Friday, March 30, 2012

Teaching big topics like the Cold War...through Wendy's commercials

by Nina McCune

There are parts of the American survey that are overwhelming. How is it possible to teach any major conflict (Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWI or WWII, Vietnam) or even minor scuffles in one or two weeks? How is it possible to capture intellectual, social, cultural, environmental, economic, political, and/or military histories surrounding certain events in a brief “overview?” Isn’t it always the “trivia” of history that makes it so exciting and expansive? For example, the Worlds’ Fairs in Chicago or the evolution of Jazz and Blues music in the South/North are an endless source of inquiry – there are times I wish I could “just” focus on something like that for the rest of the term.

In teaching the second half of the survey, it seems increasingly difficult for students to contextualize (apparently) distant events like the Cold War. Although finding the humor and political saliency of Natasha and Boris’ oafish covert tactics in Rocky and Bullwinkle, or even advertisements from the 1980s to be readily accessible; and while we clearly still experience polarizing political and economic motivations in a globalized arena, it seems more and more that fear of “the bomb” or the practice of brinksmanship falls into cobweb-infested corners of collective consciousness.

But, isn’t that what makes our teaching of history exciting? Part of the historian’s craft is having to re-chronicle and re-contextualize, even by encouraging our (ahem) young(-ish?) students to start up conversations with their parents about memories of historical events and phenomena. I re-discovered (again) this term that I am the only person in the room who wanted a bomb shelter as a kid. Despite my advanced age of 43, I remain alert to the fact that we know history to not be self-executing: we simply can’t put in a few keywords into a search engine and have “history” appear before our eyes. In dealing with the Cold War especially, conveying any essence of the “true” past is difficult – moving from the sense of global involvement and engagement of WWII to collective paralysis, from utter fascination to dizzying fear of science and scientific discoveries, from the conflicting political ideologies (each with their own set of internal contradictions) to divisive land-taking/holding strategies, we simply can’t take the chaos and personalities and events and reconstruct them to represent what “really” happened. I am reminded of Emerson’s essay on Art, where he writes:

“No man can quite emancipate himself from his age and country, or produce a model in which the education, the religion, the politics, usages, and arts, of his times shall have no share. Though he were never so original, never so willful and fantastic, he cannot wipe out of his work every trace of the thoughts amidst which it grew…Above his will, and out of his sight, he is necessitated, by the air he breathes, and the idea on which he and his contemporaries live and toil, to share the manner of his times, without knowing what that manner is.”

Not only is it a struggle to cover the important aspects of major events that permanently alter our world, it is a struggle to craft its retelling: which primary sources are helpful? Which events or persons will best illuminate the tensions of the time? What did I carelessly leave out last time I taught the course? Will I make too many jokes about the Soviets? (How can I resist lines like: “In America, you can always find a party. In the Soviet Union, the Party can always find you!!”)

I have, in fact begun to use the political cartoon as a primary source for bona-fide reaction papers. I particularly enjoy this one:

Bias, point of view, historical specificity and context are all readily available to students (*I think*), as are the larger implications and/or foreign policy directives (and domestic agendas).

As we march through the survey, and toward the end of the academic year, what strategies do you use to effectively teach these “big bangs” that 20th century brings?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The New York Times must read our blog

In light of Ed's brilliant piece about having his students evaluate his performance midway through the semester, the grey lady of newspapers published a whole piece on the subject of professorial assessment. It's on page A-18 of today's paper. The idea of both Ed's and the New York Times' pieces is that we spend a lot of time assessing our students but hardly ever bother to ask the students how we're doing. And, both suggest, it's not such a bad idea to ask.

Anyone else do this? How?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Together or Apart

Together or Apart
Katniss and Peeta
(I think it's Peeta; I haven't seen the movie yet)
Maybe this is a stretch, but today's post is based on my quirky thinking about The Hunger Games. Not to spoil anything, but one question in the novel is whether the participants should band together or remain apart. In the end, only one can survive, but the dilemma of working together or drifting apart runs through the novel and the film. Of course, how I teach is influenced by whether I put materials together or keep them apart.

In the past, I always lectured in a way that linked major themes with particular examples. This consisted of me joining together the broad themes (antebellum transportation revolution) with  particular statistics (how long it took to get from New York City to Chicago – which went from about 6 weeks in 1800 to about 2 days by 1860) and a human example (Charles Dickens describing railroad travels while visiting the United States).

