Category Archives: Teaching

“Students Should Feel Free To Criticize”

Today I received a student scholarship application from our local Lee-Jackson Educational Foundation.  They run an annual essay contest and award three $1,000 scholarships as well as an $8,000 award to the public school, private school, or homeschooled student who authors the essay that is judged to be the best in the state.  There is much that I like about the contest.  On the one hand the judges seek essays that are “well-written and thoroughly researched” and offer a “rigorous defense of a well-reasoned thesis.”  They even make it a point to advise students that it is permissible to criticize Lee and Jackson.  Perceptive students may inquire as to why such a point needs to be made at all.  Although the contest allows students the widest latitude in formulating a topic and thesis, the foundation does offer some suggestions:

  • General Lee’s or General Jackson’s heritage and their lives at war and at peace.
  • Lee’s Christian fervor or Jackson’s religious passion
  • Jackson’s enigmatic personality or Lee’s dedication to gentlemanly virtues
  • Lee as President of Washington College or possible changes in the course of the Civil War had Jackson not died so early.

There is a slight bit of tension between the insistence that students think broadly about the topic and feel free to “criticize” and the suggested subjects listed above.  They are more than suggested topics; rather, they include a number of implicit assumptions that are deeply rooted in our collective memory of these two individuals.

Adventures in American Studies (Part 2)

Today we returned to UVA’s Special Collections to introduce students to their individual documents/artifacts.  The students spent about 50 minutes exploring their documents and responding to a series of questions that will help them with further research.  They were able to take photographs using digital cameras and they will be required to make one additional trip to the archives at some point over the next few weeks.  I have to say that it was an absolute pleasure to watch them interact with the documents.  I had a chance to talk with each student and assist them in formulating questions.  There was an energy in the room and we couldn’t be happier that so many students were visibly excited about the exercise.  This is what teaching is all about and this is how you get kids excited about history.  I’ve got the best job in the world.  What follows are some of the questions to help students get started:

  • What do you see?  List as many small and large elements in the broadside or artifact as you can.
  • What are the key features of the broadside?  Are they printed text or images or a combination of both?
  • What words strike you as most important?  How does the text highlight the importance of that word or words?
  • What colors, if any, are used?
  • What kind of typeface/font is used?  Is the print different sizes in places?
  • Does it tell us anything about who created the document and what kind of emotions it tries to elicit or engender?
  • What is the size of the document?
  • What kind of technology was used to create the artifact?  How labor-intensive was the process behind the artifact’s creation?
  • What is going on in American history at the time of this text?
  • What is the immediate historical context of the document/artifact?
  • Does 20 years of history on either side alter your understanding of the document?
  • What was the expected audience for this piece?  Specific or General?  How can you tell?

The final product will be a website the features the document in question.  Students must decide how to present both the document as well as their interpretation.  These are the experiences that matter.  We need to move away from measuring success simply in terms of what they know about American history.  Our job must be to connect them to that past and to help students to see themselves as products of the past.

If you are a teacher who lives in a college/university town I urge you to reach our to the archival staff.  Most universities encourage their staffs to engage in this kind of outreach.  We can teach history or we can teach them how to do history.

Can You Afford Not To Use Social Media?

When it comes down to it much of the success that I’ve enjoyed as a teacher and historian over the past few years is the result of social media. I’ve taken full advantage of it from regular updates on this blog to Facebook and Twitter.  Each platform has a slightly different focus.  The blog functions as an extension of my classroom; Facebook allows me to stay in touch with old and new friends, and Twitter provides an ideal way to share and receive information in short bursts with people who share a common interest.  However, what they all have in common is they provide an effective means of remaining on the radar screens of current and future friends and colleagues.

The past few weeks provide a number of examples to support such an observation.  Back in August I was contacted by a publisher, who was interested in commissioning a book on the subject of black Confederates.  The contact was the direct result of my writing on the subject on this site.  This past week I was contacted by the Smithsonian Institution about the possibility of offering a series of lectures for one of its spring programs.  Again, the contact was the result of this site.  And this week I completed an abstract for an SHA session that was organized by a regular reader of the blog as well as a Facebook friend.  The point here is not to toot my own horn, though I would like to think that the quality of posts here as well as my published work have something to do with my limited success.  Rather, it’s to point out how little it matters apart from the broader goal of sharing an interest and scholarship with the public.

