Category Archives: Teaching

Are History Textbooks On Their Way Out?

Over the past two years I’ve made the sharpest transitions in the way I approach the teaching of history.  In my survey courses I’ve dispensed with the traditional textbook in place of individual secondary sources.  I’ve also begun experimenting with Social Media applications as a way to broaden both the way my students communicate with one another as well as the audience for their projects.  The place of the textbook in the survey course raises a host of questions about the purpose of the course and the skills that we, as teachers, hope to impart to our students.  In a recent post, David Bill argues as to why textbooks ought to be permanently shelved in light of the advantages the Internet offers.  On the face of it I agree with Bill.  Not only are they much too expensive, they are also environmentally and economically unfriendly.  The crux of his argument is as follows:

No matter how you slice it, a textbook cannot provide the same richness, depth, and perspective as the Internet.  A textbook limits a student, it prevents inquiry and further investigation.  As educators, if we are attempting to develop critical thinkers and challenge our students to ask thoughtful questions, they need to have access to multiple points of view and should be able to investigate on their own.  A textbook cannot provide that, the Internet does.

To help make his point, Bill also includes a funny little satirical video made by a couple of high school students and their teacher which shares the limits of their history textbook.  I love the fact that they use my AP textbook to make their point.

Yes, there is something cute about the video, but what in the end is the point?  On the face of it there seems to be nothing mutually exclusive between the textbook and the Internet.  My guess is that Joe has a laptop within arms reach and if he wants to access more information about Frederick Douglass or check out a map to be saved for future reference he can do so.   Joe’s frustration is easy to identify and his point is well taken.  If we are to keep the discussion on the level of the ease with which information can be accessed than this is a non-issue: Internet 1, textbook, 0.  It seems to me, however, that the transition to a digital classroom is much more complex and involves questions that go beyond the ease with which students can navigate through dense amounts of information.

The tipping point in the Internet v. Textbook debate has much more to do with the way in which we conceive of the idea of the history survey as opposed to simply a question of information access.  As I mentioned in a recent post, the history textbook fits neatly into a traditional course whose overarching goal is to communicate a foundational narrative that can be absorbed and regurgitated in one form or another.  Within this framework instructors can introduce historical concepts such as perspective, causation, narrative, etc., but the textbook functions as the bedrock.  It serves as a reminder (even if not intentional) that there is a standard narrative that can be known and consumed for purposes such as the cultivation of good citizenship and polite conversation.  I should also mention that there is something very comforting about textbooks.  They may be overpriced and boring as hell, but they do provide a bit of comfort to students who need something tangible at an arm’s reach.  Even with my move away from textbooks to individual secondary sources I’ve had students inform me that they miss the textbook for these very reasons.  Of course, I freely admit that this probably has more to do with how they’ve been conditioned to think of as the study of history from an early age as opposed to anything innate. Our student friend, Joe, may in fact be more of an exception than the rule.  Some of our students, like Joe, who’ve embraced the Web2.0 Revolution have no doubt moved beyond this entirely and have embraced the potential of the digital classroom.  For these students, the value of information is measured in relationship to the number and quality of hyperlinks extending to other sites as well as their ability to utilize it for their own purposes.  In short, textbooks are static while the Internet is dynamic.

It’s become almost a truism that our students are much more technically savvy than the rest of us, but I’ve come to a different conclusion.  Yes, they spend a great deal of time on the Internet, but this does not necessarily translate into an ability to navigate and manage its content and tools successfully and in a way that deepens their understanding of the past.  The comfort level may be one thing, however, there are skills that still need to be taught.  The move away from textbooks will only happen once teachers are trained to think of the Internet as a tool to help students think historically and as historians in their own right.  It’s not just about being able to double-click for more information about Douglass or saving a map for future use.   My point is that the usefulness of textbooks hinges not simply on the ease with which students can access information, but on how instructors conceive of their classrooms.  In abandoning the textbook for the richness of the Internet, including Social Media tools as well as the vast array of primary sources, we are engaging our students to think about the process and presentation of history through the sifting of vast amounts of information.  I suspect that this is the main reason why textbooks will not be abandoned in the near future; their role remains deeply embedded within the history curriculum and they function as an anchor in a vast sea of information.  What we need is something more like a gestalt shift in our fundamental goals as history teachers.  The rethinking of the history classroom must happen on the K-12 levels, but especially in our undergraduate and graduate schools of education.  A few questions come to mind:

1. Is the study of history a set of facts to be memorized or a process to be experimented with and shaped into various forms?

