Considering World History

Is it more important for students to know the facts and themes of the world’s separate national histories, or to learn the more global commonalities among peoples?

Image by Oberholster Venita from Pixabay

When I was hired at the college over thirty years ago, the problem was simple: world history wasn’t about the world. It was designed as a “West and the Rest” course, and it was my job to teach it. Even though my training was in European and American history, I knew this was wrong. So I got heavy into curriculum development, established the North County Global History Project, and brought together as many practitioners of world history as I could to learn how to globalize the course.

We did well, although there were few textbooks to support the approach, because we happened to be at the epicenter of global history. The leaders were scholars like L. S. Stavrianos at UC San Diego and Ross Dunn of San Diego State University (who spoke at one of our conferences).

The central difficulty is that it is impossible to “cover” the history of whole world in one year (to 1500 in the first semester, then 1500-present). It’s too big. So historians, scholars, and teachers developed different frameworks to teach it. Most tried to retain some sort of chronological structure, although a few were thematic. Ross Dunn’s World History for Us All project remains a great example of how to expand eras of time so they become more thematic.

But by then it didn’t matter much to me, because I had hired world historians (good ones, who understood global history) to teach the course, and I went back to doing European and American history, including History of England and History of Technology. My efforts turned toward online teaching instead over the last two decades. But now, with enrollment declining, History of England and History of Technology no longer draw enough students. So I’m designing courses in World History.

I wish I could say redesigning, but the way I was teaching it before isn’t how I want to teach it now.

I wanted the setup to be similar to my other online classes, which all have readings, a discussion of primary documents using social annotation, lecture notes or quizzes to check comprehension, student collection of primary sources, and writing assignments based on those sources. But it became clear early on that this wasn’t a good idea.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

This is because the textbooks (both traditional and open) still try to hang onto regional and national narratives, meaning you get a “touch down” version of history, where you first touch down in Europe, then China, then India, etc. The book may be really good at making connections among societies, but the fact is that if this week your chapter is on India, and next week on China, you’re not going to get those connections.

So I designed a Discussion Board to bring together larger themes. It takes a bit for students to get used to it, since I’ve asked them to consider events and people from the textbooks as examples of certain thematic dichotomies, or concept sets, that I’ve created. Their job is to choose one side and present an example, then present a counter-example for something a colleague posts. The concept sets are:

  • individual achievement / community values
  • environmental degradation / respecting the environment
  • justifications for war / actions toward peace
  • expansion of trade / emphasis on local needs
  • racial distinctions / promotion of diversity
  • technological change / traditional technologies
  • political power / political opposition
  • short-term goals / thinking of the future
  • secularism / spirituality
  • search for knowledge / acceptance of limited understanding
  • creativity / suppression of creativity
  • outsider being accepted / insider being rejected

I am doing this instead of what I usually do: provide primary source documents for each chapter and have students comment on them in Perusall. I intended to do that at first, setting up documents, this one from Meiji Japan, this one from the English Civil War, this one from Qing China. But then I realized that undermines what I find important about teaching world history.

Providing such sources encourages a focus on detail in an individual country or culture, but does nothing to emphasize the commonalities among all humans. Our view of the world needs to get bigger, not smaller, and the less time students spend on their schoolwork the more we have to be efficient about our goals. In a time of increasing divisiveness, emphasizing our common humanity is more important. And since I believe taht global understanding is furthered by working on what we have in common rather than trying to accept our differences, my pedagogy should reflect that.


The centrality of the textbook

It is an axiom frequently ignored that any technology has to have a reason to exist in a class. The textbook is a technology. If one were to actually read it, that would be a huge investment of time in an era where attention is continually diverted. A chosen technology is either central to learning or it shouldn’t be there at all.

Students, understandably, won’t read the textbook without stakes (a quiz, a paper). Increasingly, many students cannot sustain the attention and access the vocabulary skills required to read one.

As a result, publishers and professors have developed ways to force students to read the textbook. Publisher’s courses read the book aloud to the student, provide embedded quizzes and pop-up vocabulary as they go, and assess performance before pushing the grades into the Learning Management System. Annotation systems like Perusall make it possible for students to annotate a textbook together. These approaches are far too much if we only want the textbook as background.

I confess that I’ve edited several textbooks of my own that I use in my classes. These are classes where I have substantial lecture material, so the book is context. For the first two years of the pandemic, I made reading them optional and eliminated book quizzes, but now that students are more accustomed to online learning, I’m bringing them back, with some regret.

             my new OER textbook

This regret is coloring my view as I design two “new” World History classes (I’ve only taught them in the classroom and that was many years ago). For the first, I’ve spend the last several months with the Cengage textbook I’ve chosen, and made it central to the short recorded lectures. In these lectures I explain the chapter, note its strengths and weaknesses, clarify points. The lecture itself is quizzed internally, using the quiz function in Canvas Studio. Class starts in a little over a week. I hope it works, but either way I’ve made the book central to the class.

