Breakfast cereal or CD-ROM?

“Because, really, the moment you have any idea, the second thought that enters your mind after the original idea is ‘what is this?  Is it a book, is it a movie, is it a this, is it a that, is it a short story, is it a breakfast cereal?’ Really, from that moment, your decision about what kind of thing it is then determines how it develops.  Something will be very, very different if it’s developed as a CD-ROM than if it’s developed as a book.” – Douglas Adams.  The Salmon of Doubt, p. 155

I’m re-listening to the Salmon of Doubt for the first time in almost five years, and while the whole thing is brilliant this quote has really stuck with me.  In class, I’ve been struggling to convince students that form matters – that asking for polished paragraphs isn’t an arbitrary rule we’ve concocted to stymie their writing style – and that the form that a piece of writing ultimately takes should be as thoughtfully considered as the title, the citations or the content (one hopes).
This is also one of those times that what I’m doing in the classroom bleeds over into other areas of my professional life.  As I’m singing the praises of Strunk & White’s commentary on form, I’m forced to think about how the form of my own work (and particularly, this behemoth of a dissertation draft staring at me from across the room) could better conform to the aim and argument of the thing.  (There’s a whole separate conversation to be had about how, in order to write the most effective history of nineteenth-century philanthropy, and to produce a work that doesn’t fall into the historiographical pitfall of disaster/philanthropy particularism, I need to de-center the disaster that has been at the heart of this project since its inception, but I haven’t quite figured that out yet.)
I think the assignments for this class – which range from informal blog posts to a formal research proposal – provide great opportunities to talk about the power of form, and I’m gearing up this week for a long-ish discussion on what students are meant to get out of these blog posts that’s different from what they’re meant to get out of in-class writing, that’s different from what they’re meant to get out of more formal assignments.  (This week, we’re reading Typhoid Mary, and I’d forgotten how beautifully Leavitt lays out her reasons for organizing the book like she does.)
This is a long way of saying that all of this has forced me to think about what to do with this space, and of late I’ve been tending more and more to use it to think out teaching dilemmas, with moments of archival joy or frustration thrown in when the mood strikes.  For the next few months at least, I’m going to think of this as primarily a teaching blog, focusing on one junior historian’s quest to become a better teacher, and as a bit of a commonplace book for teaching-related things I come across.

Why major in history? -or- the thrill of the archive

Well, to be fair, that’s probably a more provocative title than needs be, but it was also the header on a packet distributed by my department this year.  All of the reasons were good ones – careers in journalism or policy making; development of writing, speaking and research skills and (though this wasn’t included in the departmental list) good tidbits for cocktail party conversations.  Recently though, I’ve noticed that the media – and particularly TV and movies – provide another compelling reason for undergraduates to major in history: the thrill of the archive.
From shows like Alcatraz to movies like National Treasure to books like People of the Book, it seems like every third thing I see or read has characters who spend their time leaving through boxes of old documents, discovering dog-eared diaries of long-dead molls (a recent episode of Castle) or thumbing through newspaper archives to discover the vital clue in an unsolved crime.  Most of this archival work happens in the context of detective work, but it (perhaps inadvertently) glamorizes the work that historians do in our archival comings and going.
Now, I don’t want to suggest to the students in my methods class that the chances are good that a stray or unexplained letter they might come across in an archive can plunge them into a world of glamourous spies and international intrigue, or put them on the trail of some long-lost treasure (an aside: I’ve been reading through Elizabeth Peters’s non-egyptology series featuring sassy historian Vicky Bliss, which, like The DaVinci Code, present the world of academia as one long car/foot chase with brief research interruptions) but I do think there’s something to be said for conveying the trill of archival research.  For the first time ever, I’m having students blog both responses and about progress towards their final paper, and I hope that once we get into working with actual sources that the students will begin to both express and pick up on each others’ excitement.  In the mean time, I’m playing around with the idea that research and detective work are the same kind of projects.  On the one hand, detective work is concerned with finding the answer to a problem, not necessarily understanding why the problem happened.  History is also interested in the ‘what’ questions, but (as a recent session on asking historical questions reminded) more with the hows and the whys.  Maybe, though, the work we do is more like fictional detective fiction.  In books, the plucky heroine or hero always wants to understand the criminals’ motivations – otherwise the books or shows might make for a dull read or watch.  Maybe there’s something to extending this comparison, and thinking about historical writing like Holmes explaining something to Watson.  In the meantime, though, I wonder if the quite regular appearance of archives in pop culture is another way into piquing student interest.  If the U(C) could say things like “want to be Indiana Jones?  Come study archaeology” then can’t we say things like “want to be Nicholas Cage/solve crime/find treasure?  Come study history!”