2. Should we be emphasizing the complexity of fewer historic events over a cursory understanding of a more inclusive narrative?

3. To what extent are we comfortable as teachers with allowing students to draw their own conclusions about the past?

4. Are our classes designed to encourage students to think about history beyond the confines of our classrooms?

5. To what extent are we using our classes to encourage students to think about and weigh information?

Thanks for reading!

Fox News Protects Us From Dangerous Liberal Professors

I guess this is now what passes for investigative journalism.  I am willing to wager that you can find mistakes, oversights, inaccuracies, etc. in any large textbook, especially when it comes to more recent history.  Part of the problem is that the publisher may not be able to issue new editions of a particular textbook in response to new information.  The bigger problem, however, is our understanding of the history textbook itself.  Our tendency is to think of it as somehow capturing an objective or neutral historical narrative.  It does not exist.  Good instructors teach their students how to read primary and secondary sources with a critical eye.

My bigger issue with the harassment of Columbia University professor, Alan Brinkley, by Fox News’s Griff Jenkins is the way he went about it.  Jenkins follows Brinkley for several blocks while criticizing the book’s treatment of the War on Terror. Apparently Brinkley wrote that only one terror suspect detained at Gitmo was ever charged, while Fox claims that the number today is over one hundred.  The problem is that Fox did not have data for 2006, when the book was published. On the positive side Jenkins looked quite spiffy and the Fox logo prominently displayed.

If Jenkins was really interested in sitting down with Alan Brinkley than why not request an interview instead of this shameful display?  Could it be that as a producer of one of Fox’s shows that Jenkins wasn’t interested in a mature conversation to begin with?  Could it be that what he was really interested in is the kind of television “shock and awe” that translates into ratings?  I’ve used Brinkley’s Unfinished Nation before in my AP classes and the majority of my students scored 4s and 5s on the test.  From what I can tell it did not turn them into screaming liberal fanatics who call for the downfall of this nation.  On p. 549 of his book you will find the following in response to the tragedy of 9-11: “Americans responded to the tragedies with acts of courage and generosity, large and small, and with a sense of national unity and commitment that seemed, at least for a time, like the unity and commitment at the start of World War II.”  Yep, this is definitely someone you want to stalk in the name of patriotic journalism.

So, in the end what have we learned.  Well, if you are a fan of Fox News you probably had your assumptions about academics confirmed and you see Jenkins as some kind of moral crusader.  And if you dislike Fox News you are probably feeling sympathetic for Brinkley.  What is lost in all of this, however, is a conversation about the book and its content.  Congratulations Mr. Jenkins – looks like you had a good day.

What Is Your End Goal? (Part 1)

fishingpierMore specifically, one of my readers recently asked the following: “[W]hat exactly is your end-goal/interest in how Confederate commemoration evolves and is acknowledged?”  It’s a fair question.  My response to it may help some people better understand how a boy from the beaches of Atlantic City, New Jersey ended up with an interest in the subject of the Civil War and its remembrance/commemoration.  The answer can be broken up into two sections; the first has to do with where I was raised while the second comes down to a deep philosophic interest of mine.

As I mentioned I am from Southern New Jersey. My hometown is Ventnor, which is located on an island and is surrounded by a bay on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other.  On the northern end is Atlantic City itself while the southern portion includes the small towns of Ventnor, Margate, and Longport.  My childhood was filled with the staples of beach activities and a healthy dose of competitive sports.  I had excellent schools through the 8th grade even if my performance was less than stellar.  That final year of Middle School, however, was filled with a bit of anxiety, especially as my friends and I approached graduation.  We all knew that next year would be a much larger school in Atlantic City itself.  I had seen the imposing structure – situated between Atlantic and Pacific Avenues – many times before on trips with friends and family to the amusement piers and boardwalk arcades.  The problem wasn’t the size of the building, but the students that I would have to interact with.  Up to this point my classmates had been overwhelmingly white.  On the other hand, Atlantic City was and still is predominantly black.  In fact, the school itself functioned (it was demolished some years ago to make room for a parking lot) as a fault line; as you moved a few blocks south of the school the community gradually turned white so that by the time you reached my town of Ventnor it was all white.  Rarely did we see blacks walking the streets and if we did I imagine we looked on them as a curiosity and even, perhaps, with just a little concern.

