I accidentally Godwinned my students

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. 

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