A Collection?

Is it just me or is Dimitri Rotov obsessed with James McPherson?  I find it incomprehensible as to why he pays so much attention to one historian.  I count five posts over the past two weeks, including this little gem which appeared today, that mention McPherson one way or another.  This most recent post is totally off the deep end.  Perhaps a collection for some kind of psychological counseling is appropriate.  :)

Enough already. 

Training the Next Generation of History Teachers

The AHA blog has a link to the report "The Next Generation of History Teachers: A Challenge to Departments of History at American Colleges and Universities" which is the result of a conference that took place here in Charlottesville in the summer of 2006.  The conference brought together history professors, high school teachers and others who are interested in the quality of history teaching from K-12.  Reading through the report reminded me of some of my own questions regarding the responsibilities of college history departments in preparing their students not simply to do research and contribute to their respective fields, but as teachers who have some background in pedagogy.  The central observation of the group is the following:

Past debates aside, today no one denies that history teachers need to know history. No one denies that teaching is a professional practice that can be developed and improved. No one denies that the best history teachers are driven by a passion for their subject as well as by concern for their students. And no one doubts that passion for history often comes to young teachers from their history professors.

As a result, we believe that departments need to create new opportunities for the people in our classes to begin thinking like history teachers as well as history students. They need to be exposed to historiographical thinking sooner rather than later, explicitly defined and carefully elaborated. Underlying this recommendation is the conviction that the best preparation for future history teachers is the best preparation for all history students. By performing this central task more effectively we can improve all the teaching we do. [emphasis in the original]

At first glance this is a tall order for history departments across the country.  As the report indicates most history departments have little to no contact with their departments of education which means that students in both camps are ill-served.  For graduate students in history one can expect that little formal training in how to conduct a classroom – apart from the old lecture format – will be introduced, and students in education departments may have little training in how history is actually done.  As a result these students enter classrooms unable to apply or teach the kinds of analytical skills that are necessary in understanding the past.

The report offers some practical suggestions for those departments that are interested in taking a critical look at their programs.  Their first point struck home for me as it indicates that history department rarely ask their students about their future plans.  I don’t ever remember being asked as a graduate student in philosophy about my future plans and I suspect that this is the case in graduate programs across the board.  Since the professors in the department have made careers teaching on the college level it is assumed that their students will do the same.  Although it is anecdotal at best, over the past year I’ve had a number of graduate students contact me through this blog for advice about teaching in private schools or on the high school level generally.  Taking one step back it is rather shocking that not more is in place to help young history graduate students take stock of their options apart from the traditional route of research and college teaching.  More importantly it is disappointing as I am convinced that many of our best teachers could be pulled from this pool of passionate and well-trained students of history.  Other suggestions from the report included:

If history departments are in institutions with schools of education, for example, the departments should open communication and establish collaboration. Joint advising has been successful at many schools and some historians might propose cross-listing their courses or team-teaching classes of the sort described below. If history departments are on their own, without schools of education, they have an even greater responsibility to think about preparing the future teachers in their charge.

A third step is for history departments to learn more about the situation in the K-12 classrooms of their community. Our conference showed how much historians in colleges have to learn from teachers in high schools. Inviting history teachers to visit to talk about standards, curricula, and local resources would help historians be better allies. By offering to help evaluate pre-service teachers in their practice teaching, in turn, historians could focus on disciplinary content and help students recognize the connections between what they teach and what historians teach in their own classrooms . By working with new history teachers in local schools in induction programs historians could make an immediate impact on the quality of history instruction in their communities and on beginning teachers’ success in the field.

This is an ambitious report and one that I would like to see departments across the country consider.  That said, I am skeptical that it will make much of an impact.  I say this because the first thing that must change is what I perceive to be a deeply ingrained assumption that the essential goal of graduate programs (specifically graduate programs with a PhD) is to train historians.  And that is different from training historians who can teach. 

There is an excellent short bibliography of sources that address historical thinking in the classroom.  I highly recommend Sam Wineburg’s, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Temple University Press, 2001). 

I applaud the members of this conference for their work in preparing this report and I look forward to reading updates.

Toni Morrison’s Civil War

Macon paused and let the smile come on.  He had not said any of this for years.  Had not even reminisced much about it recently.  When he was first married he used to talk about Lincoln’s Heaven to Ruth.  Sitting on the porch swing in the dark, he would re-create the land that was to have been his.  Or when he was just starting out in the business of buying houses, he would lounge around the barbershop and swap stories with the men there.  But for years he hadn’t had that kind of time, or interest.  But now he was doing it again, with his son, and every detail of that land was clear in his mind: the well, the apple orchard, President Lincoln; her foal, Mary Todd; Ulysses S. Grant, their cow; General Lee, their hog.  That was the way he knew what history he remembered.  His father couldn’t read, couldn’t write; knew only what he saw and heard tell of.  But he had etched in Macon’s mind certain historical figures, and as a boy in school, Macon thought of the personalities of his horse, his hog, when he read about these people.  His father may called their plow horse President Lincoln as a joke, but Macon always thought of Lincoln with fondness since he had loved him first as a strong, steady, gentle, and obedient horse.  He even liked General Lee, for one spring they slaughtered him and ate the best pork outside Virginia, "from the butt to the smoked ham to the ribs to the sausage to the jowl to the feet to the tail to the head cheese"–for eight months.  And there was cracklin in November.

