Bacon’s Rebellion in the Age of Trump

Bacon's

We covered Bacon’s Rebellion yesterday in my U.S. survey class.  Like last year, the subject seems more relevant than ever.  I wrote this piece a few months ago at The Panorama:

In Spring 2017, I gave a lecture to my history students about a man of privilege, wealth, and power who took up the cause of a growing band of disgruntled, poor, fearful, white Americans. These Americans believed that the government was not listening to their concerns. They were angry about their lack of opportunity and political representation. They felt threatened by their encounters with people from another race and culture. The man of privilege heard their cry and led them in a rebellion that temporarily drove the ruling class from power. To the extent that some of the ruling class owned land near major rivers, it might even be fair to say that this rebellion was an attempt to “drain the swamp.”

Read the rest here

A “Lineage of Sojourners”

 

Bethel_thumbnail

Last week I wondered why so many students at the school where I teach seem to lack interest in the history of American evangelicalism.  Read that post here.   Over at The Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz appears to agree with me.

Gehrz writes:

As someone who has taught history in a CCCU school for fifteen years, I’m going to join John in being skeptical of the desire of my students to better understand the history of American evangelicalism. Not only for the reasons that John shared at his blog, but because so few of my students identify with evangelicalism. We draw a lot of conservative Lutherans and a few Catholics, Methodists, and Presbyterians, plus megachurch kids who don’t even realize that they’re associated with the Baptist denomination that sponsors Bethel — let alone some larger movement called “evangelicalism.”

This is a great point.  Like Bethel University, Messiah College also has many non-evangelical students.  But the majority of our students, I would argue, come from evangelical backgrounds.

Gerhz then adds some words of optimism:

Now, if you asked my incoming students what “think they seek more than anything” from their Christian college experience, most would answer, “a job.” (Or maybe, “a spouse.”) But that’s because that’s what they’ve been trained to say — by our own marketing and recruitment folks as much as by their parents and the media.

But if you peel back such anxieties, I’ve often found a deeper longing, much more like what Worthen describes. And church history can help to satisfy that desire.

I won’t pretend that most Bethel students are thrilled that they’re required to take the multidisciplinary church history course that I coordinate and help teach: Christianity and Western Culture. I’m sure most are happy just to be done with a course as demanding as CWC.

But at some point in every semester it’s taught, I’m sure every CWC student experiences the sensation of glimpsing herself in the distant mirror of church history. She hears a lecture or reads a primary source and recognizes that the way she thinks about God, about herself, about America and the world, and about justice, beauty, and the good life is rooted in history. That her Christian story is bound up with earlier Christian stories.

That, for better and worse, who she is as a follower of Christ has been shaped by the past. For she comes to see that she is not alone in time, but a part of a centuries-old community of faith that is composed of a great cloud of witnesses, living and dead. She finds kinship with what one of my colleagues yesterday called a “lineage of sojourners” (in an opening reflection on Psalm 39:12).

Read the entire piece here.  “Lineage of sojourners.”  I like that.

Slavery, a Carrot Clarinet, Paris Hilton, and George Washington

Burstein

This is how the Louisiana State University student newspaper described some of the things undergraduates might encounter in historian Andrew Burstein‘s classes.  Here is a taste of Aurianna Cordero’s piece:

Imagine walking into the first day of class and, on the projector, is a photo of a man making an instrument out of a carrot. Followed by that image is one of the most intellectually inspiring lectures a student may ever encounter. In only an hour and a half class, students learned how Christopher Columbus rationalized slavery, and how to make a carrot clarinet. This class is History 2055 with University professor Andrew Burstein.

In a world filled with stereotypes and common misconceptions, Burstein keeps his lectures informative and open to discussion. It isn’t uncommon to find a picture of Paris Hilton next to one of George Washington in Burstein’s class, especially when he’s discussing how important understanding the perspectives of people throughout history.

“We recognize the positive contributions of traditional historical actors that we admire,” Burstein said. “People tend to remember feel-good history and rationalize the less admirable aspects of the past, which is why I like history. It enables me to reintroduce a lost life.”

Read the rest here.  By the way, my favorite Burstein book is The Inner Jefferson.

A British Teacher Wins a Teaching Award from the Daughters of the American Revolution

OwenHis name is James Owen and he teaches American history at Westlake Academy in Westlake, Texas.  He sees the irony in it all.

The Daughters of the American Revolution have chosen Owen as its 2018 Outstanding American History Teacher for the state of Texas.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has the story.  A taste:

After receiving a doctorate in modern British history from Cambridge University in England, Owen came to the United States several years ago to teach history at a liberal arts college in North Carolina.

His interactions with American students and culture stoked his fascination in American history, he said.

When he compared the slow evolution of British history with the sudden establishment of the United States, he marveled at the founding fathers.

“They were building a country from the ground up,” he said. “The founding fathers were starting from scratch.”

Now he helps his students learn critical thinking strategies about American history, which sparks their interest in the subject.

Read the rest here.

Historical Thinking and the Nunes Memo

Image: House memo

How might a historian interpret the now-famous Nunes memo?