“Teaching with technology”

The NYU teaching workshop last week was all about teaching with technology, and while we talked a lot about the pros and cons of online teaching, we didn’t really move beyond blogs/blackboards as teaching tools.  I’m relatively new to teaching with online components – this semester is the first time I’m using a blog for student posts instead of blackboard – but I’ve been thinking about how to change some of my standard classroom exercises to include online components.

First, the blog.  I should say that I hate Blackboard, which is what both NYU and the U(C) used.  The message boards are clunky, threads are hard to follow, and the interface is so user unfriendly as to be non-intuitive.  This term, I’m trying a wordpress site for student responses, and so far its working pretty well.  I’m asking students to read each others’ posts before class, to link back in their own responses, and to tag each post with three or four key ideas.  I’ve also been pretty upfront with them about the pedagogical intentions of these tasks – this is all new ground for me, but so far I’m pleased with the results.  I think some of them are skeptical of something from “their” world – blogging – being used in academia, but they all seem pretty game to try.

Now, other social media.  This is a pretty unformed idea, but on Friday I was following the live tweet of Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library.  Now, as a murder mystery fan, I was thrilled with this project – especially how the tweeters (twitterers?) adapted the voice of Miss Marple.  I’ve seen similar approaches to history, like the now infamous (among historians, at least) Facebook news feed of the Hundred Years War.  I’m also a really big fan of this series of youtube videos explaining historial events/eras.  I know some teachers who have their students put together their own historical videos – which I think is a great way of engaging students who are interested in history, but who aren’t necessarily equipped or inclined to write research papers, but I was thinking about how these live tweeted/facebooked events might translate into a classroom setting as well.  One of the exercises I’ve been playing around with recently is something I borrowed from my exams at Trinity.  We were asked to argue for or against certain major events (the Easter Rising, the Battle of the Boyne, the siege of Limerick) as turning points in Irish history.  I really like the idea of having students do something similar at the start and end of the class – identifying what they think are turning points in the history of the United States, the Atlantic World, or American immigration.  The idea is that at the start of the class, this exercise gives me a baseline for student knowledge, and by the end, they’ll be able to use the designation of turning points as a way to make arguments about their interpretation of American history.  I think it might be fun to combine that with the live tweet history/facebook news wall meme.  I’m all for encouraging students to get creative with their relationship with history, and I think it would be really interesting to see how students characterized historical actors in the parlance of the present.

Bloody Bloody

I saw Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson twice last year, once at the Public Theater in NY and once on its Broadway run.  Since the first time I’ve been trying to figure out how to teach with it, because I think it could be a really valuable, and awesome window into early nineteenth-century American history.  Every time I go down this path I’m also reminded of a West Wing episode that begins with a character intoning “Andrew Jackson, in the main foyer of his White House had a big block of cheese,” and then I get sidetracked thinking about other ways to use popular culture in U.S. survey classes and never come back to BBAJ.

So, anyway,
The show was conceived by a theater company that likes to do shows that 

revisit history in contemporary terms by looking at new idioms as a fresh way to explore historical figures or canonical texts. I don’t think it’s cheap. There’s a real populist interest in theater.”  

 It was clear both times I saw the show (which changed slightly between its Public and Broadway runs) that the people involved were grounded in history.  There was quite funny (for an historian) joke about the need to footnote that was cut somewhere during the Broadway transition, and “The Corrupt Bargain” the cast sings

John Calhoun says, We need to find a scheme to keep the power in the hands of the chosen few.  John Quincy Adams says, If my dad was president, I should get to be president too. Henry Clay says, I’ll make you president if you make me Secretary of State … All you educated people, you can talk of liberty.  But do you really want the American people running their own country?  Ooh!”

The whole show felt a lot like schoolhouse rock for adults, which isn’t to say that the take on history isn’t one-dimensional and uncomplicated, but I can’t really begrudge a Broadway show that.

I’ve been thinking of putting together an assignment that asks students to listen through a recording of the show (or even better, watch a video of it, but I’m not sure that kind of thing is legally available) and write about how they think the people who wrote the show came to tell the story they did.  Another option would be to come up with another version of the Andrew Jackson story that the playwright could have told, or to pick another historical event and “pitch” a movie or musical idea based on it.  For my class this summer, I had an assignment that asked students to write a piece of historical fiction about a natural disaster, and the two people who picked that option did a really good job of footnoting and otherwise explaining the creative decisions they made.  I think that they both initially had trouble envisioning the form that these pieces were meant to take, so maybe starting with BBAJ as an example of how some people creatively re-tell history would be a good anchor for the assignment.

