John Legend Can’t Teach My Students

I am not a big fan of using history videos in my classroom.  Most are poorly produced and fail to add anything of substance to the various activities that I employ.  If I use video at all they are in short clips of historical footage such as a speech, parade, etc. pulled from YouTube.  At the beginning of the year History Channel mailed me a copy of their recent series, America: The Story of Us.  It sat on my shelf and I really had no plans to use it after having viewed a few segments.  However, as a way to get their intellectual juices flowing again after their Thanksgiving break I decided to show them the section on westward expansion through the 1850s as a way to introduce them to the next textbook chapter.  I wasn’t so concerned about the content; rather, I asked students to evaluate the narrative, along with the visuals, choice of talking heads, and the intended audience.

The video clearly kept their attention long after the point where you begin to see eyes glaze over or heads hitting the table.  They were impressed with the visual effects, especially the panoramic shots that helped them to conceptualize the pace of expansion.  We especially enjoyed the segment on the construction of the Erie Canal.  What they did not like at all was the choice of commentators.  They understood early on that the video was meant to attract the audience, but the choice of Michael Douglas, Rudy Giuliani, and Michael Bloomberg did not impress them at all.  A few students asked me to explain their qualifications for discussing American history.  Even more surprising was their reaction when John Legend, Sean “Puffy” Combs, and Martha Stewart appeared.  One of my students thought it was appropriate that Stewart was dressed in orange, but for the most part my students just laughed.  A few of them were visibly confused as to why the producers of this video would ask these people to offer commentary about specific historical events.

Keep in mind that I didn’t anticipate their responses, but after thinking about I have to say that I am encouraged by it.  I think they acknowledged the video’s usefulness, but their reaction to seeing high profile public figures as well as entertainers that many of them identify with suggests that our students are more sophisticated than we sometimes give them credit for.  I think what they are saying is go ahead and entertain us, but don’t assume that the only people we listen to and value are entertainers.

Portraying Violence in the Classroom

John Hennessy has an incredibly thought provoking post up over at Frederickburg Remembered, which addresses the challenges of “portraying violence” in public history.  No one is better positioned to speak on such a subject:

Having worked on or with battle sites for much of my career (which seems impossibly long these days), there is no denying the temptation to use examples of violence in public programs. Nothing gets the attention of an audience faster than the description of a horrific death or a sanguine landscape in battle’s aftermath. But, do such things really help us get our listeners to a place of greater understanding? Or are we merely indulging our own and our visitors’ morbid curiosity?

As a history teacher, who offers an entire elective on the Civil War, I can relate to the temptation that John describes.  I constantly struggle with this question when discussing battles and the experiences of the common soldiers.  My biggest problem is a strong belief that having never experienced a battlefield/combat I am simply not qualified to give voice to it.  I usually feel like an impostor when doing so.  There are a few movies that I’ve used with some success in trying to give life to a Civil War battlefield, but even here I am uncomfortable rendering any kind of judgment as to their accuracy.  I often wonder what my students are thinking when watching these scenes.  Is it simply entertainment?  Are they glorifying the event and thus minimizing the true brutality that it attempts to represent?  And I wonder, as John does, whether I am feeding my students’ “morbid curiosity.”

This is not to suggest that I steer clear entirely from the subject either; rather, I almost always allow the soldiers to speak for themselves along with utilizing other primary sources such as photographs.  The letters offer windows into an experience that most of us will thankfully never have to encounter.  My students will have their own emotional response following the reading of a letter or the viewing of a photograph.  As a teacher I do my best to guide them intellectually to a place where they can achieve some level of understanding that they can take with them after they leave the course.  Even that level of understanding must be student driven.  And in a democratic nation it is essential that we do our best to understand and appreciate the consequences of war for the individuals involved and the nation as a whole.  Most of us sailed through the last 8 years of war without having to pay much attention at all.  My students were certainly not engaged.

But isn’t that the danger here?  As skeptical as I am about my ability to properly teach the subject of war isn’t the failure to do so to be left with a generation that is simply unprepared to think critically or emotionally about the consequences of war?

Anyway, head on over to John’s site for a much more interesting discussion.

What Does Your Civil War Soldier Have To Say?

Charlottesville's Confederate Soldier Statue

Well, it’s early Sunday morning and I am sitting in my office preparing my classes for the start of a new trimester.  Once again, I am teaching an elective called, Civil War Memory, which I’ve offered over the past three years.  The course has taken different forms from a standard readings course to a course on film.  This year I am trying to structure the course so as to give my students a sense that they are contributing to the ongoing discussion about how the Civil War ought to be commemorated throughout the sesquicentennial.  I’ve played around with the idea of having my class form their own commission and build a website that would outline what they hope to accomplish over the next few years.  One of the activities planned will ask students to write their own proclamation for the state of Virginia after a careful examination of documents related to Governor McDonnell’s experience.

