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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Finding Things to Talk About: A Discussion Activity

 

problematizing

I tried a new class exercise this week. One of my courses (with about thirty seats) is particularly heavy on weekly discussions of readings that the students do outside of class. (Each set of readings comprises both primary and secondary sources related to a particular group of people or geographic area in North America.) When last I taught the course, I had very chatty students, many of whom were already friends, and I got complacent about priming them for conversation. This time, I need to be more deliberate about eliciting discussion. I came up with a simple exercise that I thought might help.

In form, it’s just a think-pair-share (or really a pair-think-share) activity. I opened class by asking my students to pair up to answer four questions about the primary and secondary sources they’d read:

  1. What expectation did these readings confirm?
  2. What information was new?
  3. What was surprising or questionable?
  4. What’s something controversial it could mean?

I explained that the goal was to find things to grab ahold of in the readings—places to start talking. Often, I confided, I myself will read something about a new topic and have trouble finding something to say about it; the smooth page, though full of words and ideas, just doesn’t seem to have many cracks or rough spots to provide a handhold for me as I try to explore. What we have to do is “problematize” what we read: to turn it into a problem to solve, a question to answer, or a debate to settle. It’s OK if this process is a little artificial; often it leads us to real insights.

Somewhat to my surprise, my students took to this exercise easily and, I thought, eagerlytheir paired conversations were pretty animated. When they finished talking in pairs and I asked for volunteers to share some of their results, question by question, they didn’t exactly talk over each other, but they talked. In fact, their answers, which ranged widely, were an excellent basis for the content-focused discussion/lecture mix I wanted later in the class period.

This one experience doesn’t provide much data for appraising the activity’s usefulness or adaptability, of course. But I’ll be using this exercise again.