The history project – or – what are we doing?

Tenured Radical has an excellent post reviewing Gordon Wood’s review of Jill Lepore’s The Whites of their Eyes: the tea party’s revolution and the battle over American history.  Among the very smart things that she says about women’s voices and authority in the academy and historical fundamentalism, she says this:

the point of Lepore’s book, as I understand it, is that history is a highly public project whether we scholars like it or not.  It cannot be confined to the archival work, truth seeking and critical methods that we historians see as fundamental to our craft, and we have some responsibility to grapple with and shape those larger belief systems.  As the public latches on to history as a way of discussing their political concerns, they develop fetish objects.  For the Tea Party activists in particular, the Founding Fathers operate as fetish objects, as well as intellectual touchstones for a set of political beliefs that are at least as presentist as they are located in any coherent eighteenth century intellectual world.

In light of recent and not-so-recent attacks on the humanities, and history in particular as politically motivated drek by people in ivory towers, I think that it is important to talk about the “highly public” side of history, and the links between that, research and teaching.  In particular, I’ve been thinking about how, as a teacher of undergraduates, I can connect history’s “highly public project” with the content in my classroom, without reifying what TR calls historical fetish objects, while providing students with skills that they can use beyond the U.S. survey.

One of the teaching pedagogy panels at the AHA that really struck me talked about how, at the survey level at least, it might behoove teachers to focus more on analytical skills than narrative, that being able to place a source in a historically specific setting, to make arguments about the motivations of the author and the possible responses of the audience, will be a longer-lasting lesson than the battles of WWI.  I don’t think that it needs to be one or the other, but in my classes I am going to try to think more critically about historical skill sets that better equip students to engage with history vis-a-vis larger belief systems, like founding father fundamentalism.

From the AHA

I was at the AHA in Boston this weekend, and was able to meet/talk to/listen to a lot of people who are doing really innovative things in historical research and teaching.  I like to treat big conferences like this as an opportunity to think about methods, more than about new findings or interpretations, and the AHA planning committee made this particularly easy by including many many panels on teaching and pedagogy.  I am still sifting through all that I heard from those, and a whole other chunk of my brain is devoted to parsing what I saw on social network theory, so some more in-depth thoughts on both of those will come later.  I do want to play around with some ideas that came out of the coincidence of those teaching panels, some others on the uses of narrative and “reading against the grain” in historical scholarship, and a video podcast walking tour that I stumbled across while looking for something to do in Boston over a particularly long lunch break.

Murder on Beacon Hill is both an iphone app and video podcast, made by the creators of the documentary Murder at Harvard, which is about the murder of George Parkman by John Webster, a Harvard doctor.  The murder and subsequent trial have turned up a lot in my own research, because they were widely reported in both the New York and the Cherokee press in 1849-50.  I had idly wondered who this Webster was that papers kept referencing, but I put it largely out of my mind because the case seemed to have no relevance to Irish famine reportage and relief.  I am a big fan of podcasted walking tours, and also of murder mysteries, and I was trebley happy to find that this particular podcast was dedicated to a relatively un-remembered event that I happened to be familiar with. 

But I think that this thing (podcast, art piece, cultural artifact – I’m not really sure what to call it) also connects in interesting ways with the panels on teaching I’d been attending in the past few days.  It’s creator, Eric Strange, says that he was compelled to make it because

People have told us they now understand connections become the geography of the area and the cultural history, and between the architecture and the social and political climate of 1850s Boston, that they never realized before.  All because of a 45-minute walk.  We want people to take the tour and afterwards never see the streets and buildings the same way again.  I think we achieved that. (Interview with history news network)

A lot of what I try to do as a teacher is to help students to never see the events of the past, or what follows them in the present the same way again.  I don’t mean that in a radical way, but in my ideal world, students who leave my classroom after, say, an intro to British imperial history class will pause when they hear about sectarian violence in Pakistan, and remember what they learnt about the historical circumstances that lead up to that event.  Although at its most basic we might think about Murder on Beacon Hill as entertainment, salacious and murderful at that, it makes me think about alternative approaches to teaching, and the incorporation of the oft-ballyhooed “digital humanities” into the classroom.  Even more so, about the nature of the “classroom” itself.  I am teaching a class on natural disasters in America this summer, and I am trying to find ways to get students out of the physically inscribed space of the classroom, and into the world in which historical events have happened.  It might be worthwhile to think about how to trouble the boundary between academic space and the “real world,” and if troubling that boundary can serve students well by connecting the often dry text of their readings with tangible lives.  C and I are going to play around with the idea of creating an interactive tour of New York this summer – we’ll see how that goes.