Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Spring 2012

Well, the earnest, hard-working guys at Teaching United States History never take a break. We're preparing for Spring 2012 already. I'll be teaching the first half of the U.S. history survey (contact to Civil War) and Kevin will be teaching a course in American Religious History, which I'm guessing he'll bring into the blog now and again. Here at the blog, I plan on focusing on primary documents and differing historical intepretations of each time period ("how revolutionary was the revolution?" or "what caused the Civil War?" ... wait, wait, wait ... look for it, look for it ... and yes, there's that one student who is deeply, passionately committed to the notion that slavery did NOT cause the war and he is eager to address the topic!).

If you will be teaching the first half of the survey, and you would be interested in blogging here at Teaching United States History, shoot me an email at: eblum@mail.sdsu.edu. Maybe you have a game you use; maybe there's a movie you analyze; maybe you dress up as Lucretia Mott and give abolitionist speeches and you want to link to your youtube video ... then this is the place for you.

We'll probably be on hiatus here until just before the New Year. Then, I'll start posting about my syllabus, texts, and assignments.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Final Grading

Final Grades

I've kept a list. I'm checking it twice. And now I'm trying to decide who's been naughty (you D- students know who you are) and nice (the line between A- and A seems so razor thin at times). As I grade the final exams and the website creations, I've been struck by two points. I plan on attacking each point next semester as I turn from the second half of the US history survey to the first. (so look out in late December for posts about teaching the first half of US history).
  1. Facts matter. I know history isn't about names and dates - that it's all about how we interpret and make meaning of the past. But in history, facts matter. My students need to know when Martin Luther King Jr. lived. They need to know when the "gay manifesto" was designed, and they need to know what Reagan actually did during the 1980s as president. I have the damnedest time assessing that material, though. The two exams were flops (student grades were pretty awful even though most of the questions were based on the titles from Major Problems documents, and my students knew this). So for next semester, I know I need to find new ways to assess fact acquisition and knowledge.
  2. Pop culture rules. My students created a series of wonderful blogs connecting historical events, figures, ideas, documents, and concepts to contemporary culture and politics. Some of them linked to the film Inception; some to the television shows Glee or Modern Family. Some found episodes of Family Guy and connected them to various strands of US history from our class. In the realm of politics, gay rights was the #1 interest, but over and over, they fixated on popular culture. This suggests to me that popular culture is the new lingua franca (rather than citizenship or democracy). I feel nervous about how to use that information for the first half of the survey in the spring ... but we'll just have to see what we can do. Perhaps I'll formulate lectures around pop culture myths about the American past (colonization, the Revolution, slavery, the Civil War, etc). Maybe each class will begin with a few clips from modern shows or movies and then get into the realities and changes of the time.
We'll be off the blog world for probably a week or two and then figure out how to assemble a teaching team for the spring. If you are interested in blogging through your courses here - especially if you are using Hist and/or Major Problems, shoot me an email. It's been a great term.

Thanks to Kevin, to my amazing students, and to you technology. You made it possible for us to "interface."

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Last Song


I begin every lecture with a song from the era we're about to discuss. Sometimes the song has a story associated with it. "Solidarity Forever" has its moment, "Sweet Home Alabama" is a good reflection of the Southernization of American culture in the 1970s, "Born in the USA" gets at the bifurcated nature of American society during the Reagan Revolution.

Others are just fun topical songs: "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," "Over There," and "There's A Cold War Between Us" fit this category.

For the last lecture of the semester I usually play "The Final Countdown," the silly 1986 sythesized rock song from "Europe" that takes the Korg Polysix keyboard to new heights. The song is fun in that it fits the bill, but this semester I asked my students what song they though fit the times, which song best symbolized the past 10 years. Answers varied: Lady Gaga's "Born this Way" got some votes, as did a song I didn't know by Rage Against the Machine got a vote too.

I'm going to ask for a point of extra credit on the final what song they'd nominate and why. We'll see what turns up. What would you choose?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Inception versus Extraction

It's the last day of class before the exam, and I promise my students at the very beginning that we will get all the way to their adulthoods ... and end with the film Inception. I pretend to myself that they care - that they think "no way, Professor Blum won't possibly make it to Inception or find a way to work it into the class." Of course, many of them haven't seen the film. Most of them don't care what I promise or don't promise. But for me, it's fun. And, to me, Inception is the place to end, because it emphasizes three critical points about the contemporary age.

First is the information age. The film is all about information. The characters are trying to steal information from various global companies by any means necessary (even if it means entering dream worlds or destroying emotional connections people have at the subconscious level). Information is hidden, stolen, sought after, and killed for. It is information that powers, deceives, and leads the characters on their journeys.