Mark Byrnes, chair of the Department of History at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, breaks it down for us.  Here is a taste of his History News Network piece: “The Nunes Memo: ‘Bias,’ and the Skills of the Historian“:

The entire “argument” (such as it is) depends on the idea that a FISA warrant based—to any extent—on the so-called Steele dossier is inherently tainted, because the research done by the author, former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, was paid for at some point by Democrats. Since the warrant targeted Carter Page, who had been part of the Trump campaign, the motive of the funders (not the researcher, it bears noting) to get “dirt” on Trump somehow discredits everything Steele found.

The memo contains not a single argument that the evidence used to obtain the warrant against Carter Page was actually false—only that it is somehow untrustworthy due to the alleged motive behind the research that produced the evidence.

In history, we deal with this problem all the time. We uncover evidence in primary sources, and must judge its credibility. Do we have reason to believe that the person who produced the evidence might have an agenda that should cause us to doubt the veracity of the evidence? What do we do if the answer to that question is “yes,” or even “maybe”?

I do a primary source exercise in my methods class that does just this: presents the students with conflicting primary source accounts of an event. I then explain why the people who produced the evidence might have self-serving reasons for portraying the event in a particular light.

Most students, when first faced with this dilemma, immediately say “bias!” and dismiss the evidence as worthless. That is the reaction the Nunes memo seems intended to produce among the general public.

But that is not how the historian reacts. Yes, the source of the evidence may have some bias. That does not, however, by itself mean that the information is false. It does mean that when weighing its validity, the historian must look for other, independent, corroborating evidence before trusting it.

It seems likely that is what the officials who used the Steele dossier to obtain the FISA warrant did: they compared what Steele wrote to other information they had about Carter Page to see if it lined up.

Read the rest here.  Thanks to TWOILH reader John Shaw for bringing this piece to my attention.

Episode 31 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast is Almost Here!

BTA students

I am really excited about Episode 31!  We talked with Boston Trinity Academy (BTA) history teacher Mike Milway and three of his senior students about studying history at the secondary-school level.  Some of you may recall my recent visit to BTA.  The episode drops on Sunday.  In the meantime, get caught up on previous episodes here.

As always, we could use your patronage.  Head over to our Patreon campaign and learn about the different ways you can support our work. Help us reach our goal!  You may even qualify for a free mug or signed book!

Do You Tell Your Class To Buy Your Book?

Why Study History CoverThe Chronicle of Higher Education is conducting a survey.  Take it here.

Here is how I answered the questions:

Instructors, have you assigned material you have written as required classroom reading? Did you recommend students purchase that material?

Yes.  I have assigned articles and books.  The articles, of course, are available for free in the campus library or via JSTOR.  I assign The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America to my Gilder-Lehrman seminar on colonial America, but I have never assigned it in a class at Messiah College.  Why?  Because the book covers both the late colonial period and the coming of the American Revolution and I usually cover these topics in two different upper-division courses (“Colonial America” and “The Age of the American Revolution”).  I have never assigned Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?Confessing History, or The Bible Cause.  But I have assigned Why Study History?  I actually wrote that book with my “Introduction to History” class in mind.  I have used it every Fall Semester since 2013, the year it was released.

Did you have any misgivings about assigning your work as course material? If so, what were they?

Not really,. but I find that students are not as comfortable discussing the text when they know it is my work.

Did you provide the material free of charge to students? Or did you do anything else to make up the difference to them?

Students pay full price for Why Study History?

Does/did your institution have rules about when an instructor may assign their own work? If so, how did you handle them?

No, not that I am aware of.

“The Mechanics of Class Participation”

Classroom

Yesterday we did a post on Lendol Calder’s use of “Point Paragraphs” in the history classroom.  Calder’s piece was a part of larger Perspectives on History forum titled “How to Get Students to Think, Talk, Share, Collaborate, Learn and Come Back for More.” Here is a taste of Elizabeth Lehfeldt‘s Introduction to the forum:

We’ve all been there. Our syllabus specifies that a percentage of the course grade will be based on participation. We’ve presented riveting material or assigned a provocative reading. We show up for class, stand at the front of the room, and begin lobbing questions at the students. And the silence is deafening.

Our intentions are good, but something is missing in the execution. The four pieces offered here offer strategies and ideas for lifting our class discussions out of the doldrums and making them meaningful and efficacious for students.

Check out the forum here.

 

“Point Paragraphs”

paragraphHistory teachers at every level should take a look at Lendol Calder‘s short piece at Perspectives on History.  Calder, a master teacher and the creator of the “uncoverage” method of teaching the history survey course, explains how he uses “point paragraphs” in class.

