Category Archives: Teaching

The End Of A Long Weekend

Well, I had my first back-to-school meeting today and classes begin next Wednesday.  I am always excited about getting back into the classroom.  One of the best aspects of being a teacher is the ability to start over each year.  You are given a blank slate on which you can literally re-invent yourself.  To my fellow teachers out there I wish all of you the best in starting the new year.  Take a chance and try some new ideas out and remember to have fun.  This is an awesome profession!


New Civil War Textbook

This year I will be teaching my Civil War elective in the Fall semester.  For the past three years I’ve used Brook Simpson’s very readable and concise book, America’s Civil War (Harland Davidson, 1996).  The book proved to be ideal regardless of whether the class was structured around the critical analysis of secondary sources or as a research seminar.  Still, it is always important to make changes if only for the teacher’s psychological well-being.  This year I’ve switched to This Terrible War: The Civil War and its Aftermath by Michael Fellman, Lesley Gordon, and Daniel Sutherland.  [Here is a review from H-Net] I chose this text for a couple reasons.  The book is a bit more detailed and will give the class more to critically analyze; there is a longer section on Reconstruction; and the book also includes a section on Civil War memory as well as a nice selection of primary sources.  This year the class will be structured as a college seminar.  We will read this book along with a selection of secondary sources – many will no doubt be pulled from North and South Magazine.


AP History Workshops: Who Should Attend and Who Should Run As Quickly As Possible In The Opposite Direction

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

Now that I’ve received my AP results from this past year I’ve started to think about how to proceed in the coming year.  In thinking about this I was reminded of a workshop that I attended for beginning AP teachers at William and Mary two years ago this week.  I admit to having been quite nervous about the workshop and my first year teaching the class.  The AP curriculum is very popular at my school, and while no one made the point explicit, the school and the parents expect results. 

I was placed in a section with around 25 teachers and the instructor we were told was a seasoned AP History teacher.  Within a few hours of the opening session I literally thought that someone was filming me for one of those spoof shows on television.  The range of abilities was all over the board.  Apart from a few competent individuals there were people without any type of history degree, some without even a basic background in US History, and even first-year teachers who had to start their careers by teaching multiple AP sections.  It was the plight of the public school system in my face.  The first few hours were spent covering the basic time-line in US History followed by the basics of primary source analysis.  I was confused, depressed, and angry all at the same time.  During lunch I met two teachers in my group who were as upset as me.  Both were recent UVA graduates from the Currie School of Education and the History Department and were currently working in public schools.  They had taken courses with such notable historians as Ed Ayers and Michael Holt and they were both extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the subject and teaching. 

At the end of the day we approached one of the organizers to see about switching into the intermediate section.  She looked at us as if we were crazy and just a bit arrogant in thinking that first-year AP teachers could handle the intermediate section.  At one point we threatened that we would leave the program and complain to her superiors if we were not allowed to switch; of course, she finally relented.  Relieved that the rest of the conference would be more interesting we walked back to the hotel and later met for dinner to joke about what we had experienced that day. 

The intermediate group was not much better, although we talked much more about the analysis of documents and the structure of the course.  I remember the reaction of the class after analyzing two WPA slave interviews only to learn that the two interviewees were one and the same person.  One of the interviewers was black and the other white so we had to explain why the interviewee would respond differently based on race.   It was a reflection of how unsophisticated most of the teachers in the room were.  This is not meant as a condescending remark as I hope to make a point about the usefulness of these workshops.  Most of the people who attend these workshops have little background in serious historical study.  They may know a great deal about what happened in the past but their ability to teach students how to engage in an analytical discussion and prepare an analytical essay is lacking.  This brings me back to my two new friends.  As I mentioned they had both graduated with degrees in history from UVA and their instructors had taught them well in terms of how to think and write about the past.  In short, given the AP History curriculum there was simply very little for the instructors to teach us. 

I was surprised by just how little the AP History curriculum deviated from the way I teach my regular US survey courses.  My students routinely write short essays in which they must make use of primary sources in structuring their thesis statement.  They are forced to think critically about every paragraph and every sentence in that paragraph.  This dovetails easily with the goal of the DBQ essay.  And any serious history teacher who focuses on critical analysis already asks questions that would fall easily into the category of the Free-Response Essay

I now see the workshop as a clear sign of how woefully unprepared many history teachers are for the classroom.  In this I agree wholeheartedly with David McCullough who has been outspoken of the need to prepare history teachers with a solid grounding in historical understanding. 

We have to do a far better job
of teaching our teachers. We have too many teachers who are graduating with
degrees in education. They go to schools of education or they major in
education, and they graduate knowing something called education, but they don’t
know a subject. They’re assigned to teach botany or English literature or
history, and of course they can’t perform as they should. Knowing a subject is
important because you want to know what you’re talking about when you’re
teaching. But beyond that, you can’t love what you don’t know. And the great
teachers – the teachers who influence you, who change your lives – almost
always, I’m sure, are the teachers that love what they are teaching. It is that
wonderful teacher who says “Come over here and look in this microscope, you’re
really going to get a kick out of this.

So, who should attend the AP workshop?  Remember that AP Central is a business and like any business they need your money to survive.  The number of workshops offered for AP teachers reminds me of the pressure and plethora of offering that are designed to prepare our students and children for the SAT and other standardized tests.  The workshops (and I venture to say that even those courses advertised as intermediate) are really meant for those people who have little background in the critical analysis of history – background that you will receive from any competent history department at the undergraduate level.  For those of you who satisfy this condition my suggestion is to enjoy the last few weeks of summer, and if you are feeling guilty go out and buy a serious historical study that could be introduced in some way in your class. 