Now I think about the other half of the course. For this one, world history to 1500, I have found an Open Educational Resource, a free textbook. Of course, it’s only free in its electronic form. So I’m thinking how to use it, since it must be central. I have no lectures prepared for the class, and am not sure I want them.

So, a new idea. Since it’s free and electronic, I could put it inside Perusall, the social annotation program. But instead of expecting students to annotate, or requiring that they do it (as I do with primary sources), perhaps I’ll put in the annotations little videos of me, glossing the text myself that way. Perhaps I’ll ask questions, invite participation, and grade it in Perusall.

In the old days we turned up our noses at “teaching from the textbook”, ridiculing those who tied their lectures to it. Perhaps we felt that we could leave students alone with the textbook, and they’d read and understand it. I doubt this was ever true, but in a world where we can chose to eschew the textbook entirely, create ungrading schemes, and have at our fingertips more resources to share than ever before, we should consider the textbook differently.

Building a better syllabus in Canvas

While I haven’t written a post on Canvas in awhile, I’ve been invited to co-host a workshop on creating an equity-based syllabus that can be accessed from outside the learning management system. Doing this makes sense for all sorts of reasons:

  • Students who are curious but not yet enrolled can see what the class entails
  • If there’s a lag time between enrollment and being able to log in to the LMS (at our college it can be overnight), there’s something to point new students to
  • The syllabus can be shared with colleagues
  • The syllabus can be livened up and used for other purposes: introduction, sending a friendly greeting, etc.

The original idea for the workshop was to use Google Sites to create the external syllabus. It’s easy to use and lets you embed video, plus it creates a phone-friendly page. But I’ve been creating my syllabuses (yes, it’s Greek, not Latin) for years in Google Docs, which I can then embed on the Syllabus page in Canvas. That way, whenever I make a change on the Google Doc, it shows also in Canvas.

Unfortunately, Google doesn’t make doing these things easy. Google Sites cannot be embedded in Canvas. And Google Docs doesn’t let you embed video.

But the Syllabus page in Canvas itself is just a web page, and there is a way to make it visible without logging in to Canvas. It allows video to be recorded right on the toolbar, text to be formatted, links to be added, etc.

But the trick is in Canvas settings:

If you set the visibility to Course (or Institution), you can still use Customize to make the Syllabus page public. Then if you give students the Syllabus page URL, they can see the page even if they’re not logged in to Canvas.

The only caveat is that the class must be Published. But even if you set the class so that students can’t see the rest of the pages before the start date, this works: the Syllabus page is visible from outside.

A couple of hints:

  • On the Canvas Syllabus page, uncheck the “Show Course Summary” box. The course summary adds a huge list of every assignment in your class, when they already have that in the To Do list, and makes your syllabus huge, so get rid of it.
  • Use a shortening service, like, to make your syllabus link smaller. Instead of, you could share the link

Copying and pasting syllabus text (don’t make it too long — no one will read it, and you can have a separate Information page or a FAQ instead inside the class), then adding a recorded friendly greeting, takes very little time. Making things better doesn’t have to be hard.

Rigor or workload?

It appears as though next summer, our 8-week classes will all be offered in a 6-week format. I am in favor of this. At first this seems like a good idea: students finish faster, faculty are done sooner (avoiding the problem of immediately starting fall afterword). Until one thinks about rigor.

Rigor is a word frequently argued about in academia but rarely defined. It has something to do with the academic integrity of a course. If, for example, it is a college class but one assigned a third-grade textbook, there would be a problem with rigor. Our course approval process requires a list of possible textbooks and possible assignments, ostensibly to ensure appropriate rigor.

Years ago, our historians were asked to offer 4-week intersession classes in winter, and we said no. Our senior historian at the time went in with the dean to argue that rigor could not be maintained. Our classes, as approved for transfer to university, were 16 weeks long. We could not maintain standards, particularly with students rushing through reading and writing at 4 times the speed. It’s a community college. Some students had trouble reading college-level work. Forcing them to do it faster would be disastrous for their success and our teaching. We won the argument, because at the time there seemed to be a general understanding that History requires extensive reading and writing, and by extension considerable thought. This requires more time.

As time has passed, however, the expectations for the level of student achievement have changed. The emphasis on “student success” has led not only to a natural and predictable inflation of grades, but a much broader acceptance of less rigor. The available textbooks for a college course are written at a much lower level, and have many needlessly large illustrative images and lots of white space. Courses are approved for General Education transfer that are more “fun” and have significantly lower expectations of learning ability. The push for what is called “equity” has led to an utter rejection of everything from the Western canon to any novel written by a white male, with the result that many longer works with universal themes are no longer considered appropriate for assignment.