Here is a taste:

A Point Paragraph (PP) is 250–400 words students write after completing a reading assignment. In their PP, students name a worthwhile discussion point inspired by the reading(s) and develop that point with evidence and argumentation. On class days when they will discuss the readings using Think/Pair/Share, the syllabus instructs them to bring a PP as their “ticket” to class. I check tickets at the door; those without a PP are kindly turned away. (I generally have to do this only once per semester.) This policy counteracts the free rider problem, ensuring that every person in the room comes with at least a modicum of readiness to contribute to a meeting whose success or failure depends on students’ willingness to risk their ideas out loud, something they are more likely to do if they have already thought through some ideas on paper. If my “ticket to class” policy seems harsh or a lot to ask, bear in mind that a PP need not be particularly brilliant. A merely acceptable Point Paragraph will admit a student to class.

An acceptable PP has three components. The paragraph begins with a statement called the “They Say,” which briefly summarizes “what everyone knows” or what an authority has said or what the student used to think before encountering a new idea in the reading. (The book to read is Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing.) Next comes an “I Say,” a point responding to the “They Say,” either to agree, to disagree, or to agree but with a difference. Requiring students to position their “I Say” in conversation with others increases their awareness of the social dimension of thinking, where the significance of a point depends upon how much it surprises others in some way, providing new insight into the material at hand. The rest of the paragraph explains and supports the point, using quotations, data, and reasoning to demonstrate the plausibility of one’s claim.

Thus an acceptable Point Paragraph does three things: it makes a single, significant point focused on the reading for the day, marshals strong evidence in support of the point, and exhibits good writing style. PPs can be graded quickly using a three-point scale: an acceptable PP earns two points, one that is almost there gets one point, and when no grading categories are met, zero points are earned. I let students write as many PPs as they want, up to 30 total points or 30 percent of the final grade; others will have their own grading schemes. I do not accept late Point Paragraphs.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Teaching Teachers at Emma Willard School

Emma.jpg

Last Friday I helped lead a workshop on historical thinking for twenty-five history teachers at Emma Willard School, an independent girls school in Troy, New York.  The New York State Association of Independent Schools sponsored the workshop.

The school was founded in 1814 as Troy Female Seminary by women’s rights activist Emma Willard. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Fonda and current NY Senator Kirsten Gillbrand are all Emma Willard graduates.  I also learned (after I left) that a 2003 Messiah College graduate currently works in student life at the school.  I also learned that my first cousin lives two blocks down the road!).

Emma 2.jpg

It was a great experience.  I reconnected with my old friend Dr. Bob Naeher, the chair of the Emma Willard History Department.  I first met Bob sometime in the late 1990s/early 2000s when both of us (along with 100s of other teachers and history professors) were grading United States History Advanced Placement exams on the campus of Trinity College in San Antonio, Texas.  Bob is a fine American historian.  He wrote a great dissertation on Puritans and prayer at the University of Connecticut under the direction of Karen Kupperman. (Check out his 1989 New England Quarterly essay, “Dialogue in the Wilderness: John Eliot and the Indian Exploration of Puritanism as a Source of Meaning, Comfort, and Ethnic Survival“).

I was privileged to work with Magdalena Gross of the University of Maryland’s Education Department.  Gross is an engaging scholar and teacher who works at the intersection of historical thinking, pedagogy, and memory.  She is an expert on pedagogy issues surrounding the Holocaust in Poland.  And did I mention that she did her doctoral work at Stanford under the direction of Sam Wineburg?  After teaching two Wineburg books in Fall 2017, I was thrilled to chat with Magda about teaching future teachers how to teach historical thinking skills.  I hope we get to work together again one day.

Magda took the morning session and modeled two lessons.  One challenged students to read critically and the other helped students to tackle difficult issues (like the Holocaust) that they encountered in their study of the past.  (Both lessons were inspired by her work with the Stanford History Education Group).

I was assigned the afternoon session.  I offered some thoughts on the relationship between history and the cultivation of a democratic society.  We discussed the
5 Cs of historical thinking: change over time, contingency, context, complexity, and causation.  Then, drawing from my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, I suggested that the study of history cultivates virtues necessary for a thriving democracy–empathy, humility, intellectual hospitality, and discipline.

The conversation with the teachers was excellent.  As always, I learned a lot!  One teacher even tweeted:

Is Teaching a Gift?

teaching teachers

I am reading Richard Wightman Fox’s excellent biography of Reinhold Niebuhr.  During the 1920s, as a young man in his early thirties, Niebuhr was the pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit.  Fox describes his pulpit presence:

Niebuhr’s preaching was the chief magnet that drew people to Bethel.  By the early 1920s he was an accomplished pulpit performer, the educated Protestant’s Billy Sunday.  One did not merely listen to Niebuhr: one watched him lunge, gyrate, jerk, bend, and quake.  He whirled his arms, rubbed his ears and his balding scalp, stretched his hawkish nose forward.  His whole lanky frame in motion.  One did not merely listen to Niebuhr: to catch the stream-of-consciousness flow of analysis and anecdote–sometime shouted, sometime whispered, but always at the velocity of an undammed flood–demanded a concentration that few could sustain during an entire sermon.  Adelaide Buettner, who joined Bethel in 1924, remembers the dizzying experience of hearing Niebuhr for the first time.  She understood only part of what he said, and ran home to look up in her dictionary some of the words he had used.  Like the rest of the congregation she was firmly hooked by Niebuhr’s charisma; in the pulpit he was fired, inspired with the Word, yet thoroughly rational, “intellectual.”  To here and her young adult friends he was “a hero,” a “father figure,” although he was only in his thirties himself.

