A few days ago Kevin Levin asked about ways to teach secession beyond the Charles Dew formula. At least that’s what I thought he was getting at. I considered it quite a bit and prepared some comments, but went back and read Kevin’s post more closely and found that he appeared to be baiting his neo-Confederate stalkers. Not wanting to engage in that conversation, I set it aside. But I’ll put some revised thoughts here.
Kevin’s prompt still got me thinking about teaching secession with now-ubiquitous Charles Dew formula: read the convention delegates’ correspondence and discover that slavery is the sine qua non of the Confederacy. This is pretty easy and pretty solid historical exposition. At proving a point, it is perfect. I’ve done it in my classes. But I think historically and pedagogically it leaves something to be desired.
I tell my students to never, ever, explain complex historical events and processes with one simple word. (I also tell them we don’t do history to prove points.) Single word answers—even if true—obscure complex historical processes and even more, foreclose upon the initiative to explore further. We want to get past simple answers and understand and explain things.
“Slavery”—as the answer to the question of why the south seceded—is true, but altogether unsatisfying as a way of understanding and explaining why southerners seceded (or supported secession.) It doesn’t explain why a broad collection of geographic, economic, social, and cultural constituencies united around the institution as a cause for secession. And that’s the initiative that I want to implant in my students: to not just say “answer,” but to understand and explain that answer. The answer is slavery, but from there we should jump to understand and explain why slavery was the immediate cause. (Maybe that’s done in previous lectures or class units, but I’m assuming we only get a small amount of time on this topic.)
Charles Dew did all of us a great service by conclusively proving slavery as the reasons for secession with his focus on the conventions. It is a convenient package for students. In an effort to encourage the habits of inquiry, understanding, and explanation in our students, can we not now pull back from Dew’s focus and examine a wider evidentiary base? Doing so will certainly “complexify” the easy narrative, but that’s a good thing, isn’t it?
For instance, I might offer the students an excerpt from the diary of David Golightly Harris, a pro-secession upcountry South Carolina farmer, who noted on December 6, 1860
All the candidates say secede, and, of course it will be done. And I hope it will be done quickly. Then will come the tug of war, but let it come. It can be no worse than the oppression of the North.
Harris, to our eternal frustration, never tells us what he meant by “oppressions of the North.” It might be explained with North Carolina Congressman Zeb Vance’s comments to his constituents in February, 1861, as his state deliberated secession. [Quote from here.]
What restraint is there upon the furious and bloodthirsty fanaticism which led John Brown, bristling with arms, into a sleeping southern city? What mother within a hundred miles of that long and defenceless border could kiss her infant to sleep without the horrid thought that before the morning’s sun her home might become the funeral pile [sic] of her self and child!
I might offer the thoughts of a Warren County, North Carolina, committee of citizens who met to consider the situation, and prefaced their resolutions with this WHEREAS,
WHEREAS, The course that has been pursued by the Black Republican party, both before and since their triumph in the election of Abraham Lincoln, gives no assurance of a returning sense of justice or a willingness to concede to the slaveholding States, their rights and equality in the Union, and, whereas, we believe, that all hope for an adjustment of our difficulties with the North, on terms which alone ought to be satisfactory and acceptable to the slaveholding States, has departed: And, whereas, it appears to be the settled policy of Lincoln and his party not to recognize the secession of any State or States, but to coerce said State or States to remain in the Union, thus producing civil war.
They resolved to secede immediately. It mimics the language of some of the state convention documents, but I would still include it for the students to read.
To understand the layers of meaning that decades of proslavery thought had created—and thus the larger social milieu white southerners considered to be at stake upon Lincoln’s election—I would offer the comments of the Presbyterian (PCCSA) General Assembly, who remained
deeply convinced that this struggle is not alone for civil rights, and property, and home, but also for religion, for the Church, for the Gospel, and for existence itself
The excerpts, about funeral pyres, slave insurrections, religion, and “existence itself,” fairly plainly illustrate, in ways that the convention documents do not, the visceral fear that white southerners felt at the ascension of a Republican government and suggest (more compellingly than Stephens’ academic rejection of modern liberalism) a satisfactory motivation for secession.
Perhaps it depends on your intent in the classroom. Were I lecturing and wanted to make the point, I’d go with the Dew formula. Were I guiding my students toward being good historians, I’d want to do more.
[p.s. I don’t have the document, but if you want to find a southerner who advocated secession because of frustration with tariffs, you’ll find him in Henry Fries of Salem, North Carolina. His letters and papers are at the Moravian Archives in Old Salem.]
