Erin Bartram

doomed to distraction

Thinking about teaching 5a: new project for the surveys

As I mentioned yesterday, I want to revise the projects my students do in both of my U.S. survey classes and my U.S. women’s history class, all of which I’ll be teaching in the fall.

For my U.S. surveys, I’ve done two major  projects over time. I’ve most often taught U.S. I, and in it, I often had students do some sort of examination of historical newspapers. The one I really settled on was having students each pick a newspaper on their birthdate in 1848 (lots of good stuff to discover in that year), and explore it over the course of the semester. This past year, without Early American Newspapers, I used Chronicling America. For a variety of reasons, it didn’t work as well as I’d hoped.

Last spring I tried out an experiment with my students in U.S. II using Timeline JS and thinking about categorization and periodization. It was not a success, and exposed to me how foreign historical thinking can remain at the end of a semester. I’d be happy to talk to anyone about it if they were interested.

In both surveys, I’ve also done a project across both surveys examining Wikipedia articles and their construction, as a way for students to understand something about historiography and the stakes of writing about history. It has worked well, though quite differently in U.S. I vs. II, but I think I’m ready for a change.

Like many historians, I feel like there’s a particular urgency in getting my students to be cognizant of the resonances between our contemporary moment and the recent and distant historical past. As I joked to my grad school friends as we talked about Brexit, my I think my training allows me to feel a level of existential anxiety that people in other fields might lack. But even our long term discussion of Hamilton, its use in the classroom, and how it shapes our students’ views of the past is part of thinking about the intellectual work history can do in making sense of the word.

Last fall, in U.S. II, my students always wanted to talk about Trump, and I asked them to think about Tom Brokaw’s claim that Trump’s plan to bar Muslims was un-American. At first, they were firmly of the view that this was not about American values, that we didn’t exclude people. And then one student said “Wait, what about the Chinese?” And then another student said “What defines American values, then, what is on paper or what we do?” It was an incredibly productive discussion, and I’d love to find an assignment that pushes them to really think about what it can do to see things through a historical lens.

To that end, I am thinking of collecting up a big list of some of the best public historical writing out there – articles and perhaps blog posts – and having students pick articles to read and present to the class across the semester. I’m not sure what sort of cap I want for it,  but maybe something where they have to find two other articles that are thematically related and write about how they relate?  I know people who’ve done more “current events” type assignments, having students pick out stories in the news that they think resonate, but I’d love to have them read historians and journalists explicitly talking about the past and making arguments.  I also see it as a way to expose students to topics that we might not cover in class, and to allow them to read new ideas.  If you have thoughts on such a project, especially if you’ve done it before, or have suggestions for articles I might use, I’d love to hear about them.

3 Comments

  1. I have them do a “Problem-Solving Project” as their final, where they pick a contemporary problem and write a paper historicizing it. I’ve had mixed results, but overall positive. They tend to like the assignment (something I actually think is important by the time we get to the end of the semester!) because I leave it open for their topics. The best ones I’ve gotten have by far been on racial tension and discrimination, although I’ve gotten some good ones on warfare as well. (Disclaimer: my students are overwhelmingly racial minorities and military-affiliated, and so we do a lot of informal class discussions about those topics, which might feed into what they end up choosing.)

    I love the idea of bringing historians into the discussion. Obviously John Fea’s blog is an important one. I’ve also seen HuffPost do significant historical conversation from time to time, although I can’t pull anything out of my brain at the moment. Check the Atlantic and the New Yorker too. Oh, and maybe podcasts!

    • Erin Bartram

      June 28, 2016 at 10:22 am

      Oh, The New Yorker, that’s a good thought. My fear is that everything I use will be from The Atlantic and NPR, because that’s what I read the most!

      Are your students also of non-traditional age as well? I’m wondering if that influences how well this project works, or at least how students pick the things they’re interested in. The fact that it’s an election year might also influence the sorts of things students want to read, because elections can distort what’s “important” at a particular moment.

      • I’d say I probably have between a 30-70 and 40-60 split of traditional to non-traditional students, and that definitely impacts what they choose to write about.

        The worry over the election year issue could go two ways: one, that it will distort what’s “important” at any given moment…or two, that it will provide students with a venue and some resources with which to express their perspective. I can see an assignment, for example, that asks them to parse the policy positions of the candidates on a certain issue, and then trace the historical precedents for those policies. So, pick “Hillary Clinton on women’s rights,” for example, and then have them take it back to 1848 or even earlier and explore how the meaning of “women’s rights” has changed over time.

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