I tend to use the first day of a new class to jump right in rather than go through the tedious steps of outlining the course as well as my expectations.  Most of my students are already aware of my expectations and they can read the outline on the course website.  Let’s get to the important stuff.  I think I found a promising little lesson to get things going.  This morning I read a brief editorial in our local newspaper that attempts to give voice to our courthouse Confederate statue:

My name is Johnny Reb, the young soldier you see downtown every day at the courthouse. I killed and died for the Confederate States of America. I now see the great pain and suffering I brought to my family and my country in this misguided war. I am sorry too for attempting to perpetuate the slavery of Africans, brought here in cruel servitude, an enduring stain on America’s heritage of liberty. “If I could rise from my grave, I would walk to President Lincoln’s memorial in Washington and ask his forgiveness. And I would ask to shake the hand of President Obama and thank him for his service in healing the great country America has become despite my mistake.

I’m not so concerned about the substance of the editorial as much as I am with the imaginative act of speaking for the statue – an act that reminds us that our understanding of the meaning of these sites is always changing.    Perhaps I will come up with a couple of questions to assist them or maybe it’s better just to let them go to see what they come up with.  Most of my students will have taken my survey course on the war.  This is also a way to connect students to the local memory of the Civil War and this exercise can be done on any number of grade levels.  I will let you know what, if anything, comes of it.

Where Is Alabama’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee?

Becoming Alabama Logo

It’s there, you just have to know where to look for it.  The question of how to commemorate the events marking the secession of the Deep Southern states 150 years later has been interesting to follow.  Not too long ago South Carolina debated the merits of locating a monument to that state’s resolution to secede on public ground.  I have to assume that the question of how to mark the secession of the rest of the Deep South, especially Alabama, is seen by many across the racial line as nothing less than a powder keg.  It looks like Alabama has tried to minimize the potential negative fallout by placing the Civil War Sesquicentennial commemoration alongside two other anniversaries and under the name, “Becoming Alabama“.    Their own explanation for this decision is as follows:

The concept for Becoming Alabama began with a pragmatic assessment of the financial and logistical challenges posed by this rapid succession of anniversaries over the next several years. Given the budgetary restraints faced by nearly every historical and cultural organization in today’s economic climate, it made sense to seek efficiency in planning public programs, designing publicity, and developing educational resources.

No doubt, the economy has played havoc with the budgets of all of the state commissions but it is hard not to see other factors at work here.  I do not envy members of this committee, who will have to figure out how to commemorate the formation of the Confederate government and Jefferson Davis’s arrival in Montgomery.  Already, organizations are gearing up for all out celebrations that I am sure state sponsored events will hope to steer clear.  My only concern is that the emphasis on civil rights may hamper the ability of those who hope to offer a more complete picture of the Civil War in Alabama that appeals to both blacks and whites.  It is an interesting approach to some very tough questions.

Acquisitions (American Revolution Edition)

Every year as I prepare my classes I rediscover my love for the history of the American Revolution.  Like the Civil War, the Revolution enjoys a wide range of talented scholars and popular writers, who continue to crank out thought-provoking studies many of which I end up incorporating into my class lectures.  This year was no different.  Here is a list of the books that I’ve read over the past few months or hope to complete at some point soon.  I know many of you have an interest in the period so I am curious as to what you’ve read recently or are looking forward to reading.

  • Benjamin L. Carp, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (Yale University Press, 2010).  I am just about finished with this book and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.  Carp does an outstanding job of placing the event within the context of the British Empire as a whole.  He analyzes the local social and political scene in Boston as well as the choice of disguise and the consequences of the act.
  • Julie Flavell, When London Was Capital of America (Yale University Press, 2010).  I love books that force you to take a new perspective on familiar people and events.  I recently heard that David McCullough’s next book will attempt something along the same lines.
  • Woody Holton, Abigail Adams (Free Press, 2009).  Holton goes furthest in exploring Abigail’s role as the caretaker of the family’s finances during John’s many absences.  I know that Joseph Ellis recently published a book on John and Abigail, but the reviews have not been good.
  • Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton University Press, 2010).  You can read this in one or two days.  It compliments Carp’s study nicely.  As much as I found Lepore’s focus on the modern Tea Party movement to be interesting, I was much more surprised by earlier appropriations of the event.
  • Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (Simon and Schuster, 2010).  I’ve not had a chance to read this, but if it is as good as her study of the Declaration of Independence it’s going to be a real treat to read.
  • Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies (Knopf, 2010) Taylor proves once again that there is an aesthetic quality to solid research that is beautifully written.