Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Reluctant Historian- on teaching and being taught

Normally I wear jeans and a sweater. With three children, the object is to choose an outfit that will resist stains and allow one to move rapidly from one potential disaster to the next. But on some days I wear my “professor costume," and slip into my other identity complete with absurd high heels and a bag of books as heavy as my youngest child.

I started teaching several years ago to satisfy the internship component of my doctoral program and I continued it beyond the program's requirements because I found I could use the money. I'm not a teacher. At least, that's not how I define myself. But now I stand in a suit and heels in front of thirty-odd students who refer to me as “Professor” and trust that I know what I am doing. So I put on my game face. Although always uncomfortable in large complicated groups of people, subject to anxiety attacks and chest pain in crowds, I am strangely comfortable when I get to be the focus of attention. I began giving costumed historical presentations before I started teaching, amusing myself with the elderly ladies who approach me after my lectures to peer under my bonnet at me as if I were a giant automated history doll.

But teaching is different. With historical presentations, one performs in front of a group of mostly eager listeners who want to know something about an historical topic of collective interest. In teaching community college students, the audience is often reluctant, if not hostile to the process. They are required to take my class to graduate. Often their former experience in history classes has been negative, and they often lack critical thinking skills. They want to get the damn thing over to get back to their nursing and criminal justice classes.

So there I stand at the beginning of every semester, a mother, teacher and researcher in ridiculous high heels poised to turn a group of disparate, working class, reluctant students into historians, if only for the eight to fifteen weeks I have them. The relationship between the researcher, the research question, and the research method is particularly important in these moments. Without it, my class becomes meaningless. Without it, I am wasting their time. They will not remember even half of the material I impart to them unless I can make them believe it matters. They have to believe that history matters to me. They have to believe that they matter to me or they will work only for the grade and walk away empty-handed.

Why History Sucks

At the beginning of every semester, I write the topic “Why History Sucks” on the chalkboard and ask my students to brainstorm answers to this hypothetical essay topic. Their answers are always the same: history is boring, history is always about dead white guys, it is hard to remember names and dates, and (this is my favorite response) "history is over". Our first task as a class is to reclaim history, to make it ours. I point out that there are power dynamics at play. I’m the one who gives the grades and makes decisions regarding the syllabus and lesson plans. I’m the one with the big desk and the twirly chair on wheels while they are cramped into horrible little desks in horrible little rows. All history, including the history of history, is the story of power. Our job is to make visible those invisible power dynamics so that we can learn to challenge them. I let them know that they may speak up, move around and challenge me in class. “I work for you,” I remind them, “not the other way around. You are paying me for this and it is up to you to decide what you want out of this and what you need from me.” I want them to know that this is their class, not mine. Taking responsibility for what you know and how you come to know it is a first step in ethical scholarship.

I then explain that all histories and all historians are biased, including me. I give them a brief overview of historiography with a focus on the significant changes from Leopold von Ranke’s “objectivitat” history “wie es eigentlich gewesen” through Marxism and the culturally sensitive feminist historical approaches of the 1960’s and 1970’s through the postmodernist challenges of the ‘1980’s and ‘90’s. Within this discussion, I address their concerns that history is irrelevant, boring, and “over.” I do not suggest that because all history is biased that it is all of equal value. Far from understanding the premise that we cannot approach any topic except through the lens of our own personalities, cultures and experiences as an excuse for sloppiness, such awareness means that we must be all the more disciplined in our approaches. Knowing our limitations makes us more honest researchers, less prone to misrepresentations and errors born of arrogance. My insistence on this principle comes from my position as student of thealogy, a subject in which, as Carol Christ maintains, our limitations are viewed not as failures but as welcome voices in a diverse community of learners. When we accept our vantage points as unique, we are more likely to be open to other voices, to more complex truths, and less likely to subsume other realities into our own for the sake of tidy theories.

In teaching history, I am not concerned with old, rich, white dead guys except as they interact with “us.” There are no rich people in my classes. Although most of my students are white, they are also from working class, rural families with little or no access to formal power in their communities. Many of them are the first in their families to attend college. They do not recognize themselves in the history they took in high school or in the documentaries on great men they see on television. They cannot easily see how any of that is relevant to their own struggles to pay the bills, manage their financial aid, raise their children, finish their homework, and hold down their jobs. Lectures and readings in my class focus on the so-called underside of history, women and minorities instead of white men, working-class and middle-class families instead of the rich, and rural life more often than city life. To challenge their notion that history is “over” we draw parallels between historical events and contemporary concerns. Instead of focusing on a textbook, the students often break into groups to discuss collections of primary sources. We try to learn about our subject matter as compassionate critics, viewing them as human beings similar in many ways to us, subject to our judgments, worthy of our compassion.

