As much as I would like to think that my students are reading a reputable news source each day and paying attention to world events while on summer break, it is more realistic to assume that many have paid only cursory attention to the political comings and goings in Washington. I expect, nonetheless, that students will return to campus the first week of September with lots of questions about the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, the weekend of August 12th. In addition to my usual pre-semester preparation this year, therefore, I’m giving a lot of thought to how I can help the students to contextualize the historical topics that have become the focus of public debate in recent weeks.
I teach at a community college in Rhode Island, the smallest state in the Union and home to zero monuments honoring the Confederacy. Travel about an hour northward, however, and find the sole Confederate monument in New England: erected in 1963 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy it memorializes thirteen Confederate soldiers who died as Union prisoners at Fort Warren, Georges Island, Massachusetts. Today the monument is boarded up as the state decides its fate. [See Why Boston has a Confederate Monument -- And Why You Can’t See it Right Now]
For the great majority of my students, then, the Confederate monument debate does not resonate the way it does for students who have lived their entire lives in communities where the men who fought to preserve slavery are memorialized. How then do I help my students understand the significance of the debate that is taking place across the United States?
There are a number of ways that we as historians and teachers can tackle this topic in class discussion. First, if students have not previously studied the Civil War, it makes sense to ensure that they know the basics: who were the Confederates? What were they fighting for? What were the consequences of their actions and ideology for the nation? A good source to share with students is History By Era on the web site of The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Especially for students who will not be covering the Civil War within the content of their course, this site provides a starting point for understanding the politics of the war and includes a discussion of slavery and emancipation.
Second, suggest that students read up on the origins of the statues themselves. How Statues of Robert E. Lee and Other Confederates Got into the U.S. Capitol (Gillian Brockell, The Washington Post) and How the U.S. Got So Many Confederate Monuments (Becky Little, history.com) are brief and provide students context from which they may begin to ask further questions. Encourage students to find articles that advocate for the preservation of these monuments such as Why We Should Keep the Confederate Monuments Right Where they Are (John Daniel Davidson, thefederalist.com).
Finally, ask your college librarians to fuel the discussion with a topical exhibit. It’s likely that your college library has something in its collection that examines the history of monuments. Ask the library faculty to display what they have prominently to encourage students to (subconsciously?) make connections between what is being discussed on television news and the work of professional historians. Three sources to look for are: Monuments: America’s History in Art & Memory (Judith Dupre; Random House), Memorial Mania (Erika Doss; University of Chicago Press), and Slavery & Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (James O. Horton and Lois E. Horton, editors; University of North Carolina Press).
An unlimited supply of discussion questions can emerge from the debate on Confederate monuments, no matter where your college sits geographically. Ask your students to consider who is memorialized in the community where they live and to reflect on what such memorials teach outsiders about the values that their community holds dear.
You might also like to read the original post by W. Fitzhugh Brundage on Flipboard.com.
I recently brought home Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal from my public library (click here for a New York Times’ review). The book, written by two Boston Globe reporters, examines a period that intersects closely with my time on earth so far. I grew up south of Boston, Massachusetts, so James “Whitey” Bulger’s criminal history has been a local news topic for all of my adult life. Whitey, for those not familiar with the story, spent nearly two decades as (simultaneously) a criminal and FBI informant, and then many years on the run before being tried and convicted in 2013. Reading the book made me realize how little I actually know about Boston in the 1970s and 1980s.
When my students ask why my sections of the second half of the United States survey end in the early 1970s instead of going to “the present,” I respond with a smile: “If I lived it, it’s not history!” As I think more about this question, however, I am forced to face reality: I am uncomfortable teaching about events that I can remember. This is particularly true when it comes to political events in the 1980s because I can vividly recall watching the evening news with my parents. When I read about events from this era it’s always with a faint recognition of what I had seen or heard as a teen.
With each passing year in the classroom, however, will come the inevitable need to expand time frame of the US survey for the sake of my students, many of whom were not yet born when I graduated from college. They don’t remember the politically-charged Olympic Games of the Cold War era, Bill Clinton’s denials of infidelity, or even September 11th. So how do we as historians decide what is “history” -- i.e., included in the survey and other courses -- and what is current events? Does my “If I lived it ....” litmus test have any credibility?
Probably not. And yet I remain perplexed by the enormity of what stays and what goes content-wise if I teach beyond the year of my birth. In an earlier blog I admitted that I’m already overwhelmed by my perceived need to cover a ton of content in US I (see TMI: Overloading the US Survey). I’ve resolved this academic year to revise my US II syllabus and bring my students to 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan. Now what? What stays and what goes?
Or, what if I let the students determine the content of our last two weeks of the semester? What if I tweak my syllabus to the point that I reach my usually stopping point (the war in Vietnam) with time to spare, which I would then dedicate to specific topics about which the students are curious?
Have you or one of your colleagues in another field tried this approach? I would love to hear from anyone who has experimented with course content in this way. In particular, how did you determine the topics to be covered? How did students respond to the experience? And would you do it again?