Tuesday, August 30, 2005


The first twenty minutes

Yesterday was the first day of class for the Introduction to U. S. History that I am teaching this fall. (Here's the syllabus I'm using; suggestions for future iterations are welcome!)

In all of the classes that I've taught so far, I've tried to follow this rule of thumb: On the first day of class, do not pass out the syllabus until halfway through the period. It's my belief that for those first twenty or thirty minutes, the attention and engagement of my students is about as undivided as it is ever going to be. But I know that the moment I pass out my syllabus, that attention will immediately be divided and diverted: red-tape questions about requirements for the course, poring over the syllabus to see if there's a paper. That's what most students expect for the first day of class, but that's another reason why those first twenty or thirty minutes are so potentially precious: they are some of the few minutes of the semester where I am virtually guaranteed the element of surprise.

The first twenty or thirty minutes of the semester are fertile soil for planting seeds of The Big Idea that I want students to leave the course with. By their nature, the first twenty minutes aren't good for going over minutiae; they are good for making a case to the students that what we will be doing is important and interesting. As I've talked about before in a post about my philosophy of teaching, one of The Big Ideas I want any student in my class to leave with is an understanding that talking about history is always a matter of selective emphasis. It doesn't take long to realize this on reflection: it is impossible to write a history that includes everything that just happened in the world in the last five minutes, much less in the last five or fifteen centuries, so when historians sit down to write a narrative of the past, they are always forced to make hard choices about what to include, choices guided by the problem they are trying to solve and by the boundaries of their subject (also chosen) that they have laid out.

But while that point may seem obvious on reflection, I don't want to take for granted that my students have so reflected (since I know there was surely a point in my life when I didn't reflect on these things much either). And I don't want to even begin a history course with the impression possibly floating around in some student's mind that this class will cover Everything You Need to Know about American history, that the boundaries placed on this course by the semester are somehow absolute. (New Kid on the Hallway has also recently talked about the importance of dispelling this idea.)

In an effort to convey these points in the first twenty minutes of class, here's what I did yesterday. After introducing myself and letting students know that I would be passing out the syllabus later in the class, I asked everyone to get out a sheet of paper. You have two minutes, I said, to write a history of the last five years. In response to any questions about what should be included ("our personal history? American history?") I simply say that there are no limitations: just a history of the last five years in two minutes. These won't be handed in so there's no need to worry about complete sentences: just write as much as you can or think you should. (I modified this from a similar drill that my wife, a brilliant high school social studies teacher, has used to great effect in her own classroom.)

After the two-minute drill is up, I make a list with students on the board of the kinds of things that made it into their histories--which events? which places and countries? what kinds of people? I make the list as exhaustive as possible, but then point out that it usually includes mostly the headline news of the last five years. If I'm lucky, a few events in students' personal lives make the list, along with more local connections to the headline news--the Olympics is mentioned, for instance, but since we're in Maryland, so is local hero Michael Phelps.

The point of this exercise, of course, is then to notice how much didn't make the list, and couldn't make the list, given the constraints of time that I placed on the students. But then I ask students whether everything could have made the list if I had made other rules for the drill--given them twenty minutes, for instance, or two years; limited the assignment to the history of the United States; asked them to write the history of the last fifty years instead of the last five; etc.

After this I talked a little bit about the required textbook for the course, which is America: A Narrative History, Brief Sixth Edition, by George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi. When I signed on to teach this course, I was at first unhappy to learn that all of the students taking U. S. history in the department would be using the same textbooks, and that the books had already been ordered so that I could not choose which one I wanted to use (or indeed, whether I wanted to use a textbook at all). But now I'm starting to think having a textbook for the class--perhaps especially one that would not have been my first choice--can be pedagogically useful. Just as Timothy Burke has advised against using airtight monographs in history classes, perhaps it's good to use a textbook precisely because it's possible to point out to students the necessary gaps and gaffes that a textbook includes, and to get them thinking about the contingency of historical writing.

