Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Roaring into the 20s

The Roaring 20s

This may be the easiest, but worst developed, lecture I have. The argument is simple: “tired of reforming the nation and world, Americans turned inward to affluence, entertainment, and religious and racial fundamentalisms.” Of course, this doesn’t apply to the NAACP; it doesn’t apply to Jane Addams and her followers; it doesn’t apply to Ida B. Wells-Barnett; it doesn’t take into account further American financial investments throughout the world. There’s a whole bunch missing, and if anyone wants to help me reformulate the thesis, I’m all ears.
As the lecture moves now, I start with affluence: this was a period of growth, development, and consumer capitalism. I have great advertisements directed toward “fat men,” and we discuss the rise of fatness as a shifting historical category and how marketing worked to fatten people up and then slim them down (sound familiar!?!). Then I move into the critics of affluence – Gatsby and others. I read from Ezra Pound’s “The Garden” and consider how artists never seem to be happy. Then onto politics: the red scare; Al Capone; prohibition; and Republican hegemony. The final slide shows the 1928 presidential election and how it looks like America will be Republican forever. (oh how historical events change the world)

And finally: race and religion. It strikes me that in the 1910s and 1920s, white Americans were desperately trying to render who they were and who they were not. Many turned to Fundamentalism to express what they were (evangelical Christian) and what they were not (liberal socialists). Moreover, many white Americans could only articulate their identity through black and immigrant bodies. Whether Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, or the dance craze for “The Black Bottom,” being or becoming American somehow had to go through a black body. And immigration reform in the 1920s showed clear discomforts with what America was becoming. Madison Grant seemed to win, and laws that had held Asian immigrants at bay before now applied to central and eastern Europeans. The new Klan’s emphasis on racial and religious purity encapsulated so much of the era. I know white supremacy (and especially its sanctification) is a regular theme in U.S. history, but its technological, social, and political mobilization seemed particularly acute in the 1910s and 1920s.

The documents in Major Problems beautifully illustrate these themes, and I’m impressed by how Lisa Cobbs Hoffman used religion, race, and economics to uncover the feelings of the era. Whether laments on the “modern church” or discussions of the automobile in “Middletown, USA,” the documents show modernism battling fundamentalisms in a variety of forms. Now we just need to get a chapter from Matthew Sutton's book on Aimee Semple McPherson into the essay section to show the modernism of Christian fundamentalism.

Friday, September 23, 2011

How did they justify that?

I've always had kind of a schoolboy crush on Margaret Sanger. Maybe it was the topic of her life's work that initially sparked the fire, maybe some of her fetching pictures. Either way, she's one of a number of people in American history who make me blush a bit. She of course wasn't perfect, but who is? And I'm not sure how my students react to me telling them this part of my personality, but perhaps they begin to see people in those black and white pictures as real people? Or maybe they just think their teacher is stranger than they initially thought.

Anyway, Ed's right, there is something almost boring about the Progressives, and I think he's right when he suggests that this is because the Progressives haven't yet experienced the 20th century and therefore haven't seen the true atrocities of the industrial age. I always get a bit giddy when I lecture (in a few weeks from now) on the decline of the Progressive and the rise of something new in the 1920s. The students read Gatsby, and I read aloud the last page. We're happy to be on more familiar, more cynical turf.

One question has come up in my class though, and it's in the title of the post. I was lecturing on the destruction of the Indians in the 1880s and 1890s, and specifically on Wounded Knee. A student shot up her arm and asked, to paraphrase, if these people were acting in the name of progress, how did they justify the wholesale and sanctioned slaughter of all these people?

We actually read a selection from the trial of the Sand Creek massacre, so the students learn: (1) not everyone did sanction it; and (2) those that did had the best science at their disposal. I discuss the hierarchy of races theory and the power of Manifest Destiny. I talk about measuring skulls, and about the idea that these people believed that god destined them to have this land.

I sensed, though, I had left her cold. The blatant murder of hundreds and thousands of people at one time didn't seem justifiable on these grounds. This was yet another reminder that history is always a foreign country. I also began to wonder about what things we might be doing today that will look immoral a hundred years hence. Eating meat? Execution? Corporal punishment? Imperialism? I didn't have time to do this with the class, although I wish I had.