AP History Results Just In

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

Today I had a chance to review the scores of my students who took the AP US History exam back in May.  They did extremely well, which is no surprise given that students must apply to take this course where I work.  This means that they are highly motivated and hard workers.  This is my second year teaching the course.  The biggest change that I made this past year was with the textbook.  Last year I used the very popular American Pageant by David Kennedy et. al, while this year I switched to Give Me Liberty by Eric Foner.  While the former text is popular the narrative is quite dry and the multiple authors leaves the reader with no unifying theme.  Not only is the narrative dry, but littered throughout are poor analogies and metaphors; students enjoy pointing these out in class.  As the sole author, Eric Foner is able to weave a coherent story around the question of how the concept of freedom has been understood and the conditions in which it has expanded and contracted throughout American history.  His is a progressive story, but realistic throughout.  While Foner does provide AP students with the information needed for the exam, he goes beyond this traditional account to introduce students to a host of lesser- known events and individuals that are a staple of the new cultural and social histories. This is clearly history from the bottom-up.  Most of my students enjoyed reading Foner and I will stick with it at least for the near future.  And finally, despite the warnings from David Horowitz it looks like my students have not turned into rabid communists or represent a threat to national security. 

Back to the scores.  (Click here if you are not familar with the structure of the exam.)The AP exam is graded on a 1 to 5 scale, 1 being the lowest and 5 the highest.  The national average is just below a 3, which is obviously pathetic.  Out of 21 students there were nine 5′s, six 4′s, four, 3′s, and two 2′s.  The class average was 4.048.  Obviously I am very pleased with the scores.

That said, I am still a bit ambivalent about the course.  While I approve of the emphasis on the analysis of primary documents and analytical writing I have trouble with the amount of information needed for the exam.  It is very difficult to slow down in this course and focus on specific questions for any length of time.  I also find it difficult to introduce any type of serious research project that involves the necessary time to collect and analyze sources.  I would much rather teach an honors-type course where we could read a wider range of primary and secondary sources and focus on specific events in more detail.  Do they really need to know the details of the Rush-Bagot Treaty? 

The other part that I find troubling is the tendency of students to see the year in terms of one test.  I want my students to see their progress in broader terms as taking place over the course of the year rather than as hinging on one day.  Studying history is much bigger than preparation for a test.  Of course the appreciation of the serious study of history and taking a test are not mutually exclusive, but our societal obsession with tests and getting into the right college is difficult to compete with.  Just as important is the hope that the student’s college of choice will offer credit for a score of 4 or 5.  Over the last few years schools have reverted to accepting only 5′s for college credit.  All of this makes it difficult to impress upon students the intrinsic value of the course.  More importantly, in a recent study conducted by two professors out of Harvard and the University of Virginia suggests that a high score on the AP Science tests does not predict success in college science courses.  Whether this is true for history has yet to be analyzed. 

I rarely mention the AP test during the school year.  My goal, as in all my other classes, is to teach my students to think critically about the past and guide them as much as possible through the difficult questions.  Hopefully they come out the other end with a strong grasp of both the content of American history and the analytical skills necessary to better interpret it.  And if they do well on the AP test, well, that is icing on the cake.


Traditional or New Military History: A Final Thought (for now)

I want to add one more post to this most recent series in this on-going debate surrounding the direction and proper scope of Civil War battle studies.  As to the question of the proper balance between both approaches, I really have nothing to add.  There is no answer to the question; it is a false dichotomy. In the end, my interests are in not simply understanding factually more, but understanding better, and to achieve these ends you must ask a broad range of questions.

The majority of my posts on this subject have focused on what the traditional battle narrative fails to include. I thought I would take a different approach here and concentrate on what I take to be the reasons for the overwhelming popularity of the traditional narrative and why there is so much resistance to some of the new approaches that academic historians have introduced over the past few decades.  I should add that these thoughts are not directed at any one group or individual.  They are based on my own observations of Civil War culture.

My concerns with the traditional narrative actually have not as much to do with what they fail to include, but with the historical context that continues to fuel its popularity. I tend to see the traditional battle narrative as falling squarely within the context of postwar reunion and reconciliation.  As the nation bound up its wounds and worked towards sectional reconciliation by the turn of the century, histories of the war came to reflect a growing unwillingness to engage the tough moral issues such as emancipation, race, and blame.  If the participants of the war tended to see themselves on an equal moral plain with their one-time enemies and not as political beings that harbored strong political beliefs and a deep hatred, then it is not surprising that our early histories focused on a sanitized view of the battlefield. If our collective goal is to see ourselves as unified and the war as part of the inevitable march of freedom, then it is not surprising that our historians ignored the darker aspects and unresolved issues that related to the war. (In fact, many historians at the turn of the
century contributed to the disfranchisement of African Americans by ignoring their role in the story and exacerbating the racial components of the Lost
Cause.)  I can see this clearly in my work on the battle of the Crater. Battles were slugfests that could be captured in all their glory and majesty without having to worry about the many political and social issues that animated the men in the ranks. Americans chose to celebrate the war and we continue to do so today. We really do want to be entertained by our Civil War.  I tried to make this point in much more detail in a recent paper, “Why the Civil War Still Matters,” which was presented as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book back in March.

Gary Gallagher is fond of pointing out that most people don’t just simply want to hear the same stories, they want to hear the same stories told well.  And those stories tend to satisfy our deep desire to relish in a narrative that is progressive and brings out the best in the American character.  It shields us from having to acknowledge the dark underbelly of our history.  Perhaps the human cost was not worth it in the end.  In light of the war in Iraq, perhaps we can see more clearly that the war did not really end in 1865, but simply took on a different form.  The questions that have come out of the academy have allowed me to explore the Civil War with a bit more sophistication.  More importantly, it has given me a more mature understanding of how the war both reflected progress and regression for various groups.  I do not want simply to be entertained by history. I want to be challenged and surprised.