Niebuhr’s preaching was by no means just an act.  It was a well-crafted blend of drama and arrangement, a constant dialectic of comfort and challenge….

Niebuhr was a natural.  He had charisma.  His ability to communicate this way was a gift.  But if I read historian Erin Bartram correctly, his gift did not necessarily make him a good teacher.  (I don’t know what his classes were like at Union Theological Seminary.  I am still reading!).

In a very thoughtful piece at the Teaching United States History blog, Bartram reminds us that good teaching takes work–hard work.  It is not a gift.  I read this piece a few weeks ago, but it came back to mind today as I encountered Fox on Niebuhr.

Here is a taste of her piece:

Anyone regularly reading this site already knows how dangerous it is to think of good teaching as a gift. Often those recognized as having a gift for teaching are those who embody charisma in particular ways that our culture recognizes. They hold the attention of an audience, they have a recognizable scholarly pedigree, or they look like a Google Images search for “historian,” and so are afforded some measure of respect, attention, and even deference before they open their mouths.

All those who teach history know that it isn’t a gift, including those who are seen as naturals at it by their colleagues and students. But at this time of year, when evaluations have rolled in and we’re thinking ahead to next semester, it can be tough to remember that.

Student expectations, informed by these broader cultural ideas of what a teacher should be, often conflict with what we try to do in the classroom. We explain what we’re doing, and why, but when that doesn’t work with some students – or worse, with an entire class – we fear that it’s not the methods, it’s us. We just don’t have the gift, and there’s no fixing that.

But teaching isn’t a gift, and good pedagogy – including confronting, absorbing, and managing student expectations – is a set of skills we accumulate, experiment with, and refine. This coming semester, as I teach a historical methods class for the first time, I’m going to try to remember that my struggles don’t mean I’m lacking some gift, they just mean I’m facing a new challenge in my craft.

Just as I try to remember that my teaching is a skill, not a gift, I must also remember that my teaching is labor, not a gift.

Read the entire piece here.  This is definitely something that I tried to get through to my “Teaching History” class last Fall.

“Someone Sat on the Remote”: Teaching Conservatism in an Age of Trump

Republican U.S. presidential candidates Carson and Trump talk during a break at the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley

Is Trump a conservative?  How should we teach conservatism in the age of Trump?  Inside Higher Ed was at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association this past weekend and reported on a session titled “Teaching Conservatism in the Age of Trump.”

Here is a taste:

WASHINGTON — Seth Cotlar, a professor of history at Willamette University in Oregon, isn’t a historian of conservatism (or a conservative). But around 2010, as the Tea Party raged, he felt increasingly alarmed by some students’ tendency to dismiss conservatives as ignorant racist who, in his paraphrasing, “just aren’t as smart as me yet.”

So he began teaching a course on the history of conservatism, to engage one small corner of the overwhelmingly liberal Willamette universe in informed political debate. Cotlar’s duty wasn’t to change minds, he said, just to open them to what conservatism actually is: “a politically robust, complicated phenomenon.”

Now, Cotlar said here Thursday at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting, President Trump has complicated all that.

Donald Trump’s election “totally has thrown into disarray my understanding of American history,” Cotlar said during a well-attended panel on teaching conservatism in the age of Trump. “The last 200-plus years of American history have been like a series of West Wing episodes and then [last] November, someone sat on the remote and now we’re watching a marathon of Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Describing Trump as caffeine-crazed and hyperactive, rather than the “slow, steady hand” typically associated with conservatism, Cotlar said the president’s rhetoric and policy positions not only defy conservative principles and political norms but also pose urgent pedagogical questions.

“How do we think about and engage with conservative Trump voters?” Cotlar asked. “What does it mean to empathize with people who advocate white nationalism?”

As always, Seth Cotlar is asking the right questions.

AHA 2018 Dispatch: The K-16 Teaching Charrette

Group-discussions.jpg
Middle school history teacher Zach Cote checks in with another post from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington D.C.  Read all of Zach’s AHA 2018 posts here.  -JF

In my previous post, I noted that this year’s AHA sessions lean more heavily toward teaching.  In this post, I want to expand a bit more on this.

Teachers often live in bubbles–the classroom, the department, and even the school district’s social studies program.  On Friday morning, I attended the K-16 assignment charrette. My bubble was burst. In the charrette, about eight educators analyzed, critiqued, and questioned each other’s lesson plans. The participants came from diverse classroom contexts, ranging from the middle school level to the university.

I brought a DBQ (Document-Based Question) essay on the Civil War that I give to my students.  I was hoping to receive some minor feedback on how I could tweak it to make it stronger. Instead, I listened as a circle of people much smarter than I am asked dozens of questions related to my desired outcomes, my students’ prior knowledge of the subject, the assignment’s format, my reasoning for using certain sources and for focusing on certain standards, and many more. My pen, unfortunately, was moving slower than my brain, but I did the best that I could to write everything down for later reflection.