Making sense of eugenics and its detestable brethren is a tall task after all.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Belief in progress

The Progressive Era

I’m not sure why, but the progressives always seem so boring to me. I know they’re not. Theodore Roosevelt was a ball of energy; Jane Addams was smart and savvy; World War I was horrendous; Upton Sinclair was hilarious; W. E. B. Du Bois was a genius. So why does the era seem so dull and na├»ve? Probably because the progressives had yet to experience WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII. I want them to be modern as modernity was depressed by those events. They had yet to be morally chastened and challenged, as Reinhold Neibuhr would express and try to ethically understand.

So how do I get my students to believe, at least for a moment, the belief progressives had? And this is where I start: belief. What defines the progressive era, I think, is mass belief that the nation and world could be made better. The problems of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age could be rectified. Progress could be made through: efficiency, stability, safety, empathy, and democracy.

Efficiency: whether it’s Taylorism in the work place, or execution through electrocution, or cutting a canal through Central America, a progressive goal was to make society and the world more efficient.

Stability: whether it was TR trying to bring stability to coal strikes or to the Western Hemisphere, or whether it was the Federal Reserve Act created under Woodrow Wilson’s tenure, the goal was to bring stability to the nation’s economy, labor force, and international relations.

Safety: factories were dangerous places; cities were dangerous places; hell, the food itself was dangerous. The Pure Food and Drug Act was to make edibles more safe. Margaret Sanger wanted women to treat their bodies safely. And when the United States entered WWI, it was, as Wilson put it, “to make the world safe…”

Empathy: lots of progressives hoped that empathy could reign where disdain had ruled. Jane Addams hoped for that in Chicago. W. E. B. Du Bois hoped for that when he published The Souls of Black Folk - that somehow understanding across the color line would lead to the “contact of living souls.” Muckrakers like Upton Sinclair hoped that descriptions of everyday life (we can debate, of course, whether he got it right) would compel action and lead to greater sensitivity.

And finally, democracy was an order of the day. Enfranchising women … check (all women, no, but at least some African Americans hoped the new constitutional amendment would get black men and women to the polls in the South). Senators elected directly by citizens … check. Initiative, referendum, and recall … in some places, check, check, and check. And finally, what was Woodrow Wilson going to make safe? “the world for democracy.”

Grand goals; grand visions. Belief killed Wilson; it chastened Du Bois; and it left Addams feeling alone. But the point was belief in progress and change. The progressive era, I hope, offers my college students a little reprieve from the “gilded” focus of American history – that hope and belief matter too, and they can be historically significant.

So … as always, what am I missing here? Next week, I’ll discuss the primary documents from Major Problems and the coverage in Hist, but I’d love to hear some other viewpoints.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"Be clear." - Strunk and White

Writing Assignments

I still remember my first paper as an undergraduate. I don’t recall the question or the topic (it was something in European history), but I remember getting it back from the TA. There was scribbling all over the sides. There were phrases I could not make out. The letters “PV” seemed everywhere. Then at the end, there was a paragraph I could barely decipher and then in clear, large print “B-”. This was not an auspicious beginning to my career as a scholar. My father recommended that I consider math, since I was doing quite well in Calculus.

I learned a lot from that TA – not by what she did right, but by everything she did wrong (and I found that this was the standard way to grade among most historians). I had no idea why I received a B-. I could not understand her writing. I did not understand the shorthand. PV could have meant “poor verbs” to me. I would have never figured out “passive voice” on my own or why that was a problem. So Strunk and White's words to writers, "be clear," I think equally applies to professors evaluating the essays.

Here is the solution, as I see it. First, I provide the grading rubric with the assignment. My students are currently working on their first essays (ahem … are currently working on it student blog readers!). From the first day, they knew the categories I was looking for:
  • ·      Introduction clarity
  • ·      Thesis clarity
  • ·      Secondary context from lecture and textbook
  • ·      Use of primary documents from Major Problems
  • ·      Analysis of primary documents from Major Problems
  • ·      Overall writing clarity
  • ·      Writing mechanics
  • ·      Appropriate references

Each of these categories receives 0-6 points. And each student receives 2 points for turning the essay in on time (so 50 total points).