I agree with my students that there are too many names and dates to memorize in history, but it is not really the names and dates that I resent as much as the imposition of someone else’s value system. Which names and which dates must we remember? The questions on a test imply that those particular names and dates are somehow more important than other names and other dates. After my first semester, I ceased giving tests. For me, it was a poor pedagogical tool that ignored critical thinking skills in favor of rote memorization. Like other “Goddess feminists” I am not comfortable with arbitrary authority and believe that since all knowledge is relative, no knowledge should be enforced as superior to any other. To enforce my own historical preferences upon my students denied them the right to discover their own path through history. My job is not to tell them what to know, but to nurture them into the ability to discover the stories on their own. Like a mother, I feel I must teach by example and by encouraging them to grow as unique individuals with unique needs.

This belief causes me to downplay content in favor of methodology. I provide them with the tools of my profession, the questions and the controversies that shape my discipline. If I can get them to think like historians, I do not need to force them to memorize facts. If they develop the historian’s passion, the facts will fall into place on their own. Most importantly, I wish them to develop what Christ calls “empathetic scholarship” a process that values disciplined data collection, criticism, and analysis but which exposes the bias and interest inherent in all scholarship, including our own.

To that end, I engage them in lectures and discussions designed to showcase the diversity of the historical field within our subject matter, to show them how one acquires and organizes historical data, and most importantly, how I, as a historian, find joy in the process. They are not responsible for regurgitating that which I teach them. “Should I take notes?” they ask, skeptical of a process in which there is so much discussion but no test. “The information I share with you is all out there,” I answer. “You just have to learn how to access it.” I explain that the authors of their texts, their professors, and all other professional historians are not born with historical knowledge. My hope is that my students learn that instead of taking any expert’s word as their final source of authority, they can look in the books, carefully choose and critique secondary sources and go directly to the primary sources to challenge other historians’ (even my own) interpretations. I have tried to teach them to be much more interested in the questions than in the answers.

The Assignments

I’ve developed several assignments designed to promote their awareness of themselves as researchers and to assist them in the process of owning and utilizing their unique perspectives. With each assignment I emphasize that it is process and not product that interests me. I encourage creativity, insist upon honest engagement, and offer lots and lots of help. They email me at home. I help them untangle their papers, direct their first faltering steps in the library (many of them are unfamiliar with libraries and some have difficulty with reading), and give them moral support and cheer leading when they feel unsure of themselves.

The first thing I insist upon is that they choose topics that matter to them. Many students have a difficult time with this because they are unused to having so much freedom to decide the entire course of their project. Some have given little thought to what is important to them, what interests them, what sparks their imagination. A few even get angry with me when they sense that I am being intentionally vague in my expectations. For these students, being asked to choose a topic and design their own research is, at first, an unwelcome freedom. Some of these reluctant scholars have told me later that they thought I was crazy at first but that they later appreciated having meaningful creative ownership of their own projects.

I give the students several writing assignments. These include reviewing and analyzing historical documentaries and films, primary sources, biographies or autobiographies, and scholarly journal articles all of which they choose for themselves. I ask them to become aware of the different perspectives they encounter, to learn how the authors, artists and filmmakers manifest their perspectives through their media and how those perspectives may be understood as rich conversations of varying perspectives. In the historical marker project, I ask them to first transcribe, then to add to the information on a local historical marker. By speaking to caretakers, curators, historians, grandparents, and by consulting the internet and books, they discover the historical depth of their home towns. Students, initially annoyed that they have to stomp out in several feet of snow to write down the boring information on some ubiquitous blue and yellow New York State historical marker later tell me that once they started looking for historical sites, they began not only to see them everywhere but actually began to wonder what they said. My students and I have learned amazing things about our community from this project, but the ADP project is my favorite.

The ADP Project

The ADP (Adopt a Dead Person) project begins when I ask them to walk into a cemetery to find the gravestone of someone they do not know who lived and died in the historical period we are studying. Some of them choose randomly. Others have felt drawn to particular stones. I encourage them to go ahead and embrace the mystical nature of this project. Over the next several weeks, the students try to learn about their adoptee. They usually begin by gathering other information on the stones surrounding their dead person trying to learn about their person by seeing what family was buried around them. From there, they move on to internet searches to try to find genealogical data, marriage, birth, and death notices, obituaries, and biographical sketches. Some students have interviewed local historians and have combed through archives in museums and libraries. They begin reading nineteenth-century county histories, old archived newspapers, and exploring old photographs.