In the process, I realized that good historians ask good questions.  Each person listened to one another’s contextualization and explanation of their lessons.  They then built questions to help shape a conversation. The whole process showcased the art of historical thinking. They were trying to not simply understand what the assignment did, but what each teacher was trying to reveal to his or her students through it. Strong feedback did not start with a suggestion or an answer, but with a question.

I thus began to ask new questions about what I wanted my students to accomplish and achieve.  I thought more deeply about  how to situate the lesson as part of my broader course goals. I now expect to tweak the wording of the DBQ question to prompt my students to see more contention between the sources. I am going to rewrite the questions that accompany the documents so that they focus on what the documents reveal, rather than simply what they say.  I also hope to draft a new rubric that marries my district’s common core standards to the historical thinking skills that should be at the heart of our pedagogy.  These changes will give this assignment new life, something that I honestly was not expecting from the workshop.

With that in mind, treat this post as a call to action. I strongly encourage anyone who teaches history, regardless of grade or age, to participate in this workshop next year. You will be a better teacher for it, and most importantly, your students will be better learners.

A Middle School History Teacher Reflects on Positive Changes in the Historical Profession

Classroom

This dispatch from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association comes from Zachary Cote, a middle school history teacher in Los Angeles, California.  Some of you may remember his great posts from the 2017 AHA in Denver.  Enjoy!  –JF

In perusing the various sessions here at the AHA, I have noticed two things:

1. Sessions lean more heavily toward teaching the subject over purely new research, and

2. Historians are vocalizing something resembling an identity crisis.

I will address the second point in this post rather succinctly and save my thoughts on the first one for another, more in-depth response. If one scans the AHA 2018 program, one finds sessions dealing with “reflections,” “Why history matters,” enrollment issues, “The State and Future of the Humanities,” among others with similar themes. When I see words and phrases like this I sense urgency and perhaps a bit of fear. Sessions with such topics imply a sort of redefinition of what the profession entails. In fact, when I attended the “Why History Matters” session this morning, I could hear the urgency expressed by professors and graduate students eager to equip their students with the skills that will help them find jobs outside of the academy.

As a middle school teacher, I cannot offer too much commentary on this perceived shift in the historian’s focus, but I can express my excitement. In teaching 8th grade, I can already see in some of my students a disregard for history and historical thinking. This worries me, but it also encourages me to be a teacher that can change their attitude toward historical study.  In attending some of these sessions, it appears that my micro-observations are fairly widespread.

I am excited to see the academic side of the historical profession shifting its focus to further bridge the gap between the public and the past. The profession is changing, and I am comforted that at least some in the academy are not only recognizing it, but taking steps to respond.

More Teaching Panels at the 2018 AHA

History

Mike Davis, one of our correspondents at the 2018 annual meeting of the American Historical Associationchecks in with some reflections on three panels on teaching history.  Read all of Mike’s AHA 2018 posts here. –JF

I attended three panels at the AHA conference on Friday (Day 2), each one engaging with issues relating to historians and their relationship with the broader community.

The first was a sales meeting for Pearson’s new Revel “interactive learning environment,” billed as an alternative to traditional online and physical textbooks designed to meet 21st century students where they live by letting them engage with ADA compliant audio, video, primary sources, and other learning techniques. While I found Revel engaging, I felt particularly empowered by the number and diversity of faculty present for the talk. Junior and senior faculty from high schools, community colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and comprehensive state universities all turned out for the opportunity to learn better ways to engage with their students.

The second panel: “The Culture Wars of the Texas K-12 Schoolbooks” dealt with Texas K- 12 schools and the efforts by both AHA members and their community allies to both build Mexican-American history studies programs and defend those programs from a hostile state legislature eager to heavily regulate – or outright abolish, any programs that encouraged “nationalism.” The panelists emphasized how the anti-Mexican historiography the state had considered was not simply immoral; it was also bad history, omitting decades of recent Mexican-American historiography. Having used this scholarship myself in the classroom, I was particularly looking forward to this panel and I was not disappointed.

I was particularly pleased at how the panelists – Emilio Zamora (taking the opportunity to present as two of the attendees had been unable to attend thanks to the inclement weather) and Carlos Blanton – emphasized that the focus of their work was on promoting critical thinking and student engagement rather than simply promoting ethnic pride. As they pointed out, this work benefited not just students from a particular ‘minority’ – but all students who get the opportunity to learn the contested nature of history and the way various disempowered groups have fought for power inside historical narratives.

The last panel I attended today was “Teaching the Master Narrative: American History Textbooks in the 20th Century”, a panel inspired by the scholarship of Kyle Ward (Minnesota-Mankato) that looked at the changing (or unchanging) ways various key moments in the “master narrative” of American history have appeared in secondary schools. The University of Miami’s Michael Horton looked at Columbus, offering his audience an interesting antidote to usual Whiggish notions of “historical writing improving over time” by looking at the historians of the 1920s and 1930s who were actually quite critical of Columbus and his career. In the same vein of anti-Whiggishness, Michael Kniesel at Kent State looked at the Boston Tea Party in high school textbooks – finding no particular improvement in accuracy in the way textbooks have discussed the Tea Party from the early 20th century. American teachers are reluctant to paint figures from the American Revolution as economic terrorists – despite the historiography in recent decades leading that way.