Second is the instability of reality. In the film, the lead character Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) never really knows when or where reality is. He has entered so many dreams, gone down so deeply into them, and created so many new worlds just from his imagination that he is unsure where the real world ends and this one begins. And characters in the film question the very nature of reality. Who is to say the dream world is not the real world? The question easily applies to the digital age. Who is to say that Facebook friends aren't real friends? Who is to say that the World of Warcraft isn't a literal world? In the dream world, one character (a forger) is able to transform himself into any number of guises. Sometimes he's an older man; sometimes he's a young, beautiful woman. In the modern world of cosmetic surgeries, of digital avatars, of performance-enhancing drugs, and of airbrushed photography, this character speaks to the ever-changing ability of the human body. Unlike The Matrix where there is one reality of real life and another of fake computer-generated life, Inception delves into the possibilities of levels of unreality with no real reality at all.

Third is the problem and deep profundity of extraction. Sure, the film is about inception - literally planting an idea in another's mind and having it grow organically. But the characters are much better at extraction - at taking information. Extraction can also be a key to another reality. While humans of the late twentieth and early twenty first century have become adept at making various new realities, they have built it upon extreme extraction and transformation of the natural environment. The extraction of fossil fuels, of metals, of minerals, of woods and grasses and soils. Major Problems has an excellent essay from the Sierra Club, but it probably needs to do a better job with the environment (or perhaps battles over global warming). The modern age is built upon a deep and profound transformation of the natural environment. The characters in Inception can change their worlds dramatically (build castles, temples, and roads instantly), but when they do the world of the dreamer realizes it and feels pain. The dreamer dislikes another force changing her atmosphere and topography. There is an environmental change - one contingent upon extraction - that makes the inception of new digital and dream worlds possible.

And this brings me to a new initiative by Coca-Cola. They have recently started a drive to donate funds to the World Wildlife Federation from purchases of special Coke cans. Proceeds will go to support a habitat for polar bears. So - to help the polar bears, one can purchase a cola product (of course, you could just donate directly). The bigger point is this: through entertainment and consumption, even environmental issues have become part and parcel of the extraction industry. This is the game of inception, I would argue, the game that Christopher Nolan is trying to unmask for us. Movies, commercials, advertisements - they're all elements of inception where ideas are planted into our minds, but to fully stick we must come to think they are self generated or valuable to reconciling us to others and the world.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Will Tosh.0 Make History Textbooks in the Future

Teaching 1990 to Yesterday

Our last discussion had my students become the historians and the subjects. They were placed in groups and determined three things (people, events, concepts, issues) that would be in history books about their lives thus far (1990-yesterday) 50 years from now. The answers included: Barack Obama, same-sex civil union, 9/11, the wars on terror, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Sarah Palin. They also discussed medical advances (as in human genetics) and the environment (as in global warming, oil, and various new forms of power).

Most importantly, they discusssed technology. It made me think of Kip singing that he "still loves technology" at the end of Napoleon Dynamite. From cell phones to Facebook, blogs to twitter, military advances to space exploration as a form of entertainment. Perhaps graduate students will use theories from Lawrence Goodwyn on group cohesion in historical works about how Facebook defeated myspace.

For each person, event, or issue listed, I tried to connect it to the histoy we had worked through during the semester. For cell phones, for instance, we discussed how technology transformed entertainment from groups listening the radio, to couples necking in cars, to the expansion of televisions, to the rise of 24 hour news stations, and finally to the ability of everyday people to create mass entertainment. The biggest change, it seems to me, in the twenty-first century is how everyday people are now the creators of content. Perhaps Tosh.0 and its use of Youtube hilarity will be featured in history textbooks fifty years from now as indicative of the change (by the way, I use Tosh.0 quite frequently in my religious history class ... as in the time he had one of his "web redemptions" feature a man shooting images of Jesus - both white and black).

One of my favorite elements of both Hist and Major Problems is that they effort to hit the past as close as yesterday. Hist struggles with globalization and its discontents ... one of the primary features of the age (beautifully exemplified in Benjamin Barber's Jihad versus McWorld). The global emphasis has hit history books - not only in their interest in globalization, but also in the emergence of "big history." In contrast to big history, micro studies continue as books discuss this or that election and the "shaping of America" or how it "saved America." History texts, I think, in the future will have to balance the extreme local with the extreme local. In Major Problems, one of my favorite examples of this is Henry Louis Gates reflecting on Barack Obama's election. There, we see how intimate personal acts (an interracial marriage ... albeit a failed one), national changes (the civil rights revolution), international movements (the movements of Obama's father and family), and global impact (Obama winning the Nobel Peace prize, leading the U.S. in its wars, pulling the troops out of Iraq, etc.). I think the 2008 election (including the fact that the conservative party ran a woman on its ticket) will be a highlight for so much more than Obama's nonwhiteness.

So ... now to you faithful readers and students. What will be in those textbooks 50 years from now?