Category Archives: Teaching

Disunion Now Available in Stores

DisunionThe book of essays pulled from the New York Times’s Disunion column has been out for a couple of weeks now.  It’s a pretty hefty volume that includes over 100 essays on the period between 1861 and the beginning of 1863.  My only complaint is that the table of contents does not list individual essays, which makes it difficult to locate specific topics.  Included is my recent piece on the relationship between John Winsmith and his camp servant Spencer.  I was also asked to contribute an essay specifically for the book on how it might be used in the classroom.  That essay will be included in the e-book version, which is being marketed specifically to history teachers.  You can read the essay for yourself below, but it goes without saying that I highly recommend it, especially if you teach American history and/or the Civil War.

If your high school history class was anything like mine, your instructor relied almost entirely on an unwieldy textbook, with an even more unwieldy narrative – written as if intended to alienate as many students as possible from the serious study of the past. Historical understanding involved little more than the memorization of facts, employed in an essay that closely reflected the textbook and your instructor’s lecture.

Step into a history classroom today, and much of what you see and hear will surprise you. Instructors have access to a wealth of primary and secondary sources, along with new digital tools, all of which have fundamentally changed what it means to study history.  Continue reading

 

Telling Stories at Chancellorsville

Chancellorsville-map-detail-1

It’s one of those days where I can’t help but miss central Virginia and the opportunity to bring my students to Chancellorsville for the 150th anniversary.  Chancellorsville was the first Civil War battle that I attempted to interpret for those students who took my Civil War class.  Interpreting a battlefield rarely involved the close analysis of maneuvers on a regimental level or trying to nail down the precise location of a unit.  While I love listening to guides who can do that sort of thing I don’t really have the patience to do the necessary heavy lifting and that was never my goal in bringing my students to a battlefield in the first place.  Chancellorsville always worked well because it allowed me to narrate from a number of different perspectives at places like the Zoan Church, the final meeting place of Jackson and Lee, along the flank march, and at the Chancellor House.  I could tell stories about the men in the ranks, civilians, and even slaves without losing the power of the unfolding drama.

My favorite stop on the tour was always lunch at Fairview.  I usually provided a brief overview of the events on May 3 before settling down to a relaxed discussion of excerpts from Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, which the kids read beforehand.  It’s one of my favorite Civil War novels.  Private Fleming worked extremely well in connecting my students to the surrounding landscape.  Conversations touched on the topics of bravery and cowardice, the importance of comradeship, sacrifice and duty and typically blurred the distinction between present and past.

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares. A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army’s feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile camp-fires set in the low brows of distant hills.

Once a certain tall soldier developed virtues and went resolutely to wash a shirt. He came flying back from a brook waving his garment bannerlike. He was swelled with a tale he had heard from a reliable friend, who had heard it from a truthful cavalryman, who had heard it from his trustworthy brother, one of the orderlies at division headquarters. He adopted the important air of a herald in red and gold.

“We’re goin’ t’ move t’morrah–sure,” he said pompously to a group in the company street. “We’re goin’ ‘way up the river, cut across, an’ come around in behint ‘em.”

To his attentive audience he drew a loud and elaborate plan of a very brilliant campaign. When he had finished, the blue-clothed men scattered into small arguing groups between the rows of squat brown huts. A negro teamster who had been dancing upon a cracker box with the hilarious encouragement of twoscore soldiers was deserted. He sat mournfully down. Smoke drifted lazily from a multitude of quaint chimneys.

“It’s a lie! that’s all it is–a thunderin’ lie!” said another private loudly. His smooth face was flushed, and his hands were thrust sulkily into his trouser’s pockets. He took the matter as an affront to him. “I don’t believe the derned old army’s ever going to move. We’re set. I’ve got ready to move eight times in the last two weeks, and we ain’t moved yet.”