Finally, Lindsey Bauman looked at the way textbooks in the 1950s dealt with slavery – finding that textbooks generally relied on Ulrich Phillips’s master-centered economic history when telling the story of slavery. Bauman’s research showed that even as historiography in the academy moved beyond Phillips’s white-centric and white supremacist take on the history of slavery, school textbooks continued to directly use arguments and evidence from a work published some thirty-five years earlier even by the 1950s.

This was a good day – and it left me with good thoughts for my own panel presentation tomorrow. I look forward to seeing readers at the Early Career Lightning Round at 10:30AM on Friday.

AHA 2018 Dispatch: Teaching History in Community Colleges

College classroom 3

We are pleased to have Professor Mike Davis writing for The Way of Improvement Leads Home this weekend from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  Davis teaches at Northwest Florida State College. He is a scholar of American history with a focus on the politics and culture of 19th century America. His most recent publication is a history of the Anti-Masonic movement in Thetford, Vermont. His current project is a history of the National Christian Association (1868-1983)Enjoy!–JF

On Thursday, January 4, 2018, I attended a panel titled “Teacher, Historian, Scholar: The Professional Identity of Two-Year Faculty.”  It focused on (among other things) the role that two-year faculty should play in the community outside their classrooms. A recurring theme among panelists Paul D’Amboise (Vermont CC), Nathaniel Green (Northern Virginia CC), Elizabeth Bryant (Houston CC), and Tony Acevedo (Hudson County CC) was community engagement, both inside and outside the classroom.

Paul D’Amboise pointed out that two-year college faculty are uniquely placed to be a bridge inside the historical community between K-12 educators (who might have more pedagogy), four-year college faculty (who might have more content), and museums and historical societies.

Furthermore, the preponderance of surveys and the growing number of students beginning their careers at two-year colleges make two-year college historians the ‘fulcrum’ of historical education – the front-face of the historical academy and the best way for scholars to get a feel for the general public’s knowledge of and engagement with history. There are no better scholars for teaching skills of critical thinking and citizenship to the average American.

Reversing typical expectations for community college faculty, Nathaniel Green argued for CC faculty to embrace research – making the case that the best way to promote student confidence, success, and satisfaction is to give them the understanding that their community college faculty are professors of history rather than just teachers of it. A scholar with an active research agenda is a scholar making vital contributions to their field, suggested Green, meaning that said scholar can show students that their learning is just as important, and their institution just as ‘real’, as their counterparts at four year institutions.

On the subject of promoting student engagement, Elizabeth Bryant took a pedagogical route, suggesting that faculty adopt the role of “learning manager”, explaining the term as faculty abandoning the idea of disseminating information and becoming masters of strategies to ‘promote understanding’. Community college students are too diverse in their backgrounds and college preparation for anything less, given that many lack the support systems or personal freedoms of students at the four-year college level. On that subject, she led the panel in championing “growing relationships” outside of the classroom, reminding those in attendance of just how diverse the role of community college faculty is.

Finally, Tony Acevedo reminded us of two “facts of life” of community college faculty ] they tend to be happy and satisfied with their jobs and their strong focus on teaching, but concerned about the issues of professional isolation (as they tend to work solo or in small groups), poor conditions (5-10 course teaching loads are not uncommon for community college faculty), and in general how the tension between teacher and scholar is particularly difficult for faculty members working at institutions that may give no weight to the latter at all.

Moderator Mark Smith’s promotion of disciplinary mastery led us into a final discussion of themes that felt familiar to scholars at any institution – declining enrollment, poor treatment of adjuncts, the increasing need to teach learning strategies to products of an era of standardized testing, and other crises that afflict both two-year and four-year institutions. It was an engaging discussion for this author, a teacher at a two-year institution, and a rewarding one – as career paths for Ph.Ds change amid broader evolutions in the nature of higher education, it’s reassuring to know that the American Historical Association is engaging with the interests of two-year faculty.

Did Lincoln’s Reliance on “Providence” Make Him an Incompetent President?

a0d2a-lincoln

This semester my Civil War class is reading Allen Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer PresidentIt is, without peer, the best book on Lincoln’s intellectual and religious life.  Others seem to agree.  In 2000, Guelzo’s biography received the prestigious Lincoln Prize for the best film or book about the Civil War era.  Last night we discussed chapter 8: “Voice Out of the Whirlwind.”

Guelzo argues that Abraham Lincoln, at least in his adult life, was never a Christian, but he did spend a lot of time reflecting on big questions about free will and determinism and their relationship to a force or supreme being that governed the world.  Lincoln, in his pre-presidential years, believed in what he called the “Doctrine of Necessity.”  He wrote: “I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the “Doctrine of Necessity”–that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control…”  Guelzo compares Lincoln’s view here to the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s “philosophical necessity,” a believe “that human beings possess neither free will nor the moral responsibility for the right or wrong actions that is supposed to follow the exercise of free choices.” (p.117).

