The Invisible Storyteller

A storyteller should be invisible, as far as I’m concerned; and the best way to make sure of that is to make the story itself so interesting that the teller just … disappears. When I was in the business of helping students to become teachers, I used to urge them to tell stories in the classroom—not read them from a book, but get out and tell them, face to face, with nothing to hide behind. The students were very nervous until they tried it. They thought that under the pressure of all those wide-open eyes, they’d melt into a puddle of self-consciousness. But the brave ones tried it, and they always came back next week and reported with amazement that it worked, they could do it. What was happening was that the children were gazing, not at the storyteller, but at the story she was telling. The teller had become invisible, and the story worked much more effectively as a result.

—Philip Pullman, “Magic Carpets: The Writer’s Responsibilities,” Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group Conference, Leeds, Sept. 2002; in Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling, ed. Simon Mason (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018), 9-10. Ellipsis in original.

“Remember the Roots of Our Discipline”

William Cronon’s presidential address, delivered on Jan. 4, 2013, in New Orleans.

In a distracted world …, and at a moment when there seems to be widespread public doubt about whether to continue supporting the study of the past as this organization has traditionally understood that activity, what is the future of history? There are many answers to this question, of course, and it is the job of the American Historical Association—and all of us—to offer those answers as effectively as we can to defend in public the continuing importance of history both in the United States and in the wider world. But for me, there is one answer that is arguably the most basic of all, and that is, simply: storytelling. We need to remember the roots of our discipline and be sure to keep telling stories that matter as much to our students and to the public as they do to us. Although the shape and form of our stories will surely change to meet the expectations of this digital age, the human need for storytelling is not likely ever to go away. It is far too basic to the way people make sense of their lives—and among the most important stories they tell are those that seek to understand the past. …

[T]he undergraduate classroom, far more than the graduate seminar, is where we take the results of our monographic research and place them in a much larger interpretive frame where we can show our students—and, by extension, our non-professional readers and ourselves—the larger meanings of our work. Original research is of course indispensable and lies at the cutting edge of disciplinary growth and transformation. But no one else will ever know this if we fail to come back from the cutting edge to integrate what we have learned into the older and more familiar stories that non-historians already think they know and care about. This is where we join other historical storytellers—journalists, novelists, dramatists, and filmmakers, as well as our academic colleagues in all the other historical disciplines—to keep asking what the past means and why ordinary people should care about it.

—William Cronon, “Storytelling” (presidential address to the American Historical Association), New Orleans, 2013

Land of Many Voices: Teaching a Truer National Story

Last weekend, in my response to Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, I focused on what I think Wilfred McClay got wrong about teaching U.S. history. I wrote that McClay’s version of an American nation-narrative lacks “a sense of real stakes, of divergent possibilities, of the weight of choices and conflicts in their own moments” because it shies away from conflict.

Land of Hope does not want its major American protagonists to have been disastrously, avoidably, mulishly wrong—they can have been badly mistaken, but they must have meant well. It apparently wants history’s apparent losers to have been inevitable victims, doomed by forces beyond anyone’s control or by paradoxes with no way out, rather than to have been acted upon by other people who made choices that could have been made differently, choices against which the oppressed protested and fought at the time. And it does not want national reform to have come through vicious struggles for power.

That last desire, I think, helps explain Wilfred McClay’s strident criticism of the “1619 Project” in other venues, despite the deeply patriotic and humane spirit it shows. The 1619 Project asserted not that America is irredeemably corrupt, as some of its critics seem to think it did, but that everything good about America has come through struggle—specifically, struggle by people who don’t play a very active role in Land of Hope. “Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans,” Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote, “our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.” That is a contingency Land of Hope cannot seem to face.

The fear of contingency thwarts Land of Hope’s stated purpose of giving students an inspiring and coherent national narrative. Stories without meaningful conflict, without the possibility of different outcomes, are lifeless to everyone except perhaps those who identify most strongly with the actual outcomes. Worse, they are also ahistorical, in the sense that most academically trained historians believe contingency is a core concept of their discipline.

