‘Demics, Two Weeks Later

Since I last wrote, a lot has changed, and a lot has become more clear.

First, virtually all of my friends working in schools and colleges are teaching remotely for the rest of the spring. It seems clear now that American higher education, as a whole, acted with admirable foresight in closing our campuses before public authorities recommended it, and indeed, in acting far more aggressively to protect our communities than officials advised at the time.

In fact, here in the United States, the federal response to this crisis has been disgraceful. Key politicians, including the president of the United States, have persisted in spreading blatant disinformation and delaying critical action for the sake of their own political benefit, endangering millions of extra lives and tens of millions of livelihoods. Theoretically apolitical federal agencies, notably the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have also failed dramatically. The CDC was caught unprepared for the pandemic despite weeks or even months of specific advance warnings. Its recommendations for educational institutions, until recently, appear to have been entirely wrongheaded, being based on a presumption of widespread testing of affected individuals and communities—testing that we all already knew wasn’t happening anywhere in the United States.

A largely preventable disaster is unfolding. It appears that many American leaders are determined to let the very worst happen. On the other hand, many state and local officials are rising to the occasion, and so are countless millions of ordinary people.

My students and I are scheduled to reconvene next week after an extra-long spring break and spend the rest of the semester working online. So far, my students appear to be rising to the occasion. I am moved by the sacrifices they have already made, and I’m determined not to waste their time or money as we complete our tasks.

I don’t know what the future holds. I do assume that some people I know will die in the next year. I also strongly suspect that the pandemic, which is likely to cause a global economic depression, will end my teaching career in higher education, which was always tenuous. But those are problems to address when they arise.

 

‘Demics

Desks in an empty classroom

This week, the nature of higher education in America changed, at least for the rest of the spring. Nobody knows what the long-term effects will be, or whether the choices our institutions have made will turn out to be worthwhile. Indeed, given the complexity of the situation, we may never get to be sure.

As recently as Monday morning, I could muse aloud that I had seen very little public discussion of the effects of spring break—when countless thousands of young Americans (and often their families) travel long distances at about the same time—on the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. Within hours, I could no longer say anything of the kind.

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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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History the Aggressor

gilbert-personalistphilosophyofhistoryFrom the recipient’s point of view, the past is intrusive. It can be soothing, but not for very long and only at the cost of ignoring its terrible misery and destruction. The history that presents us these quandaries is not merely a propaedeutic to metaphysics. We find that it is history the aggressor. Apart from our fantasies about history, we fight history. We fight over it, and we fight against its influence. In order to be inspired by it—that is, by what past actors have done—we have to fight a way through the difficulties of temporal distance, through the complexities of their circumstances, and through feelings about our own freedom or independence. In this sense, historical experience, whether it comes from disciplinary research or from other ways of engagement, is a battle. And, in turn, by battling with the past we intrude into it. Aggressor history rouses our counter-attack strategy of intrusion into the past. As much as we ‘love’ and enjoy history, it is absolutely necessary to realize that we fight its awful burden. It attacks with its puzzles and invades with its unending causality; we defend with research or data, we counter-attack with theory. The motive for those who hate history and reject the past is deep down close to the motive for those who study and cultivate it.

— Bennett Gilbert, A Personalist Philosophy of History (London and New York: Routledge, 2019), 28

The Power of PowerPoint

As you may recall, I’m a defender of PowerPoint, rightly used. Today I came across a highly entertaining classroom video from Tom Wildenhain, a computer science student at Carnegie Mellon, demonstrating just how much is happening underneath the hood of this program (with hints that there’s more to learn).

Great Impractical Ideas in Computer Science: PowerPoint Programming

Wildenhain’s lecture includes some theory for those who are interested, but mostly it comprises a series of captivating demonstrations, including one where an audience member asks a question that prompts a brand-new discovery. The video is 52 minutes long, and it’s simply charming. (via)

How Did You Learn to Tell Stories in the Classroom?

storyteller-tiepolo

This semester marks seven years since I taught the first college course of “my own”—being solely responsible for writing the syllabus, choosing all the readings, designing all the assignments, and planning all the lectures and activities. I was hired at the last minute. On the first day of class, I didn’t even have password access to the classroom computer yet. The bookstore was still selling my students books that somebody else had chosen, which I didn’t intend to use and didn’t have copies of anyway. I don’t think my university email address had been activated.

I’m not absolutely sure, though, because at this point, I barely remember anything about that semester except a general feeling of panic.

What I do know is that one of my biggest challenges was simply learning to narrate history in the classroom. This was crucial because—in a single-semester U.S. history survey course—my students wouldn’t have a traditional textbook to carry that burden outside of class. (And The American Yawp had yet to be written.) The course’s narrative of U.S. history, all of it, both in the overall course arc and in each topic we covered, had to subsist in whatever I could accomplish in the classroom or through short readings scavenged from different sources and posted online.

I had a fair amount of teaching experience, but almost nothing of that nature. I had never been a gifted storyteller in person. (Not even close!) And to my recollection, despite a fair amount of pedagogical development in graduate school, I had never been provided with any specific instruction or advice relevant to this situation.

That first course … probably wasn’t great.

Even if my last-minute hiring made the need unusually acute, I don’t think my situation then was unique. I can’t speak as much to the experiences of primary- or secondary-level educators, but my sense is that in college, many people trained to teach history (or trained in the many other academic disciplines that also teach historical topics) never get any training in the basic task of building a historical narrative in the classroom until they show up in their own classroom for the first time.

But I want to check whether my intuition is right.

If you’re willing to leave a generous comment on this post (or email me if you need to communicate privately), I’d like to know what your experiences have been as a teacher (primary, secondary, college, university, whatever)—in history or any other field where the need comes up.

  • Did you have any formal training in how to build a historical narrative in the classroom?
  • Is this a problem you’re still trying to solve for yourself?
  • Have you found any instruction books, online courses, etc., helpful?
  • What aspects of storytelling or narrative-focused course organization have been the most challenging for you?
  • If you are a naturally gifted storyteller, have you faced any challenges bringing this skill into an academic setting?

_______________

Image: Detail from Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, The Storyteller, 1770s. Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas; via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Do Humanities Teachers Know How to Deradicalize Students?

carus-memoriesofrome-1839

This week, the Guardian and the BBC claimed to have uncovered the identity of an apparent neo-Nazi who may be responsible for some recent alleged terrorist plots inside the United States.

For my purposes, what’s most interesting is the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s report that this man attended an elite boys-only Catholic preparatory school (which offers a traditional college-preparatory liberal arts curriculum to help the young man develop the knowledge, skills, integrity, and sensitivity that distinguishes a self-renewing educated person“). Then he went on to study philosophy at Villanova University, another Catholic institution near Philadelphia. He apparently attended Villanova for three years and left without graduating, though a lot of things about his background are unclear.

I have no independent information about this story, and I’m approaching it with caution. Some aspects of the reporting are confusing and raise the possibility that things aren’t what they seem. However, other aspects of this story seem stereotypically consistent with other recent stories about the extreme rightincluding the man’s background in the humanities.

That’s what I want to focus on.

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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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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.

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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.

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