So I pointed out that even textbook writers have to make difficult choices to boil down the past into the simulacra of a book. I asked students to get out their textbooks and I drew their attention to the cover. The title declares that this is a history of "America." But how is "America" defined? (Geographically? Then why not South America too? Politically? Then what about "America" before the "United States of America"?) The title also specifies that this is a "narrative" history. (Are there other ways of telling history? How would the book be different if it were a "documentary" history, for instance?). Narratives include characters, settings, turning points--all elements that a narrator has to select when constructing a particular story. Finally, I even have students notice that this textbook is a "sixth edition" (why would we need new and multiple editions for a book about stuff that happened centuries ago?) and that it is a "brief" edition.

That means what we have is an abbreviation of two historians' abbreviation of the past--or that part of it that they have carved out as their subject matter by using words like "America" and turning points like the Columbian contact with the "New World." (The "textbook analysis" idea I've cribbed from a favorite English professor as an undergraduate, who did something similar on the first day of a Shakespeare class by making us think about what it meant to be reading the "Norton" edition of Shakespeare, "based on the Oxford edition." I remember it being eye-opening to actually look at the cover of the textbook as if it were a bearer of meaning too, instead of just something to hold pages--the real bearers of meaning--together.)

Only after all this did I pass out the syllabus. That allowed me, too, to help give the assignments for the course a pedagogical rationale. For example, for the major writing portion of the course, students will be selecting one book from a list of six works of history that I have selected. Over the course of the semester, they will be reading that book and writing about it in some discussion boards I've set up on Blackboard for the course. Had I passed out the syllabus first, that would have just looked like hard work. (And I realize that to many of the students it probably still does.) But now that I've talked a bit about The Big Idea of the course, I can make the case that this assignment reinforces that. If all historians make choices and selections when telling narratives of the past, then that means we need more than a textbook. Subjects or people that receive a sentence in the textbook (or, of course, no sentences at all) have entire narratives written about them, a point worth stressing with students. I also like the fact that students have to make a choice about what to read, leaving the other books unread; hopefully that reinforces, somewhere, that in choosing to read this historian's narrative, there are still many narratives to be read, and many more stories to be told.

There is no end to the narratives that we can choose to tell about the past. Our choices will be constrained, of course, by the sources left to us (there are some stories that cannot be told) and by what the sources themselves tell us. But there will still be more stories that can be told, even after we've spent our entire lives telling stories about the past--in part because by the end of our lives there will be more "past" to tell about. It's possible to make this point in a dour way, by emphasizing the futility of it all (why attempt to write or teach history if you can't "get it all in"?) or by being cynical about historical writing (if all historians make choices, then how can I trust what any one narrative tells me?). But what excites me most about history is precisely the knowledge that we will not run out of narratives to tell. One reason I'm a fan of jazz is because I know that I will never reach a point where I have heard all the jazz there is to hear: there is always another album, another take, another rendition to keep my mind awake. I'm a fan of history, I think, for the same reasons.

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)

Collective Improvisation:
GREAT first day exercise!

I totally agree about the syllabus issues. Do you have yours posted on-line? If so, do you find that this helps or hurts understanding, attention, etc? (Assuming, of course, that students take a look at the syllabus before the first day of class.) 

Posted by Yvette

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 8/30/2005 07:04:00 PM : Permalink  

The syllabus looks good. That is quite a reading load! I can barely get my students to read the textbook. -- Starting this semester our syllabi are required to have LEARNING OUTCOMES with quantifiable results, which can be challenging to include. They really make you think about what you want your students to DO, not just read or learn. You will become more familiar with these outcomes as you continue teaching......... 

Posted by Sean

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 9/01/2005 10:09:00 AM : Permalink  

Terrific ideas for the first day of class! Thanks. 

Posted by Jeff

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 9/03/2005 11:56:00 PM : Permalink  

What a fantastic opening day exercise. I've done some vaguely similar kinds of things in my Am lit courses, but never quite on this kind of scale. I'm trying to think of ways to adapt this for my classes now. Thanks! 

Posted by Scrivener

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 9/07/2005 02:52:00 PM : Permalink  

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