American Narratives and Identities: A Primary Source Activity

For my new introductory course in American studies, which began last week, I wanted to explain the concept of American cultural narratives—a term fundamental to my framing of the course—through a discussion activity rather than a lecture. So for our second class meeting, I prepared a slate of four primary sources for us to examine together.

I wanted this discussion activity to establish (or begin establishing) several ideas at once:

  • Concepts of American national identity take the form of shared narratives.
  • Narratives of national identity and of personal identity are interrelated.
  • Contrasting, even contradictory, narratives of American identity are nothing new.
  • Narratives can be read in sources that do not appear to take the form of a story.

To make my argument for these ideas—or ideally to help my students make the argument on their own—I combined a simple slideshow of images and a stack of photocopy handouts. I entitled the slideshow “The Stories We Tell: Setting an Agenda for Study.”

In class, to set a scene, I explained that we were going to be visiting the era of the American Revolution today. In some cases, we would be focusing on the region around Philadelphia, the new (sometime) national capital, which also happens to be the city in which our course is happening in 2020.

Source 1: Winthrop Chandler, Homestead of General Timothy Ruggles, 1770

I wanted to begin with a source that might shake up preconceptions a bit, and which would require virtually no background historical knowledge.

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

Bleak Midwinter

beatabeatrix

Sunday night, the last of my grades went in, ending my autumn semester.

Back in September, I confessed to having a sense of slow-motion failure in these courses. That sense never disappeared. The semester had so many missed opportunities.

It had far worse evils, too. A young undergraduate on the same sports team as several of my students died the day before final exams began. At my other campus, a series of three student deaths by suicide made national news; one student died on the day after Thanksgiving. (As far as I know, my classes were not directly affected, but the news cast a shadow over the last weeks of the term.) One of my friends lost a grad-school friend to suicide.

And on December 12, another friend of mine, a professor only ten years older than I am, who had lived near me in Scranton, died of cancer. The end came just a few months after an apparent remission. It was not, if there is any such thing, an easy death. The news still hasn’t set in properly; I don’t quite understand what happened, and I’m not sure I ever will.

Continue reading “Bleak Midwinter”

Finding Good History Books: A Rough and Incomplete Guide for the Perplexed

a view of a bookstore sales area through a glass window

A friend recently asked me to recommend good history books for listening (on Audible). She’s outside of academia—a curious reader and homeschooling mother who has enough experience to be suspicious of what passes for history on the U.S. popular market. (“Perhaps what I also need,” she added, “is a list of which ‘historians’ not to read.”)

I thought it might be good—especially as the holiday season approaches—to expand on the advice I gave my friend, in hopes of helping other cautious readers, at least in the United States. Instead of naming specific titles or authors, I’ll recommend a method for doing research on one’s own.

Now, my recommendations are flawed at the outset. They’re flawed, first, because they are very conservative—if not in a political sense, then in the sense of playing things safe. You probably won’t find the most penetrating or controversial new interpretations of historical topics this way; my goal is to make it easy to identify books with mainstream recognition and wide respect among historians. These recommendations are also flawed because, quite frankly, there are countless magnificent works of history you’ll never find this way. And they’re flawed because they’re my recommendations, and other historians will give you different advice based on their experiences … and they’ll be right.

But I still think it’s worth offering this advice, if only because it’s advice I would have loved to have when I was a teenager sitting in a small-town public library, trying to figure out how to start studying history as an adult.

Continue reading “Finding Good History Books: A Rough and Incomplete Guide for the Perplexed”

The Keys of the Educated

A humble mind, eagerness to inquire, a quiet life, silent scrutiny, poverty, a foreign soil. These, for many, unlock the hidden places of learning.

—attr. Bernard of Chartres (11th-12th cen.)

This seems to have been a common saying in twelfth-century French university life. It is quoted in several places, including:

Hugh of St. Victor, The Didascalicon: A Medieval Guide to the Arts, trans. Jerome Taylor (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1961), 94, cf. 214n61.

