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.

The Joy of Truth

As the summer begins, I’ve been fighting off a predictable cycle of postseason depression by enjoying a great new book about a different vocation. The book is The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act, by the dramatist Isaac Butler (Bloomsbury, 2022). My public library was kind enough to order a copy and reserve it for me.

Why is this book doing so much to cheer me up? Because it’s about a multigenerational group of people who dedicated themselves to figuring out how to tell truer stories—how to develop more vivid, more authentic, and more meaningful experiences for audiences watching the stage and screen.

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When Lies About CRT Spill Over

Yesterday, a young racist attacked a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, shooting thirteen people in a targeted attack on an African American community.

Ben Collins, a reporter covering domestic extremism and disinformation for NBC News, has published an assessment of the accused Buffalo terrorist’s manifesto. (As a matter of principle, I will not name the accused terrorist or directly address his manifesto here.) The attack is part of a string of white-power terror attacks around the world and in the United States since 2018. But it has a couple of specific elements worth noting. According to Collins, the attack appears to be related to high school education in at least two ways.

First, the accused terrorist, who is now eighteen years old, “claims that he was radicalized on 4chan”—a known breeding ground for Internet extremists, including the earliest participants in the QAnon hoax—“while he was ‘bored’ at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.” Presumably, that would be the period when his high school was closed for in-person instruction.

Second, the accused terrorist “claims ‘critical race theory,’ a recent right-wing talking point that has come to generally encompass teaching about race in school, is part of a Jewish plot, and a reason to justify mass killings of Jews.”

Assuming the manifesto is authentic, as it appears to be, this is how paranoia and political lies spill over.

Xenophobia, treated as a useful tool and amusing plaything by cynical politicians and media personalities, finds new targets, over and over again. That’s its job. But people who know better will continue finding excuses for it.

The Myth of the Rashōmon Effect: A Film Misremembered

If you’ve spent much time thinking about narrative, or about truth-telling in general, you have probably encountered the word Rashōmon.

Cover of the Criterion Collection Blu-ray for the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon.

The 1950 film by that name, directed by Kurosawa Akira, made a deep impression on American storytellers and critics. Not only has it been credited with “effectively opening the world of Japanese cinema to the West,” in the words of Roger Ebert. Its title also has given us an irreplaceable metaphor in English: the Rashōmon effect.”

Unfortunately, most Americans’ impression of this film is wrong. It contradicts both the details and the argument of Kurosawa’s movie. (Yes, I appreciate the irony.)

The movie definitely has an argument. The director said so. And the film itself isn’t exactly subtle about it. Of course, viewers should form their own opinions about any work of art, and anyone who tries to tell true stories—including a history teacher—may benefit from watching Kurosawa’s classic film for themselves. But if you do that, I recommend trying to experience it without the preconceptions that American popular culture has grafted onto it.

You may find, as I did, that this great work of art speaks to you in ways we have not been led to expect.

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Space for Thinking, Space for Acting

Campuses are complicated spaces, because they aren’t just one kind of space: There’s the classroom, the dorm, the public space that is the campus. Then there’s what we could call clubs, support centers—identity based or based on social categories or political interests. It’s a terrible mistake to confuse all of these and imagine that the classroom or the public space of the campus is the same as your home. …

Academic freedom needs to be appreciated as a collective right of the faculty to be free of interference in determining what we research and teach. We’re accountable to our disciplines, our peers. We can’t just do anything and have it called quality scholarship or teaching. But the idea of academic freedom is that we are free of external interference. Free speech is different. It’s an individual right for the civic and public sphere. It’s not about research and teaching. It’s not even about the classroom. It’s what you can say in public without infringement by others or the state. ….

[I]f we just focus on this generation’s political style—and we have to remember youth style always aggravates the elders—we ignore their rage at the world they’ve inherited, and their desperation for a more livable and just one, and their critique of our complacency. That is part of what is going on in the streets and on our campuses. But that remains different from educating that rage and helping young people learn not just the deep histories but even the contemporary practices that will make them more powerful thinkers and actors in this world. If they’re right about our complacency, what we still have to offer is knowledge and instruction and some space in a classroom to think.

Wendy Brown, interviewed in “Why Critics of Angry Woke College Kids Are Missing the Point,” New York Times Magazine, May 1, 2022

Celebrating an Award

Today I had the honor of receiving a Presidential Teaching Award from the De La Salle Institute for Teaching and Learning (DLSI). This recognition is given annually to one part-time and one full-time faculty member at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

Part-time faculty members are eligible to receive the award after teaching at the university for at least five semesters. Other criteria include a record of “enthusiastic engagement with students,” “incorporation of key elements of Lasallian pedagogy,” or innovation in “pedagogical methods that are intellectually rigorous, creative, engaging, and accessible.” The final decision of whom to honor is made by the university president, guided by the recommendation of a faculty advisory panel from across the university.


I was invited to offer brief remarks at the faculty awards event. So I delivered some thoughts that I hope went something like this:

Jonathan W. Wilson, speaking from a lectern at an event at La Salle University. Photograph courtesy of La Salle University Office of Marketing and Communication.
Photograph by Dan Nguyen, La Salle University

In 2022, a lot of us—educators at all levels—have the sense that we’re working in a time of general professional crisis. It’s a time of anxiety for us, and it’s certainly a time of anxiety for our students. The pandemic is only one part of it. Many of us now wonder whether our work is sustainable at all.