So in a sense all rigor, in the sense of expectations of the level of the work completed, has declined. But rigor is not necessarily workload. When I was at university, lower-division courses required a full textbook, and several ancillary texts. When I was a teaching assistant at the University of California, Santa Barbara, only one ancillary text was required, but it was an extensive secondary book. Students chose the shortest one, of course. All the same, the workload (number of pages to read, number of papers to write, length of those papers) was significantly higher.

If rigor is being decreased, but achievement in the discipline continues to be expected, then workload should increase. If the level of what one is being given, and is expected to perform, is lower, then increased quantity would provide more opportunities for practice. Increasing workload thus implies a dedication to higher rigor, even if the standard is not obtained.

But we must also consider the contemporary dedication to the affective well-being of the student. This dovetails with the culture at large. It is accepted that people who are distressed cannot study well. Mental illness, overloaded schedules, job and family demands are seen as reasonable justifications for being unable to perform what could have been considered university-level work a generation ago. Before, they would have been encouraged to leave university and find a job for which they were suitable. Now they are held onto like precious gems, who without university have no chance in life. It’s our fault, not theirs, if they don’t succeed.

The university transfer approval process requires that community college rigor matches that of university. This has not been a major issue. University rigor has also declined. No one checks very carefully, anyway. But approval also requires that the same rigor and workload approved at the course level apply to every class section that is offered. So if I offer a 16-week class that normally required a full textbook, five primary source readings each week, and two assignments per week, the expectation is that this will be compressed but identical in shorter-term formats.

While this may seem to be a way to maintain rigor while increasing workload in the short term, it doesn’t actually work that way. I have adapted several of my classes to the 8-week (double-speed) format already for summer classes, and to provide a “back-to-back” single semester option to complete a two-course sequence. Enrollment in these is excellent — students do indeed appreciate completing the course faster, and they drop less often. I have long felt that 16 weeks is too long anyway. But I do not demand exactly the same number of assignments for my 16-week students. The primary source boards dropped from 16 to 8 to keep their focus on the weekly unit. Everything else, however, I simply doubled up: textbook readings are two chapters a week, primary sources are ten instead of five.

Six weeks presents a slightly different challenge. I cannot simply eliminate the Age of Discovery, or the American Empire. These are required to be “covered” to be approved for university transfer. Thus the workload must increase. I suspect that the transition from eight weeks to six may be a tipping point for rigor and workload.

What happens when one increases the workload beyond the expectations and desires of the students? First, they just don’t do it. They simply won’t be exposed to the facts, interpretations or ideas. They’ll skip the Age of Discovery. Second, they will not enroll in the first place, or drop the class in favor of classes with lighter workloads. Our History department has seen a consistent slide in enrollments over the last few years. While we know that this is partly because the national reputation for disciplines like History is on the decline (as it is for intellectualism in general), there is also a greater dedication to rigor in our discipline, a dedication often misinterpreted as “white” and elitist. (In truth, historiography has been foregrounded the agency and obstacles for people challenged by mainstream culture since the 1940s.) The college now offers far easier course in “culture” that count for the same requirement, and thus compete directly for enrollment.

Simply compressing my 8-week classes into 6 weeks, I fear, won’t work. The workload will be well beyond the expectations of students, and they will leave, drop or fail. While failing used to be acceptable, we are now expected to prevent this at all costs. So some tasks need to be removed. It cannot be topics or “coverage”, so it must be reading, assessment, and writing. I am leaning toward removing the textbook reading, because it could be considered “boring”, they have more difficulty reading, and the facts are not as important as them “doing history” (my lectures may have all the facts they need). Removing textbook reading also reduces the number of quiz questions, or perhaps eliminates the quizzes themselves. The writing assignments should be given a few days without anything else due, so they focus on them — those I am unwilling to change, but I want to provide them with space and time.

The grading weights would change accordingly, so that each of the remaining tasks would be worth substantially more. That is unfortunate, because my usual method is to have many little assignments, so that no one assignment is worth a lot. That way students can learn, practice, improve. So in addition to impacting rigor and workload, my pedagogy will also be affected. I do not, however, see another way.

A free textbook experiment

For some time, I have been creating free textbooks for students. In my online classes, these take the form of a pdf file, containing edited selections from Wikipedia followed by my own edited selection of primary sources.

In online classes, students rarely print the book, although they are invited to if they wish. In on-site classes, printing is an issue. We reference the book frequently in class, and they read aloud from documents. The continual searching required by an e-book or online version wastes a lot of time compared to “see page 76”.

