I Did Say I Wanted a New Challenge

The year has gotten off to a pretty good start.  I am enjoying all of my classes, especially the Lincoln class.  The biggest challenge has been adjusting to the new approach that I am taking in my US survey courses.  As I mentioned earlier, rather than utilizing the standard history textbook as a basic text we are reading individual secondary sources.  The first book on the list is Love and Hate in Jamestown by David Price, which we will read through the month of September.  The book is well written and the students seem to be enjoying it so far.  The challenge has been in how to use the book in class.  The textbook approach is clearly content driven and the job of the instructor is to find ways to think through or synthesize what is covered.  With a secondary source the challenge is in finding a balance between the ideas that drive the narrative and the relevant content.  I am coming to realize that we are not going to cover nearly as much content as we would with a textbook and I guess I am feeling a bit uncomfortable about that.  At the same time I am questioning why all of that lost detail really matters in the end.  Do our students remember it once the summer rolls around?  If not, perhaps we should be focusing on essential material along with critical thinking skills.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we should be trying to inculcate an interest in historical studies that will outlast high school.  I actually have a few students who are more than half-way through this book.  Do any of you out there ever remember a student reading ahead in a history textbook and actually find it enjoyable?

Today we discussed the prologue.  Price introduces the reader to some of the main players and a number of themes, including the tension between a belief in a strict social hierarchy and John Smith’s more pragmatic approach to leadership.  He also spends considerable time discussing the Virginia Company of London and why it is important to understand that the primary motive for this expedition was profit.  I showed my classes some of the popular images of the Jamestown landing depict triumphant Englishmen planting the cross in the sand.  It is safe to say that most on board were simply content on getting off the boats onto solid ground.  This idea of spreading Christianity as a primary motivator for the Jamestown settlers is pure nonsense.  It will be interesting once we have an opportunity to compare Virginia with New England where religion clearly did prove to be a primary force behind colonization.  Still, my students are usually surprised when they attempt to get their hands around the Puritan concept of religious freedom, which seems alien.  We tend to think of religious freedom along Jeffersonian lines or as a negative concept.  The Puritans understood religious freedom as the freedom to practice a certain faith.  The idea that any kind of freedom could come as a result of not practicing Christianity was alien; individuals gained freedom through religion and God’s word.

While on my afternoon job I came up with what I think is a pretty cool essay assignment which should help my students make sense of Love and Hate.  The idea is to have each student write an essay from the point-of-view of the president of the Jamestown colony.  The essay will take the form of a report to the board of the Virginia Company of London in which the student must lay out a plan for carrying out the directives of the colony.  A number of issues will have to be addressed, including plans to bring profit to the company, maintain order in the fort, and peaceful relations with local Indian tribes.  The report will have to be dated with the date determining what kind of background information leading up to the report is relevant.  So, a report dated a few weeks after arriving at Jamestown in April 1607 will look very different from one written in 1610.  I have to work out some of the details, but I like the fact that this will give students room to be creative but will also demand that they deal with the history as they understand it.  What do you think?

Oh…and we are taking the entire junior class to Jamestown in October.

14 comments… add one

  • Brooks Simpson Sep 4, 2007

    Which Jamestown? :)

  • Emily Baum Sep 5, 2007

    “Do any of you out there ever remember a student reading ahead in a history textbook and actually find it enjoyable?”
    That would be me. I actually liked our textbook, and I have clear memories of sitting in the hallway (during my free periods, no less!) reading and laughing at all of the pictures and stupid poems scattered throughout. As far as history textbooks go, it wasn’t bad at all! But I think your new approach will do well, I wish I could come back and retake your class (perhaps without Obum’s snores echoing around the room…). I hope this year goes well for you. I’ll do my best to come visit in December. Say hi to “the boys” for me!

  • Kevin Levin Sep 5, 2007

    Hi Emily, — Great to hear from you. I forgot that you actually enjoyed reading that book. You were indeed an unusual student and I mean that in the best sense possible. Hope you are enjoying colleg life. Keep in touch.