Second, when a student receives her paper back, she receives a rubric grid with checks for each category. If the introduction is confusing, then they’ll get a 3 or 2. If they only use 3 or 4 documents from Major Problems, they’ll get a 3 or lower in that category. This way, students know how they are being graded (so they know how to write it). Then, they know how to improve for their next essay (oh, my thesis and introduction were quite low so I need to spend more time there).

Do you have any essay grading tricks that gives students the information they need in a clear, systematic way? Are there other ways you make such a subjective enterprise of grading essays more objective?

Next time (maybe tomorrow), I’ll get to my lecture on the Progressive Era.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Bad, Bad America ... But Then, Why Come?

Gilded Age Discussion
Statue of Liberty in Paris
Our discussion of the Gilded Age was fantastic. I put students into groups of 4 to 6 and explained to them that they were a family coming to the United States (or moving within it) during the Gilded Age. Where would you decide to move? Each group was to use as many documents from Major Problems as they could and the contextual information from Hist and lecture to make their determination.

I put them in "families" because I wanted them to consider that such choices weren't so much individually made, but rooted in family dynamics. Moreover, I wanted them to use their collective reading wisdom (which may mean some didn't read at all ... and could free ride for the discussion a little). The result was fascinating: when each group defended their location of choice, they did so by referencing why other locations were far worse.

One group selected Chicago; it was a growing city, they explained, rising to a status just behind New York City. They referenced the high numbers of immigrants moving there and the attention the city was getting from reformers like Upton Sinclair. But then they turned to negative references. Look at how bad New York was in the pictures of Jacob Riis. California was awful, if you heard the experience of Lee Chew, a Chinese immigrant.

Another group of all women selected Utah and they would marry Brigham Young. They were excited about the protection and camaraderie they would enjoy as a collective bunch and that they wouldn't have to endure a father who ate the best food (as in the selection from Bread Givers) or be attacked by the Klan (as was Lucy McMillan's experience).

Another group thought California would be rad. They used historian Donald Worster's essay on the West as on the forefront of capitalism to make their decision. They wanted to be where there were new innovations, new movements, and new hopes. And finally, one group selected Kansas, because of an ex-slave's recollection of it being far better than the South.

Then I asked the students what I believe is the central problem of how American historians represent the Gilded Age. If America was so bad (racist, sexist, classist, violent, hate filled, greedy, and destructive, which it was, just ask the bison), then why did 25 million immigrants move to the nation between 1880 and 1920? In total numbers, that's about the American population in 1860 in the entire country! Is it the case that historians present the United States as gilded, but there was some real gold there?

So we got talking, and we viewed the Major Problems sources in new ways. We looked at where the sources came from or how could we read into them why the United States was desirable. Some of the documents came from Congressional hearings. When Thomas O'Donnell lamented the plight of workers, he was doing so before a Senate committee on relations between capital and labor. Some Senators wanted to know his experiences, and he was heard. When Lucy McMillan spoke about Klan attacks, it was to another federally-sanctioned committee. At least some members of the U.S. govermnent wanted to know what happened to her. Only years earlier, the Supreme Court had said she had no federal citizenship rights. And finally, why would young Asian men and Slovenian men be enticed by American boosters? When they heard of opportunities, such as wealth, jobs, and citizenship, why was that compelling enough to move? The push factors were significant. Perhaps it meant that Lee Chew didn't believe he had any of those possibilities in China, but there was hope he could have them in the United States. Of course, that did not work out according to plan.

The overall point became not that the United States was so great in the Gilded Age, but that it certainly wasn't as overwhelmingly bad as we easily characterize it. As I try to move my classes from melodramas of good versus evil (where the United States is typically evil, or just a little less evil than others - like Nazis), I think we get a little bit closer to sympathy and understanding for the past. It also provides a global perspective so we can know a little bit about what was going on in those other parts of the world.

My questions to you are: do professional historians overdo the "tragic" or "evil" focus of American history, particularly the Gilded Age? And, are there other documents from the Gilded Age that you would include that would show positive aspects of the nation?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Populist Get Two or Three Sentences?