Yet I strongly sympathize with McClay’s goal of producing a student-friendly history of the United States that not only holds together as a story, but also provokes sustained reflection on normative American civic values. I often have been critical of academic training in history that does not teach instructors how to build narratives in the classroom.

I would even say that McClay’s narrative voice is often a voice I recognize in myself. We are both unabashed moralists, at the end of the day, committed to the idea that studying American history can make people better citizens. And frankly, I am quite conservative in temperament; there’s something in the book’s temperature, as it were, that I find comfortable—an inclination to be patient with flawed institutions, perhaps, and a conviction that it is as important to shore up valuable aspects of existing American life as it is to fight for reform.

So what is my alternative to McClay’s approach? How do I think a “great American story” can be told better? How, in fact, do I try to tell such a story in the classroom?

Continue reading “Land of Many Voices: Teaching a Truer National Story”

An America Where Everyone Meant Well

At the U.S. Intellectual History Blog, I have a post today about Wilfred McClay’s 2019 United States history survey textbook Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, along with the teacher’s guide co-written by John McBride. My essay is a companion to a more thorough review by Thomas D. Mackie last week.

We wrote our responses independently, but Mackie and I came to similar conclusions about what the book does right, what’s missing from its picture of U.S. history, and what we find strange about its understanding of the history teacher’s job.

The question my response poses, though not in these words, is this: Why do McClay and some other historians seem to think we are “condescend[ing] toward the past” when we teach history as if people made choices, they could have made different choices, others disagreed with their choices at the time, and their choices mattered?

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?

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

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”

Assessment in the Survey: Three Experiments (Part I)

grailly-oxbow-from-mount-holyoke-cleveland-museum-of-art

This fall, I’m implementing a new scheme to assess overall student learning in my introductory courses. When I say “overall learning,” I mean learning not with respect to particular facts and skills—that’s what the existing quizzes, exams, and assignments are for—but in the form of changes in the way each student conceptualizes the whole topic of the course.

I’m adapting a simple and brilliant exercise described a few years ago by Jennifer Frost, a U.S. historian at the University of Auckland. For a course on the Civil Rights Movement, which she designed to challenge the top-down “Montgomery to Memphis” narrative that she believed most students would bring into the classroom, Frost devised a pair of assignments for the beginning and end of the course.

The first assignment directed students to “write a brief overview of the African-American Civil Rights Movement: when it happened (beginning and end), why it emerged, who participated, and what was achieved.” At the end of the term, the second assignment referred explicitly to the first: “In your overview of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, you commented on when it happened (beginning and end), why it emerged, who participated, and what was achieved. Do you still agree with your overview? How would you change or modify it in light of what you’ve learned this semester? You are not rewriting your overview, but rather reflecting and analyzing on what you originally wrote.” Frost reported that her students were eager to show that the course had changed their thinking―specifically by correcting misconceptions they had held.*

Now, Frost’s entire course was organized around the principle of questioning a certain grand narrative, which probably took a fairly explicit form in students’ minds when they began the course. The linked assignments were part of that design. They were meant to shape student thinking as well as reveal it.

My goal in adapting Frost’s linked assignments is a bit different. With the notable exception of my early U.S. survey, I hypothesize that the first linked assignment will show most students how much they simply don’t know (or aren’t sure they know) about the subject of the course. The second assignment, if all goes well, will show them that they now have the ability to articulate a basic (narrative-shaped) explanation of the course subject, including subtopics of which they previously weren’t aware at all.

In the early U.S. survey, however, my goals are closer to Frost’s. I assume that many students will enter the course with a certain grand narrative distinctly in mind. I hope that the course will challenge and complicate that narrative as well as present students with new information.

With those goals in mind, here are my initial drafts for the prompts I will give my students next week in the first linked assignment.