The mistake that people make is in thinking about social media as a way to build community.  Some of you who have been around for a while know that not too long ago I was fixated with creating a Civil War Memory community.  At one point or another I included Google Friend Connect and even a widget for the Civil War Memory Facebook page in the sidebar.  Somehow I envisioned readers connecting with one another and continuing discussions in various online spaces.  I now see this as completely misguided.  There are no Online communities; in fact, it demeans the very concept of community.

In the end, social media affords the user the opportunity to build an AUDIENCE.  My audience includes roughly 1,000 regular readers of Civil War Memory, 738 friends on Facebook, 350 members of the CWM Facebook page, and 490 Twitter followers.  In the context of my role as a teacher and historians, all of these people have the potential to respond in various ways to what I produce online.  They can shreak in horror, laugh, agree, or disagree.  These same people can also, “Like,” “link,” and “retweet.”  Oh…and they are also potential customers for a book about the battle of the Crater and historical memory that may or may not be published.

Adventures in American Studies

Today was one of those days that I live for as a teacher.  This year I am team teaching (with two colleagues) a course in American Studies that allows students to earn credit for both English and History during their junior year.  We have 38 students and the class meets four days a week for two periods each day.  Right now we are in the middle of a series of lectures that will give students a skeletal outline of American history, which will allow us to then focus in much more detail on different time periods and subject matter.  The outline should allow students to make connections with other time periods.  I’ve enjoyed the experience thus far and I am thoroughly enjoying our two new spaces, including a large lecture hall and a discussion room.

In addition to other assignments, each trimester students will be responsible for completing a major project.  For their first project students will work with a document from the University of Virginia’s Special Collections Department.  Today was their first trip to the archives.  For this first trip students were introduced to the assignment, the rules and regulations of the archives, and to cap it off the staff brought out a few of their gems.  Next week we return to give the class the opportunity to work a bit with their individual document.  While they are allowed to bring digital cameras with them the class is required to make one additional visit to Special Collections on their own time.

The overall goal of the project is to give students a chance to interpret an actual document on their own to see what they can make of it.  They will have a number of questions to answer, but they will have to think through the significance and meaning of their object.  They will present their findings on a website that they will create.  Most of the documents are broadsides, which are rich in detail and easy to connect to larger events and movements.  The folks at Special Collections were incredibly helpful and enthusiastic and I was especially pleased with the way our students handled themselves.  In fact, this is the first group of high school students ever to come through Special Collections for a class assignment.

The best part of the morning was the showcasing of a few of the archives’ high profile artifacts.  They included an original July 4, 1776 printing of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson’s famous 1820 letter in which he describes slavery as holding “the wolf by its ears”, the vote of Virginia’s Secession Convention, William Faulkner’s original manuscript of The Sound and the Fury, and three different editions of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  By far the most interesting artifact was a salesman’s copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  These copies were bound, but did not include the entire book.  Instead, interested parties could get a sense of what the print looked like and could choose different kinds of binding.  The most interesting feature of this particular book, however, is that someone apparently tampered with one of the original plates.  The image can be seen above and I will leave it to you to figure out what is wrong.  Needless to say, the kids got a real kick out of it.

We want our students to see history as much more than something that is simply read in a book and regurgitated in different forms.  This assignment will give students a chance to exercise their imaginations and work toward their own interpretation of the past.  Today was a special day and one that reminds me of just how lucky I am to be a teacher.

Teaching Battlefield Preservation

Perhaps the best way to pass on the value of historic preservation among the younger generation is to bring them to these places.  Every year I bring my Civil War classes to at least one battlefield as well as other important sites.  Although we don’t explicitly discuss issues of preservation I know for a fact that many of my students take away important lessons that can only be shared at the actual site.  I have very little sense of whether an inclination to see these landscapes preserved is instilled as a result.  To be completely honest, I’ve never seen it as my responsibility as a teacher to steer them to this position, but I am now wondering how I might go about teaching the history of Civil War battlefield preservation as a form of historical memory.  I am not even sure what it would mean to teach battlefield preservation.

What would a reading list look like for such a course unit?  Joan Zenzen’s study of Manassas comes to mind, but what else?  Remember, I am teaching high school students.  In the end I am much more interested in producing thoughtful students, who can appreciate the bigger picture than I am in a class of preservation advocates.