This is a direct response to Ed's post on the Gilded Age (the Guilded Age?). But rather than go at him personally, I think it better serves the broader question of the blog to air it publicly.

Just a sentence or two on the Populists? Bryan gets beat up in a minute! The Midwest gets nothing (a voice from Chicago here)? How can you get away with this! I feel like William Jennings Bryan.

Yes, we all skip tons in our surveys--by necessity. And I understand the virtues and costs of a more focused approach, of undercoverage. But it seems to work best for me when I think of the survey as a long three-part narrative, with the lectures unfolding from one to the next, the previous serving as an explanation for the one upcoming, and the story moving along, (mostly) chronological. Or something like that. This way I get coverage, but keep the narrative focus.

To explain with some specifics: the course is set up in three parts (1) Industrial America, 1865-1919ish; (2) "Modern" America, 1919-1945; and (3) our time, 1945-2011. I get between 8-10 lectures per section. And I work to make those lectures flow like a narrative.

For example, in Part 1, the root is the Industrial Revolution. One lecture on it. I then use it to explain the transformations in the North (one lecture on immigration and urbanization), the South (one lecture on the New South and Jim Crow) and the West (one lecture on the meaning of the West, its development, and the destruction of the Indians). Then I do a thing on the protests against the Industrial Order from the working class (one lecture on the early labor movement), the farmers and agrarian types--the Populists! (one lecture on Bryan and the Populists and the transformation of agriculture wrought by the Industrial Revolution), and the Progressives (one lecture--as we sit, literally, next to Hull House). Then we get to America's increasing involvement in the world and World War I (one lecture on that). Then exam 1.

So we get a lot of coverage, but so much of it is connected to the root and the previous lectures that it begins to make sense to my students (at least I think it does). The only thematic odd ball here is Reconstruction. It's hard to fit Reconstruction into the New South lecture and really difficult to fit it nicely in the "Industrial America" narrative--it works, I think, but it's a stretch. Besides that, I find this a good narrative rubric that allows me to fit a lot in.

What gets left out? Still a ton. Religion is mostly quiet, although shows up briefly at the end of Reconstruction, in the labor movement, some of the west, and the Spanish-American War (yes, I said it). Aside from the concreting of domesticity, women don't get a lot of attention until the Progressives. And any number of topics could be engaged in greater depth.

But I guess what I'm saying is I prefer the narrative approach over the shingled one. Maybe that's just how my brain works, and probably some overlap of the two is best.

But you tell me: what am I doing wrong? How does your narrative flow?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

All That Glitters is Not Gold (but sometimes we love the bling)

Gilded Age Lecture

My first historical love was the Gilded Age. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was because the names were familiar. As a child, I had heard of Carnegie and Rockefeller. We lived near New York City and Rockefeller Center was where you could ice skate. Carnegie Hall was where really good musicians played. I knew J. P. Morgan too. Money was a god in suburban New Jersey so the robber barons were titans. We were the classic upper-middle-class kids, trading baseball cards to prepare us for the stock exchange and comics books were discouraged (fantasy only makes money on the West Coast).

For this reason, and the fact that I crib from Mark W. Summers’s amazing textbook, The Gilded Age, my Gilded Age lecture needed less revising than my others. Years ago, I focused almost exclusively on conflict during the era. I tried to explain the differences between the Knights of Labor and the AFL. I tried to have my students rise and fall emotionally with the Populists. But I found my classes did not care about Terrence Powderly or Mary Lease.

They did care, however, about technology. So now, to incorporate it all, my overall argument is this: “Businessmen, workers, immigrants, farmers, and politicians transformed the United States from a marginal player in global economics to a powerful global competitor. In the process, the nation expanded in influence, material products, and conflict.”

I always start with the new technologies and how industrialization changed so much. College students can relate to a lot of it. Light transformed the night. If you had electricity, you could stay up later and now see the girl you were hitting on at the bar. “Night life” was a new and expanding invention. Telephones … well, I don’t have to explain to them the importance of their cell phones. Improved and cheaper steel made buildings go up and railroads go out. I then move into the darker side of it all. The decimation of the bison population (great photos on this, and already discussed when we talked about Reconstruction); the loss of worker autonomy and interest; grueling hardships for farmers that stemmed from overproduction and terrible credit structures; the rise in orphans (picture to the side is a great one of New York orphans who were shipped West to find new homes). They couldn’t all turn out like “ragged Dick” – perhaps the most humorously named hero for a college class in all American literature (it always gets a laugh from the immature students who are listening).

