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.
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.
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.
Update: All I can say is that if you are going to write a letter to my boss complaining about this blog at least take the time to proofread it.
I’ve never had to issue a formal disclaimer for this blog, but with the start of the new school year now seems like an opportune time, especially for a select few. It goes without saying that the views expressed on this site are mine and mine alone. I do not write in any official capacity as the department chair and as a history teacher at St. Anne’s – Belfield School, though I do write about my experiences in the classroom. Civil War Memory has no official connection to my place of employment and the St. Anne’s – Belfield School does not endorse this site in any way. The URL of this site is is not associated with the school and this website is financially maintained by me.
I finally finished my last writing assignment for the summer and am ready to think about the new school year. Due to the amount of construction taking place on our two campuses we have an extra week before classes begin in September. This year I’ve decided to reevaluate the seating arrangements in my classroom. In the past I’ve had my desks set up in a semi-circle, which promotes discussion between students without losing the focus on the teacher at the center of the room. This arrangement has worked well for me in the past, but it is time for a change. In addition to my AP US History and Civil War courses I will be taking part in a pilot program in American Studies. The course will run two periods over four days. The first hour will be spent in a lecture hall setting where all 32 students can come together for joint instruction followed by break out sessions of much smaller groups (pic #1). The focus of the course will make it possible to connect readings in American literature with more traditional sources found in the history survey course. It’s going to be an exciting year for me. What I like is that the smaller sessions will take place around a large table (pic #2), which resembles the Harkness Table and philosophy employed at Phillips Exeter Academy.
This brings me back to my own classroom, where I’ve decided to follow suit and rearrange my desks (pic #3). I am hoping that this will create an even more intimate environment and promote mature dialog among my students. It will also allow me to move more easily away from the center of attention when necessary. All of my classes are designed as student-centered with a strong emphasis on debate and discussion. That said, it is clear that we are going to have to introduce and train students for this kind of setting. It does, after all, welcome distraction. I am looking forward to it.
All the best to those of you who have already started or who are getting ready to head back into the classroom.