Few students want to print the textbook on their printer or use the library printer, because it’s about 170 sides of print. Since they do not understand the printer interface on computers, when they do obediently print the book themselves it comes out as 170 single-sided pages on 8.5 x 11 paper (that’s about A4 size). So over the past few years I’ve tried various things. The most successful has been having them bring the file to Staples or Office Depot with syllabus instructions of what to ask for.

When students asked why they must go to all this trouble, I explained. I could have the books printed by the on-campus bookstore. This is actually a corporate conglomerate, Follett, which in addition to enforcing copyright clearance that violates the TEACH Act, insists on marking the book up 26%. When I complained to Follett that I wrote it, they only printed it, and 26% was excessive, I was told that I can ask to receive my own percentage in royalties added into the price. They couldn’t see this made the problem worse, not better. Students nodded appreciatively when they understood I was trying to save them money. Then half got the book printed the first week, a quarter in the first few weeks after being reminded, and a quarter not at all.

Our college has promoted Open Educational Resources for some time. There is even a state-wide grant that faculty can get to adopt them. People like me should get these grants, but can’t for two reasons. First, the grants are for adopting OERs, not creating them. This is despite the fact that it takes over a hundred hours to create a resource, and about six to select one from the very few on offer. Second, the grants are only available to those who can demonstrate a savings over the previous semester, meaning those of us who have been offering free textbooks for years aren’t eligible.

So last term, given all these limitations and the execrable quality of open access textbooks in History, I asked the department for some printing funds. Since I teach so many classes online, I do not use much printing money each term. With this money I was able to have printed enough textbooks for the whole class (much easier in a time of declining enrollments). I did it half size and spiral bound, making a rather attractive if thick booklet.

(The “15th edition” gives you an idea of how long I’ve been creating these.)

I handed them out the second day of class, and told them to feel free to highlight or write in them. I told them what I had done and why, and that essentially these were paid for by taxpayer dollars. When I handed them out, they accepted them in an entirely different way than a handout or assignment. Each student took the booklet from me carefully, placing it on their desk. Some squared the corners with the desk. They turned the pages somewhat gingerly.

This pattern, of treating the book as a gift rather than a task continued through the semester. It was rather as if I’d given them their own chemistry set. After 12 weeks, I noticed that many of the booklets were still in mint condition.

Now we know that students don’t tend to highlight and take notes in their books anymore, unless it’s part of a specific assignment or one makes a point of insisting on it. At the end of the term, only two or three had been marked in. The rest looked perfect. None were grubby or torn. So I asked if anyone might be willing to turn in their book to pass on to the next group of students. Over half did so.

Although it may have been just a very considerate class of students, I’d like to think there’s something else at work here. I had been concerned about doing this because I thought the book would be devalued, since they hadn’t paid for it. But the opposite happened. Giving them the book seemed to tap into the affective domain. They cared that I gave it to them. They seemed to see it as a sign of me caring about them. And they cared for the object. The attitude was such that if there was no department money, I might well pay for doing it myself. I’m certainly going to do it again this term.



Prepping adventures: the big questions

To the dismay of some of my colleagues, and the delight of others (and the total incomprehension of most), I am continually preparing the next class. So, even though it’s June and I’m teaching three classes that started last week, I am thinking seriously about Fall.

Fall for us begins in August, so it’s not that quirky. And next term, for the first time, I will have an intern. The SDICCA program in San Diego County, in association with San Diego State University, matches Masters students with community college professors*. The intern will work closely with me the entire year, attending my classes and campus meetings, and learning from me as his mentor.

This requires a certain meta approach from me as I design and teach my classes, particularly the on-site classes. This opportunity was one of the reasons I wanted to be a mentor. While my ego does not require a minion to learn things “my way” (on the contrary), I do require that things change up a bit to keep me on my toes. The necessity to explain why I do what I do, and to change things in response to someone else’s thinking, is a boon. Although I do change things in response to students all the time, the power relationship there is quite different than that between mentor/intern, particularly as I intend to make clear I hope to learn as much from him as he does from me.

But one thing I must “teach” is class discussion, my bugaboo. I have only one class where I really do it, my early American history online. At the beginning of the week, I post a 5-minute video from a series that considers “both sides” of an issue, and ends with a question (for example, “Was the Constitution a democratic document?”). The first few days of the week, I allow students to respond with their ill-informed opinions, vent, argue, etc. Then mid-week I summarize their contributions and reframe them, asking new questions based on their input that nevertheless point them toward deeper, thematic issues that connect to the assigned documents. It works well for them, but requires a lot of work from me: it is very much instructor-guided.

Although I have done this also in a classroom setting (using video clips from controversial issues in the news), I feel that these days some larger, philosophical issues should be considered. I do not want to simply increase polarized views by encouraging evidence-based arguments. My goal for teaching has always been to train a person see the news of the day and connect it to similar “news” from the past, to put today’s events into perspective. That’s what history is — context. THE context. It’s the way we know what the present might mean.