Then, I move into the “Spanish-American War,” a war my students are already familiar with from our Reconstruction discussion and lecture. Why, oh why, do textbooks still call it that? Hist does; Foner does too; we don’t all it that in Major Problems, mostly because Lisa Cobbs Hoffman is one of the most brilliant scholars of American foreign relations and policy. Why can’t we come up with something better; sorry, but “Spanish-Cuban-Filipino-Puerto-Rican-American War” isn’t much better. I tried “War of 1898” in my first book, but that seems too vague. Any improvements?

Anyway, the “Spanish-American War” stands as the grand expression of both the Gilded Age Reconstruction. It’s where the white North, South, East, and West work together and new technologies help create new markets. This is an example of how I try to braid lectures together so they hear about similar topics time and again.

What’s missing? Lots! The Populists get two or three sentences. The Midwest gets about the same. William Jennings Bryan gets beat up in a minute or two and I don’t even reference the Wizard of Oz. I would love to hear how others teach the topic, and if someone can help Lisa and I find a killer document from the Mormons in the time period.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Discussin' Reconstruction

While the Civil War gets all the glory of movies, celebrations, and heroics, Reconstruction is rendered a sad story. It’s a tragedy. It’s a travesty. Healing defeated justice. Dreams were deferred. It led to the “nadir” of black history. I hate sad stories, even though I often find myself writing or talking about them as a scholar, and I particularly hate leaving my students depressed. So to discuss Reconstruction, I forced them to address who the heroes of Reconstruction were and what successes matched the obvious failures. They used the Major Problems documents, and we had a great conversation. I learned that some of them are already thinking like historians.

Here’s what I my found out from the class. First, the NCAA can be a frustrating organization and that my scholar-athletes have yet to receive the funds to purchase their classroom books. Ugh. Second, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was right to challenge abolitionists for their unwillingness to move on women’s rights. Third, Lucy McMillan of South Carolina was cool for testifying against the Klan. Here was a case where the government listened directly to a former slave. Fourth, national reconciliation was nice, but not at the expense of rights for African Americans. So far, so good.
What was most impressive about the discussion was that many of my students wanted to judge the past on its own merit. When I asked “was Reconstruction a success,” one said “no, because so many established goals went either unrealized or warped.” Tell me more, I encouraged. This young woman then went through Thaddeus Stevens’s calls for land redistribution and legal rights, and how those were overwhelmed. She detailed how the 15th Amendment was worked around, and how rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” went under assault. What a great answer! She didn’t use her contemporary understanding of right and wrong; she used criteria from the past. Hooray!

Finally, I learned that none of my students – none of them – cared about Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. None of them recalled Bill Clinton’s hearings and none of them thought it was important. So for future renditions of Major Problems, I’m thinking maybe the document on impeachment should be ditched. What would be a good replacement? Any ideas? I was thinking about maybe a diary or journal entry from out West that somehow connected to the impeachment.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On periodization

Because Ed called me out on how I chose to periodize Reconstruction in HIST (and rightly so), I think it's worth dwelling on the subject of periodization for a moment, especially because all of us who teach the US survey have to draw lines around when a subject begins and when it ends in order to teach it. Otherwise things become untenable and the thread is lost.

The problem of periodization was the most difficult intellectual hurdle I encountered in writing a textbook. You want to keep narrative drive and you can't get too far ahead of yourself. But does Reconstruction really end in 1877? It's easy to say no, but this is not without problems of its own. Ed, how do you bring Reconstruction to 1898, the capstone moment of, well, reforging the white republic, when we haven't even explained America's increasing role in the world yet? And how do you talk about that role in the world when you haven't even taught the industrial revolution yet (which starts when, again?)? And then do you then teach about the conquering of Hawai'i before you get to, say, the stunning growth of New York City in the latter half of the 19th century (and in the rest of the industrializing north to boot)? I don't mean to come down on Ed (one of my favorite pastimes) but simply to point out that while I might agree with Ed that Reconstruction lasts at least until 1898 or 1954, that's a tough way to teach it.

