First Things First: Doing a Methods-and-Approaches Week

Jill Lepore: "To write history is to make an argument by telling a story about dead people. You'll be dead one day, too, so please play fair. ... Your research question hasn't been tattooed on your forehead. You can change it. ... A question isn't a fish, a very wise historian once said; it's a fishing license."
One of my presentation slides, featuring an excerpt from this handout. (The newspaper photo used in the background for informational purposes is blurred here out of concern for copyright.)

When I began teaching history, I would jump into the course narrative as early as possible. My key goal was to avoid boring the students. A secondary goal was to cover a full textbook chapter each week. So after syllabus-and-roster preliminaries, I would launch directly into a lecture that introduced, e.g., the peoples of North America prior to European contact–often in our very first class meeting.

The first time I taught a survey of premodern world history, however, I decided to try a different approach. Starting out in World History I, it seemed, my students needed less a flood of specific historical information than insight into anthropology, sociology, and historical reasoning in general. Also, my textbook and document reader were a couple of chapters short of the usual fifteen, so I needed to add material. Thus, almost on a whim, I inserted something new to the schedule: “Week 1: Prologue and Basic Concepts.” It introduced my students to the rudiments of historical research and writing.

I had been worried about boredom, but my students responded well. They seemed to find it interesting to talk about history as a process of investigation, to puzzle out strategies for telling truer and more creative stories about the past. I was lecturing, yes, but these were topics that lent themselves to an interactive sort of lecture; students could directly engage with these questions without much background knowledge at all.

Taking the time to discuss basic theory made for an excellent first week in the survey. I was also amazed to note that some students brought up concepts from the first week later in the course.

These days, I start all of my survey courses this way, even when it requires some fancy footwork later in the semester to make up the “lost” time. At first, this seemed a bit more awkward in U.S. history courses than in world history courses, but I think I’m over that now.

Here’s what I tried to cover or accomplish in all of my courses last week as my autumn semester started:
Continue reading “First Things First: Doing a Methods-and-Approaches Week”

My Favorite First-Day Activity

classroom

I came up with a version of the following activity for a tiny U.S. history class about a decade ago. Since then, I’ve revised it and used it successfully in both world and U.S. history survey courses, for classes ranging in size up to thirty-five students. It’s become my go-to exercise for illustrating what history is and why it matters.

I make minor adjustments to fit the course and the students, but here’s how it usually goes. I call it “The History of Your Lifetime,” for obvious reasons. It happens on either the first or the second day of a survey course.

Step 1

First I ask students to form groups of three or four (just based on where they’re sitting) and take a couple of minutes to introduce themselves and get to know each other a little. This obviously has the benefit of encouraging a little first-day conversation and promoting neighborly interaction.

Step 2

Then I direct the students each to take out a piece of paper—any paper will do, just something to scribble onand individually write out a list of seven things he or she would include in a history of the United States (or the world, as appropriate) during his or her lifetime.

The things on the list can be events, people, inventions, trends, ideas, whatever. (They don’t have to be things the student remembers personally, as long as the student was alive for them.) I encourage my students to be creative with their answers–but to remember that the goal is to list things that might help our descendants understand what the world was like.

Step 3

Now I have the students compare lists within their small groups. I direct them to decide as a group what seven things to include on a combined group list. I ask them to talk together about their criteria and reasoning in order to come to agreement before writing down their group’s answers.

By now, the room is usually buzzing fairly loudly. Undergraduates often like comparing notes on how they remember their childhoods, and the exercise typically leads them into general conversation once they’re done with their lists. Even fairly shy students often respond enthusiastically. Especially in a larger class, I often have to interrupt the proceedings for the sake of time.

Step 4

Now I stand in front of the class at the blackboard and call for volunteers to name some of the things they put on their group lists. As they do, I write their answers on the board. I keep calling for nominations until the board is mostly full; if necessary, I prompt the students to contribute things they don’t see on the board yet, or things that might seem offbeat, or things they weren’t sure about including, or things that didn’t make the cut for a group list.

The September 11 attacks are always among the first things students mention. (If you call for a show of hands to see who had September 11 on the list, virtually everyone will put a hand upan instructive fact.) This has held true even for students who increasingly have no clear personal memory of that day. (Remember, traditional college freshmen in 2018 are likely to have been infants at the time.) So I ask my students why there’s so much agreement on this point. Why do we all agree that September 11 is crucial for our descendants to know about? They usually furnish excellent answers to this question.

Then I continue asking questions about how they arrived at their lists and about what they see on the board for the class as a whole:

  • “What did you decide to leave out of your group lists? Can you explain a criterion you used in order to reach your decision?” (Often students will realize that they tried to focus on things that seemed to have a big impact in the worldi.e., things that caused other things, including other things on the board, to happen. Sometimes I draw lines between them to indicate this.)
  • “Where are you getting your memory of these things? If you don’t remember them all personally, where did you learn about them?”
  • “Look at the board as a whole. If we wrote a detailed history of our lifetimes based on this list, using it for a rough outline, would our audience get an accurate impression of the world we lived in? Why or why not? What’s missing? What’s distorted?”
  • “What kind of a story would we be telling about our lifetimes?” (Answer to this question often include “It’s depressing” or “It’s full of conflict.” In world history courses, students often realize that their answers are very U.S.-centric.)
  • “Is this how you remember your own lifetime? Is this the world you lived in, or is this a misleading picture?” (Answers will vary, but they’re often pretty emphatic in one way or another.)
  • “What is missing from this story we’re outlining? What things should we add in order to give future generations a more accurate picture of the world we lived in?”

Finally, I try to wrap up the exercise with something like the following observation: “To complete this exercise, you all had to make judgments about significance. You were deciding what, or how much, these things meant in some bigger scheme of things. You didn’t just write lists of facts. You were thinking about how to tell a story that would be about somethinga story with a point.