Well, this class is finished and I am not certain what the students might takeaway from it. I can imagine that they have developed good analytical habits, and some of them might indeed employ then in constructing a good argument. But I’ll never know. Years ago the museum guy John Falk talked about “will have learned” moments, when you take something in, but don’t realize it until much later (making that value difficult to capture in post-experience surveys), when it occurs to you that you “have learned” a thing after all. I will not know that they’ve learned anything until they make a good assessment or argument sometime later in their lives. I’d like to think that in a subsequent history class they will be so much better equipped to write reviews and essays. But let’s face it—these were not history majors and all took this class as a requirement—none of them are going to have a history class ever again.
Also, I hope they learned a little something about world history in the first half of the Twentieth Century. (I had an assessment on that, but don’t need to discuss it here.)
Their final assignments were good. I gave them the evolution document I gave in the first week, and told them to analyze it. This time, I instructed them to analyze it using the questioning, connecting, sourcing, and inferencing tools they have worked on this semester. And I had them chose a primary document from the semester to analyze it alongside (so they could make connections, etc.) Most of them chose James Orr’s Fundamentalist pamphlet “Science and the Christian Faith,” which seems like the natural, if unimaginative, one to go with.
The problem is that they didn’t do any of that. Granted, they did not do what they did in the first week and handled the documents in a perfectly detached manner. But they did not question, connect, source, or infer. They simply compared and contrasted: essentially, “Kurfees said this, Orr said that. The end.” This makes me worried that the habit-formation did not take.
This was my first fully online class and I think it went well enough for an online class. But I am not happy with this form. So many times I needed to intervene immediately in a student’s thinking process in a way that would help the entire class. The pace and timing of that intervention online makes the whole idea pointless. No one picks up on what is going on. That needs to happen right in the classroom, where everyone can see and where extemporaneous discussion can reinforce and expand on the initial intervention. So count me among those who believe that teaching is truly effective in an intimate, hands-on, in-person environment, and less effective online.
Also, Google+, as a platform for face-to-face video conferences, is terrible. Terrible. I don’t know why, but … well, it’s technical stuff that I don’t understand, but it just wasn’t working. Next time, I am using Skype (which worked fine when G+ failed.)
As for my own takeaways on the Calderite structure of this class…here are a few things.
Despite my ambivalent feeling about the results, I am more convinced than ever that snapping students’ intellectual and cognitive approach to history into place is a necessary first step to any history education. Not until they get it should they be permitted to go on to other methodological and interpretive steps in the process of history education. More on this in another post.
Calder’s instructions for the workshop assignments, that I copied into my syllabus, if delivered alone and online, are entirely confusing to the students. They don’t really understand what they are doing and why they are doing it. (They are so habituated to essay-writing that the concept of turning in something other than an essay, is, well, inconceivable.) This might be alleviated by in-person instruction. It also might be alleviated by better instructions from the professor. To this end, for the class I am now teaching (Spring semester, same class), I am issuing weekly tutorials on what is expected, and why, from the assignments.
Indeed, I did not have a very holistic view of where Calder was going with the “cognitive moves” when we started. But I get it now, and can thus better explain the individual parts of the process.
I only used part of Calder’s uncoverage formula. (I did not, for instance, do the Zinn/Johnson comparison, because I do not like that approach.) To get at narrating and interpreting I assigned prompt questions for a discussion forum posts. As you know, that did not work at all. I am completely reworking my expectations for discussion forum posts and better integrating into my instructions the disciplinary expectations for the work produced there. I am also working the “5 Cs of historical thinking” closer to the center of what they do. I really like the “5 Cs” as a set of basic disciplinary rules that they need to know at the beginning of their careers as historians.
Anyhow, all these changes have been made in the current version of this class I am presently teaching. Yes, I’m doing it again. This time it is a full 16 week course so they’re getting more reading, but each unit is stretched out over two weeks, and they’re getting two new units on African anti-colonialism and the Pacific War. The first week (their initial approach to the Kurfees document) went about as disastrously as the last time. (If this state ever produces another competent evolutionary biologist, I’d be surprised.) But with the revisions in place, the initial work on the first workshop assignment has been so much better.
Next week is when they combine Kanzo with Kanto. I told them that they will receive a Big Zero if they claim that the Japanese massacred Koreans because they had not embraced Christianity.
We’ll see how that goes, but I am not going to detail this class here like I did the Winter session version. Lucky you.
So, about that… Last week we covered the Fundamentalist movement of the 1910s and 1920s and read quite a bit about the Fundamentalist disdain for the chaos and complexity of modernity. Now, I didn’t realize this until I went back and re-read the primary documents on Nazi Germany, but much of their rhetoric regarding art, culture, and the changing expectations of women in society sounded an awful lot like the American Christian Fundamentalist critique.
