Notes from the Classroom: First Day

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I never know quite how to start a new semester. I’m teaching the second half of the U.S. history survey (since 1877) and decided to do a little group activity to get students thinking about change over time in this crazy 140 year period we will be studying.

I divided them into five groups and assigned to each group a roughly 30 year period (the contemporary group got a shorter time) and asked them to come up with the three biggest changes/events/transformations they could think of during those 30 years. Here’s what the first class came up with:

Group 1 to 1906: Plessy v ferguson; New states in the west; Gilded age (industrialization)

Group 2 to 1936: World war 1; Great Depression; Prohibition

Group 3 to 1966: World War Two (holocaust); Civil rights movement; Cold War (space race, second red scare)

Group 4 to 1996: Watergate, Clinton’s election; End of Vietnam war

Group 5 to 2018: 9/11-> Afghanistan; Election of Obama; Tech (smartphones)

An interesting list, heavy on politics and war. I’m extremely skeptical that Clinton’s election was one of the three most important events between 1967 and 1996, but hey, make the argument!

And here’s what the second class came up with:

Group 1 to 1906: Ellis Island opened; Plessy v ferguson; Wright brothers

Group 2 to 1936: Great Depression; World War One; White Women’s suffrage

Group 3 to 1966: World War Two; Civil rights movement; Cold War

Group 4 to 1996: Watergate; Moon landing; Clinton impeachment

Group 5 to 2018: 9/11; Internet/social media; Increasing social acceptance (lgbt, first black president)

Another list heavy on war and politics. Clinton’s impeachment as historically significant seems more on the mark than his election, but on the other hand, he had to get elected to get impeached. Causality! Group 2 initially said “women’s suffrage” and then a black student pointed out that we’re effectively talking about white women’s suffrage. Sharp thinking.

I was very surprised these lists were not more tech heavy. I thought technology would be an easy thing for students to grab onto when they thought about change: lights, cars, planes, radio, tv, atomic energy, etc. But we had few mentions of it.

I asked students to remark on what they found interesting or surprising about the lists, and then I asked them to think about what kinds of change we didn’t put on our lists. They were pretty quick to identify that we were missing cultural changes (especially in the sense of popular culture). Other changes students mentioned were environmental, commercialization, and religion. In both classes I added my own suggestion because no one mentioned it: intellectual change. Students could readily identify large events in the realm of politics and war, but the lists did not directly include changes in the realm of the mind.

I used these discussions to make a few fairly obvious points. First, there’s been a lot of change! The way we understand ourselves and the world around us is bizarre and unusual; it’s different from the way Americans thought 140 years ago. I don’t think students understand that in a deep way, which is why our lists were heavy on outward events rather than more formative but harder to define changes in thought and culture. Second, our lists were not right or wrong as much as they were peculiar. I emphasized that our lists reflected our time and place and identities. They’re not good or bad, they’re just ours. Might they tell us something about what we believe is important in both the past and the present? Do they say something about what we think we ought to study when we study history? (Or maybe they just tell us what’s easiest to look up on a smartphone when you’re in a hurry).

After thinking so much about change over time, it was a natural transition into discussion of Flannery and Burke’s 5 C’s of historical thinking. All in all the class was probably more blah than scintillating, but I thought the exercise was fun.

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