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.

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Who Supports Teaching U.S. History in Public Schools?

An infographic prepared by the Washington Post, labeled "

In the Washington Post yesterday, the data journalist Philip Bump highlighted some results of a March 2022 edition of the Grinnell College National Poll. His article focuses on respondents’ views of what should be taught in American public schools.

The poll shows that Republicans and Democrats differ significantly in their level of expressed support for (in particular) sex education and attempts to instill patriotism—though clear majorities in both parties actually say they support both. Thus, the current headline, “Democrats want to teach kids sex education. Republicans want to teach them patriotism”—is misleading, though it’s grounded in truth.

What caught my eye was the entry for history.

Unsurprisingly, strong majorities in both major parties believe that public schools should teach history. But I couldn’t help noticing that support for teaching history was ever-so-slightly lower among Democratic respondents.

That’s consistent with what another major survey found in 2020: American conservatives were more likely than liberals (92% to 84%) to say that teaching U.S. history to children is very important, and they’re also more likely (44% to 30%) to say they wish they’d had more American history courses in school.

Curious, I dug up the new Grinnell poll’s topline results.

I found that this poll, too, actually asked about American history, not history in general. And interestingly, although there was slightly lower expressed support for teaching U.S. history among Democrats than among Republicans, there wasn’t any significant difference between 2020 Trump and Biden voters.

Data table for Question 5A in the Grinnell College National Poll for March 2022. The question is: "American history: Please tell me if you think it is an essential subject for public schools to teach, important but not essential, not that important, for something public schools should not teach."

What conclusions should we draw from this? I really have no idea. Probably, we shouldn’t draw any conclusions at all. Anyway, all the potent debates of our moment are about what should be taught in public schools as American history, not whether American history should be taught.

But I know that if I ever see support for teaching U.S. history in public schools drop significantly, among either Democrats or Republicans, I’ll have a new big thing to worry about.

How I Built a Narrative Lecture: Teaching Reconstruction in U.S. History II

This spring, I’m teaching a college course called United States History Since 1865. It’s a staple of American curricula. I have decided that it might be interesting to provide a walkthrough of the first lecture.

This should be an opportunity to articulate, step by step, some basic intuitions about how to achieve truthful storytelling in the classroom. (It’s also a chance to show—in a real situation rather than a political taking point—how I handle “divisive concepts” and “widely debated and currently controversial issues” related to American racism, inasmuch as this first lecture was about Reconstruction.)

This lecture was not perfect. It didn’t represent especially sophisticated historiography. But I am going to try to use it now to demonstrate the problem-solving nature of an interactive lecture about a fraught topic.

Specifically, I believe this walkthrough will illustrate the following nine aspects of my method for telling a story in the classroom:

  • Setting scenes
  • Posing problems
  • Integrating primary sources into a lecture
  • Enlisting students in telling the story
  • Showing change over time through examples
  • Identifying specific turning points
  • Explaining the significance of key memorizable concepts
  • Building to a crisis, confrontation, or moment of decision
  • Creating an open or provocative ending

Each of these elements will appear in the description that follows, and most will appear several times.

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What Can the Trojan Horse Hoax Tell Us About American Education Wars?

This week, I finished a podcast called The Trojan Horse Affair. It’s published by Serial Productions, which is now owned by the New York Times. In eight episodes, released together on February 3, it details the effort of two podcast journalists to find out who created a hoax that shocked the United Kingdom in 2014.

The hosts are Brian Reed, a This American Life producer best known as the host of the controversial 2017 podcast S-Town, and Hamza Syed, a former medical doctor who introduced Reed to the story and began reporting on it for a graduate-school project.

Syed is a Muslim from Birmingham, England. The hoax was a partial letter that had purported to detail an Islamic plot—risibly dubbed “Operation Trojan Horse”—to take over Birmingham schools from the inside and indoctrinate children as extremists.

Although the Times of London, among other press outlets, had recognized the letter immediately as a likely “crude” forgery, the British government had used it as a basis for a major inquisition in Birmingham schools, a campaign to ban several Muslim educators from their life’s work, and permanent changes in British counterterrorism law. So the hoax has deeply affected people like Syed.

Now that it’s available, the Trojan Horse Affair podcast may be instructive for Americans watching today’s “education wars” play out in the United States.

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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.

Qualities and Events in Storytelling

Values are the soul of storytelling. Ultimately ours is the art of expressing to the world a perception of values.

For example, alive/dead (positive/negative) is a story value, as are love/hate, freedom/slavery, truth/lie, courage/cowardice, loyalty/betrayal, wisdom/stupidity, strength/weakness, excitement/boredom and so on. All such binary qualities of experience that can reverse their charge at any moment are Story Values. …

Look closely at each scene you’ve written and ask: What value is at stake in my character’s life at this moment? … If the value-charged condition of the character’s life stays unchanged from one end of a scene to the other, nothing meaningful happens. The scene has activity—talking about this, doing that—but nothing changes in value. It is a nonevent.

—Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: It Books, 1997), 33-36

Here Goes Nothing Again

Classes start next week. I visited my new classroom today to check the equipment.

This semester, I’ll teach just two classes. Though that means I’m being paid less, it still comes as a relief after teaching five classes (in four preps) at three universities this autumn. It also probably means my students will have a better experience this time.

As for safety, we still have indoor mask mandates and vaccine mandates. One of my employers is requiring booster shots when eligible, too, and now is explicitly recommending—but is not, as far as I know, providing—high-filtration respirators (N95s, KN95s, KF94s, or FFP2s) rather than cloth masks. I plan to distribute several respirators to each of my students in the first week of class, partly through the generosity of my friend Dan Buller, a fellow educator.

In early December, when the feelings were still raw, I wrote privately about the experiences of Fall 2021. Here’s some what I wrote last month:

This semester has been about classroom survival, not excellence. Every teacher I’ve spoken with, at every kind of school, has said the same thing. Everyone is burnt out, and everyone is trying to figure out how to be back to “normal” in a semester when a global pandemic is still claiming people we knew. Most weeks this semester, I’ve been disappointed in every lesson I taught.

Much of the time, I have just felt … guilty. Truth be told, I don’t think I’m burnt out. But I am ashamed. I want to end this semester and never have to acknowledge it again. I want to bury it and pretend it never happened. The only thing it taught me about teaching in a pandemic is that teaching in a pandemic is bad.

But I did learn lessons from the fall semester that I’m going to try to apply this spring. I won’t expatiate upon most of those lessons here because they would be different at different institutions, in different courses, or for different instructors.

The most important lesson I learned is that the pandemic is getting harder for college students, not easier.

Leaving Extremism: What’s College Got to Do with It?

I posed a question here almost two years ago: Do humanities teachers know how to deradicalize their students? I was responding to reports about an alleged neo-Nazi terrorist who had received an expensive liberal arts education. (A New York magazine profile subsequently labeled him “the prep-school Nazi.” It also showed, however, that his involvement in the far right probably began only several years after he left college.)

I argued that the evidence for education’s effectiveness in combating extremism is, at best, mixed. We cannot assume education reliably prevents or reverses radicalization. However, this doesn’t mean education has no role to play in the deradicalization process. As I wrote a year ago, “People have to be given the tools to challenge and rebuild their own beliefs.” Thus, the question I was raising was really this: Do humanities teachers know what practices will give students those tools?

This month, I have been revisiting a 2018 book that shows, as a case study, why the answer is complicated. Deradicalization, this book suggests, simultaneously is and is not about education.

At the end of a year when American educators came under fierce attack for their efforts to fight racism, thinking clearly about this paradox seems more important than ever. So let’s talk about this book.

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