Would my students catch this? I hoped so, because that would be a fantastic historical connection to make, just in terms of identifying common themes across a completely separate set of documents. I hoped not, because intimating that fundamentalist Christians sound like Hitler is the opposite of the kind of historical reasoning I want them to do, and the last thing a lefty college professor needs to be doing to a class full of self-identified Christians.
So with relief and disappointment, I noted that not a single one of them made this connection.
In the workshop assignments we are at that point where the students are expected to draw compelling conclusions from the evidence they have interrogated. The assignment called for a good question, a good connection, a good sourcing statement, and three warrants, or conclusions.
Only here did I fully realize the importance of the previous weeks’ exercises and the cumulative effect of the “cognitive move” rehearsals. Those students who truly worked over their sources, knew them, tested them, were poised to make fairly sophisticated conclusions. One or two of them actually did. Those students who made little effort to question and assess their sources turned in conclusions that were entirely superficial.
I should check my expectations that they are going to produce brilliant historical analysis and insights (or as they would call it, “in cites.”)* These are, after all, first time history students taking this class because it is required. Most of their conclusions were not of the argument/thesis variety, but merely very well documented and nuanced observations. The upside is that they are producing very well documented and nuanced observations. Some get off track and begin to make assertions that are not supported by the evidence, but those are becoming fewer and fewer. I am beginning to think that a few of them might actually emerge from this class with good idea of how to do not just disciplinary thinking but disciplined thinking.
*Sorry. Couldn’t help myself, but I have seen that spelling more than once and from multiple people.
But that is not a certainty because, boy, did they ever backslide on their discussion forums. I prompted them to explain Hitler’s compelling appeal in the context of global events. They knew I expected them to think broadly and incorporate material from my recorded lecture, the secondary reading on Europe in the 1930s, and a video on the Holomodor. They largely rehashed their work from the workshop assignments. One or two mentioned the Versailles settlement, but not a single one of them made reference to global depression, conservative reaction to modernism, the apparent threat of Soviet/Jewish communism. Not only that, quite a few of them attributed Hitler’s rise solely to his lust for power, his ability to “brainwash” Germans, and the German people’s “weakness.” This frustrated me the most. We had talked a few weeks ago about not explaining historical events with simple things like greed, power, or stupidity. And here they were doing it again.
In my summary email to the class I emphasized the need to consider the “5 Cs” of historical thinking in developing explanations for historical events. Attention to complexity, context, change over time, causality, and contingency will always produce more compelling explanations than an accusation you can otherwise hurl on Facebook. The next time I teach this class (which is actually right now in the Spring semester) I am going to bump up the importance of the “5 Cs” and harangue them regularly about them.
Next week is the final week of this session. We are doing some variations on the assignments we have been rehearsing. Needless to say, I am excited and nervous about what they will produce.
Despite my grandiose speculation in the last post, my report for this week is rather mundane. They are doing well. In fact, I had looked forward to this week because I figured the topic of the Fundamentalist/modernist debate of the 1920s was sure to spark opinionated debate. But they have turned in rather measured assessments of the evidence. And that is a good thing! I seem to have squeezed out of them the desire to wildly fling about unwarranted lessons and apply them inappropriately to historical actors and themselves. No historical person this week was condemned for venal sins.
Their workshop essays (based on this) were not without problems. As usual, they considered the instructions unclear. In fact, I had to go back and think deeply about just what the instructions called for. This reflection caused me to step back and better articulate what the whole progression of workshops is leading us to. It is not just the thinking about, approach to, and handling of evidence like an historian, but it is also about interrogating that evidence and using it to build effective theses. I don’t think I have expressed this unifying theme enough to this class, thus the workshops may seem a bit pointless.
So the weekly summary I sent out included a reiteration that: a good reading of the sources leads to good questions that respect both the possibilities and the constraints of the evidence. (That’s workshop 1.) That leads to deeper questions about what the evidence can tell us, prompted by searching it for internal agreements and disagreements. (That’s workshop 2.) Then, we really get into interrogation of the sources by fully assessing their interpretive value, leading us to start building good arguments and answers. (That’s workshop 3). Finally, next week, we begin to formulate actual conclusions.
The discussion forums are producing interesting, and potentially troubling, results. For the forums they are assigned secondary reading on the larger context surrounding the primary documents, prompted to think broadly about the topic, and produce a sustained discussion or argument. Students are expected to take lessons in historical discipline from the workshop and practice them in the forums. They aren’t exactly doing so. To be fair, many—if not a majority—are blandly rehashing common themes from their workshops and from the secondary sources. (I need to stop expecting historical brilliance from one-time, involuntary, history consumers.) Many others, in the forums, drop the disciplined formality of the workshop—at least this week—to again identify with the sources and adopt them uncritically as avatars of their own views of American society today. In short, they repeated the Fundamentalist writers’ view that science and socialism are causing American culture to decline. Can you guess what particular subset is prone to doing that? To that end, they were particularly enamored of the cartoon posted above, and I suppose that they think it could be published in any newspaper today.