During his presidency, Lincoln’s “Doctrine of Necessity” took on a more religious flavor.  He began to use the word “providence” to describe this “power, over which the mind has not control.”  He came to embrace a “divine personality” that intervened in human affairs. (p.328).

Guelzo argues, and quite convincingly I might add, that the Civil War led Lincoln to apply his view of “providence” to the political decisions he made as POTUS.  This was particularly the case in his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.  The Proclamation was issued days after the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam.  In a cabinet meeting following the battle, Lincoln uttered what Guelzo calls “the most astounding remarks any of [the members of his cabinet] had ever heard him make.”  Lincoln told the cabinet that he had become convinced that if the Union won at Antietam he would consider it an indication of the “divine will and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.” (p.341).  He added, “God had decided this question in favor of the slaves.”  Indeed, the Emancipation Proclamation changed the course of the war.  The Proclamation made it a war that was less about preserving the Union and more about freeing the slaves.  It could be argued that it was the turning point of the Civil War.  And Lincoln made his decision by somehow interpreting (with much certainty) the providence of God.

After class, a student asked me if I thought a United States President could get away with this kind of presidential leadership today.  What if George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump made a republic-altering decision and said that it was based upon his reading of God’s providence? (Bush came close on numerous occasions).  There would be many evangelicals who might love such a claim.  But most Americans, including many evangelicals who believe in the providence of God but do believe we can know God’s will in every matter on this side of eternity, would think that such a decision-making process might be the height of presidential incompetence.

More Thoughts on the U.S. Survey

College classroom 3

On Saturday we ran a post titled “How to Fix the U.S. History Survey Course: ‘Reimagine Everything.” One of the comments on that post came from veteran U.S. survey instructor John Haas, Professor of History at Bethel College in Indiana.  It was good that I decided to publish it here as a separate post.  Enjoy:

I recall a much-heralded teacher of undergraduates–his 8 AM survey courses were famous for filling up on the first day of enrollment–commenting when he received the university’s best teacher award, “I teach an ancient discipline in an ancient way. History isn’t broken, and there’s no need to fix it.”

If we’re just speculating, I would mention several challenges or mistakes that afflict the history survey today:

1. Specific to the survey, the American past is far more terra incognita for today’s students than it has perhaps ever been. The average freshman or sophomore comes to the survey with very little background knowledge–When was the Revolution? Who were we fighting? Why? Who won? and etc. are all mystifying questions in many cases–and if in our lecturing we’re assuming basic historical or geographical knowledge of the kind high school graduates once possessed, it will make our lectures incomprehensible. One has to work very hard, actually, to assume nothing. Everything has to be explained. This also goes for current events. If we rely on analogies drawn between the past we are explaining and a present we assume they are familiar with, our explanation will fail. Not long ago I was lecturing on the Revolution and mentioned some ways in which the Americans shared the advantages that the Taliban enjoy, and the looks on their faces indicated perplexity, so I asked, “Who can tell me who the Taliban are?” No one knew. (US foreign policy over the past 50 years or so is a total blank for almost all of them.) I mentioned Jerry Falwell the other day and no one–this at an evangelical college–knew who he was (Sr. or Jr.) The mental world of our students is essentially unpopulated.

2. Similarly, I’ve found that I really need to watch my vocabulary. It is not just technical terms that lose them. Words I would have never thought the least bit arcane are unknown to them. Once I used the term “affluent,” and someone asked what that was. I put it to the class. No one knew. I had a student who was perplexed by the word “nevertheless.” I’ve come to realize that unless I watch my analogies, references, allusions and vocabulary very carefully, it is quite easy to fill my lectures with so many unfamiliar or unknown elements that the students quickly become mentally exhausted. Of course, that they are loathe to indicate when they don’t know something you are assuming makes it all the more difficult, because it means I have to guess.

3. The use of PowerPoint has many downsides especially, I think, in history. This depends, of course, on how the PowerPoint is used and how one teaches. There are many ways in which it’s great. But in other places, it’s quite destructive. If, eg, one throws up a slide with 5 or 10 bullet points, one has undermined the element of suspense that makes story-telling a compelling experience. Instead of a drama or mystery to be unfolded orally in real time, the past has become a list of sentences that the student needs to quickly copy down before the slide disappears and the next one arrives. Even with something as simple as a map, the very evident superiority of the PowerPoint slide is undermined by the disappearance of the human dimension: Watching someone draw a map (or try to) is more compelling and interesting, as a process, than someone hitting a button and putting up a slide (even though the slide is a much better representation). Much of the human dimension of teaching (the quirks and foibles) have been erased from the classroom by technology, and the space has become efficient, accurate, and sterile. After reading Patrick Allitt’s book a few years ago, I began experimenting with devoting one class a week to still pictures and discussing them (as he describes doing in his book). I thought it was a lot of fun, and assumed students would like it too (“Hey, look! Pictures!”) But there is a downside here, too, as it removes opportunities for students to employ their imaginations (Andre Gregory once explained that that’s why the movie “My Dinner with Andre” is so entertaining–it lures the watcher into activating their imaginations).