Three hundred forty years ago, it was in another time of general upheaval that Jean-Baptiste de La Salle established the Brothers of the Christian Schools. During that crisis, poor and working-class children in France needed better access to basic education, but teaching them was a badly regarded—and poorly compensated—line of work. La Salle’s solution, ironically, was to embrace poverty and humility.

That’s what the Lasallian watchwords “together and by association” meant in the seventeenth century. The teachers of La Salle’s order were supposed to live in solidary with each other and with their students. La Salle himself gave up both a personal fortune and excellent prospects of advancement through the ranks of the Catholic clergy. The trade was for a sense of meaning: deprivation now, but the confidence, shared with others, that your work had a higher, long-term value.

Today, one of the things that sustains me as a teacher, despite the insecurity of our time, is getting to participate in the long Lasallian tradition. I draw strength from its unusually vehement insistence that, in spite of everything, we don’t work alone, and our work has a long-term purpose. That’s why this particular form of recognition means so much to me.

If Neutral History Existed, No One Would Read It

The myth of neutral history is just that: a myth. If it actually existed, no one would want to read it. Every historian brings to their subject-matter a raft of experience, opinions, attitudes and assumptions that inform their perceptions, and influence both the issues they find interesting, and the questions they bring to their material. History is an attempt to discern the patterns that underlie the surviving traces of the past, not a bloodless chronicle of patternless events, and the interpretation of the records of the past demands personal gifts like imagination and empathy. 

—Eamon Duffy, “‘The Stripping of the Altars,’ 30 Years On,” abridged introduction to the new edition, Catholic Herald, March 30, 2022

My Audiovisual Semester: Using Media in U.S. History II

Renovating my U.S. history course this spring, I added audiovisual primary sources to many class periods that didn’t use them before. Here’s a complete annotated list of the film and audio clips I have presented this semester, should they be useful to anyone else.

In most cases, these clips (or excerpts from them) served as bases for class discussions. A few of these clips, however, were merely illustrative of points I made myself in a lecture.


Gilded Age, Progressive Era, and World War I

“Sky Scrapers of New York City, from the North River” (1903)

This Edison film is simple: It depicts the Manhattan waterfront from the perspective of a boat floating down the Hudson River. I played it before and at the beginning of class in order to convey some sense of the texture of American cities in the Gilded Age.

“A Trip Down Market Street before the Fire” (1906)

This film shows a teeming San Francisco street in the early 20th century from the perspective of a motion picture camera mounted on the front of a streetcar. The scene is chaotic and potentially frightening; pedestrians, horse-drawn vehicles, automobiles, and streetcars share the road without any traffic controls at all. For years, I have invited students to discuss this scene as a way to understand Progressive reformers’ desire for new structures of urban order and rationality.

“Why the Trusts and Bosses Oppose the Progressive Party” (1912)

Here, in his own voice, Theodore Roosevelt explains what Progressivism means to him—as a political movement that he believes he leads. The clip provides some insight into Roosevelt’s character as well as into the political era.

“The Third Liberty Loan” (1918)

Richard Augustus Purdy, a New York banker and dramatist known for his Shakespearean lectures and readings, delivers a speech as one of the “Four Minute Men” who whipped up public support for American involvement in the First World War.


Jazz Age, Great Depression, and World War II

“Billy Sunday Burns Up the Backsliding World” (ca. 1926)

This British Pathé newsreel gives a great sense of both the electrifying effect of a Billy Sunday sermon from the 1920s and also the ways spiritual, social, and economic issues intersected in the early fundamentalist imagination.

“Happy Days Are Here Again” (ca. 1930)

Annette Hanshaw’s version of the Franklin D. Roosevelt campaign song, from the film Chasing Rainbows, recorded under the name Gay Ellis.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first Fireside Chat (1933)

A thirteen-minute explanation of the U.S. banking system and the initial steps Roosevelt’s new administration took to address the financial crisis. I played approximately the first 90 seconds in class.

Continue reading “My Audiovisual Semester: Using Media in U.S. History II”

How Footnotes Work: A Scavenger Hunt

The first page of Steven Watts's article "Walt Disney: Art and Politics in the American Century."

Following up the small group activity I described last week (“Reverse-Engineering a Scholarly Article”), I developed a similar classroom exercise this week. The new activity was a “scavenger hunt” designed to help the same students become more comfortable using footnotes.

(I’m asking this class to use footnotes to cite the sources in their final projects, and I was aware that some students had very limited exposure to this form of scholarly architecture.)

I based the activity on Steven Watts’s article “Walt Disney: Art and Politics in the American Century,” which was published in 1995 in the Journal of American History.

I printed enough copies of Watts’s article for each student to have one—but with a catch. Each student would have only part of the article. They would have to pair up to compare their versions. Some students got “Version A,” which included the first half of the main body of the article. Others got “Version B,” which included the second half. Both versions included the introduction and conclusion.

This was my way to make sure the activity would involve plenty of interaction.

Continue reading “How Footnotes Work: A Scavenger Hunt”