How We Talk about Heroes with Feet of Clay

Earlier this week, near the end of class in my modern U.S. survey, an undergraduate student posed a provocative and timely question: Why do we only want to talk about the good things people from history did, and not the bad things? I think the wording was pretty close to that, though I don’t recall exactly.

In the context of the lesson, the student’s question was about public monuments, and specifically the colossal presidential faces of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. (My student particularly mentioned George Washington’s slaveholding as an example of an inconvenient truth about a historical figure.) But the question also seemed to voice a complaint about the student’s experiences in K-12 education.

We were about to run out of class period, so we tabled this question for the next lesson.

I wanted to make sure we discussed this question properly because a lot of the students in this class are education majors. Whether or not they specialize in social studies, they’ll soon be dropped into a public maelstrom centered on this problem. And many of them will have to decide how they are going to teach children responsibly about flawed figures from America’s past.

Discussion backdrop with detail from a photograph by Sergio Olmos, via OPB

To set up the conversation at the beginning of the next class period, I looked up a story from two years ago.

In October 2020—on the weekend before the federal holiday that Oregon would later designate as Indigenous Peoples Day—some two hundred people in Portland participated in an “Indigenous Peoples Day of Rage.” By the end of that night, some of the protesters had pulled down statues of Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, defaced a mural of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and smashed windows at the Oregon Historical Society, accusing that organization of “honoring racist colonizer murderers.”

I focused on this story because—much more than the recent destruction of some other kinds of monuments—it presents us with legitimately challenging questions about public memory. (We’re toppling Lincoln now? Really?)

It also involves a specific atrocity I discussed in the last class period. Painted across the plinth of the Lincoln statue in Portland that night in 2020 were the words “Dakota 38”: a reference to Abraham Lincoln’s approval of the public mass execution of 38 prisoners after the U.S.-Dakota War in Minnesota in 1862. The statue’s hand was also painted red, presumably to signify Lincoln’s guilt as the Dakotas’ murderer. He had authorized, notoriously, the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Basically, I didn’t want to make this conversation too easy. If we wanted to talk about hard truths, we should talk about hard truths, not easy ones. Thus, to begin our discussion in the following class period, I displayed a photograph taken that night in 2020 by the Portland journalist Sergio Olmos, and I briefly explained the story of the protest.

Then I posed two questions for the whole class. First, if you agree with the premise of your colleague’s question—that we usually want to talk about only the good, and not the badwhy do you think we’re like that? Second, how can we do better when we talk about our past?

The ensuing conversation lasted half an hour—a substantial portion of our total class time.

Out of an abundance of caution about protecting my students’ privacy, especially considering the political sensitivity of the discussion, I won’t go into the details of what they contributed. But I can tell you for sure that this issue has been on the minds of some of these students.

They are keenly aware that it’s a hot political topic. They understand that politics directly shapes what K-12 teachers can safely say about American history at work. And they already have strong opinions about this, opinions they have formulated with considerable care—in most cases, I’m quite sure, before arriving in my classroom.

Even though I’m being discreet about the contents of this class discussion, I’m writing about this because I think it’s important for American citizens who aren’t attending our colleges and universities to understand that these conversations are happening. It’s also important to understand that students are often coming to their own conclusions before they arrive in the college classroom.

And sometimes, correctly or not, they believe they’re reaching these conclusions in spite of the way they’ve been taught in primary and secondary schools, as much as because of it.

Class at a Historic Site: The Glassboro Summit of 1967

History, the Past, and Public Culture

Last year, the American Historical Association released the results of a detailed survey about how Americans interact with history. One finding caught my attention.

Nine in ten respondents indicated they trusted museums (90%) or historic sites (88%) either “some” or “a great deal” to convey “an accurate account of history”—compared with only three in four who said the same about college professors (76%) or high school teachers (70%). The intensity of their trust was striking, too: Respondents were three times as likely to trust museums or historic sites a great deal as to say the same about high school teachers.

Looking closer, I found something especially interesting. Historic sites, even more than museums, enjoy a distinctive level of trust among Americans who tend to be skeptical of other information sources.

For example, only 18% of Republican respondents said they placed a great deal of faith in college professors, whom they were just as likely not to trust at all. But 57% of Republicans said they trusted historic sites a great deal. Except for religious texts, in fact, historic sites were the only sources of historical information that Republicans were more likely to trust strongly than Democrats were.

