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.
Continue reading “How I Built a Narrative Lecture: Teaching Reconstruction in U.S. History II”
My friend Eran Zelnik poses an interesting problem related to students’ “emotional well being” in history courses:
It was, oddly enough, when I went back to my own work on my book, that I finally realized what was troubling me. It was the narrative trajectories I keep employing [as a lecturer]. Virtually all of them start on a positive note and end on a somber one.
From lectures about New England and Virginia during the late seventeenth century, through lectures on the American Revolution, to lectures on Redemption and Jim Crow, they all started with opportunities lost and ended with the retrenchment of power structures of one variety or another to the detriment of the majority.
Since—as I keep saying—narrative is fundamental to history at all levels, I think Eran is right to raise this as an issue.
The problem crystallized in my mind one day a few years ago. In the modern U.S. survey, I was covering 1950s society and mass culture. My young students seemed entranced by the cultural optimism I was describing. I commented on their reactions, and some of them explained that they were fascinated by—and perhaps needed (I’m pretty sure that was their word)—a vision of American optimism about the future. For they had come of age in a pessimistic time. And, I suspect, they had been paying attention to the narrative trajectory of some of my other lectures.
(Don’t worry. I did plenty of things to complicate their picture of 1950s optimism.)
This matters for reasons beyond emotional health. First, historians’ habits of pessimism tend to produce cynicism about public affairs. Second, if left unchecked, our pessimism also does an injustice to the vulnerable and marginalized people of the past—people who built lives of meaning for themselves amid the large-scale public failures we describe.
Continue reading “Pessimism and Primary Sources in the History Survey”