When I didn’t know that my modern European History class would be cancelled last spring, I prepared a list of such questions, one per week. I wasn’t exactly sure what I would do with them, and I never got to find out. (Don’t get me started on how students are being told by equity-minded individuals to avoid European history, and how they are avoiding classes that require deep thought so they can more easily achieve “academic success”.)

I tied each question to that week’s area of coverage:

  • 1 Story So Far
  • 2 17th c Politics and Culture
    Should only people who own homes vote? -or-
    At what point should society’s leaders no longer be allowed to lead?
  • 3 Science and Enlightenment
    How important is reason as opposed to emotion?
  • 4 Enlightenment Economy and Society
    How should a country’s economy be regulated, if at all?
  • 5 Political Revolution
    Is there a point where the people can get too much power?
  • 6 Industrial Revolution
    Should we help workers who don’t make enough to live on? how?
  • 7 Socialist and Romantic Response
    How do ethics come into politics?
  • 8 19th century society
    How important is it that people have definite roles in society?
  • 9 Nationalism and Imperialism
    Does nationalism necessarily lead to treating others poorly?
  • 10 Great War and Russian Revolution
    Does war settle disputes?
  • 11 The Interwar Years
    How can fiction help us understand the present?
  • 12 World War II
    Why do people become followers?
  • 13 The Cold War
    How does one find ones place in society?
  • 14 Social Revolution
    How can literature guide people’s views?
  • 15 The Contemporary West
    What issues or values should transcend politics?

So now, keeping in mind the need to connect their own opinions to the topic, I’m starting here for modern American history:

  • 1 US to 1865
    Why study American history?
  • 2 Reconstruction
    What might have been a better plan for Reconstruction, and what would have made it difficult?
  • 3 The West
    What happens when we see people from the past as victims as opposed to people with agency?
  • 4 Incorporation and Immigration
    How do immigrants become part of the American story?
  • 5 Empire
    Does America still have an empire?
  • 6 Progressivism
    What should be the government’s role when capitalism causes problems?
  • 7 The Great War
    How should Americans who oppose war be treated?
  • 8 The 1920s
    In what sense is progressive thinking countered by traditional thinking?
  • 9 The Depression
    What is the government’s role in alleviating suffering?
  • 10 WWII
    How should the U.S. respond to authoritarianism around the world?
  • 11 Post-war and Cold War Politics
    In what sense do fear and restrictions of civil liberties go together?
  • 12 The Fifties (culture)
    Why is celebrity culture so influential?
  • 13 War and Activism
    When a college tries to make its curriculum “relevant”, what does that mean?
  • 14 Inclusion and Exclusion
    Which is more important to social justice, the laws or the courts?
  • 15 New Millenium
    What have been the impacts of the internet?
  • 16 Contemporary US
    What is the role of the idea of “privilege” in contemporary discourse?

I am not sure that these are the exact questions, or how I want to use them in class, but it’s a start to think bigger.


*It’s interesting. We are called “professors” in the press and in the commencement program, but when I asked for this designation on my college business card, I was told no. We don’t even get “instructor” anymore, only “faculty”.

The refusal of the gatekeeper

It’s nearing the end of the semester, so like all professors I start getting the pleading emails. Students who have not submitted work want to know if there’s extra credit. Students who had a crisis in the middle of the semester and said nothing then now want consideration. So many family responsibilities, funerals, justifications…

It’s an open secret that I’m actually a very nice person — I deliberately come off as being no-nonsense, no exceptions. But I do assist students as individuals, as anyone knows who reads this blog (and as any crisis-prone student of mine knows).

This semester I had one of those students, writing me last week to say he’s lost his home and has been living rough and just got a sofa at a friend’s place, and he’d missed all that work, and if he doesn’t get a C he’ll lose his financial aid for summer and have to drop out of college.

Now the one thing I really hate about this job is the idea that I’m supposed to adjudicate crises. I’m expected to somehow weigh, like a professorial Solomon, dead aunts and foreclosures and parental neglect and (increasingly) emotional problems complicated by (or being treated with) various pharmaceuticals. I have neither the training nor the interest to judge people’s lives. I only judge their work.

So even though I’ve been doing this for thirty years, a request like this one can still throw me. I happened to be in a meeting with an education professional a few days ago, so I asked what he would do. He gave me the party line: it was on the syllabus, it wouldn’t be fair to others to make an exception, I’m sorry but the answer is no.

Keeping in mind that as a Teaching Assistant back in the 80s I got both the Cream Puff Award (for cushiest grader) and the Iron Balls Award (for harshest grader) in the same year, I know that student success is up to them, not me. But I don’t like being what one colleague called “gatekeeper”, the troll guarding the path with gates made of rules. So before the pro had done speaking, I knew I wasn’t going to follow his advice.