This semester, I’ve tried something different. I separated out the examples of human experience (which I use from Major Problems) and lecture purely on those (with some discussion, although discussion with 160 students can be tricky … too many folks checking Facebook during class or the score of the latest SDSU softball game). This has meant that I now have two overlapping lectures on the same time period, one that moves through the main themes and one that moves through the primary sources. I think it’s working quite well – EXCEPT for one fact. I did not explain this approach to the students (I thought they would naturally pick it up) and so many have seemed to miss that when we discuss the primary sources, I’m offering the m the tools to think about their essays.

Later in the week, I’ll post about my second essay assignment, which asks students to address either nationalism in the early republic or the weaknesses of the government then. But for now, I would love to hear from anyone who has separated the primary sources from the lecture on main themes and whether you think it’s best to present the material together or apart.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

It's working, it seems to be working! Teaching students to write

Those who follow this blog know that I'm trying something new this semester.

In my "Religion in American History" class, I've elected to have my students write five 3-4 page "response papers" in lieu of taking any kind of formal test. The idea is to see if I can help them improve their writing and analytical-thinking skills by having them repeat a task several times under only slightly different contexts (the topic). Not a revolutionary concept, I know, but I'm happy to report that, three essays in, it seems to be working.

As a reminder to the less-than-avid followers, the class is broken into five chronologically advancing sections, each of which focuses on a single question. The first section was entitled, "Were we founded as a Christian nation?" The second: "Was the Market Revolution or the First Amendment responsible for the dynamic religious activity of the first half of the 19th century?" And the third: "How, if at all, did immigration and the intellectual challenges of the second half of the 19th century (evolution and biblical criticism) challenge the Protestant mainstream?"

I know I can improve the questions, and one thing we all know is that the quality of responses is typically related to the quality of the question. Simple questions seem to work best, as do definitive "yes or no" questions, which force students to make a declarative argument, even if they know getting an "A" will require a complexity that is not often a part of a simple "yes or no" question.

Three-fifths of the way in, the students have got a handle on things. They seem to understand the importance of actually answering the question (not an obvious thing) and they also spend a lot of time providing evidence from the primary sources and the lecture to back up their arguments. Compared with how things looked two months ago, their papers are shorter, more straight-forward, and more reliant on evidence. All good things! It's also increasingly obvious when a student hasn't done the reading, and it's increasingly obvious when a student just threw something together at the last minute. On the whole, grades are improving with the quality of the work, as they should.

The Wednesday before the papers are due, we talk about the writing process as well. That has been really interesting. Many students talk about writing the first page as a way of dumping out ideas. Then they process it all and go back and rewrite the paper from scratch. Some students talk about making a formal outline on a paper, then filling in all the blanks, item by item. Some say they think about their answer on the train, then, when the spark hits, they rush home to write it all out. Some have even begun to read their papers aloud, because I tell them their ear is often a better guide than their eye to convoluted writing and run-on sentences.

It certainly helps that there are only 25-30 students in the class, and the grading takes time to be sure. But in the end, I'm hopeful they will continue to improve their writing and analytical-thinking skills. After all, most of our students will not be historians, but they will, somewhere, for someone, have to write.

Any other things I should try? What's worked for you?

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Scholars Speak - Jennifer Graber

Prisons in Antebellum America

Today's edition of The Scholars Speak comes from one of our favorite historians and people - Jennifer Graber. She is the author of The Furnace of Afflication: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America and is currently writing a religious history of the Indian Wars of the mid and late nineteenth century. Below, she discusses how to integrate the history of prisons into the U.S. history survey. This is especially interesting to me, since we were just discussing Alexis de Tocqueville and his reflections on transportation changes in antebellum American in one of the primary selections in Major Problems. The Frenchman first journeyed to the U.S. not to study democracy - but to study prisons! How he got from one to the other is an amazing story, and the importance of prison reform is one of those fascinating elements we often overlook too often in the survey.

What got you first interested in prisons?
1) I was primarily interested in prisons. When I first entered graduate school, I thought I would focus on the post-Civil War era, when a big prison reform movement took off. But when I looked at the literature on prisons written by legal and institutional historians, I found very little reflection on the impact of Protestant reformers during the prison's formation in the early republic and antebellum periods. Historians mentioned that Quakers and other Protestant reformers were part of the prison's beginnings, but they did not specify how or why. I figured I couldn't understand the post-CW reform movement until I had explored the reformers involved several decades earlier.

