Don’t Fear the Twitter

web20It’s never a good idea to approach the unknown with an attitude of fear.  It distorts the subject from the outset and almost always results in judgments that emphasize worst-case scenarios rather than what is possible.  Such is the case when schools try to figure out how to introduce and/or regulate student behavior on the internet – especially in the case of those websites that fall under the heading of web 2.0.  I am talking about websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Delicious, etc.  The problem is generational or at least the perception that there is a difference between the level of comfort and ability when it comes to maneuvering through the web and understanding specific sites.  I say this because most of my students are not aware of the many sites that enhance networking beyond Facebook and MySpace.  The other day I conducted a poll among my students and out of 75 only 2 had ever heard of Twitter.  I inquired into a few other sites, but the results were pretty much the same.  My point is that our assumption that the younger generation is necessarily more web savvy than us is a lot of nonsense.

My school has been dealing with the problem of how to teach students to better utilize web 2.0 technology for the past few years.  Much of the discussion stems from utter ignorance of what these sites offer or they are preoccupied with nightmarish stories of suicide associated with Facebook.  A few of my colleagues have Facebook pages, but it doesn’t extend much further that that.  Part of the problem is that unless you have someone on staff who works with this technology in the classroom and who can explain it to those interested it is a waste of time to talk about it.  We recently paid an “expert” to discuss these sites with the entire faculty during one of our workshop days.  It turned into a complete waste of time owing to the fact that there was no hands-on time for the faculty and how this technology connects to different subjects.  It turned into three hours of, “Look at me and what I can do and what you can’t do.”  To me, web 2.0 represents a new way of thinking about your relationship to others as well as how we collect and disseminate information.  That necessarily impacts how we think about our roles as teachers.  But because it is a process or way of thinking these tools must be introduced and slowly integrated with careful consideration. 

Beyond blogging I’ve only become interested in these sites over the past two years and I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to utilize this technology in the classroom.  It seems to me that networking sites are part of the reality of Thomas Friedman’s “flat world.”  It’s here to stay and we better educate our students on how  best utilize it so as to allow them to collect valuable information, compete in a global market, and break down barriers that up until recently have seemed to be impenetrable.  As a blogger it is easy for me to see the possibilities given that my site has put me in touch with people from around the world.  Through continued contact with my readers, and links to other bloggers, I now have access to information that has added significantly to my knowledge of a whole host of topics.

How we utilize these tools in the classroom must be decided by each instructor.  The challenge for me has been to figure out how these tools can enhance what I already do and what works.  Nothing that I’ve experimented with has yet to supplant my basic approach of utilizing primary sources and encouraging classroom discussion.  It is convenient, however, to be able to Skype with an expert in a given field right in the classroom or collect information via RSS Feeds or search for photographs in Flickr via tags. 

Until we start to see these sites as tools that can enhance our lives as well as our students we are not going to be able to talk intelligently about it.  More importantly, we would have missed the boat on introducing these valuable tools to our students.  It’s not about what students will do, but about what they can do.

What’s Wrong With J.E.B. Stuart?

On Friday I am heading down to South Boston, Virginia to lead a TAH Grant seminar of 28 high school history teachers.  Our topic is Civil War Memory.  I am going to take care of the morning session, including an overview of the topic as well as interpretive case studies with documents, film, and monuments.  In the afternoon Professor Robert Kenzer is going to talk about how to use Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary in the classroom.  I am really looking forward to this session given my passion for teaching as well as the subject.  

In preparation for the seminar I was allowed to suggest one book that would be made available to all participants and which they would be expected to read beforehand.  I selected Gary Gallagher’s recent study of the Civil War in popular culture because I thought it would both introduce the teachers to the subject of memory and give them a sense of how they can talk about the subject in the classroom.  My favorite chapter is the one on Civil War “art”, which has been a regular topic on this blog from the beginning.  I guess you could say I have a love-hate relationship with it.  On the one hand the range of images provide the perfect gauge through which to measure our collective memory of the war.  At the same time much of this art is just downright horrific.  Anyway, I am going to include a few of my favorite prints in the visual portion of my presentation.  As I was putting this part of the presentation together I came across this hilarious painting of J.E.B. Stuart by John Paul Strain titled “Bold Cavalier.”    I apologize for the quality of the Strain print, but if you click here it will take you to Strain’s own gallery thumbnail.