Confession from a Time of Haste

whiterabbit-johntenniel-1890-detail

I can’t speak for my students, but this is a rough point in the semester for me. We’re deep enough into the autumn that the start-of-term excitement is over in all my courses. But we’re not far enough into the semester that any of the provocative large-scale arguments I’m making have come together yet. I haven’t seen many epiphanies in class.

Moreover, with two new preps outside my areas of specialty (for a total of four different courses), I don’t have much time for the routine preparation work that makes the most familiar courses run smoothly. Covering topics I should know very well, I’ve caught myself making sloppy errors, losing my train of thought in class, framing content in ineffective ways, and running out of time to cover everything I’ve promised. I’ve even called students by the wrong names and forgotten which homework readings I’ve assigned them.

The students whom I suspect this hurts the most are those undergraduates in my introductory survey courses who are the least knowledgeable or emotionally invested in history. This semester is not going to be one of my best, I think, where they are concerned. That makes me deeply ashamed.

I have been through such moments before, however, and I know this one will pass. Many students will do well. (Actually, I think very highly of my students this semester, though I usually say that.) And the confusion and angst I’m feeling are a sign of growth. They reflect time spent on new subjects and skills, and in some cases, they also reflect the risks I’ve taken in trying new approaches with uncertain results.

I’m recording this not to complain (or to parade my shortcomings before an audience), but to remember. I want to write down that this is part of teaching, too.

_______________

Image:  Detail of John Tenniel, “The White Rabbit,” illustration in Lewis Carroll, The Nursery Alice (London: Macmillan & Co., 1890), courtesy of the British Library. Public domain.

 

Narrative Methods: Finding Suspense Points

Henri Augustin Gambard, La maladie d'Alexandre, 1846. Public domain. La Salle University Art Museum.

When I started teaching history, I had to figure out quickly how to turn narrative-shaped factual information into interesting true stories for the classroom. One of the most powerful tools I discovered was what (borrowing a term from other disciplines) I’ll call the pregnant moment: a mental scene that sums up action or change in an ambiguous way, allowing the student’s imagination to roam while impelling the student to reckon with the implied before-and-after of the scene.

Pregnant moments not only build suspense into the narrative structure of a lesson. They also provide rich opportunities for embedding active learning in a lecture, since they let you invite students into a scene to talk together about the possibilities it implies.

Sometimes you can create this kind of suspenseful moment just by setting a scene in a general way—by inviting students to imagine themselves, for example, as members of a community who have just encountered a strange invader or whose lives are about to be transformed by a new technology or idea, and asking them to talk through what’s likely to happen next.

But it can be especially effective to use primary sources to create a pregnant moment for students based on a more specific interlude in human experience.

Continue reading “Narrative Methods: Finding Suspense Points”

What’s a Good Small-Group Activity to Illustrate the Concept of a False Dichotomy?

America's most movie-friendly classroom

An interesting new study conducted at Harvard University and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that undergraduates in introductory physics courses learn more in classrooms that employ active-learning instruction methods (specifically, problem-solving in small groups) than students taking notes on “passive” lectures—but think they learn less. The researchers propose that this discrepancy between actual and perceived learning happens because active learning requires more effort on students’ part; it feels frustrating or inefficient. They also warns that this means that relying on student evaluations of teaching could lead instructors to use “inferior (passive) pedagogical methods” in their quest to achieve the popularity of “superstar lecturers.”

The study (full version in PDF format here) seems excellent in design and careful in its conclusions. Unfortunately, Harvard has publicized it with a news article that draws a tiresome false dichotomy between lectures and active learning, going so far as to quote the peer-instruction proponent Eric Mazur—who helped with the study—this way:

‘This work unambiguously debunks the illusion of learning from lectures,’ he said. ‘It also explains why instructors and students cling to the belief that listening to lectures constitutes learning.’

Of course, the study does no such thing as Mazur’s first claim.

Continue reading “What’s a Good Small-Group Activity to Illustrate the Concept of a False Dichotomy?”