The student had missed the document annotation for 12 weeks. These are the Perusall assignments, where I don’t allow late work because we’ve moved on to the next unit. It would have been a royal pain to both reopen all these assignments for him, and to go back to each one and grade them. So instead, for 90% of the points available in that category, I made sure he was stable on that sofa with an internet connection (he said yes) and offered to have him turn in the answers to all the questions he’d missed on all the documents he’d missed for all the weeks he’d missed. I gave him five days.

It came out to eight pages, but I could scroll and write comments in SpeedGrader at the same time, checking everything at once and assigning points. He had told me he had done the reading, just hadn’t posted, and his work showed that was true. I assigned a grade, and it looks like he’ll get that C if he does the last couple of weeks of regular work, and does it well.

Because really, the point is learning. The rules are there to make it possible to grade the work of 40 students per class, about 30 of whom are underprepared for the work, without a T.A., while giving meaningful feedback and opportunities to practice historical skills. His work showed his learning – does it really matter that he did that at the end?

I don’t know. And maybe I was wrong. But I don’t think so.

CE History

I’ve spent the morning following references related to the Rebel Wisdom Summit, posted by Jenny Mackness, exploring the war between what’s being called the “authoritarian left” and “safe conversations” about racism and equity (rather than invoking them as weapons). I’ve been learning about Ian McGilchrist’s update on the bicameral mind in a pleasing RSA format, the case of Brett Weinstein and Heather Heyling at Evergreen College, the issues surrounding their pedagogy, Jordan Greenhall’s Medium article from 2017, and Heyling’s own post on Grievance Studies. All together, quite an education for a morning when I’m supposed to be marking papers and reading discussion posts!

But the notes I took weren’t directly about any of them. I began to think (as I am wont to do): “all of this has a history — I wonder what would happen if we studied it”. It seemed to me it would be interesting for all parties to step back and examine in historical perspective the issues they were fighting about in real-time. Because that’s what’s missing, of course — perspective.

I am teaching an on-site modern US History class in Fall, and if I’m lucky I’ll have an intern. This will be a new experience, teaching someone to teach while I’m teaching. I expect it to be quite wonderful, and educational (especially for me). I naturally feel a responsibility to improve my ability to articulate my pedagogy. At the same time, I’m hoping to do some workshops on equity and history in my department. Combining that with all this “rebel wisdom”, what I began to do is map out class potentials.

                                                                                      From Historical Association

At first I thought, I’ll gather resources appropriate to demonstrating the national social conversation from 1865 to the present: what the issues are, what arguments were used, where violence ensued and why, etc. Then I realized, of course, I already have this, in my set of primary sources (mentioned in my analysis of the “new agenda”). So it becomes a matter of reframing, of making the resources a conscious set, rather than a collection students later realize were “activist”.

For now I’m calling this Conscious Equity, an effort to showcase the discipline of History, privileging the underprivileged not just because that’s what we do,  but saying that we’re doing it. Whatever rules the “authoritarian left” wants to make to control the conversation, it must still take place, in classrooms and in a spirit of inquiry rather than fear and personal emotion. We still set the tone in our classroom. We can try to establish an environment that demonstrates the peaceful sharing of ideas, concern for each other’s learning and the opening of minds, and privileges modernist scientific rationality as a method for developing individual interpretations. Every historical document is a fact, and we can use the advantage of time to step back and use perspective as a tool.

So onward to read some research and develop some methods for Conscious Equity as a tool for US History.



The new “work ethic”

“And,” said my coffee partner, who had not actually ordered any coffee, “another problem is the work ethic.”

“What do you mean?” I said, sipping my rooibos.

“They just don’t work that hard.”

Over the course of the conversation, we combined our collective experience with our newer colleagues, and our students, with recent discussions of the work ethic of Millennials, and other more recent generations.

As a historian, I am very wary of even naming “generations”, much less ascribing to them similar goals and values. But in testing any theoretical construct, it is tempting to “try it on for size”, and see if it fits ones anecdotal evidence. Then, of course, one can blog about it.

First, the faculty. Groups who worked hard for faculty primacy over curriculum, scheduling, and working conditions are seeing their achievements die. More and more control of the college classroom is being handed over to administrators because faculty are too distracted by social issues and their own agendas (personal and global) to defend them. I assumed this was because those achievements were being taken for granted, in the same way that feminist gains are going backward. I confess it didn’t occur to me that many faculty don’t care or consider them unimportant. Indeed, some want administrators to take over the curriculum, because they have other priorities.

