My students seemed to really enjoy the act of writing their own obituaries. As I mentioned the other day I like to begin the year with a lesson that forces students to challenge the way they think about the idea or concept of history. We tend to see history as a subject to be studied in books rather than as a biological necessity rooted in the cognitive and physical architecture of the brain. To put it in Daniel Dennett’s terms, we are programmed to string words together into complex narratives that are based in large part on our ability to recall our individual and collective pasts. To make the point I shared a story that can be found in Oliver Sacks’s book An Anthropologist On Mars. I don’t remember all of the details, but one of the chapters is about a man who after 1972 was unable to integrate his short and long-term memory. Even as late as the 1990′s when he was being treated by Sacks he still believed that it was 1972. This man’s long-term memory remained intact up to the year 1972, but was unable to add on following the trauma. At one point in the story Sacks took this man to a Grateful Dead concert. Following the concert Sacks asked him how he liked it. His response conveys the tragedy behind his personal affliction: he suggested that the music sounded as if it was ahead of its time. If you have some sense of how the music of the Grateful Dead evolved between the early 1970′s and 1990′s you can appreciate the reference. It took a few minutes for my students to grasp what all of this meant for the patient; imagine that every new experience would be washed away within a matter of hours. The following day Sacks approached his patient and asked how he liked the Grateful Dead concert. He responded by indicating that he had seen the Dead last year in 1971 out in California.
I asked my students to think about what would be lost if we were unable to remember. They talked about not being able to build friendships or learn from past mistakes. Their answers tended to revolve around the ways our individual identities would be threatened or permanently lost. One of the students commented that she felt very fragile after realizing how quickly our sense of self can be damaged or lost.
I was able to transition to the obituary exercise by drawing a connection between our deep need to remember our own pasts with that of others. Why do we feel such a need to remember the lives of others? Studying the individual obituaries gave us a chance to think about this question along with the more specific issue of how we remember. Students explained why they preferred specific entries over others. Finally, I asked them to share their own obituaries with the class. It’s a great way to break the ice during those first few days and for me to learn a bit about each student. Some of them imagined their own deaths in the present while others imagined a rich life well into their 90′s. At the end I asked the class to think about the one common thread that coursed throughout each obituary. It took some time for them to focus in on it, but they eventually nailed it:
Each of us has a deep need to remember and/or to be remembered.
Somebody please tell me how I am supposed to teach my students to think critically about the past and understand it in all of its complexity when our president’s view of the world is so unsophisticated.
The war we fight today is more than a military conflict; it is the decisive
ideological struggle of the 21st century. On one side are those who believe in
the values of freedom and moderation — the right of all people to speak, and
worship, and live in liberty. And on the other side are those driven by the
values of tyranny and extremism — the right of a self-appointed few to impose
their fanatical views on all the rest. As veterans, you have seen this kind of
enemy before. They’re successors to Fascists, to Nazis, to Communists, and other
totalitarians of the 20th century. And history shows what the outcome will be:
This war will be difficult; this war will be long; and this war will end in the
defeat of the terrorists and totalitarians, and a victory for the cause of
freedom and liberty.
I understand that he is playing to his political base here and that most reasonable people will give it little thought. Still, it is extremely frustrating that this man seems unable to move beyond an overly simplistic reductionism that fails to draw even the most basic distinctions between very distinct historical movements. Isn’t it standard practice in our classrooms to steer students away from the Nazi/Hitler analogies? They are bad rhetorical devices and nothing more. Why don’t we just throw out the curriculum if all my students need to know is that they were all bad.
And this man spent part of his summer reading Albert Camus?
Tomorrow is the opening day of the new school year. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit to being just a little nervous. I enjoy thinking about how to proceed in the first few days. Those first few classes are by far the most important as the teacher has the opportunity to set the tone for the year. My goal is to present the subject as an opportunity not just to learn a set of dry facts, but to create a space for serious reflection about some of the deep issues.
This year I am going to have my students write their own obituaries. The plan is to hand out a copy of the Obituary Page from the New York Times and have the students reflect on a range of different entries. Here are just a few questions that they will think about and discuss: (1) What do we learn about these recently deceased individuals? (2) Are longer entries more effective in capturing the individual’s past compared with shorter entries? (3) In what ways are these entries selective and what would you like to know about these people that is is not covered and why? (4) In what ways do these entries reflect their authors?
Finally, the students are asked to write their own obituaries. I like this idea as it forces them to think of themselves as historian and historical object. How do they want to be remembered? How important is accuracy in crafting their individual past for others? I am looking forward to seeing what they come up with. This could be a bit uncomfortable for some, but hopefully it will prove to be a fruitful experiment.