It looks to me like Strain took the famous photograph of Stuart on the right and just transferred his head to the body on horseback.  The effect is simply hilarious.  Stuart looks completely detached from the people around him and looks to be preparing to be photographed.  Or perhaps he just wants to get away from his adoring fans.  Either way it makes for a good laugh.

Henry Louis Gates as Filmmaker

99-gatesToday I showed a segment of Henry L. Gates’s “Looking for Lincoln” to my Civil War Memory class.  They enjoyed it and it provides an excellent overview of some of the themes that will be explored in this last full week of classes before the trimester ends.  We looked specifically at the segments on emancipation and race.  Gates spends time interviewing both David Blight and Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Throughout Gates proceeds as if he is on a personal journey to better understand the history of Lincoln as well as the evolution of Lincoln mythology.  In a conversation with Goodwin, Gates suggests that his search has left him disillusioned and disappointed to learn that Lincoln harbored racist views or that the impetus for the Emancipation Proclamation was not borne of pure motives, but political expediency and military necessity.  In a charming little give and take Goodwin encourages “Skip” not to blame Lincoln for the conflict between history and mythology, but to try to reconcile the two. Goodwin hopes that out of conflict will come empathy for Lincoln and a more sophisticated understanding of his life within the context of the war and the mid-nineteenth century generally.

At one point one of my students wondered out loud whether Gates was really confused about Lincoln.  I soon realized that he was inquiring how a professional historian whose area of expertise is race relations and the nineteeth century could be confused about Lincoln.  It’s an excellent question.  After all, Gates is currently the director of the W.E.B. Dubois Center of African and African American Research at Harvard University.  Of course, Gates is not confused about his subject.  I tend to think that Gates is modeling the kind of journey that he likely took when studying this subject seriously for the first time and one that he hopes others will take as well.   His interviews with professional historians pit him as the outsider who is trying to better understand Lincoln; this comes out clearly in the dinner table scenes with Harold Holzer, James Horton, and David Blight.  There was nothing said over dinner that Gates didn’t already know, but the viewer is left with the impression that this is just another step in his journey to better understand Lincoln.  In proceeding in this way Gates entices his viewer to join him on this journey.  It also works to collapse the distinction between the academic and the neophyte.

All in all I think this is an entertaining approach to the history documentary without having to sacrifice content and scholarship.

Hey SCV, Welcome to 2009

I am pleased to see that the Sons of Confederate Veterans have given a thumbs-up to the recent PBS Lincoln documentary, “Looking For Lincoln”, narrated by Henry Louis Gates.  The reviewer takes pride in the way in which the SCV is portrayed as well as the emphasis on the challenging of various “Lincoln myths.”

For the first time in memory, almost all the coverage was positive. In the rare worst case it was neutral and not negative. Our flags and symbols were prominent. If every one of us went out flagging for a whole day we couldn’t have nearly shown our colors to as many as the millions watching.   Our people were shown were well dressed, with attractive personalities and articulate messages including delegates in the scenes at the reunion.

The reviewer is no doubt correct to note that the SCV was allowed to state their position on Lincoln, but this should not be confused with any tacit endorsement of that position by the producers or even Gates himself.  The goal of the documentary was to survey the way various groups, and at different times, have remembered and commemorated Lincoln.  It was not Gates’s purpose to criticize any one interpretation.

More interesting is their assessment of how the documentary handled what the SCV assumes to be a deeply ingrained set of Lincoln myths.  The SCV and other heritage organizations have been outspoken in blaming academics for not addressing these myths:

The bottom line is the program attacked the Lincoln myth and presented so many of the negatives in Lincoln’s life that have been avoided by historians for years. This includes some who appeared on the program and now exposed by having to admit there is a Lincoln “myth”. They also chide each other for not viewing history in light of the times, rather than viewing it, as they often do, as if the events were today.