The fact that some of these priorities are socially nationalistic (the agenda-bearers discussed in my last post) and some are personal (quality time with friends and family) doesn’t seem to matter. If one considers the “work ethic” to have declined in favor of such priorities, then I can see the point of those worried about hard-earned rights and slides in productivity.

Then, the students. Faculty have been complaining that students don’t work hard enough for so long, I expect that if Socrates had liked writing, he would have written something about it. So I don’t take that complaint very seriously. But, anecdotally, I have noticed that the reasons my students give for not doing their work has shifted. It may be because something serious happened (illness, family responsibilities), but I’m seeing more of the “I just didn’t get around to it” and “I had to do something else” and “I have family in town” reasons, despite my generous late policies and extensions. I trust students. I never ask for doctors’ notes or that sort of thing to “prove” they couldn’t do something. So they’re pretty open with me and I know what they’re up to.

Curious, I went into the document discussion in one of my online classes (Engels and some child labor testimony from Victorian England) and asked what students thought of this idea. Did they think they had a declining work ethic? Two of them replied, one a part-time clerk and the other a warehouse worker. The clerk said she was tired of her bosses expecting her to work so hard and not have enough breaks, calling it “workaholic culture”. The warehouse worker said that he used to think that if he worked hard, rewards would come, but all that came was physical pain. If he works less hard, he gets the same amount of money for less pain. No rewards have ever come, so his priorities have shifted from work to his friends and family.

It would be too easy to say, yeah, but that’s working in a store or a warehouse. If these two had more meaningful work, maybe they’d see it differently. I don’t think so. I had a student once who didn’t do well in class. He came to my office to beg that I pass him through, because his mother was forcing him to go to college. As we talked, I discovered he worked in a warehouse and absolutely loved it. He had all these ideas for how to organize it better, do things more efficiently. Left to his own devices, he would have become a manager, maybe even a business owner, and been perfectly happy. But his mother insisted he had to go to college to have a future.

It’s not the type of work.

So just for the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s true: our students have a less-strenuous work ethic. They’re not going to put the hours in. What does that mean for pedagogy?

Some of it has already had an impact, but we’ve blamed shorter “attention spans” and the “hyperlinked mind”. Google has made us stupid, we’ve been sucked into our screens, the internet ate our brains. It’s true to an extent (you can read any of my posts here from 2012 or so). But what if the digital dog didn’t eat our homework — instead we decided to go walk the real dog?

From the Sadler Report (1832):

State the conditions of the children toward the latter part of the day, who have thus to keep up with the machinery. — It is as much as they can do when they are not very much fatigued to keep up with their work, and toward the close of the day, when they come to be more fatigued, they cannot keep up with it very well, and the consequence is that they are beaten to spur them on.

Were you beaten under those circumstances? — Yes.

Frequently? — Very frequently.

And principally at the latter end of the day? — Yes.

And is it your belief that if you had not been so beaten, you should not have got through the work? — I should not if I had not been kept up to it by some means.

Taking a college class is intellectual work, assigned through various tasks that together (if the class is well-designed) help engender mental habits useful for all intellectual work. So we’re assigning work to teach how to work. There are a couple of rewards. One might be a degree and a good job, which is what many students focus on (and have done for centuries). This reward has to wait till you graduate. The other is the joy of the work of learning, which is more immediate, but I’m not sure can really be taught. And we certainly don’t want to beat people to get them to do the work.

The solution for student “success” has been to make it all easier, less work. We have pathways to a degree that have fewer classes (less work). We have course material “chunked” into smaller pieces (less work). We have blog posts or mini-theses instead of 20-page research papers, excerpts instead of novels, brief textbooks. We become concerned for their personal life, their challenges at home, their disadvantages. We make accommodations, so the work is easier. If we demand more work, they go take other classes instead (it’s easier to find which ones are easier).

I don’t think it’s necessarily bad if the work ethic has declined. Everyone knows that U.S. workers get fewer time-based benefits than other workers. We have long work days, long school days, shorter vacations. If the younger folks are turning this around, placing higher value on friends and family, I like the idea. I just can’t figure out how to teach to it while being loyal to my discipline and the rigor of a college education. So now that’s my work.

The new agenda — isn’t

Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners, 1857

The new agenda, offered through workshops and eventually (I’m quite sure) to be required at “cultural competency” training, seems quite new. It isn’t new, of course, as any historian knows. The vocabulary has changed. We now talk of equity, cultural awareness, and social justice, instead of equality, multiculturalism, and civil rights. But many of us have been on a mission to tell the stories of all, especially those whose voices weren’t heard, for a very long time.

Even before the critiques and student activism of the 1960s, when a “relevant” curriculum was demanded, there has been a desire to have the curriculum reflect the interests, contributions, and stories of non-elites. What we have called these groups varies: disenfranchised, minority, ethnic, immigrant, underserved, disadvantaged — all these point to those who had little power under the dominant or mainstream system.