How can we integrate the study of prisons into teaching the U.S. history survey? They seem to be completely absent.
2) You're right. Prisons have taken a back seat to coverage about economic and political issues, as well as slavery, in standard treatments of the era. But the prison is wrapped up in all three. Folks making arguments about economic conditions in American cities cited inmate populations as some of their primary evidence for economic problems. They associated urban poverty and economic depression with expanding prisons. Also, prisons were another site of heated disagreement between Whigs and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans. In many states, reformers associated Whig politicians with milder prison disciplinary regimes and emerging Democratic coalitions with cruelty to inmates. And here, of course, is a tie to slavery. Slavery stood - at least for interested parties in North - as a kind of outer limit in debates about prison discipline. Folks who sought to abolish corporal punishment compared the warden's lash to the slavemaster's. Folks in the North simply could not have discussions about prison discipline without differentiating their plans and programs from practices on plantations.

When I think about how someone might integrate the story of the first American prisons into a unit on this period, I'd say make it a case study. One could focus on a few institutions, a few reformers, and a few politicians to show all the ways that massive changes in antebellum life (including economics, politics, and slavery mentioned above, but also immigration, revivalism, and urban labor) can be shown to influence the prison's development.

Prison at Auburn, New York (c 1830)
What primary source would you recommend using to incorporate prisons into the survey?
3) I would choose sources that show the ways that reformers imagined the prison to work and the ways inmates experienced it. To do that, I might choose a piece called "Sword of Justice, Wielded by Mercy," which was written by evangelical reformers at the Gospel Herald in New York. The authors wrote in the voice of an inmate and described a prison experience that prompted recognition of sin and movement toward salvation. They make prison sound tough, but worth it. I would contrast this piece with a narrative actually written by an inmate, such as Horace Lane's Five Year's In State's Prison, in which he reflected on his terms in prisons at Auburn and Sing Sing. Unlike the first piece, Lane details the spiritual depression that prison prompted. He writes of a desire to be saved that was crushed at every turn by staff violence.

Since we're such big fans of your first book, we were wondering what we could look forward to?
4) I'm working on a new book about religious transformations prompted by the violence and displacement of Indian wars on the western frontier.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Midterm Evaluations

The Students Speak
Sometimes I feel like Angela from NBC's The Office. I like to be evaluated. Fans of the show will remember her excitement when Michael Scott would call her in for the annual "performance review." But what I've never understood is that student evaluations are completed after the semester, and while they can benefit future classes, they do not allow the professor to alter her or his teaching for that batch of particular student.

So on Monday, as I was handing back their first essays, I had them evaluate me. They simply answered this question: "given the confines of this class (book, current assignments, quizzes), what could Professor Blum do differently to improve this class for you?"

The responses were helpful, especially because they were consistent. Below, I list the points and offer a few bits of reflection.
  • More information on powerpoints
    • (the balance between too few and too many points on a powerpoint is a good one; clearly I have gone too minimalist and will adjust; another problem I encounter is when a teacher reads directly from the powerpoint, which I disdain ... I know how to read for myself. I also get frustrated when presenters fail to explain or analyze the image on the powerpoint)
  • Quizzes are getting harder and not knowing when they are is nerve-wracking
    • (the quizzes have gotten more difficult and that was by design; I wanted to walk students into the pool easily; I should have told them more clearly at the beginning that they would get harder; also, I see how it's nerve-wracking to not know when quizzes are so from now on, I'll announce on the blog when they will be and maybe even which cohorts will be quizzed; today, no quiz).
  • Professor Blum is such a nice dresser; Mrs. Blum must pick out his outfits
    • (true)
  • Why does the class have a grader? Shouldn't our professor grade our essays?
    • (this is a great question and I never explained to the class why we have a grader; I explained that we had one, who he was, what he would do, and how you could challenge his grades, but I never explained WHY there was a grader. I think this speaks to my students not encountering very many graders at SDSU and their uncertainty about what a professor (and not just a teacher) necessarily does. I'll go through this with them, but I'm not sure of the solution; I'm certainly not grading 170 essays every couple of weeks)
  • Too much on the primary documents; too little on the primary documents
    • (this was the one area where I got critical feedback that contradicted itself and it reminds me that students have a variety of likes and dislikes and, at the end of the day, we have to be ourselves and prioritize as we prioritize)
I recommend to all my colleagues to do some kind of midterm evaluation. I think it gives students a feeling of ownership in the class and the ability to make changes to improve their experience. And, it's already had an impact on our class. I immediately adjusted the powerpoint for today to include more information.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Teaching the New Deal