A chart showing that 57 percent of Republicans, 47 percent of Democrats, 48 percent of independents, and 42 percent of people with no preference said they had "a great deal" of trust in historic sites.
Trust in historic sites as sources for “an accurate account of history,” by political party.
Fig. 45 in “History, the Past, and Public Culture,” 2021

These results suggest to me that historic sites may be uniquely important tools for engaging skeptical audiences—including, perhaps, earning the trust of students in high school and college.

Mulling this over, it occurred to me that skeptical Americans probably think of historic sites as primary sources. They may place greater faith in them because they sense that historic sites give them more immediate access to the past. (Of course, there are several other important factors in play, too, but let’s not overcomplicate the blogpost.)

This immediately focused my attention on a teaching idea I’d already had. And it brought together different aspects of my idea, which I now saw with new clarity. I suddenly got more serious about making a plan.


This autumn, I’m scheduled to teach a modern U.S. history survey course at Rowan University in southern New Jersey. As it happens, Rowan’s campus was the site of a high-level Cold War diplomatic meeting in 1967.

Press conference in front of Hollybush, from Rowan’s Glassboro Summit Collection

That summer, President Lyndon Johnson invited the Soviet premier, Alexei Kosygin, to speak with him at Hollybush, also known as the Whitney Mansion. That was the home of the president of what was then called Glassboro State College.

As you may already have guessed, this building still exists on campus.

A newspaper front page in Rowan’s Glassboro Summit Collection

Usefully for my teaching purposes, the Glassboro Summit was not only local. It also involved several distinct topics of interest in this course, including nuclear disarmament, the Vietnam War, and the Six-Day War. Although Rowan’s summit was less immediately consequential than some others, therefore, it’s actually a pretty good window into the Cold War.

Today, the restored Hollybush mansion is maintained by Rowan University as a space for special events. So I’ve requested permission to hold class there one day this semester. And it now looks like I’ll be allowed to do it.

If my plan works, we’ll have an on-site discussion of primary sources related to the event. I’ll ask my students to read, view, or listen to those sources beforehand; furthermore, I’ll allow the students themselves to select some of the sources they’ll examine.

These primary sources may include:

Many of these sources are available through the Glassboro Summit Collection, a project hosted by the Rowan University Libraries Digital Scholarship Center. Before my class heads to Hollybush, therefore, I’m asking a DSC representative to come speak with us in our regular classroom about that collection.

If everything works, we’ll devote most of one class period to getting to know our digitized primary source collections, with help from a curator; then I’ll give students a few days to explore those collections on their own; and then we’ll convene in Hollybush to discuss what students have discovered—speaking together in the actual rooms where the summit took place.

I am pretty excited about this plan.

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”

Reverse-Engineering an Article: A Small Group Activity

A couple of weeks ago, I tried a simple new activity. The students in this course, all first-year undergraduates, are working on original research projects. One student had asked me for practical advice about how to outline their history paper—an essay that will be longer than anything they’ve ever written before. I came up with this activity for a subsequent class meeting. As I expected, the activity took an entire 75-minute period.

The first page of the article "Forgotten Habits, Lost Vocations: Black Nuns, Contested Memories, and the 19th Century Struggle to Desegregate U.S. Catholic Religious Life"

First, I located a scholarly article that seemed appropriate in various ways. I was looking for something with a reasonably accessible subject matter and writing style, clear organization, and some identifiable relevance to our course. I also wanted the article to be of moderate length: not overwhelmingly long, but not too short, either.

I settled on Shannen Dee Williams’s “Forgotten Habits, Lost Vocations,” an important article published in 2016 in the Journal of African American History. Among its many other virtues, this text would be relevant to our university’s ongoing mission-and-heritage-month celebration. (This college isn’t affiliated with the IHM sisters, who are the focus of Williams’s article, but it is affiliated with a different Catholic teaching order.) I was also pretty sure some of my students would find it very interesting on its own terms. And it would let me talk a little about how scholarship develops over time; Williams has a book coming out soon, and that book will incorporate material from this article into a larger story and argument.

I printed and stapled a copy of this article (double-sided, two pages per side) for each student. Then I prepared a set of directions.

Continue reading “Reverse-Engineering an Article: A Small Group Activity”

Mon activité préférée du premier jour

I’m pleased to learn that “My Favorite First-Day Activity,” which describes the History of Your Lifetime exercise that became one of the most popular features at Blue Book Diaries, now has been translated into French for the Canadian Historical Association’s bilingual teaching blog.

You can find the French version of the activity ici thanks to Jo McCutcheon.

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.

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

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”

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?”

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.