Assessment in the Survey: Three Experiments (Part I)

grailly-oxbow-from-mount-holyoke-cleveland-museum-of-art

This fall, I’m implementing a new scheme to assess overall student learning in my introductory courses. When I say “overall learning,” I mean learning not with respect to particular facts and skills—that’s what the existing quizzes, exams, and assignments are for—but in the form of changes in the way each student conceptualizes the whole topic of the course.

I’m adapting a simple and brilliant exercise described a few years ago by Jennifer Frost, a U.S. historian at the University of Auckland. For a course on the Civil Rights Movement, which she designed to challenge the top-down “Montgomery to Memphis” narrative that she believed most students would bring into the classroom, Frost devised a pair of assignments for the beginning and end of the course.

The first assignment directed students to “write a brief overview of the African-American Civil Rights Movement: when it happened (beginning and end), why it emerged, who participated, and what was achieved.” At the end of the term, the second assignment referred explicitly to the first: “In your overview of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, you commented on when it happened (beginning and end), why it emerged, who participated, and what was achieved. Do you still agree with your overview? How would you change or modify it in light of what you’ve learned this semester? You are not rewriting your overview, but rather reflecting and analyzing on what you originally wrote.” Frost reported that her students were eager to show that the course had changed their thinking―specifically by correcting misconceptions they had held.*

Now, Frost’s entire course was organized around the principle of questioning a certain grand narrative, which probably took a fairly explicit form in students’ minds when they began the course. The linked assignments were part of that design. They were meant to shape student thinking as well as reveal it.

My goal in adapting Frost’s linked assignments is a bit different. With the notable exception of my early U.S. survey, I hypothesize that the first linked assignment will show most students how much they simply don’t know (or aren’t sure they know) about the subject of the course. The second assignment, if all goes well, will show them that they now have the ability to articulate a basic (narrative-shaped) explanation of the course subject, including subtopics of which they previously weren’t aware at all.

In the early U.S. survey, however, my goals are closer to Frost’s. I assume that many students will enter the course with a certain grand narrative distinctly in mind. I hope that the course will challenge and complicate that narrative as well as present students with new information.

With those goals in mind, here are my initial drafts for the prompts I will give my students next week in the first linked assignment.

  • World History I: Write a brief statement (about 250-300 words) describing, purely in your own words, what has happened in the world since 1500. If possible, include several key events, changes, factors, concepts, etc. (This is an assessment tool that will help the instructor understand the overall picture of world history you have in mind as you begin taking this course. It will be evaluated only on the basis of completion, not on graded for accuracy. Please be honest—do not consult any sources.)
  • Western Civilization I: Write a brief statement (about 250-350 words) explaining how you might define “western civilization” and then describing, purely in your own words, what happened in the history of western civilizations between prehistory and the 1600s. If possible, include several key events, changes, factors, concepts, etc. (This is an assessment tool that will help the instructor understand the overall picture of western history you have in mind as you begin taking this course. It will be evaluated as participation, not graded for accuracy. Please be honest—do not consult any sources.)
  • U.S. History I: Write a brief statement (about 250-300 words) describing, purely in your own words, what happened in the United States (or in the places that later became the United States) up to 1865. If possible, include several key events, changes, factors, concepts, etc. (This is an assessment tool that will help the instructor understand the overall picture of American history you have in mind as you begin taking this course. It will be evaluated only on the basis of completion, not on graded for accuracy. Please be honest—do not consult any sources.)

Students’ answers will be due as homework in the second week of each course, giving me time to provide a bit of coaching and reassurance about the assignment in class but also ensuring that students’ answers will reflect minimal exposure to course content.

_______________

* Jennifer Frost, “Using ‘Master Narratives’ to Teach History: The Case of the Civil Rights Movement,” The History Teacher 45, no. 3 (May 2012): 437-446, esp. 441.