Despite the available evidence, some have questioned whether the book is really about the battle of Chancellorsville since it is never mentioned by name.  Few, if any, soldiers would have identified the fighting so explicitly.  I suspect that Crane understood this, which is one of the reasons why the book works so well when discussed on the field.

p.s. I really wanted to use Frederick Chapman’s painting of the clearing around the Chancellor Inn for this post, but I can’t locate a high resolution pic online.  This is the painting that is used on the cover of Stephen Sears’s wonderful campaign study.

 

What Really Matters in the Survey Course

The first year teaching at any school is all about acclimation to the culture.  For someone who grew up Jewish, was Bar Mitvahed, but then lost all interest it’s been quite an adventure this past year teaching at a Jewish academy.  The emphasis on Judaic Studies and the celebration of holidays feels both foreign and familiar to me.  My students have been incredibly helpful and patient as I try to figure out my comfort zone at school events and with my own questions about the meaning that they find in Judaism.  My colleagues in the History Department have also been incredibly supportive.  It’s a very talented department.  Our meetings are filled with discussions about historiography, pedagogy, current events, etc.  I’ve thought more about what I do in the classroom this year alone than throughout my entire teaching career.

The biggest challenge by far has been working within the constraints of the calendar.  Each class meets three days a week instead of the usual four.  On top of that we have off for every Jewish holiday.  Some of you know what that means for the months of September and October.  Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the down time, but it raises a number of questions about how I go forward in structuring my classes next year, which in addition to my American history survey will also include a course in Modern Europe as well as my Civil War Memory/Holocaust course.

This hasn’t been easy given that the last course I taught before moving to Boston was AP US History.  The issue here is not even about where to cut back as much as it is trying to figure out what exactly is essential to an American history survey course that has so little time.  The good thing is that there is no pressure from the department to be comprehensive.  The emphasis is placed on imparting critical reading and writing skills.  But I do have to think long and hard about what content I want to cover in this class.

I really need to think out of the box.  I’ve thought about a thematic approach, but I tend to worry about those broad perspectives on history that seem to have so little grounding in the proper context.  My preference is to pick a couple of case studies and have students dig down in the time allotted.  Perhaps each one can represent a different approach to the study of history. For instance, we can examine the role of biography, social history, gender, etc.

As you can see things are pretty much up in the air.  I am open to any suggestions

 

Hello University of Wisconsin

Update: I couldn’t be more pleased to learn that the class in question is being taught by Steve Kantrowitz. Professor Kantrowitz is the author of More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889, which was my pick as the best history book of 2012. The book is of particular interest to me given that it focuses on the black community here in Boston.

For the past few days a group of students from the University of Wisconsin has been scouring my posts on black Confederates.  I think it’s safe to say that collectively they have read every post on the subject.  I don’t know much at all about why they have been assigned my blog or what they are getting out of it beyond a few tweets from one of the students.  If I am not mistaken one of the students left a comment on an old post.

As an educator this makes my day.

Hey guys.  Please let me know if you have any questions about anything related to the relevant history, the public debate, and the role of the Internet in spreading this myth.  I am more than happy to talk with your class via Skype if interested.  As a historian, blogger, and educator I would love to know what you are getting out of this exercise.  Good luck.

 

Number of Black Confederates Will Increase in April

Fold3

How do I know this?  Fold3 is offering free access to all of its Confederate records during the month of April, which happens to be Confederate History Month.  Well, it’s CHM in the few places that still acknowledge it.  Check out the press release from the Georgia Division SCV.

So much is portrayed by Hollywood today that Georgia and the South were evil; when, in reality, the South was the most peaceful, rural, and Christian part of America before war and Reconstruction destroyed the pastoral way of life here. April gives us a chance to celebrate the positive things about our Southern heritage and culture, as well as a chance to learn from the political dangers that once led to a deep division in America over the role of the federal government in people’s individual lives.

yada…yada…yada.

I think it’s great that Fold3 is making it possible for ‘everyone t0 be his or her own historian.’ That said, I am also thankful that hospitals don’t invite the general public into their operating rooms to give surgery a try.  Now get in there and find me some black Confederate soldiers for my book.