A third of the way into the film “Gangs of New York” (Miramax, 2002) my son asked if we could choose something else to watch. The time period, he argued, was “boring and bland.” He had already lost interest in the story. For the sake of relevance here I will leave debate about the merits of “Gangs of New York” as a film and piece of historical fiction to the experts and focus on what this conversation meant for me as a history professor.
Sadly, I cannot help but think that the perspective my eighteen-year-old expressed from our couch in the middle of summer was not unlike that shared in recent semesters by students in US History survey courses. It can be difficult for students to draw connections between our technologically-driven lives today and a time when there were no automobiles or televisions or smart phones. What made this conversation all the more significant to me is that my son is only weeks away from himself being a college freshman. Dozens of students just like him will soon populate my courses.
As we approach the start of a new academic year I’m thinking a lot about the challenge of connecting these students to the non-digital and non-technical world of our past. As historians we are often poor judges of what might be engaging to students because we find the subject matter inherently interesting. What can we do to get them excited and engaged about topics that seem remote to their 21st-century lives? Are there pre-1900 topics that have connected particularly well with your students? Or, how about topics that you no longer cover in the survey because today’s students do not find them relevant?
This week I’ve posted a poll to help guide future blog topics. I’ve included several (general) topics with which I have struggled to engage student interest and discussion. I’m hoping to tackle the practical challenges of these topics in coming blogs. Please participate in the poll and share your ideas in the comments section below.