As the weeks progress, we share the stories of our process. Often they are frustrated, particularly if they are trying to resurrect the memory of a woman or child about whom little if anything is written. I explain that we may never learn anything definitively about such people. When they ask to choose an easier name, I tell them not to give up on their person. "Who else will help revive their memory?" “Who else cares about her now?” I ask. And so my students soldier on. Some of them find marvelous details while others hit one dead end after another. I explain that historians often go on wild goose chases and take wrong turns. It is the searching that matters.

Their papers do not, indeed in many cases, cannot, give specific details about their adopted person’s life. This is expected and perfectly fine. I tell them to write about their journey as they develop a relationship with this person through the research process. Every little detail lovingly gathered becomes a precious revelation. Their “dead people” become real to them. I have watched the students grow fiercely protective of their people, indignant on their behalf. What begins as an assignment can become an obsession. They email or call me excitedly as they discover something new. They learn to contextualize their data (or lack thereof) in the appropriate secondary sources, to discover what life might have been like for their people by studying the politics, culture, gender relations, child rearing, educational and medical histories of the time.

By the time they are done, they may not know nearly as much about their person as they wanted. But they surprise themselves with how much they want to know. They have surprised themselves with how far they were willing to push themselves to gather the information and at how difficult and satisfying it is to piece it together, to create a narrative, to carefully conjecture, to reconstruct, to envision this person, this dead person, once a stranger and now someone with whom they have a living relationship. They learn about their communities, about the past, and about themselves in this process. In the process, we work as a group, and they have encountered as individuals, issues of social justice as they learn what people history has valued and what people it has not.

I suppose it would be easier to assign topics and accept papers at the end of the semester but then I would miss out on all that my students have to teach me not only about themselves but about the research process itself. The issues they face are the same issues I face, whether I have admitted them to myself or not. How does one access information when one is too shy to speak to archivists and curators? Which materials are reliable and which should be avoided? When is it appropriate to judge, or even to condemn the characters we meet in our historical journeys and how do we know whom we have met and whom we have created out of our needs and desires? What can we learn from what remains undiscovered, unsaid, and unwritten? Who are we, and why does this topic, in this time interest us? Who do we serve in our work? Who benefits and who is diminished by our curiosity?

The finished projects often have little in common since they reflect the stories not only of those souls’ whose names are inscribed in our cemeteries but also of my students. Some are highly analytical and formal. Others are more creative, fictionalized letters or journals based on the data the student has gathered. Some students, finding nothing, have written about the historical period in which their person lived and died while others’ have written movingly about the search itself, the frustrations, the controversies, and the injustice of a life forgotten. These papers about finding nothing are often the most fruitful. One student was almost tearful in her indignation. A woman lived. She worked and had a child and yet no one bothered to record even the barest facts of her life. I believe her research honored that forgotten woman in a way few other tributes to her memory could have.

With this assignment, I betray myself as a feminist researcher for whom relativism, far from being a dirty word, is sacred to the search for knowledge. In “Have You Seen This Child?” Victoria Rosner discusses historical obsession as a tool of feminist history writing. While “good history writing” is supposed to value evidence above imagination and avoids historical transference in which the author conflates his/her own feelings and concerns with those of his/her subject, Rosner describes the work of feminist historians whose work has become an act of love. For these historians, their subjective passion for their topics creates a relationship with their (often female) subject matter that Rosner describes as “maternal.”

Fantasy motherhood can produce a range of behaviors salutary for the life-writer, including
care, precision, dedication, commitment, and a sense of responsibility to the subject that goes beyond concern with one’s scholarly reputation.

Of course, the potential pitfalls of this approach are obvious: one can too easily conflate one’s opinions with the imagined contours of the life of the historical subject one has come to love. For me, this is of lesser concern than the danger of falsely portraying oneself as a completely objective arbiter of the past. Such approaches, in my opinion, are arrogant and even dangerous as they create a powerful dichotomy of knower and known, author and audience in which one is learned and the other merely learner, one is judge and the other judged. It is a power dynamic that I, as a feminist scholar find immoral from a social justice perspective and untenable from a pedagogical perspective. At the end of the day, I know too much about my own incomplete learning process to pretend complete mastery to my students.

For me the relationship between researcher, research project and research method is, in the end, not unlike motherhood. As I exchange my suit and heels for jam-stained jeans to write this blog, the same principles must apply. I rejoice in the details and live for the questions. Justice matters. Compassion matters. Discipline matters. But no amount of careful planning, diligence and hard work guarantees predictable outcomes. Historians work with memories like artists work with paints, and the way I see it, memories are merely the impressions left by souls. Working with souls is a tricky, inexact business. I distrust historians who pretend otherwise. For me, work with research projects, children and students requires the willingness to maintain one’s identity even as one loses oneself in the process and to be open to the possibility that the closer one looks and the deeper one loves, the more surprising may be the results.