In yesterday’s post I commented in passing that Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary should be used with great care in the classroom. I’ve used it every semester in my own Civil War course as it is both entertaining and pedagogically useful in a number of ways. The documentary should be used as an interpretation of the war. This means that the teacher must engage the students in an active manner with some type of activity. One of the easiest ways – though not the only way – is to pose a set of interpretive questions that can be discussed by the entire class following the segment.
Begin with the various voices: What role does the narrator (David McCullough) play in the documentary? How much (if any) authority should his own words carry compared with the other "talking heads"? [Students should have a bit of background here in reference to McCullough's notoriety as a popular historian.] What is the role of the "talking heads" such as Shelby Foote? [I also give my students a little background on Foote.] What specific role does Foote play in the documentary (i.e. historian v. entertainer). I will admit that I jump back and forth in terms of the usefulness of Foote. At times I see him as a major distraction while at other times he is a magnet for those who are new to the subject. More often than not it is a combination of the two views.
Themes that can be tracked by students: How are Grant and Lee or Davis and Lincoln interpreted in terms of both content and the voices that portray them? Does the documentary do a good job balancing between the battlefield and homefront; eastern v. western theatres; North v. South (Union v. Confederate); enlisted men v. officers; commoners v. elite? How representative are Sam Watkins of Tennessee and Elisha Hunt Rhodes of Rhode Island? Students can compare and contrast their experiences as portrayed in the documentary. What role does the music play in various segments?
These are just a few questions/themes that students can explore while watching this documentary. I should say that I do not use the entire series as it is much too long. Students should come away with a firmer understanding that documentaries are interpretations. Any discussion can easily be expanded to other visual mediums. Given the number of hours that high school students spend in front of the television it is important that we give them the tools to engage with these images and messages.
I will post other ideas as to how to use Ken Burns as the semester progresses.
Here is the course description for the Civil War research seminar that I will be offering this semester. Feel free to offer any suggestions.
Goal of the Course: The goal of this course is to teach students how to research and write Civil War history utilizing the wide-range of primary source material available on the Internet. This course will focus primarily on the Valley of the Shadow project out of the University of Virginia. The Valley project provides the most complete on-line archive, including diaries, letters, newspapers, official city/county documents and the complete census reports for 1860 and 1870. The website allows students to compare life in two Shenandoah Valley counties through the Civil War era and into the immediate postwar period—Augusta County, Virginia and Franklin County, Pennsylvania.
Course Structure: A normal week will be divided between in-class discussions of secondary source material (articles and chapters) which will provide an overview of important issues related to the Civil War era as well as more focused material related to the Valley project. At least two days of the week will be devoted to in-class research where students will use classroom computers to work on individual projects. In addition to assignments covering course readings, students will be required to keep a weekly research log which will include a record of all documents analyzed and general progress on research. Every other week the group will come together and each student will report on his/her progress to the rest of the class. This will provide an opportunity for students to offer suggestions or share material that may be relevant to other projects.
Historians from the area will be invited to join in discussions of course readings and staff from the University of Virginia who work on the Valley project will also be invited to discuss issues related specifically to researching the database.
Research Skills : (1) Choosing a Topic; (2) Formulating a Thesis Statement; (3) Collecting and Analyzing Evidence; (4) Building an Argument; 5) Structuring/Writing Historical Essays and Integrating Primary Documents into the Narrative; (6) Footnotes/Endnotes; (7) Sharing information
Course Requirements: This course is designed along the lines of a college-level course. You are expected to stay on top of reading assignments and spend sufficient time reading source material for your project. Please note the importance of participation in the grade break-down below. You must also come to class prepared to discuss reading assignments and will be expected to lead the class discussion at least once. In addition, a mid-term exam will be given around the fifth week of the course. Finally, the class will take one field trip to a Civil War battlefield at some point during the semester..
Required Text: This Terrible War: The Civil War and its Aftermath by Michael Fellman, Lesley Gordon, and Daniel Sutherland. Additional handouts will be made available by the instructor.
A Word to Seniors With Varying Degrees of Senioritis: This course is an elective, which means that you do not have to be here. If the requirements of this course do not fit into your overall goals, please consider taking another course so we do not have any serious problems. I guarantee that the writing skills learned throughout this semester will benefit you in college. It is up to you to decide whether you will take advantage of this offer.
Breakdown of Course Requirements: Final Research Project 50%, Thesis Summaries, 20%, Mid-Term 10%, and Participation 20%