My introduction to a black community in Atlantic City took place during my 8th grade year as a member of the basketball team.  We played a team from Atlantic City and lost by 40 points.  Part of the problem was that no one expected to win given our attitudes about blacks and basketball; simply put, we all knew they were necessarily stronger, faster, and much more agile.  But what stands out for me and what I will never forget is what happened as the bus pulled away.  Keep in mind that our coach was also the bus driver.  As we pulled away one of my friends shouted out the window, “Nigger”.  Within a few seconds the entire bus, including the cheerleaders, were shouting out racial insults at the crowd.  I am proud to say that I was ashamed and embarrassed.  What I remember is crouching down in my seat, but in doing so I noticed our coach laughing hysterically as he drove the bus slowly down the street.  Once we turned the corner everyone quieted down and that was pretty much the end of it.  I have no idea why that experience has stayed with me for so long, but I am certain that it has helped to shape my understanding of race relations on some level.

That experience stands in sharp contrast with my high school experience.  I remember being warned not to use the Men’s Room without being accompanied by a friend or staying away from certain sections from the basement level.  I’m sure that there was a little anxiety those first few days of high school, but what I remember more than anything else were the friendships that eventually ensued from the classroom to the marching band to the cross-country team.  I don’t mean to paint a glowing picture of high school, but I ended up having the most problems with a white Anti-Semite who actually used to push me around in class and in full view of at least one teacher.  I don’t remember one racial incident during my four years of high school.  In fact, I remember cutting school and heading down to the beach or sneaking into the closest casino floor with just as many black friends.

My point for now is that I didn’t need to travel to Birmingham, Alabama to learn first hand about the problem of race in America.  I learned it in my own backyard.  I still have trouble getting my hands around the racial configuration of the small island where I grew up.  Even to this day, and with all of the changes that have taken place on the island, I can’t help but perceive it through the lens of history and race.  In recent years I’ve read quite a bit about the history of the place, including Bryant Simon’s Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America (Oxford University Press, 2006), which has helped me to place the history of the city within the broader narrative of race in the North.

My interest in the South and, more specifically, the Confederacy is a natural extension of my earliest perceptions of race and prejudice.  It comes down to a fascination with the way in which our perceptions of race shape how we choose to live and interact with one another.

To be continued…

“The History Boys”

Imake my acting debut this year in our school’s student production of “The History Boys.” I’ve been given the role of headmaster.  The story is set in a private school in England in the mid-1980s and follows a small group of history pupils who are preparing for their entrance exams for admission to Oxford and Cambridge.  The boys must navigate through the contrasting teaching styles of Irwin, Hector, and Ms. Lintott as well as their contrasting views on the lessons of literature and history.  Along the way the students work to come to terms with their own sexuality as well as the intentions and deceitfulness of the faculty.  One of my favorite moments in the film takes place as the boys are preparing for their college interviews.  In frustration, Ms. Lintott shares her own gendered interpretation of the lessons of history and the “ineptitude” of men.  She is followed by Rudge who reduces the complexity of the past down to the simple thought that history is “one fucking thing after another.”

I am thoroughly enjoying my introduction to the world of acting.  In fact, it is exhilarating!

Thinking About the Survey Course in a Post-Modern America

It’s that time of the year when I take a good hard look at how my classes are progressing or not progressing.  For the past two years I’ve been experimenting with a new approach that replaces the standard textbook with different types of secondary sources such as biographies, social and political histories, etc.  Overall, the approach has worked well.  Students get a clearer sense of what is involved in the writing of history and I’ve enjoyed the space to explore specific topics, issues, and events in much more detail compared with the pace that is dictated by textbooks.  However, even with these changes I am still weary of the overall approach.

Actually, my concern applies as much to the traditional textbook approach as it does to a small collection of secondary sources.  The fundamental problem is not so much with the kind of sources we use to teach American history, but with the idea of the survey course itself.  It seems to me that at the time the survey course became a part of the public school curriculum this nation was much more rooted in a heroic narrative of its past.  The acceptance and possibility of a grand narrative could be used to emphasize the pantheon of American heroes.  In short, the survey course functioned to shape each generation of young Americans in a way that allowed them to identify with or see themselves as part of a larger narrative.  The pantheon could be used to teach moral lessons and act as a framework in which the individual could measure his/her own actions and behavior against an ideal rooted in the past.  We may not agree with the idea of a static pantheon and we may even be disgusted by the politics involved in selecting who gets to be included and why; my point is that the traditional survey course served a purpose within this broader cultural milieu.