“Anachronistic Equivocation”

Nina McCune

I am an unabashed fan of the British monthly History Today’s “Contrarian,” Tim Stanley.  I not only like the content of his writing, I like how he writes- straightforward, provocative, thoughtful, and concise.  As a teacher of history, I’d like for my students to write like this – flexible and analytic with their content knowledge, limber facility with language, and quickly to the point.  In the March issue, Stanley wrote about recent anachronistic references President Obama has made to the “Bull Moose” Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive reforms of the early 1910s.  Stanley cautions, as all historians would, to be mindful of historical specificity and context before drawing such comparisons – they might not fit as neatly into our narrative strategies; they may not fully support our arguments, given that (typically) only one aspect of the entire history is employed.

In sometimes vain attempts to convince my students that history is, in fact, rather relevant to their lives, I have engaged this strategy.  In carefully presenting and discussing the New Deal (with an attendant interactive game show, because, you know, we can’t be serious all the time), I recognize an eager want of comparisons to the current republican party primary race.  Does Father Coughlin’s call for a Third Party (and a limited review of his radio programs and speeches) really set an analogy for either (a) third parties in general or (b) overtly Christian political candidates?  Should we consider the New Deal architecture something that must be dismantled because it clashes with ideologies on the stump (either on the right, claiming it is prime socialist expansion; or on the left, claiming it did not go far enough)?  Or, on a lighter side-note, should candidates actually have theme songs?  Naturally, such analogies are equally as dangerous (if not more so) than Stanley’s ideas vis-à-vis Obama invoking Teddy Roosevelt; yet they are difficult to avoid when competing for student attention in our focus-on-the-now-media environment. 

Yet, the larger “back-story” must live on, unashamed and out of obscurity.  Differing from “sound byte” (apropos of Kevin’s Twitter post) history backgrounds that so many of my students bring, I fully encourage enabling students to become more flexible with their content knowledge by exposing them to multiple areas of exploration (even though, it’s like, you know, SO much clicking around on the internet).  But – since we are competing for our students’ attention more than ever, and since educators have considered this question for centuries – how can we be sure our students know what they know?  How is the process of knowing changing?  If we want students to link information successfully and specifically to make historical arguments – how are they learning the material in the first place?

Here, I give you an example of some multi-media bliss that might expound upon one of history’s relative un-knowables:  Huey Long.  As a potential, viable candidate against FDR for the 1936 (or even 1940) election (although, as I learned from a student this week, he never purchased the domain name “”), Long is as fascinating as he is confounding – and definitely worth looking at.  It’s hard to say that “Huey Long is just like politicians today because he was corrupt, wealthy, and liked to bend the rules” and be THAT anachronistic…please consider:

·        John Maginnis’ 1984 The Last Hayride, Chapter 1 “The Pirate King” (yes, this is a book, a paper-back, made of paper, book. As far as I can tell, it has not been digitized.)
·        Excerpts from Huey Long’s second autobiography My First Days in the White House
·        Any number of Long’s speeches: (audio) The St. Vitus Dance Government Speech (where he introduces the catchy word “catachresis,” the Veterans of Foreign Wars Speech, or snippits of speeches on YouTube or (print) Long’s famous Share our Wealth Speech (this site also has “Our Growing Calamity,” his “I Told You So” retort, his March 12, 1935 NRA Speech, and others) the Every Man a King radio address,
·        There are, of course, websites dedicated to Long as well as documentaries (short ones, like this example, or longer ones by Ken Burns for PBS or Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s excellent Louisiana: A History, DVD 5, chapter 3, “The Kingfish”)

I’m not sure this list is adequate or sufficient to know Huey Long – however, it may provide an interesting set of alternatives for students considering opponents of the New Deal (or at least enough for students to not prevaricate).

Thursday, March 15, 2012

a small part of me dies when I hear the word "tweet"

And yet, social media is upon us. After an exhilarating "webinar" with my friend Ed and about 50 other folks on the perils and promises of using social media as an instrument for learning, I'm more aware of: (1) the rich possibilities; and (2) the fact that no one has quite figured it out yet.

