Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Don't Know Much about History and the Film Chalk

Randall Stephens

Believe it or not, the first day of class fast approaches. Soon, if you teach that is, you'll be standing in front of 20-30 college or high school students, mouths agape, eyes starring blankly, heads wearing baseball caps.

A few years back my cousin, Janelle Schremmer and her husband Troy Schremmer, starred in the film Chalk (2006), a Waiting for Guffman-esque mocumentary about the sometimes harrowing, sometimes exciting world of high school teachers. (Picked up by Morgan Spurlock's company, it's now airing on the Sundance channel.)
The movie is a scream for those who've endured some bad moments in front of a chalk or white board. Like other mocumentaries, Chalk relies on well-timed silences and awkward interactions. One particularly excruciating plotline involves a history teacher whose angling for a teaching award. His politicking and pandering is tough to watch, though, hilarious.

The film gets at the difficulty of engaging students in subjects that are foreign to them, history being a prime example. See the youtube clip here of Troy, playing Mr. Lowrey, who asks students on the first day of class: "What comes to your mind with 'history'"? Students gaze into nothingness, blank faces, disinterest, maybe disgust.

Bad first-day questions aside, ain't it hard to get the average student to think historically? In Sam Weinberg's words:

Historical thinking is unnatural. It goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think. We are psychologically conditioned to see unity between past and present. A colleague of mine teaches at Queens University in Belfast. He gives his undergraduates a 16th-century quote from Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) where she refers to the Irish as “mere Irish,” at which point the Catholic kids take umbrage. But when you go to the Oxford English Dictionary and look at 16th-century references for “mere,” it means “pure, unadulterated”—it’s a compliment, not an insult. It is an impossible psychological challenge to check every word, to read documents from the past and constantly ask, “Does this word mean the same thing that I think it means now?” (From an Joe Lucas's interview with Weinberg in Historically Speaking, Jan/Feb 2006.)

So, how can the history teacher or prof get students even vaguely into the subject? More than that, though, how can the history instructor facilitate historical thinking in the classroom? One step in the right direction is to set the tone on the first day of class. That involves something more than asking students "What comes to mind when you think of the word history?" Here are a few things I've done in the past, some more successful than others.

  • Have students name their favorite dead person. (I ask them to exclude grandmas and grandpas. Too easy, too boring.) Follow up with a discussion of how history helps us understand the words and deeds of the dead. Is history a kind of necromancy?
  • Have the student identify the most significant national incident to have taken place in his/her life. Ask them why they think that is important and what it might tell us.
  • Ask students what it means to be an "American"? See if they can think of how history has shaped our national identity.
  • See if students can name several ways that life today differs from life in the 19th century. (That might be tricky, I know, if they have no idea how the 19th century is unlike today.)
  • Ask students the broad question of whether history has a direction. Is the world better or worse in 2009 than it was in 1700? Why?
I'd like to know what other exercises teachers and profs use as a hook on that first day.


Lisa Clark Diller said...

I really like these suggestions and will be trying one or two of them in the next couple weeks as my courses begin. A few times I've asked students to list off the sorts of things they ask someone who they've just met as they are trying to get to know them---often they mention things like where they are from, what their major is, what their family is like, what they do for hobbies, what their religions/language/cultural traditions are. And we talk about how these economic and social and environmental and cultural questions are what we're going to be interrogating about the past. The same questions we ask about our subjects in the past are the questions we ask in the present when we're trying to get to know someone or a group of someones.

I don't know that this has been particularly effective, but at least I get to make the point that they usually do like to know something about "history" when they're outside the classroom--even if it is just the life history of the person they have a crush on or the history of the band or athletic team or celebrity that they follow. This helps them expand their understanding of what counts as "history" beyond the high school stereotypes. At least that is what I've hoped for, anyway.

I'd also love to hear more ideas as the ones Randall suggested are already inspiring me to try more effective "hooks" on the first day of class.

Randall said...

Lisa: That's a good point. Asking them some general questions and even making the first day a get-to-know-you session works well. I think it helps make the class less intimidating. Also, as you say, that's a good way to get them to think about the questions we ask of our subjects.

Chris Beneke said...

Great stuff. Thanks Randall. I'll also be stealing a few of these tricks. Not that I've ever endured a single moment of awkwardness in my classes ...

David Meskill said...

To join the (worthy) bandwagon of agreeing with Lisa's suggestion: this semester I'll be teaching a required history course to what will likely be less-than-enthusiastic freshmen. In thinking about how to get the course going, I had been contemplating the strategy that Lisa recommends: killing two birds with one stone by getting the students to introduce themselves (if necessary nudging them to say something about their families, formative experiences, etc.) and then using their stories to make the case that, in a more general way, we can understand the present by looking to the past.
Now that I know it's worked before, I'll definitely use this into.