The problem is that we no longer see ourselves nor do we interpret our history from such a perspective.  Multiculturalism and Post-Modernism has thrown a wrench in the very idea of objectivity as well as challenges the very idea of an American pantheon as strictly definable.  The grand narrative has become fragmented based on more local interests revolving around gender, culture, and politics.  Impersonal social and economic forces have supplanted the individual as the loci of historical investigation.  We celebrate the victims as much as, if not more than, those who best exemplified the American ideal and its stories of rags to riches.  Again, I am not suggesting for one moment that this is a loss that I personally regret, but as a framework that fit well into a traditional survey course.

Our textbooks have become much more sophisticated in their inclusion of minority history as well as elements of the new social and cultural history.  I applaud these revisions, but what has not held up is the function which these narratives once served.  To what extent, if at all, do these new narratives foster identification with something larger than the student’s immediate world view?  Do these multiple and competing narratives encourage empathy with others or the importance of multiple perspectives?  Do they have much to do with encouraging curious and responsible young citizens?  This is a long-winded way of suggesting that the survey course in U.S. History has outlived its usefulness.  Old habits are hard to break and the place of the textbook sits at the very core of our idea of U.S. History course, but have we ever seriously considered alternatives to this approach?

One idea that I’ve been playing with is rooting the survey course in local history.  If the traditional heroic narrative is dead along with a culture that places value on a static list of heroes than we need to be thinking about the overall goal of the high school history survey.  Beginning with the local community provides a setting in which students can identify by virtue of the fact it is where they call home.  The community itself becomes a lab where individuals,  statues, buildings, cemeteries, and other sites become the foundations of entire periods of study.  The teachers primary role is to encourage students to interact with the historical elements of their communities.  In short, students learn to think and live history.  So, what does this actually look like?

Here in Charlottesville we are lucky enough to be surrounded by an incredibly rich history.  Our study of slavery and the Revolutionary generation could be rooted in a close study of Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello.  Of course, we could spend the day as a class on the grounds discussing any number of themes and events.  Notice that much of the content of the traditional course would be maintained, but it would be introduced through local history and in a way that is much more tangible and easy to identify with.  If one of our major goals is to encourage our students to be more conscious of the local community we could shape our projects in a way that gives back.  For instance, perhaps instead of having students work on projects that never see the light of day outside of the classroom they could work in small teams and create lesson plans for Monticello’s staff to be used in the future for other school children of various ages.  A study of 19th century expansionism could be rooted in the Lewis and Clark Monument on Main Street.  The monument itself has recently come under protest owing to the positioning of Sacajawea behind Lewis and Clark.  We could examine how monuments function and the way they shape our understanding of the past.  One project idea would be to create a proposal as a class that would be submitted to city commissioners for an updated version of the statue.  [Don't laugh.  I am thinking off the top of my head here and trying to push the boundaries of  what it means to think about history and how we measure our students' understanding of its importance.]  There is no shortage of resources for the Civil War.  Again, we can explore statues, but we also have a wonderful Confederate cemetery within walking distance of our school.  Students could explore the service records of those buried in the cemetery and the data could be used as part of a larger profile of these men.  The results could be printed and made available for visitors to the cemetery.  When we get to WWII, I could have my students work with the local historical society and interview veterans.  Charlottesville is one of the most popular destinations for senior citizens.  My favorite idea has to do with the Civil Rights Movement.  Charlottesville was at the center of the process of desegregation of public schools in the 1960s so there are numerous possibilities for case studies.  Regardless of what we do I would love to see my students organize a symposium at the school that includes member of the community who were in Charlottesville during this time.  We could explore what it was like for students to be bused to different schools along with the myriad ways in which court decisions impacted the lives of locals.  The event would be organized and run by students.  They would send out invitations, come up with questions and run the actual discussion.  Best yet, the event would be open to the general public.

Again, I want to emphasize that the concentration on local history does not have to come at the expense of a broader national narrative.  In fact, it seems to me that that broader narrative will make clearer sense given the anchor in local history.  In some cases the experiences of the local community will conform to the national level and in other situations will prove to be the exception.  Finally, I wonder whether there can be a service component to such an approach.  How about having students spend 15-20 hours volunteering at UVA’s Special Collections, Monticello, Montpelier, Ashlawn (James Monroe’s home), the Albemarle County Historical Society, or Miller Center learning and practicing various aspects of historical interpretation and preservation.  What do we call such a course?  Perhaps Applied U.S. History?

I keep coming back to the idea of encouraging good citizenship and curiosity about the world in which we live.  I want my students to learn to think historically and to think of themselves as part of a larger narrative that has roots in their own backyards.  We have an opportunity to truly broaden the very idea of the history classroom.  Let’s embrace it.