With the idea that we're all in this together, I thought I'd recommend some recent posts from the Religion in American History blog about this subject exactly. The posts, here and here, focus on twitter in the classroom, and all of our concerted efforts to create a "boundless classroom" (as one of the posts is titled).

Happy reading.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Lessons from Tax Season

What Taxes Teach
(in that terrible movie Hitch, Kevin James plays an accountant,
and when I saw his AICPA mug on his desk I exploded in joy
at the movie theater. That was the only good part of the movie.
Thanks to the good people at TurboTax, I have once again complied with federal and state law that I pay my taxes. And, to be honest, I’ve always loved tax season. My father worked for the AICPA (American Institute of Certified Public Accountants) and it meant that we always had funky-colored calculators around the house (extras from the previous year of exams), mugs and shirts that said loudly AICPA, and phrases like “Schedule C” were commonplace.

I’m also thinking of taxes in the classroom. First, when it comes to the “destruction” of the Federalist Party. When John Adams left the White House in 1801, it would be 24 years before another Adams ruled it; but the second Adams was not a “Federalist.” He followed in the line of Jeffersonians (where being Secretary of State stood as an audition for the presidency). John Quincy Adams signaled just how far and wide the destruction of the Federalists had gone. But it also showed how much the Jeffersonian Republicans had transformed. Jefferson’s agrarian, yeoman republic was great in theory (especially great for independent white men), but the realities of nineteenth-century nation building and protection made even Jefferson sound like a Hamiltonian. “Experience has taught me that manufactures are now as necessary to our independence as to our comfort,” TJ penned a year after the War of 1812 concluded (and 10 months after Andrew Jackson concluded his protection of New Orleans). The Jeffersonian Republicans were mutating into pro-manufacturing, and … even pro-tariff positions. It seems that most folks hate taxes until they advance their position.

I’ve also decided that there may be lessons from our tax codes that are useful in the classroom. Before you get concerned, I’m not thinking of taxing the students or giving them benefits for being married or having dependents (who would want that kind of paperwork to deal with!). But I am putting in place a progressive improvement assessment … meaning that students who improve in their grades on papers 2 and 3 will receive progressive incentives. Each paper is worth 50 points, and thus if a student received 30/50 on her first, she has a 60%. As my current grading system goes, even if that student receives 48/50 on both of the next papers, her grade will still be 75% or a C. On one hand, that’s fair. A student who receives 60% on a paper perhaps should get a poor grade. But on another hand, that kind of stinks.

But what about the start-up costs for a new class? What about being new to a university or to a particular brand of teaching style or grading style? What if there was an incentive to improve that was now put in place?

So here’s the progressive improvement assessment. Students will receive points added to their final grade based on how much they improve upon the first essay in their second and third essays.

Improvement (average of essays 2 and 3 minus essay 1 score)

0-5 points
10% x points added to final score
6-10 points
20% x points added to final score
11-15 points
30% x points added to final score
16-50 points
40% x points added to final score

This means the student who received 30/50 on her first essay and then averaged 48/50 on her next two essays scored 18 points higher. 40% x 18 = 7.2. I’ll add the 7.2 points to the overall score. So this student would now have an 82.2 or a B-. Much better, I think, and more fair.

So hip-hip-hooray for the ideals of progressive taxation. It can even benefit my students and encourage them to work harder on their next assignment.

Has anybody else tried a system that accounts for improvement??? Anything work?

And maybe my students will be so inspired by Jefferson’s willingness to change that those who have stopped reading Hist and Major Problems will crack the books open. They may find some important points about the Supreme Court’s developments after Jefferson’s election, the Lewis and Clark team leading the Corps of Discovery into the far west, the reasons why there was a misnamed War of 1812, and some points about TJ’s foreign policy.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

novels as teaching tools

Personally, I love good novels. Who doesn't? They do, however, present all kinds of problems as teaching devices--authorial perspective, literary affectations, introducing themes you haven't prepared students for. But when a novel hits, it usually hits hard.

I had a banner experience this past week with Harold Frederic's classic book The Damnation of Theron Ware, or Illumination.

For one thing, the students loved it. At 340+ pages, it's quite likely the longest book many of them have read. Plus, they only had two weeks to get through it (three if you count when the paper is due--tomorrow!). In the middle of the two weeks, during a Friday session, I got them through the first 50 pages--we read sections together, we talked about who the central characters were and what they were experiencing, we discussed what themes they recognized from my lectures. But that was it.