You can see the problem. Strictly thematic tellings of the survey counter this problem, but the cost is narrative and coverage. The solution for me, in HIST and in the classroom, is to take small chunks, think about how this chunk makes sense to the next chapters and the one before it, and build from there.

This isn't to say there is no flexibility. In fact, I completely buy into the idea of moving the date of Reconstruction up to 1863, when the first serious plans for reunion were aired and debated. That's not too much of a challenge.

But to push it past 1877 makes things trickier, for the reasons mentioned above. As of now, in both lecture and textbook, I end things in 1877, then come back to the Reconstruction story (with a brief, repetitious recap of Reconstruction--never undervalue repetition!) in my lecture on "The New South" (which I gave today in fact, the starting point of which is the origin of the term "Jim Crow," which goes back to 1830).

Perhaps ironically, too, the weight of history plays a role in my decision to persist in ending Reconstruction in 1877. There is of course a certain logic to ending the chunk in 1877 because of the removal of the military from the south and the political compromise that led to it, but there is an important homage to the past we must make when we challenge it, which is to say there is a reason that lots of historians before us have capped the period at 1877. It doesn't make absolute sense of course, but any attempt at periodization never does. And before we chuck out the older historiography we need to understand why it was there in the first place.

This is a problem that comes up time and again in the survey: no periods make absolute sense, but some time frames make more sense than others. This is a fun intellectual problem that demonstrates, for me anyway, how history is really made by historians who are sympathetically attempting to understand the past.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Reconstruction Lecture

I just cracked open my “Reconstruction” PowerPoint and shook my head in disgust. The first slide starts with a lie: “Reconstruction: 1865-1877.” First off, even though my opening is from 1865 (the devastation of Charleston, SC) and the first song is “I’m a Good Ole Rebel,” (which is part of Major Problems) but some of the lecture material goes back to 1862 and 1863 (emancipation and anti-polygamy legislation). More importantly, I don’t stop in 1877 – not even close. I go to the end of the century and this was an important element in my doctoral research and first book. All of the newest and best books on Reconstruction push past 1877 (even Foner went beyond that). David Blight went to WWI in Race and Reunion and so too did Heather Cox Richardson in West from Appomattox. So why in the world did I ever claim to be bound by that parameter? Now, I don’t date it, but if I did, I would put “Reconstruction, 1863-1898.” (Hist has the same dating, “1865-1877.” Foner's textbook does too; I’m not sure how a textbook would alter something like that; maybe Kevin can help us out). Maybe dates should be damned not just for monograph titles, but for lecture titles too.

Next, I noticed that I originally had two main points: first, how northern and southern whites reunited; and second, how African American freedoms were won and then diminished. I had nothing on the West (not even the transcontinental railroad) and Mormons, Indians, and Chinese immigrants had to wait until the Gilded Age. All of this had to change.

Now, the lecture focuses upon three main problems:
1) how would a new American nation and nationalism be built by former Confederates and Union women and men?
2) what would freedom look like for former slaves?
3) how would the West now be developed now that the slavery question has been settled?

And now I have three main points:
1. The southern states were quickly readmitted into the federal government, and northern and southern whites effectively built a shared sense of nationalism by the end of the century.
2. Former slaves received many rights, but a new form of racial oppression emerged that was built upon segregation and violence.
3. The West was further populated and offered new points of economic, cultural, and social contention for the nation.

My students will post on which primary documents from Major Problems they liked, found confusing, and hated … so look out for an enforced conversation to be happening here all week!

How are you teaching Reconstruction? What am I missing? Are there any documents not in Major Problems that you think need to be included? Are there any that you think should not be there?

Monday, September 5, 2011

From the Digital Archives

There are so many great digital resources out there, and we wanted to share a new blog that has documents from the National Archives’ Center for Legislative Archives. This comes from Daniel Rice, a graduate of the University of Arkansas and now resident of Chapel Hill. Once we figure out how to put "blogs we follow" on the right sidebar, we'll get it up there!


