role Thomas Jefferson should play in the way we imagine American history.

One article comes from a very thoughtful historian who wants U.S. history to have something to offer everyone in America. The other is a thinly veiled racist conspiracy theory.

I think talking about them together could be illuminating.


First, in the new issue of the Hedgehog Review, Johann Neem, a historian of education, expresses concern about what he calls “post-American” narratives of United States history. An immigrant from India, Neem discusses his fear that contemporary educators are being drawn to historical narratives denying that American heritage, in anything like its traditional form, can belong to everyone.

Another way of putting this, I suppose, is that Neem takes up the question of whether it’s still appropriate to teach the history—a single inclusive history, handed down from prior generations—of a united American nation. Perversely, Neem argues, some educators may be (accidentally) joining forces with white supremacists by claiming that America has only ever been, and thus can only be, a white nation.

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When Students Change Each Other’s Minds, It’s Called Friendship

This weekend, the political scientist Yascha Mounk posed a provocative question on Twitter: “What are the top things universities could do to encourage a culture of free debate and inquiry, not just in the classroom but also in dorms and dining halls?”

(Judging by the context, this question may have been prompted in part by a new “campus expression” report from Heterodox Academy. I discussed the problems with a previous report from the same alarmist study in March 2021.)

Here’s the thing: Because my academic work centers on teaching first-year college students, I ponder issues like this a lot, and I believe Mounk is on the wrong trail.

The thing most people asking this question are actually probing for? It’s not debate. It’s friendship.

Setting aside the intellectual shifts that can happen just because of spending time around new kinds of people, when extracurricular life changes minds, it’s typically because students are forming real friendships, in which important conversations happen organically—not because of a “culture of free debate.”

All those people who wistfully remember (or wish they remember) late nights in each other’s dorm rooms, talking excitedly about the problems of the world? The experience they’re describing is friendship.

When a conversation about something you’re reading or discussing in class spills out into the dining hall, the quad, or the apartment? Why, yes, I do believe you’ve been making friends.

The folks you aren’t afraid of offending when you say something unpopular that needs to be said? They’re either strangers you don’t expect to hang around anyway, acquaintances you’ve already given up on, or, crucially, friends who will trust you enough to listen to what you’re saying.

People who will, in the middle of a busy life, actually sit still while you carefully identify your premises and show why you think they lead to a controversial conclusion? They’re almost certainly people who care about you as a person.

And when you keep having the same argument with the same person over and over, not because you love degrading yourself but because you’re subtly shifting each other’s views over time? “As iron sharpens iron,” you’re honing the mind of your—what’s that word the proverb uses?—oh, that’s right—your friend.

The contemporary world is full of free debate and inquiry. We’re drowning in it. Public faith in democracy—and in the value of debate—is dying from it. When we’ve got the entire Internet at our disposal, a culture of free debate and inquiry is the least exceptional thing college can offer.

What intellectually curious people really want from college is friendship. The kind that can change the mind as well as heal the spirit.

This same weekend, the culture critic Touré posed another observation on Twitter that I believe is directly related to the fears our intellectuals express about college students: “After 35 it’s easier to get a new spouse than it is to get a new close friend.”

Now, I’m not sure that’s literally true, but the anguish it expresses is recognizable.

And I suspect—though of course, I can’t prove—that when aging college graduates like Yascha Mounk, my fellow geriatric millennial, bemoan the supposed intolerance of today’s young people, it often has a lot to do with how increasingly elusive that kind of friendship seems to us.

A Conversation About Pedagogy

Today, Danny Anderson, who teaches English at Mount Aloysius College in central Pennsylvania, invited me onto his Sectarian Review podcast, a wide-ranging religious humanities program, to talk about an essay I wrote here last year, “The Conservatism of My Teaching: Seven Elements.”

Our conversation went in a lot of different directions and covered a number of controversial topics. I can only hope I treated the positions of all my colleagues fairly, given the constraints of the medium and my typical shortcomings as an extemporaneous speaker. We certainly didn’t exhaust any of the topics we discussed.

Later in the interview, I talked about two articles from the March 2022 issue of the Journal of American History: “Meet Me in the Classroom,” by Olga Koulisis, and “Historical Thinking and the Democratic Mind,” by Lindsay Stallones Marshall and John R. Gram. I tried to explain why I lean toward Koulisis’s position, but both of these essays are rewarding.