My hope was that they now had solid grounding to get through the rest of the book, with professorial ambitions that the 50-page hand-holding would propel them into the rest of the novel, which would generate it's own energy to keep those pages turning.

I was skeptical on due date about how many of them would have finished, but a huge number had, and they were already debating it when I walked into the classroom. I always spend 10 minutes or so going over the basics of the plot ("...and then what happened?"), to make sure everyone is on board. During this particular discussion, though, when we approached the end of the book, there were two or three students who loudly said "no!" and covered their ears so as not to spoil the ending. They had 30 or so pages left. For their sake we left things vague.

On their own, they brought out the major themes I had gone over in class--19th-century Catholic immigration, the importance of biblical higher criticism and Darwin to the de-centering of the Protestant mainstream, the various responses coming from America's Protestants. By the time the 50 minutes were up, students still had a lot to say. We hadn't even gone over the meaning of the title and the idea that the characters were symbols of larger things going on in the country. The following session the students forcibly brought back the conversation. One student did an Icarus impression. Another talked about her own shapely red-headed sister. It was great. Someone learned that the letters of the beguiling, red-headed Irish-Catholic Celia Madden are an anagram for "Alice damned," referring to Theron's thoroughly domesticated, thoroughly Protestant wife.

Emails kept pouring in through the week. It all just makes a professor proud.

I don't think any academic book I've assigned has engendered similar enthusiasm, even Ed's great books, which are well worth assigning. But I have had luck with other novels: Studs Lonigan is often a hit, Blackrobe has worked, The Great Gatsby is still an all-time favorite.

What novels have worked for you? I'd love to know.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Introducing our New Contributor - Nina McCune

Using Blogs with Discussions
Nina McCune

After visiting positions at Columbia University and Pratt Institute, Nina McCune has relocated to the deep south to teach Modern American History at Baton Rouge Community College.  She is currently writing a book on human and civil rights in interwar America.  Her other publications include writings on xenophobic violence and human rights.

After a rousing discussion of blogs and blogging (which in cyber-time happened light-years ago – you know, last week), I retreated into the a-technological abyss of sketching out several scenarios on…note paper.  It wasn’t an I-Pad or the safe, glowing confines of a word processor that captured my ideas and questions from the webinar – no digital audio recording to be later transcribed, no random one-word electronic grunts to outline my ideas.  As terribly old-fashioned as this is, I am also preparing a conference presentation of moderating the use of electronics in the classroom, and wanted to keep my outlines separate and little more alive than hitting the “save” button to reactivate later.  While suffering the humilities of messy ink and crumpled paper, I found I was struggling with a possible contradiction:  if I am aiming to suggest to colleagues in Baton Rouge myriad distractions, problems, and the hostile learning environment associated with gadget-addiction in the classrooms, how on earth may I dare contribute to cyberspace on constructive dialogues via blogging?

As it turns out, no matter of sketching out, scratching out, and re-crafting can resolve this apparent contradiction, because I realize there is really no contradiction after all. Actual calendar years ago, I underwent online teacher training when the only discussion modality was the asynchronous forum. Long before instant-messaging, chatting, Skype-ing and all other sorts of remote-yet-instantaneous communication, we fretted about the value of posting ideas on the web for others to read…possibly days later.  How would we craft discussion questions and create discussion environments that remained fresh and active (at least until the due date)? What if students would not formulate complete ideas fully addressing the question at hand, making discussions muddled and confused?  What if we did not check the forums every hour, on the hour, and some misguided or mispronounced comment led the discussion down a terrible, dark path?  Could learning happen?  Can we really support our students in such a format?  Reflecting on the webinar on blogging – I realize that we continue to ask a similar set of questions. To be frank, haven’t educators returned to this similar set of questions since serious pedagogical inquiry began/time immemorial? 

These new formats, while allowing for different types of delivery and engagement (the aynchronus forum, the synchronous chat, the downloadable podcast, the virtual youtube experience, and so on), pose very similar challenges on improving our teaching in general. Be specific in grading expectations – be specific in instructions – carefully monitor discussions and our own presentations for objective analysis of the evidence at hand.   But ultimately (and here my “contradiction” is resolved), we need our students’ attention to have meaningful discussions in the first place.  If the face-to-face contact is dealt with as ancillary to urgent texting, web surfing, or other such electronic experiences, clearly additional formats of engagement are even greater superfluous distractions.

