The Civil War in Art

I’ve spent the past few hours browsing through an incredible website that focuses on Civil War art.  The website is called The Civil War in Art: Teaching and Learning Through Chicago Area Collections.  I am also very happy to have them on board as Civil War Memory’s newest sponsor.  This site is incredible.  Check out this gouache of the assault by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry at Battery Wagner by Suzanne Schweig Langsdorf, which was done in 1940.  I’ve never seen it before.  When you expand the image on the website there is a feature that opens up a window that allows you to focus on specific sections in great detail.  Each image includes a short description and a set of questions for classroom use.  In addition, the site includes a page of ideas for classroom projects, which will hopefully be expanded in the future.

I can’t wait to use some of these images in the classroom this year.

Coming to a Town or Computer Screen Near You

Just wanted to give those of you in the Boston area and beyond a heads-up as to where I will be speaking in the next few months.  It should come as no surprise that most of these talks will be about my Crater book.  I will have books with me and am more than happy to personalize your copy.  Luckily, my schedule is still flexible enough that I can add dates if interested so please feel free to contact me.

I am also happy to talk with your group via the Internet.  Over the past few years I’ve visited a number of high school and college courses to talk about various topics related to blogging as well as my research.  Below is an example of a Skype discussion that I did two years ago with an American Studies class at Skidmore College.  The professor assigned my blog as part of their reading and after a week of talking back and forth in the comments section we got together to chat live.  I had a blast.

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Entering the World of e-History Textbooks

When I left the classroom last year I was still wedded to the traditional history textbook.  I supplemented my text with a wide range of digital tools and resources, but the text itself had not changed.  My experience with e-textbooks has been very limited until now.  For the next four months I will be working on an exciting e-history project providing supplemental materials for a text focused on the Civil War and Reconstruction.  The text itself is being written by two very well known and talented historians.  Some of the things I will be working on include:

  • Review chapters and suggest themes and content for digital animations (e.g., maps) and video content (e.g., bio of Lincoln).
  • Write copy for videos and animations (up to two 2-3 minute videos and one animation per chapter).
  • Create assignments or “tasks” (we are calling all digital assets tasks that students have to complete before moving on in their textbook) for each of the chapters.
  • Write copy for 1-2 “mini-challenges” (e.g., poll question, 4-6 reading comprehension quiz questions) for each chapter.
  • Write definitions for glossary terms (5-10 per chapter).

Some of what I am doing is geared to connecting the text to a history simulation that allows students to role play real historical characters. I should be able to share more details about this project in the coming months.

For now I am hoping that those of you with more experience in this area might be able to suggest examples of best practices.  What should I look at to get a feel for what’s been done already in the field of e-texts?  What do you want to see as supplemental resources for an e-history textbook?  Thanks.

Charleston’s Reckless Heritage Tourism

As part of my recent weekend with the Civil War Trust I took part in a tour of downtown Charleston.  The organization made arrangements with a number of guides, most of which were at least somewhat knowledgeable.  Unfortunately, my guide was an absolute disgrace and at times reckless with his interpretation of one of the most important historic sites in the city.

I guess it was an attempt to be charming, but at the beginning of the tour our guide asked us where we were from.  In my case, he called me an abolitionist scoundrel, but thanked me for his job.  I guess he was acknowledging the importance of tourism to the local economy.  This was followed by a request to the group to hiss whenever William T. Sherman’s name was mentioned.  I obliged by responding with, “Saved the Union” instead of the required hiss.  Finally, our guide insisted on asking us if discussing slavery was permitted since it is such a “sensitive topic.”  Apparently, he was unaware that his group was made up of history teachers.

So, you can imagine my concern as we walked toward the slave market.  Any guide needs to think carefully about how to present the history of the slave market based on the profile of the group in question.  The subject is sensitive and interpreters must tread carefully, but the history is crucial to understanding a huge chunk of Charleston’s history.  Instead of introducing the subject our guide asked us to imagine that we were slaveholders coming to market to purchase property.  We were to think about what kind of slaves we were interested in purchasing.  No introduction to the site.  No discussion of anything having to do with the history of slavery and race relations in Charleston.  What I couldn’t believe was that the teachers in the group actually responded to this inane question.  Finally, our guide came to me.  I responded simply: “I am not interested in buying a slave.” Once we had finished this little imaginative exercise I asked the guide if he could talk a bit about how this may have looked from a slave’s point-of-view.  He clearly knew very little.  It was a surreal experience.

At the end of the tour our guide asked if I was offended back at the slave market.  I think he was asking specifically if I was offended by the mere discussion of the subject.  Rather than share my thoughts I simply thanked him for the tour and walked away.  If you are going to Charleston make sure your tour of the city is led by a competent interpreter.  Perhaps some of you who are more familiar with the city can offer some suggestions.

This was just one guide on one tour, but I suspect that this is a case of where there is smoke there is fire.

Collective Memory 101

Next week I head down to Charleston, South Carolina for the Civil War Trust’s annual teachers institute.  This is my third year working with CWT and it’s always a rewarding experience.  My talk is on the history of Civil War monuments and how they can be integrated into the classroom.  As a preface to my talk I need to introduce the concept of collective memory.  Here are a few points from Michael Kammen’s seminal study, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture, that I hope will help to get the ball rolling.

If collective memory (usually a code phrase for what is remembered by the dominant civic culture) and popular memory (usually referring to ordinary folks) are both abstractions that have to be handled with care, what (if anything) can we assert with assurance?

1. That public interest in the past pulses; it comes and goes.
2. That we have highly selective memories of what we have been taught about the past.
3. That the past may be mobilized to serve partisan purposes.
4. That the past is commercialized for the sake of tourism and related enterprises.
5. That invocations of the past (as tradition) may occur as a means of resisting change or of achieving innovations.
6. That history is an essential ingredient in defining national, group, and personal identity.
7. That the past and its sustaining evidence may give pleasure for purely aesthetic and non-utilitiarian reasons.
8. And finally, that individuals and small groups who are strongly tradition-oriented commonly seek to stimulate a shared sense of the past within their region.

From Charleston it’s back to Gettysburg for the Richard Bartol, Jr. Educator’s Conference, which is organized by the National Park Service and Gettysburg Foundation.  I get to talk about digital media literacy, but the highlight for me will be my talk on teaching the movie Glory in the Majestic Theatre.  It should be a lot of fun.