As we near the Thanksgiving break, and as my students get increasingly stressed about final papers and exams, I’ve tried to lighten up (mostly Thursday) classes with role playing exercises. It can be a bit of a gamble, since they rely so much on the students really committing to personifying historical characters, but so far it’s been quite a bit of fun – even if one of my students did call me on the worksheet I gave them as prep being quite close to a D&D character creation sheet! In the U.S. survey, I used this prompt:
Henry Clay, John Calhoun, Abraham Lincoln, James K. Polk, John Quincy Adams and David Wilmot find themselves snatched out of time and deposited in a bar. They get to talking about whether it was a good thing to annex Mexico and California. What do they say?
For 4:00 on a Thursday, my students embraced the roll playing more than I’d expected. Aspersions were cast against Polk and Wilmot, and Calhoun’s perspective was even delivered in accent. It’s sometimes hard in larger classes to get group work right – sometimes the groups are too big for everyone to participate fully, and if they’re too small we spend a lot of time at the end letting each one speak – but I’m feeling pretty good about this flavor of activity, even if it does lead to some jokes about dark elves, charisma points and magic missiles.
My students asked today for a Sleepy Hollow update – which I wasn’t fully prepared to give. After they found the Lost Colony of Roanoke (on a magic island in the Hudson Valley, no less), I had sort of given up on the show. I caught up tonight – and it continues to be terrible, but in some rather odd ways.
For one, some officers of the British army are also demons, which takes the moralization of American history that the show has been doing all along to new and strange places. The premise is that Washington and a band of good guys was tasked with protecting the world from evil (via the British), so perhaps its not surprising that the writers decided to literally demonize British officers. Nevertheless, it seems like a very literal way to make the point that Americans were the good guys in this fight, and the British were the bad guys.
The second sort of bizarre thing was that Ichabod’s wife, the witch, who was burnt at the stake in 1782 (she wasn’t really killed, but not because there weren’t witch trials in the late 18th century) is first introduced to Ichabod as a Quaker nurse. It’s not clear if she was also a witch at that point – but it struck me as odd that her Quakerness and witchyness seemed so easily integrable. I’m not an historian of religion, but it seems like the writers might have surmised that since Quakerism today allows a fair amount of latitude in terms of religious practice, perhaps 18th century Quakerism did too. It does, though, seem like a very marginalizing move, to cast Quakers as insufficiently religiously serious to object to one among them also being a witch.
Finally, the witches were allied with the Freemasons, which I have no way to explain. I’m teaching the U.S. survey again next semester, and I’m trying to figure out how to use one of these episodes in class. With popular historical perspectives this semester – in particular Ask a Slave and the soundtrack to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson – I didn’t give my students enough of a framework to talk about the sources. They thought that Ask a Slave was funny and that Bloody Bloody was selectively accurate, and a bit vulgar, but I need to find a better way to connect the production of popular historical material to what they’re learning in class. In the past, I’ve asked students to evaluate pop history in light of what they’ve learned in the class so far – but since we don’t get to Washington’s plantation, Andrew Jackson or the American Revolution until the middle of the course, I’m on the lookout for something that I can ask them to consider in the first few weeks, or that they can use as a jumping off point for their first set of response papers. Perhaps the Roanoke episode of Sleepy Hollow (or, for that matter, Supernatural) might fit the bill afterall.