The program further gives us an opportunity to see to it that it is and used by schools throughout the country to help overcome the problem of children being misled on the life of Lincoln and the causes of the War Between the States. Is also serves as an introduction to the Sons of Confederate Veterans by the SCV being portrayed in a favorable light. Dr. Gates has assured me he wholeheartedly endorses this idea. In his case, he has convinced me he is interested in the truth as defined in the program, though he continues as a devoted Lincoln fan, blemishes and all.

This is a bizarre thing to say given that Henry L. Gates as well as others featured on the program, including Allen Guelzo, David Blight, Harold Holzer, and James O. Horton are all academics and have been arguing for a more sophisticated interpretation of Lincoln for well over twenty years.  Unless you’ve had your head in the sand academic historians have challenged every aspect of the Lincoln myth out there, especially his position on slavery and race.  Actually, the more you think about this passage the more confusing it is.  I am not aware of any high school history textbooks that fail to follow the outline of Gates’s documentary.  In other words, most texts distinguish between Lincoln’s views on race and slavery and do a pretty good job of explaining the complex set of conditions that led to the Emancipation Proclamation – the very core of Lincoln mythology, according to the SCV.

I think what this reflects is how far removed the SCV – as an organization – is from a mature understanding of Lincoln/Civil War historiography.  They think that “Looking for Lincoln” somehow reflects a new direction in scholarship when all it really is is an entertaining/educational overview of what most historians have come to believe about Lincoln.  The straightforward historical interpretation of Lincoln that emerges is a synthesis of the last twenty-five years of scholarship.  Maybe if the SCV took the time to get beyond their meaningless generalizations regarding professional historians and took the time to read their books they would see this.  Welcome to 2009.

Visualizing the Lost Cause

Check out the excellent video that Caitlin, from Vast Public Indifference, put together in response to one of my recent posts on Civil War art.  Caitlin’s commentary begins around 2:10.  The video is here, but I encourage you to read her full post, which includes another video.  Does anyone really believe that the images in this video reflect how white Virginians lived?  More to the point, do people who fall into the demographic of those who are attracted to this “maudlin crapfest” actually believe that this reflects how they would have lived in antebellum Virginia?  Even a cursory understanding of Virginia’s antebellum history demonstrates that many believed the commonwealth was headed in the wrong direction [click here and here].  Can we do no better than yearn for a return to a time when slavery was accepted?  Such nostalgic silliness is nothing less than a yearning to return to slavery.

I am going to show this to my Civil War Memory class tomorrow.  They are currently working on their final projects and a number of them are putting together videos from our trip to Richmond as well as collections of various images related to memory.  Well done, Caitlin.

Update: Check out the obligatory response from Richard Williams who can’t think of anything more interesting to say other than to accuse us of South bashing [blah, blah, blah].  Do you really find the history of the Confederacy and the antebellum South in these images?  Scary and just a little disturbing – no offense.

Why I Love My Job

This semester I am working with a senior on an independent study, which focuses on the admittance of female students to the University of Virginia in the early 1970s.  The student in question has already been accepted by UVA on a full scholarship to play golf.  After reading a number of secondary sources and meeting with a member of UVA’s history department, who focuses on women’s history, I decided it was time to head on over to Special Collections to check out some primary sources.  My goal was to get her acclimated to the system so she can go in alone and on her own time.  We looked at a number of collections, but one in particular stood out.  It was called the “Woody Report” and it was commissioned by the university in 1968 to gather information from various campus community’s on where they stood on the issue of the integration of women into the university.

We thumbed through the pages, but at one point my student looked at me and said, “Mr. Levin, do you realize that this is the originial copy of the report?”  I knew at that moment exactly what was going on in her mind, and I also knew that this student would never look at history the same way.  In that moment she made the leap from textbook to an actual document.  It’s impossible to communicate the experience of holding history in your hands; in those moments time collapses and you are confronted with a piece of a story that you’ve only read about through the interpretation of another.  As we drove back to campus I casually remarked that she would have to find time in her schedule over the next few weeks to go back and check out some additional collections.  Well, she looked at me and said that she had already decided to go back first thing tomorrow morning.

…and I’ve had a smile on my face since then. 🙂