4. There are no doubt other things affecting the course that are out of our control. I have found in the last couple years that interest in US foreign policy, and especially in the Middle East (two subjects I often teach courses on) had really dried up. During the Bush II years students were cramming into these classes, but over the Obama years interest declined and now it’s at the lowest ebb I’ve seen in my teaching career (we’ve actually ceased offering the course on the Middle East and North Africa). The way the course were taught remained essentially the same, and they were very well-received, so I can only assume that external factors have changed: We are no longer as a nation pursuing the remaking of the Middle East as a national project; there are wars aplenty, but there’s no effort to enlist the support or even interest of the population; the wars for their part have no narrative arc leading to successful or satisfying conclusions; and etc. I wonder, in addition, if this sense that the plot has been lost, or that there’s not a lot to feel good about, or similar affective and emotional dimensions to the topic, hasn’t impacted the study of US history as a whole? The history of a nation that elects a Barack Obama, eg, is more attractive as a subject to investigate than one that terminates in Donald Trump (to many students that is).

How to Fix the U.S. History Survey Course: “Reimagine Everything”

dickinson_college_18_college_classroom

Last month a group of Texas history teachers gathered at Houston Community College to talk about introductory history courses.  The event was sponsored by the American Historical Association and included keynote addresses by Steven Mintz (University of Texas at Austin), Andrew Koch (John Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education), and Nancy Quam-Wickham (California State University, Long Beach).

Jermaine Thibodeaux offers a report on the conference at AHA Today.  Here is a taste:

Steven Mintz (Univ. of Texas at Austin) kicked off the conference by offering a rather dire assessment of today’s US history survey course. Having taught the history survey for decades, Mintz cited historically low enrollments and lack of student interest or engagement in the classroom as reasons for the survey’s demise at four-year institutions. All is not lost, however, assured Mintz. The key to reigniting students’ interest in history courses, which for many begins with the survey, he said, is simply “reimagining everything.” By broadly rethinking pedagogy, assessment, and delivery modes, Mintz argued, the lackluster survey course can be saved, with great benefit to students and teachers.

While the gathered historians had likely heard sweeping diagnoses like Mintz’s before, he was able to offer a wealth of anecdotal evidence, best practices, and examples of engaging and exciting instruction that did not at all compromise higher order thinking. For example, in his own US history survey course, Mintz forgoes the standard midterm and final exam, opting instead for consistent formal assessment and weekly online modules that combine essay writing with content checks in the form of thoughtful multiple choice questions. Mintz encouraged history teachers to shun traditional models of instruction and instead embrace a combination of approaches that would make the introductory course more meaningful for students.

Read the entire post here.  I am not sure the survey course is broken, but I am confident that a lot of good ideas for improving it were bandied about at this conference.

Can You Really Spend Too Much Time on Religion in the U.S. Survey?

Cotton_Mather

Over at Teaching United States History blog, Eric Bartram discusses her “struggles” and “successes” in teaching religion in the first half United States history survey course.

Here is a taste:

A while back, I read Jolyon Baraka Thomas’ piece Teaching True Believers, and responded with my own thoughts: Teaching religious n00bs and skeptics. Where Thomas talked about struggling to get students with strongly-held beliefs to see religion as “a social construction or an anthropological conceit or a legal category bearing geopolitical effects,” I reflected on the difficulties of teaching the history of religion to students “who have little framework for understanding religion or belief but nonetheless have very fixed ideas about how religion operates.”

Both in the comments on the piece itself, and on Twitter, many scholars of history and religious studies expressed shock at the idea that students could be so ill-informed. Many put it down to geographical differences; some parts of the country are just more religious than others, and therefore some students more prepared to talk about it.

There’s something to that argument, but I think that something more specific is at play. Did students grow up in a place where religion was understood to be a public matter (at least if you belonged to the dominant religion) or a more private matter? I’m not saying that there’s anywhere in the United States that’s free of civil religion or laws that reflect the views of historically-dominant religions, but that in parts of the country where students don’t see religious belief, it might be easier for them to think it’s not there. As a result, even the moderate amount of discussion time we spend learning about American religious beliefs in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries seems like so much religion.

This presents a particular kind of challenge in teaching. It’s not like religion is the only thing we teach where students have to be persuaded that it’s worth thinking about, but for me, teaching in the Northeast, it’s also something where many students have almost no pre-existing framework to hang new analysis on, and the framework they do have largely consists of “religion was for people in the past and is a marker of backwardness.” I imagine this is the case for a lot of historians. But I can’t give up on teaching it.  And so, in my US I, we draw a lot of family trees to map out the branches of Christianity. We talk about the contours of antisemitism. We define terms: “heathen,” “Papist,” “evangelical,” “denomination,” “salvation.” We draw more family trees.

Read the entire piece here.