Friday, September 2, 2011

A Report from the History Games

Week 1 Roundup

Bureaucratic tip:
"You are #31 on the wait list," I email back to yet another student hoping to add the class. Sadly, the cap is 50 and it's staying there. At my institution, students can try to "crash" a course. They need an add code and it gets tricky. One student is a senior and needs the class to graduate. Another is a sophomore and this course fits her schedule just right. I highly recommend getting to know your university's policies for adding classes and have your own ethical system that works for you. I go by the "first come, first serve" principle and I keep the cap at what the university determines. Others go by seniority. What did NOT work for me (what I did earlier in my career) was to take anyone who wanted the class. That became a grading nightmare and it lessened the experience for the original group. And, if I didn't have enough seats, then it became a fire hazard (thankfully that never happened).

Discussion of the Discussion:
This History Games were a hit. In groups of 5, the students were asked to select from our time period (1865-present):
1 president
2 inventions
1 book
1 movie
1 media star
1 non-president person (anyone else)

From their list, they would tell me what their society would be like, how it would function, and how it would interact with other districts in the class. For example, one group had JFK and MLK, the film Crash, and the book To Kill a Mockingbird. Obviously, this society would be willing to confront racism in various ways. They also had Marilyn Monroe, "for shock appeal," as one put it. Another group had cell phones and atomic bombs so they were ready to take resources from others, while the district with penicilin and microwaves was hoping to barter their medicines and food preparation abilities to others for protection.

The most selected president was FDR - for one obvious reason: he got elected 4 times! (and I think the economic recession influences my students more than in previous years, even my first year students). Oprah and MLK kept coming up too. And computers were the #1 invention selected. 1984 and Harry Potter were the main book selections (which led me to think their knowledge of books by American authors was limited). I ended the discussion asking if my students wondered if their children would even know the word "computer" 20 years from now.

For me, the discussion was a smashing success. The groups were active and engaged. We got to talk about a number of people, inventions, books, and films that we will address over the semester (although Oprah's never come up in my lectures before ... that'll have to change now). And I got to see a glimpse of what they knew from the past.

Can you help me out for next time? What other things would you ask them to take from the past to their new society: people, technologies, events, etc.?

Next week, we'll wade knee deep into the bloody ground that was the Civil War and Reconstruction, and we'll start discussing the documents from Major Problems. Until then, it's over and out from the History Games!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Historians argue, really! They do!

Introducing the concept of historiography to undergraduates in the survey is not altogether that difficult to do, although not without problems.

In my first "real" lecture, on Re-con-struction "(Re-con-struction)"--any Grease fans out there?--I start the class off by asking if any of them have heard of W.E.B. DuBois. Maybe a third of the class raise their hands.

Then I tell them I think he was the smartest American we'll run into this semester--a highly debatable point, and students always look at me somewhat dubiously and they sometimes even offer alternatives (Oppenheimer comes up a lot, as does Einstein).

Then I talk about DuBois's book Black Reconstruction. I tell them what he said, and what he was arguing against.

Then I tell them that if they had been sitting in the classroom 100 years ago they would have learned from the Dunning school, at which point I raise my copy of Dunning and explain that version of Reconstruction. I again show them DuBois, then I tell them that nobody cared about DuBois's version of Reconstruction until the civil rights movement, when Ken Stampp published his big book (which I also raise to show them). Then I talk about how historians began to re-evaluate the era, and how now we have Eric Foner's big book as the standard guide (which I also raise).

I've now shown them visually and told them orally about how historiography works, about how the past is a flexible genre, and how I'm always open to their interpretation of events. Some of them will ask me if the history we teach has any validity at all, because it is constantly in flux and so dependent upon the perspective of the person teaching and/or writing about it. This always leads to interesting questions about knowledge and authority and the importance of contingency. Interpreting the past becomes flexible and changeable, and they can have a role in shaping it, either as historians or historical actors. And the stories we run into in the course are about people who made history. They can make it too.

And this all leads up to the big moment when I get to say: "and now we are amending and adding to Foner's big work on the subject, such as in this major work by Ed Blum, called Reforging the White Republic.