  • Rebecca Sep 6, 2007

    Hey, hey! What do you mean, “This idea of spreading Christianity as a primary motivator for the Jamestown settlers is pure nonsense.”

    Huh? What! It isn’t nonsense; it’s crucial!

  • Kevin Levin Sep 6, 2007

    Hi Rebecca, — Thanks for calling me on that. What I was trying to emphasize is that the Jamestown expedition was primarily a business venture. I agree that the conversion of Indians to Christianity must be understood as part of the story, but the investors who took part on the expedition and who remained back in London measured success based on profit.

    As you know and as we discussed in class today the English believed that they would be able to establish more a peaceful relationship with the “naturals” compared with the Spanish (Black Legend). Part of that no doubt involved conversion.

  • Rebecca Sep 6, 2007

    Well, the investors also used conversion as a way of raising money. I would also argue that they understood that the colony would be more profitable if the English were neighbors with peaceful Christian Indians. I’m not sure you can separate profit and conversion as goals–they went hand in hand.

    Course, I’ve got a whole dissertation chapter that is sort of about this, so I get sensitive about it!

  • Kevin Levin Sep 6, 2007

    That’s a great point you’ve made. So, if I understand you conversion would have been seen as a means to an end. Or are they even more closely bound together? In other words, it is possible that the English would not have perceived any tension between conversion and profit. I don’t know if I am making this point sufficiently clear.

    Thanks again Rebecca.

  • Rebecca Sep 6, 2007

    That’s exactly it–there was no tension between conversion and profit–they were both sides of the same coin. The English couldn’t have one without the other. (Sorry I’m not being clear about this–up very very late last night, reading, of all things, Hakluyt’s Discourse on Western Planting).

    There’s a lot of good stuff to read on this…

    Your kids are so lucky to have you! I’m teaching without a textbook this semester as well in HIST 117: America to 1848–it’s difficult, but I’m hoping the overall result will be positive. More on that later.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 6, 2007

    We are reading a selection from Hakluyt, but I don’t think it hits on the point you’ve made here. Please take the time to share your experience without the text as it will no doubt be very helpful to me.

  • matthew mckeon Sep 8, 2007

    Gosh, I’m doing Jamestown on Tuesday with my US History I class. As a teaser I gave them the only portrait of Pocohantas from life, the engraving showing a crabby face framed by a tall hat and ruff, as well as the John Smith engraving, showing a genial looking man with a Santa Claus beard and breastplate.
    No Colin Farrell, no romance, no babe in a buckskin miniskirt? “I’m disappointed,” said one student. You and me both, kid.
    Like many topics I teach, I have no idea what I’m talking about, so I will include the interesting point about profits and prophets. Many thanks.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 8, 2007

    Matthew, — Ask your students why they think it is necessary to package history along the lines of Disney’s movie. It may be the result of the amount of time we are spending on Jamestown, but my students are already asking interesting questions about memory. I am actually going to show them a section of the Disney movie when we get to Smith’s rescue in the book this coming week. Good luck.

  • Rebecca Sep 10, 2007

    Hakluyt’s first and foremost chapter is “That this westerne discoverie will be greately for thinlargemente of the gospell of Christe whereunto the Princes of hte refourmed relligion are chefely bounde amongest whome her Majestie ys principall”–which Hakluyt rather adroitly connects with trade and commodities in his second chapter “that all other englishe Trades are growen beggerly or daungerous especially in all the kinge of Spayne his Domynions, where our men are dryven to flinge their Bibles and prayer Bookes into the sea, and to foresweare and renownce their relligion and conscience and consequently theyr obedience to her Majestie.”

    Making the world safe for Protestantism and trade!

  • Kevin Levin Sep 10, 2007

    Great. Thanks so much for taking the time to share this with me. I will make sure to fit it into the class. As for tomorrow we are set to examine how Pocohantas’s resuce of Smith has been remembered. My students are already asking these kinds of questions without me prodding them.

  • Rebecca Sep 11, 2007

    Hey, do you have that great little pamphlet from the VHS with all the POcahontas art? It’s good stuff…

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