"General Lee was all right by me," he told Milkman, smiling.  "Finest general I ever knew.  "Even his balls was tasty.  Circe made up the best pot of maws she ever cooked.  Huh!  I’d forgotten that woman’s name.  That was it, Circe.  Worked at a big farm some white people owned in Danville, Pennsylvania.  Funny how things get away from you.  For years you can’t remember nothing.  Then just like that, it all comes back to you.  Had a dog run, they did.  That was the big sport back then.  Dog races.  White people did love their dogs.  Kill a nigger and comb their hair at the same time.  But I’ve seen grown white men cry about their dogs."

From Song of Solomon (pp. 51-52)

Thanks To Annette McLeod, Dana Priest, Anne Hull, and C-SPAN: Democracy in Action

This morning I watched on C-SPAN as Annette McLeod testified in front of a House Committee investigating conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  The investigation is the result of the fallout surrounding the Washington Post article written by Dana Priest and Anne Hull.  Ms. McLeod is the wife of Cpl. Wendell McLeod who was severely wounded in Iraq.  She testified along with two wounded veterans on the various problems and challenges confronting the staff at Walter Reed.  I applaud Annette McLeod for her courage and ability to maintain her composure as she shared what is by all accounts an emotionally draining experience that has perhaps been exacerbated by the inadequacies at Walter Reed.  This president has made a farce of the concept of national sacrifice.  The only people who have truly sacrificed are the men and women fighting in Iraq along with their families back home.  To think that their physical and psychological wounds have not been met with the best of what this country can offer in medical care is frightening and sad.

I applaud Dana Priest and Anne Hull for their investigative piece and I do hope that they are rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize.  This is newspaper reporting at its best.  Finally, thanks to C-SPAN for giving those interested access to the workings of our government without the distracting commentary of political pundits and other interested parties.

Barnes and Noble v. Borders

My wife and I spent part of the weekend in Washington, D.C. before we had to cut our trip short owing to a severe cold that I caught on Friday.  Any trip to Washington must include a stop at one of the major bookstore chains.  Here in Charlottesville we have a Barnes and Noble, but given that this is a university town you would assume that this particular branch would have a deep selection of books in most subject areas.  That is not the case at all.  The Civil War section is absolutely pathetic as are most other areas of history.  I enjoy bookstores, especially the chance to spend some time browsing through different titles.  You can find anything on Amazon, but there is still something to being able to hold a book and flip through its pages. 

Our first stop was the B&N on M Street in Georgetown.  I thought they would have a much better selection compared with C-Ville; too my dismay the selection was even worse.  In fact their entire U.S. History selection was a disappointment and I was able to walk through it in less than 5 minutes.  That night we walked over the Borders on L and 17th Street after dinner.  The difference is night and day.  I tend to read university press books so it was nice to see a selection of recent titles from most of the presses.  I found and purchased Brian Dirck’s new edited collection Lincoln Emancipated: The President and the Politics of Race (Northern Illinois University Press, 2007).  [I recently heard Philip S. Paludan give a talk at the Univeristy of Virginia where he touched on the topic of his contribution to the collection.]  In short, the selection is much deeper.  Better yet they divide U.S. History into sections, including Colonial/Revolution, Civil War, Nineteenth Century and Modern History.  I don’t know how you explain the difference in selection.  Perhaps buyers are more focused on a given area and have the opportunity to ensure that each section is well stocked.  Whatever the case I miss not having this selection in my hometown. 

I should come clean and say that I’ve known about this difference in selection for quite some time.  Back in the mid-1990s I worked for a Borders store in Rockville, Maryland.  It’s a large store and the selection is excellent.  At the time I managed the magazine section so I was not involved with the stocking or ordering of books.  It was a great place to work at the time, and it was here where I fell in love with Civil War history.  I ran a Civil War book club that met once a month and typically included the historian whose book we were discussing  Guests included Craig Symonds and Kevin C. Ruffner.  I also organized a one-day Civil War book signing that included Brian Pohanka, James Kegel, Ed Fischel, William Matter, Greg Clemmer, Craig Symonds and others.  It was a lot of fun.