The approach to history has been to gather as many voices as possible, and to share perspectives of different groups. Those of us who read Howard Zinn, or studied Marxist historians, were tuned in early in our careers to the non-elite views, and the ways in which such people were taken advantage of and deliberately excluded from the rest of “western” and American history. Social history, which looked closely at the lives of those who weren’t elite, didn’t write, or left little behind but the fruits of their labor, began as a formal sub-discipline in the 1940s. Textbooks have taken account of non-elites for some time.

Eyre Crowe, Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia, 1861.

By criticizing the actions of our nations (or even the idea of nation itself), and critiquing their values, historians could be revolutionary. Anyone with even a smattering of the Hegelian dialectic knows that forces arise, other forces arise to oppose them, and both sides change as a result of the conflict, creating a different force to also be opposed in its turn. In grad school, I studied Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm. Even in the medieval studies program, I was looking at the lives and conflicts of craftsmen and merchants, not the kings and military leaders.

When I first began putting together a primary source book for my American history class in the early 1990s, I didn’t consciously think about creating a particular type of book. I just wanted to assign the documents that I thought were pertinent to studying the modern era of the United States. I’m not sure I could explain why I felt that I didn’t just need Martin Luther King and Gloria Steinem, but also Carey McWilliams and Lois Gibbs.

Teaching one of my early classes, a student asked me on the first day, “what will you do to make this class interesting to me?” And I thought for a moment and said, “it won’t be me — it will be the sources I give you”. He looked doubtful, and on the last day of class he said, “you were right that first day!”  Another student told me my documents workbook was an “activist document”, saying that every primary source I’d assigned was somehow about non-elite people fighting to make the country better, to right its wrongs. I hadn’t realized I’d done that.

Geronimo (Goyaałé), a Bedonkohe Apache; kneeling with rifle, 1887

So now all we have to do is be conscious about it. Those of us doing it for decades need to be aware that the new agenda folks see it differently, as equity instead of equality, and often, as something that can be legislated from the “new” top down (i.e. sensitivity training) rather than something that must, by its very nature, bubble up from the grass roots.

And one way to do that is to respect the traditions of historical scholarship, not fly off into post-modernist revisionism in order to make the narrative fit our views. It has to be the other way around.

Most curricular standards today have at their foundation two things: method and content. Method is the traditional historiographic method, based on the modernist principles of the past being knowable (although never completely knowable) through existing sources and their reinterpretation. Content is the list of “events” and other facts that are forced upon us by those who want us to teach certain “things”.

The way to change the elitist perspective, now as then, is to focus on the examples, the primary sources. There were times when, teaching about abolitionism in antebellum America, the words of William Lloyd Garrison were studied more often than those of Frederick Douglass. That changed because teachers assigned Frederick Douglass as an example of abolitionist thought. Instead of teaching from secondary sources, where educated voices interpreted the lives of the uneducated, one could read the words of ordinary people. Yesterday, for example, I had the pleasure of substituting for a class in European History, and the students had been assigned Roman graffiti from Pompeii, and Tacitus’ Germania. They like the graffiti better, because it was more immediate, it was about ordinary people by those people, rather than an outsider looking at them.

Lois Gibbs at work

Primary sources are so important because interpretations in secondary sources (such as articles and textbooks) can turn all the “disenfranchised” people into one-dimensional victims of the “system”. The difficulty with application of the “systematic racism” viewpoint isn’t the facts (it does exist) but in its misuse, where the interpreter portrays people as powerless, without agency. I have encountered this many times in works on American Indians, where the author is so eager to assuage national guilt that the Indians are portrayed as defenseless, weak, child-like people, lacking agency, philosophy, or any motivation beyond defense.

To recover the stories of the disenfranchised is to recover their entire humanity, what they could and did achieve in spite of systematic attack or neglect. That’s why my workbook is, as my student said, an “activist document”, because understanding the thinking and actions of such people creates a better kind of heroism, as valuable as anything Homer gave us, people to admire and emulate because they got women the vote, or got Love Canal cleaned up.  Ultimately, such heroism made people acknowledge that the “other” was not so other after all.

Dan Wynn, Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman-Hughes, 1971

That’s why it is particularly inappropriate that in some places, history is under attack, and colleges are decreasing the number of history classes needed for a degree. We’re taking away the best tools when people need them most.

So for teachers (instructors, professors) the implementation of the new agenda should not be a call to change our methods, rather (if we are deficient in them) to add more voices. We should ignore those agenda-bearers who claim that history itself is a culprit, a tool for removing agency and equity. Those of us who have worked for decades on these issues, we know the sources are there. Those who haven’t need to assign the voices that let the larger past speak.