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!