That said, one avenue I’m eager to explore is how blogs can augment the discussions we have in class with our students – and extend our “face time.”  I think our level of analysis – in part due to the global reliance on innumerable “gadgets” and ceaseless access to every idea ever produced – demands more specificity in our initial presentations, and blogging is a fabulous way to offer a deeper level of that analysis.  Offering discrete primary source analysis, encouraging alternate interpretations of those sources, or expounding on a (tangential) question raised in class can be quite useful.

So, to be specific – and to use this blog to ask for your help – it may be worthwhile to use a single text central to a lecture/class discussion as a topic for blogging. For example, this week in my modern American survey, we’ve been discussing Wilson at Versailles. I start my analysis with a quick intellectual history of war and peace and address how Wilson’s 1918 14 Points speech incorporates themes found throughout St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Hugo Grotius, to everyone’s favorite, Klemens von Metternich. (Of course, there are many absent from this list – this is a quick overview, after all, meant to clarify existing notions of war and peace; and to demonstrate how World War I utterly broke away from such notions).   This may be a bit too much for a general survey, but I find it more helpful and constructive than doing without.  Besides, I’m a bit of a geek and this stuff really excites me.

To begin this lecture, I had asked students to read the 14 Points.  After all, my seemingly well-crafted examination would only make sense and be meaningful if students actually considered the text prior to class.  While I was disappointed only a very few students had done the reading, I wonder if using a blog to post a link to the speech and offer a simple primary source analysis could ignite further interest?  For those of you already using blogs – have you tried this?  Or, if you’re not using a blog (but also furiously contemplating it), do you think this in fact *could* augment such a discussion?  Or – if you’re a student, what would you think of this?  We’ve all been there – showing up for class without carefully doing the reading.  There’s shame in that, of course, but would this type of blog approach be helpful?  Or would you perceive it as “just another” thing to do for this class?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Nationalism Making

National Symbols

Now that the patriots won the Revolution, ditched their first government structure, and wrote a new one while wining and dining at George Washington’s expense, the United States must become “a nation” in our class. I asked my students to name all the ways they “know” they’re in the United States each day. One mentioned the currency, which not only says United States on it, but has the image of a president or famous American. One mentioned American flags outside of buildings and homes. Another mentioned the national anthem, and we all had a moment of silence for Whitney Houston. We even discussed how if they were arrested (which I encouraged them not to be) that they had rights that were codified in a legal document – the Constitution – that they may not have elsewhere.

Lossing realization (1856) of first committee's reverse
The point of the discussion was this: nation’s create their identities through symbols and as the United States became a new nation in the 1770s and 1780s, it needed to create a whole new batch of national symbols. I’m trying to bring them into the concept of nations as “imagined politicalcommunities,” as Benedict Anderson so nicely put it. But I also want to show them that these national symbols shift and change as the community does. One place I begin is with the proposed seal from 1776 for the new nation. Anyone who studies US religious history knows about the seal – Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams suggested a seal with the image of Moses leading the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land of freedom and liberty. But what is often forgotten was that Jefferson also wanted on the obverse of the seal the likenesses of Hengist and Horsa, the two brothers who supposedly led the first Anglo-Saxon settlers in Britain. (other ideas included an image of Hercules). The seal was never adopted, but we see a number of fascinating topics in its discussion. First, it was a conscious and deliberate discussion of nationalism building – of creating a symbol (or symbols) that would demonstrate to Americans that they were Americans. Second, it showed that national symbol making is complicated work. Imagining the United States as a land of freedom from slavery cut two ways; it inspired resistance to the British, but it also could put ideas into the heads of African American slaves that Jefferson didn’t want. Third, it raised the issues of what freedom meant: religiously and racially. Freedom was understood as from God (hence Exodus), but also from Anglo-Saxons (hence Hengist and Horsa). So there would be some measure of religious freedom for whites, but people of color would be often ignored or marginalized in this new approach to liberty.

I wonder what other images of nationalism building folks use or discuss. I am also wondering if others deal with this issue of the making of an American identity.

And finally, and maybe Kevin could talk more about this, the difference between “E Pluribus Unum” and “Under God” as national mottos.

And even more finally, maybe my students will look closely at the image from Federalists mocking Democratic-Republicans in Major Problems, and maybe they'll pay attention to which founding leaders supported states' powers, manufacturing, and the strength of the Supreme Court. Those topics may be on a quiz ... oh, and go SDSU softball! Three big games this weekend.