“Well, that’s what historians do when they write about the more distant past. They are figuring out how to use pieces of informationabout all kinds of thingsto tell a true story, usually about things they don’t remember personally. It’s basically the same process.”

Then, if I think of it, I try to ask one more question: “Do you think your lists would look any different if you made them again twenty years from now?” That lets me talk about how our perspectives about what matters can change over time, even when the facts don’t change.

In the years since I started using this exercise, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it really fail.

Yawp Yawp Yawp

americanyawpIf you’re teaching a U.S. history survey course–or if you would like to use a general textbook for background information in a related course–you may want to examine The American Yawp, a free online textbook. (I am one of the contributors, and I edited the ninth chapter, “Democracy in America.”) It’s been available for a few years, so why am I mentioning it now? Because it’s just been updated under the aegis of Stanford University Press, complete with peer review and professional copy-editing. In the spring, this improved version of The American Yawp will be available in an inexpensive SUP print edition as well as in the existing digital version. I’m proud of my small contribution to this resource, and I’m proud of this update to the story of its development.

Teaching the Long-Term in a Time of Crisis

We live, as the imprecation says, in interesting times.

In part because most American historians are now on a summer break—a time for rest, research, writing, stock-taking, and other critical activities we set aside during the regular teaching year—many of my friends have been reflecting on their need to feel their work is somehow significant to the world. Do the things they write actually matter? Is academia a worthwhile use of a short lifetime? And how does anybody find a way to focus in this environment?

A few friends have commented, however, that their sense of living in a time of crisis makes them eager to return to the classroom. They can’t wait to talk with students again, to tell a story about how we reached this point and explore the turning points along the way and encourage students to take action.

I wouldn’t say I’m eager for summer to end. There’s a lot to do before the end of August. But otherwise, I’m as eager as anyone to teach through this moment. The question is, how should I approach that task? This autumn, as usual, I will be teaching mostly first-half survey courses that end with events of either 150 or 500 years ago. My spring courses usually involve a lot of direct commentary on current events, simply by virtue of their chronological structure, but most of my autumn courses don’t—unless by careful design.

There’s a lot to say about how I can engage in that kind of design, by highlighting certain topics and training students in certain critical tools. I will probably write about that on other occasions.

In the past few years, however, I’ve grown more conscious that these first-half survey courses are also crucial for understanding our own time in less direct ways. Here’s how I’ve shifted my teaching approach to make the most of the opportunities they present.

First, I’ve been trying to cover more material in more detail—of all kinds. When I began teaching college, my overriding concern was to capture the imagination. I wanted to make history interesting and cultivate habits of mind that would keep people studying history after the course was done. I haven’t abandoned that commitment at all. Now that I have a repertory of techniques for meeting it, however, I’m working a lot harder to cover many different topics that may come up later as background for the news, and to test my students’ factual knowledge about them. Basically, this means I’m trying to do a better job dispelling (or anticipating) all kinds of misconceptions and myths about the past, not only the ones that seem most salient right now. (In some ways, I suppose, this makes my teaching approach more old-fashioned than it used to be.) So far, I’ve been very happy with the results.

Second, I’m trying to show my students the difference between the myth that “history repeats itself”—a notion that tends to make people easy to manipulate with bad analogies—and the truth that humans in different times and places tend to have similar concerns and make similar mistakes in all kinds of different combinations, but in ways that cause long-term structural changes. I haven’t come up with a pithy way to say this, but I do like the joke that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” I think this insight is crucial for preparing students for creative action in the world.

Third, I have become more conscious that students need to understand how slow, hard-fought, and fragile most great historical changes have been. This means, for example, that instead of grouping everything about a topic in one place—an obvious and infamous case would be the way some US history courses throw everything about slavery and abolition into one week—I try more and more to scatter references to any particular struggle across the course so that it pops up repeatedly in something more like real time. I think this is something I’m still learning how to do well; I have a long way to go.

Finally, in times of obvious crisis, I think it’s more important than ever to demonstrate the existence of mundane beauty, goodness, and resilience in past times and places.

The way we teach history can promote apocalyptic habits of mind: If anything interesting is happening in a human society, our students infer, it’s either a catastrophe, a marvelous deliverance, or a slow steady march of progress into utopia. When students perceive themselves to be living in a time of crisis, the last option is completely unavailable. I believe this is corrosive to healthy attitudes. It’s not simply that this way of teaching nurtures paranoia and makes ordinary life more difficult. For many people, a bit paradoxically, it’s also destructive to political willpower in the long term.

Of course, there certainly are plenty of truly apocalyptic moments to talk about in any history course, and they’re crucial to cover well. But most of human experience, and indeed, most of the human struggle, consists of people trying to make meaningful and reasonably happy lives together under difficult conditions. All people—from the most vulnerable to the most powerful—do this in circumstances that, when everything is accomplished, lead to their deaths. Mortality is the most reliable historical fact, the most insurmountable social problem. Apocalyptic thinking (as a general state of mind), oddly enough, is based on the implicit denial of its universality.

Nobody gets out of the past alive, but that doesn’t make the past a desert. We have to find ways to honor this fact. That task is critical if we want to avoid pessimism. The ultimate lesson of history must include the insight that everybody lives, not only that everybody dies. So I’m trying to get better at finding ways to portray the everyday vibrancy that’s there in the past. I want my courses to have more voices, more experiences, more forms of happiness and quotidian triumph.

I think that attending to these long-term, structural features of any history course can be as important as anything else teachers do. It may well be as important for teachers as for students.

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Image: Front page of the New York Tribune, June 29, 1914. Library of Congress.