Image: Detail from Victor de Grailly (attributed), The Oxbow Seen from Mount Holyoke, after 1840. Bequest of Mrs. Henry A. Everett for the Dorothy Burnham Everett Memorial Collection, Cleveland Museum of Art. Public domain / CC0.

Who Trusts Professors?

The Pew Research Center reports that young Americans today seem to have much less confidence in their public institutions (and humanity in general) than older Americans do. Yet according to “Trust and Distrust in America,” Americans aged 18-29 are the only age cohort who trust college professors more than they trust the military or police officers:

Considering that young Americans are probably much more likely than older Americans to have direct personal contact with college faculty members, that seems like a vindication for higher education. (On the other hand, if one quarter of American adults under 30 years old don’t have much confidence in college professors, that seems less encouraging.)

The same report suggests that college professors have a relatively high trust “floor,” considering how controversial higher education can seem these days. Americans, on the whole, view professors as more trustworthy than religious leaders and much more trustworthy than business leaders. Even “low trusters” generally express confidence in professors:

Chart showing that those with high personal trust have higher confidence in key leadership groups.

Finally, of course, comes the partisan difference: Republicans view college professors far less favorably than independents and Democrats do. Yet Republicans express about as much confidence in faculty members as in government employees generally:

Chart showing that there are sizable partisan divisions in public confidence in leaders and institutions.

“What Will the Class of 1971 Do?”

Almost half a century ago, an apparent graduating senior at La Salle College in Philadelphia, who had been there for seven years, wrote an unsigned editorial for La Salle’s 1971 yearbook, the Explorer. The text is now in the public domain. I wish I could figure out who wrote it. (It’s not clear whether the photograph is his portrait.)

Here’s the whole thing:

Maybe the ivy has grown a bit more dense and the bricks slightly more weatherbeaten. There might be a little more grass in McCarthy Stadium, and there’s a lot less room to park in the morning. The hamburgers still taste raunchy, and the steaks are still more gristle than meat. But have the students changed from 1964 when I started here?

Page 43 from the La Salle College yearbook, 1971The graduates of the class of 1964 put on their Ivy suits, went for job interviews and were hired, and happily led meaningful existences ever after selling insurance, cars, and real estate. Some went to war and were killed; some went to graduate and professional schools. Most got married and had children. Some joined the alumni association, and some go to the meetings.

What will the graduates of the class of 1971 do? Many will shave their beards, cut their hair, put on brand new 1971 suits and be interviewed for 1971 jobs to put 1971 dollars into their 1971 pockets, and will happily lead 1971 existences ever after selling 1971 insurance, 1971 cars, or 1971 real estate. Some will go into the service to protect the 1971 country from the 1971 menace, and some will go to professional schools. Some will join the alumni association, and some will go to the meetings to spice them with 1971 things.

Where is the difference? People spoke against the president way back in 1964, but not as frequently (but then, Richard Nixon wasn’t president in 1964). There was organized protest in 1964, but organized protest wasn’t “in” back in ’64 as it is today. In 1964 drivers snarled at you when they cut you out on the road; today, they give you the Peace Sign while they still cut you out.

Which of the 1971 graduates will protest against sins against the ecology when these same people now work for the very companies polluting the air and streams, and dollars spent for ecology will mean less profit-sharing or perhaps the loss of a job?

Will the graduates of the class of 1971 grumble against intellectuals causing unrest when today’s graduates are running the country? Are the graduates of the class of 1971 a bunch of phonies who wear long hair and beards because this signifies a cause which they believe in, or because it’s “hip”? Will the graduates of the class of 1971 follow the example of their predecessors and lead meaningless existences in a dehumanizing society, or will they remember some of the causes they led protests for, remember that they are members of the Love Generation and the Woodstock Nation, and be genuine, feeling people, or will their humanity and sincerity sink into the corporate image?

Until now, no class graduating from La Salle has been different. The class of 1971 has yet been untested, but from all indication it will follow the way of the others, but damn, I hope not.

I almost don’t want to spoil that with my own commentary. But let me add some context.

Continue reading ““What Will the Class of 1971 Do?””