  • World History I: Write a brief statement (about 250-300 words) describing, purely in your own words, what has happened in the world since 1500. If possible, include several key events, changes, factors, concepts, etc. (This is an assessment tool that will help the instructor understand the overall picture of world history you have in mind as you begin taking this course. It will be evaluated only on the basis of completion, not on graded for accuracy. Please be honest—do not consult any sources.)
  • Western Civilization I: Write a brief statement (about 250-350 words) explaining how you might define “western civilization” and then describing, purely in your own words, what happened in the history of western civilizations between prehistory and the 1600s. If possible, include several key events, changes, factors, concepts, etc. (This is an assessment tool that will help the instructor understand the overall picture of western history you have in mind as you begin taking this course. It will be evaluated as participation, not graded for accuracy. Please be honest—do not consult any sources.)
  • U.S. History I: Write a brief statement (about 250-300 words) describing, purely in your own words, what happened in the United States (or in the places that later became the United States) up to 1865. If possible, include several key events, changes, factors, concepts, etc. (This is an assessment tool that will help the instructor understand the overall picture of American history you have in mind as you begin taking this course. It will be evaluated only on the basis of completion, not on graded for accuracy. Please be honest—do not consult any sources.)

Students’ answers will be due as homework in the second week of each course, giving me time to provide a bit of coaching and reassurance about the assignment in class but also ensuring that students’ answers will reflect minimal exposure to course content.

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* Jennifer Frost, “Using ‘Master Narratives’ to Teach History: The Case of the Civil Rights Movement,” The History Teacher 45, no. 3 (May 2012): 437-446, esp. 441.

Image: Detail from Victor de Grailly (attributed), The Oxbow Seen from Mount Holyoke, after 1840. Bequest of Mrs. Henry A. Everett for the Dorothy Burnham Everett Memorial Collection, Cleveland Museum of Art. Public domain / CC0.

The Imagination Sets the Terms

Ta-Nehisi Coates in a new interview:

I think we as political writers — and this is one of the reasons why I’ve been making comic books and other things — we can argue with people up one side, and down the other. You confront them with facts, and they’ll just look away. They’ll completely look away.

Because our politics occurs within the imagination of the citizen. If I don’t believe that black people are human, it really doesn’t matter what you say to me about policy. So the question is: How do we decide who gets to be human and who doesn’t? How do we decide who our heroes are, and who our heroes aren’t? All of that is tied together in the stories we tell ourselves. …

Willie Horton, the welfare queen. These things are dangerous because of their impact on policy. But they’re also dangerous because of how they make black people look in the white American imagination. And in some cases, in their own imaginations. Because it’s the imagination that sets the terms for what’s possible in terms of policy. And so popular culture matters. It’s a part of it too.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, interviewed by Eric Levitz in “Ta-Nehisi Coates Is an Optimist Now,” New York, March 18, 2019

Parachutists and Truffle Hunters

Front cover of ‘Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History’

American history educators sometimes find themselves taking sides in a peculiar long-running battle of the culture war.

One side in the battle says that history instruction has become relativistic and impressionistic, discarding coherent narratives for fragmented particular stories. People who take this side believe that history is in danger of losing public support as an integrating force in civic life, and that students have a tenuous grasp of fundamental facts.

The other side says that traditional narratives depict nationalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and economic inequality as the natural order of things. People who take this side believe that historians must encourage students to think of history primarily as a critical process. A reliance on unified traditional narratives, they think, tends to perpetuate injustice. And the traditional canon of facts is largely a collection of facts about wealthy white men—what about the facts students should know about other people?

The picture I have just drawn is too stark. Most academically trained history instructors I know actually have a foot in each camp. As a matter of theory, too, both camps make a point that could be valid, and I suspect most well-trained history teachers take the point. But we tend to think one camp’s complaint has been exploited to nefarious ends more than the other’s.

But here’s where I think the battle could be more useful to the profession than it typically is: It should lead us to think about how students construct or question the larger narrative frameworks that they necessarily rely upon to make sense of critical history.

Continue reading “Parachutists and Truffle Hunters”