This did not go as hoped. The week’s assignments included a workshop on developing good questions and thesis/answers, and a discussion forum post. The workshop assignment required reading seven primary documents related to Japanese modernization between the Meiji and the early 1920s. This assignment is an adaptation of Lendol Calder’s workshop assignment.
They didn’t get it. The students were largely confused about what exactly I wanted them to do. The best I can tell is that they are simply not tasked to do these sorts of things in a history class (and it does add to my reluctant observation that students want to quit and drop as soon as things get challenging.) I had to respond to a number of panicked students that its ok, this is supposed to be hard. Keep at it and it will get easier and you will not fail this class. Still, the questions and theses they developed according to the assignment were rather mediocre. But that’s not the primary trouble I had.
First, I graded down and made comments about their tendency to adopt the voice of the documents in place of their own. They had no idea what I meant and no idea how to overcome this problem. It occurred to me that Calder doesn’t cover this and so I spent extra time this week tutoring on this problem. Goes like this. One document, a 1903 pamphlet by Uchimura Kanzo, says that Japan would fail to achieve national greatness if it only copied western industry and education while failing to embrace western Christianity. The students concluded, then, that Japan failed to achieve national greatness because it only copied western industry and education but failed to embrace Christianity.
Historical thinking is an unnatural act.
I explained that they needed to achieve objective detachment from the documents; that they could begin by not saying “a thing happened,” but “Kanzo claims a thing happened.” Then they were to proceed to saying “Kanzo claims a thing happened but X document says this other thing happened.” Keep doing that and you end up doing basic analysis.
Well, it didn’t take long to see the downside of online learning here. I really need to be in front of the classroom to address these problems as they arise, in extemporaneous fashion, for the group.
The second problem with the assignment, a problem that dripped over into the forum posts, is that the students really connected with the Kanzo document. You might remember the general tenor of my class’ religious convictions from last week, no? Well, Kanzo just confirmed for them the necessity of embracing true Christianity, so that Christian peace and tolerance would prevail in the world. Yes, that is what they took from this reading. This became a problem in the forum post, for which I had them watch a short documentary on the massacre of Koreans after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Now, I admit, my prompt was bad. Very bad. I asked them consider Kanzo’s critique and the critique in another document of Japanese industrialization that Japan’s great leap forward lead to immorality and corruption. Boy, that was a bad prompt.
The near-consensus was that Kanzo was right—Japan was indeed immoral and corrupt, as evidenced by the massacre of Koreans after the earthquake. Many suggested that had Japan embraced Christianity, the massacre would not have happened.
This was a truly despairing moment. I have failed. Failed as a good pedagogist, and failed to put my students in a position to challenge their own comfort zones. Their answers seemed to suggest that they were confirming a smug, parochial, provincial, point of view. This is all wrong. I am very glad that I restrained myself from outrageously crashing into the discussions, pointing out the many ostensibly Christian civilizations then massacring people, like the Belgians in the Congo, the Germans in Namibia, the Americans in Tulsa. After all, my high-minded rhetoric at the beginning of this class included sanctions against using history to score points, and encouragement to use history to reflect, reconsider, and generally be thoughtful.
So I composed the weekend summary email, told them I was disappointed with the tenor of the discussion and that it was all my fault. Then I modeled some historical thinking about how to deal with this consensus about Christianity, Japan, and Kanto. Went like this:
Now, this is a sensitive topic, but here is where the skills of historical thinking can come in handy. First, this is not a referendum or moral judgment on Christianity, Christian cultures, or non-Christian cultures. What we are looking for are historical explanations for certain events. In doing so, we have to approach our sources with the objectivism of an historian, and with an awareness for what those sources can tell and cannot tell us (basically, the assignment goal.) My first inclination is to bring to bear some unpleasant evidence: that western nations with Christian cultures were, at the same time as Kanzo’s criticisms and Kanto’s earthquake, busy massacring people in non-wartime conditions. For instance, the German genocide of the Herero people in Namibia in 1907, the ongoing Belgian disaster in the Congo, or the destruction of African American Tulsa in 1921.
Remember, the idea of bringing these things up isn’t to score points. It is to cause you to stop, reflect, and reconsider Kanzo’s (and your own) claim, or implication, that an embrace of Christianity might have prevented the massacre of Koreans. What happens to your argument if Kanzo is wrong in his claims? How do you change your argument to reflect these nuances?
I went on for a few more paragraphs to poke at some other historical thinking hiccups they had. So I’m hoping that I channeled my despair into, well, a teaching moment. We’ll see what happens.
Next week is assignment two. I think it is a little more straightforward. As for the forum post, I wrote a prompt that encourages them to think broadly about the topic at hand, and steers clear of moral judgments. But we’ll see. We’re talking about partition of Middle East after the Great War. Zionists! Palestinians! This could go just as bad.