So, does this mean that these methods are not working? They learn these historical thinking skills, and then turn around and do not use them. My spidey-sense is not serving me well here. I am not certain what to think at this point, and so will do the unusual thing and refrain from jumping to hasty conclusions.
Next week: Totalitarians!
This winter session class is my first experience with teaching Lendol Calder’s “cognitive moves” and, frankly, I don’t know how the students are getting along, but I am learning a lot. This week’s assignment submissions will be critical in assessing how its all working, but I’ve already started to get a sense of what is going on.
The cognitive moves exercises are revealing to me a great deal about students, how they think about history, and that thinking’s place in their historical education. Let me try to lay it outI have paid close attention to the default ways students approach the past (through primary documents.) So far, there are two main things (more may develop in the last three weeks of class.)
- Students, naturally, will want to identify with an historical actor or event. They will immediately assume that their task is to agree, or disagree, with a claim made by an historical actor, and then apply that claim to examples in their own lives.
- Students, naturally, will want to explain historical events with simple moral judgments. People did things because of greed, stupidity, or virtue. I believe this is because the natural inclination to understand history primarily as the source of moral lessons in the form of stories.
Taken together, these tendencies reflect Sam Wineburg’s assertion that historical thinking “is neither a natural process nor something that springs automatically from psychological development.” “Its achievement,” Wineburg continues, “actually goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think, one of the reasons why it is much easier to learn names, dates, and stories than it is to change the basic mental structures we use to grasp the meaning of the past.”
As a history teacher, I have to address this “mental structure.” These last few weeks have given me the sense that the students are in an intellectual boot camp. They are learning (I hope) to:
- Detach themselves from personal involvement with the primary sources. Here I use a term not much in fashion among academics—objectivity. This is basic stuff. Students need to realize that to work with historical material they have to keep that stuff at arms-length. That way they can begin the processes of arrangement and description
- Search for complex answers to historical problems. Don’t describe things in terms of man’s venal sins, but respect the complexity and contingency in the unfolding of historical events. (If that sounds like part of the 5 Cs of historical thinking, that’s because it is.)
I don’t know how this will develop in the next few weeks. They might reveal that I am mistaken and they are not getting it at all. But their final assignments might show that this is a smashing success. I want to speculate as if it worked and I want to figure ways to integrate it into a larger history program.
The first question is… should students go through this historical thinking boot camp (I hate that term, by the way, but it works for the moment) before they encounter full-out survey or narrative history in class? I think, at this point, that if you throw a student into an upper level class with them thinking that they’ve got to identify with sources or explain actions as simple moral tales, we have missed something. I have seen this in past classes, as students at the 300-level still don’t quite know what it means to research and interpret a topic for a paper, or at least handle the evidence necessary to produce a quality research paper.
I would structure the history curriculum in such a way that history majors get all this in their very first class. That’s easy. The problem is that most of our students are not history majors and they only take a history class to check off a humanities or global studies requirement. These later students don’t start at the beginning, but parachute into any number of survey or upper level classes. They’re not going to get this foundational instruction. Can I give the first two or three weeks of any class in a semester over to introduction and rehearsal of these skills? I might like that idea.
Anyhow, I need to figure out how this all fits together because I’ve got to keep up with Lendol Calder and next figure out how to re-introduce narrative back into the history classroom.
I have been busy at #AHA2014 this week and the students did quite well on their assignments, so I have very little to talk about this time.
On the assignments they were to repeat the question exercise from last week and then find connections between documents. They largely did this, though the connections tended to be vague or simple.
In the discussion forums, I had prompted them to think broadly about the struggle for Arab independence after World War I, especially in the context of floundering empires. They largely wanted to express their conclusions from reading the primary documents (good!) even though I had wanted them to place those documents in the context of the lecture and supplementary readings, which they did not do (bad!)
Their consensus was broadly that the Arabs made a stupid mistake by turning to the British for assistance and the British were too greedy and duplicitous in their dealings with the Arabs. So I produced another mini-lecture about the inadequacy and unfairness of attributing to large historical events the causal factors of human sin like greed and stupidity. I encouraged them to review the “5 c’s” and consider how the events might be explained when considering complexity, change, causality, contingency, and context…all within the limits of the evidence we have at hand.
We’ll see how it goes next week. We’re doing the fundamentalist/modernist debate of the 1920s.