Notes from the Classroom: Teaching the History of the Present

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Bill Clinton, a leading villain of the history of the present

I’ve structured my U.S. history survey course to go right up to the present day. The last lecture of the semester is title “The Radicalization of American Politics, 1994-2018.” I do so with some trepidation, but I have several compelling (I think) reasons for it.

1) Over half of the class is made up of journalism majors. They will spend their careers in the world of 24 hour news cycles, and they will be much better at their jobs if they can put the news in historical perspective.

2) Communicating the inherent difficulty of thinking through the noise of the present to discern what is historically significant is part of the teaching objective. In the last week of the semester, I will be explicit about the speculative nature of this project. Thinking about our knowledge and perceptions as provisional is inherently humbling and can lead to better thinking.

3) It allows me to teach about the Trump era without letting Trump intrude on the whole semester. I’ve been very deliberate about avoiding Trump in my teaching this semester. If connections between the Trump Era and the Gilded Age suggest themselves to students, fine. But I’ve been determined not to recast the American story on the basis of the fleeting events of the past two years. Precisely because we don’t yet know how historically consequential this moment is, or its denouement, I’ve tried hard to let the significance of other eras stand on their own terms.

This restraint is easier for me when I know I’ve got that last lecture at the end of the course. Talking about the past with reference to Trump all semester would be inimical to historical thinking. But it would also be strange to go through a whole survey of modern U.S. history without communicating to students the unique features of the present moment of crisis. By the way, I’m eager for any suggestions about how best to do that.

One simple rule of thumb is to think about how Trump is different from past Republican presidents. That way you’re removing some of the partisan emotion from it while encouraging students to understand how and why we ended up with a president who rejects the post-Watergate norms of the presidency, 70 years of bipartisan American foreign policy, and matters of the rule of law and the constitution previously thought to be settled.

4) I’m trying to model thinking historically about the present as I prepare students for their final assignment, a “time capsule” project. I’ve never done anything like this before and I don’t know if it will work, but it goes like this:

The premise is that you are creating a “time capsule” that you imagine historians will open 100 years from now. What will be important for them to study?

You will identify a contemporary (in this century) event, process, person, movement, cultural change, technology, or other phenomenon that you believe is of historic significance. You will briefly describe its history and context and make an argument that justifies the historic significance of your choice. Your objective is to cut through the noise of the present and think in a longer time-frame than we’re used to thinking. In hindsight, what will people think was unique or important about the early twenty-first century?

Having made your choice and argued for its historic significance, you will select three primary sources that are essential to understanding it. You will offer a brief analysis of each source and explain why it will be useful for historians to study it a century from now.

I’ve cut out the details, but this is the conceptual gist of the assignment. It is still over a month away so if anyone has words of caution or ideas to make it better, there’s still time for me to change it! In my ideal world, students come away from this assignment having exercised intellectual muscles they didn’t know they had, and might even be interested in using them in the future.

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