*Sandra* said...

I hope they appreciate you. Welcome back!

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Hystery,

I already knew you were a creative teacher, even before I read this detailed post of your method of pedagogy. But it was fascinating reading and inspiring!

I must admit you made me commit a minor sin--envy that you have so much freedom in how you teach at the community college level.

My last several years of teaching high school under the our state's interpretation of "No Child Left with a Mind" about killed my love for education. The only thing I miss now is interaction with the teens--seeing their eyes sometimes light up with zest and that "wow" of genuine learning.

Sorry to hear that some of your students aren't avid learners. In the past, I used to sometimes wish I taught college, but I guess high school students aren't the only reluctant learners.

Though a writing and literature teacher, I got to teach a lot of history, since my students knew so little.

Your specifics about creative lesson plans--especially the ADP Project!-- remind me of some of my own successful ones (but I will refrain from turning this comment into a teacher exchange:-)

Thanks for sharing.

An aging white guy;-)


Hystery said...


If my paycheck is any indication of how the college values me, then they don't appreciate me at all! lol But then adjuncts are a dime a dozen. The administrator in charge of the Sunday program is extremely supportive of me. That helps a lot.


English and history teachers have much in common (and in our college are in competition for resources with the English dept. having a distinct advantage). Since we use literature to teach and because we focus so much attention on the affects of cultural/literary/artistic movements, we have to be able to use an interdisciplinary approach to our work. I also tend to use lots of archaeology, religion studies and anthropology when teaching. Psychology also comes in handy.

Also, I love "aging white guys". Some of my best friends are aging white guys. lol I'm sure that means something! In fact, I've been trying to analyze it. ;-)

T. James said...

What a fascinating way to approach the subjects, both history and teaching. Makes me want to quit my job and return to school - or maybe take a stab at some of the projects for fun. Thanks for the glimpse inside your lesson planner.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Oh, this is new! You often nurture my religious self. Today I get to appreciate your having fed my teacher-self.

Thanks, as always, for sharing your story Hystery. This one definitely spoke to me.

*Sandra* said...

Hahaha... I meant the students, Hystery! In my considerable and diverse experience, employers seldom appreciate good employees.

Hystery said...


Oh! It didn't occur to me that you meant my students! Yes, I think they appreciate me. One cannot be universally popular but I have my following as one does in a college and my students are almost universally polite and kind to me whatever their opinions about the courses I teach.

Anonymous said...

When I went to secondary school (like a combination of middle and high school - distinctions now only made in Britain in some very exclusive private schools), my first history lesson was a murder mystery. We were given the evidence - an outline of the pathologist's report, the officer who discovered the body's report, witness statements, diagrams of where the victim was found, etc. - and spent the week working out whodunnit.

At 11, I was already desperately interested in history and detective fiction, and with a police officer for a father, it all made sense. We learned about primary, secondary, and tertiary evidence; we learned that there's no such thing as objectivity in writing history; we learned that we might never find out whodunnit - it was the process that counted.

It has stuck with me for 28 years. Teachers like you make all the difference.

Hystery said...


Thank you for that. I would like to believe that I'm making a difference but one really never knows. I appreciate encouraging words. Thanks.

Your story reminds me of a lesson I do in American history in which we hold an imaginary trial for the British officer commanding the soldiers who opened fire during the "Boston Massacre." Each of my students takes on the role of an eyewitness reading from 18th century testimonies. We draw diagrams, discuss limitations of 18th century weapons, ponder weather and lighting, act out the descriptions of body placement and actions, discuss psychology, etc. Some of my students are training to be nurses. Others are training to be police officers. They offer their own expert testimony.

At the end of the lesson I ask them for their verdict. It is always "Not Guilty". They feel there is reasonable doubt- there is just too much we don't know to allow us to condemn a man. I point out that here is a moment in history when people were trying to pay attention- when we have more than the usual amount of preserved data about the events in question. And still, human beings are so passionate and so fallible and our cultural and chronological distance from the events so great that we are loathe to offer condemnation.

The purpose of the lesson is to shake their faith in the myth of historical objectivity. While I don't want them to become completely cynical, I do want them to recognize the need to challenge our sources and to acknowledge the role of human prejudice in the discovery of "Truth."

It is too common for historians to write and for teachers to teach as if they have some magical view into the past. They test their students' knowledge on the facts of history as if there was never any question about how those facts were ascertained or how the "truth" was constructed. I want my students to become aware of the process so they too may have some power over the construct.

Finally Spring

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