Opening lectures and teaching attention-getters

“Since the beginning of time…”

We’ve all read student papers that begin with this absurd opening. But I’m sympathetic. Writing is hard, and writing a good first sentence is particularly challenging. I wrote a post last year about teaching like we write, recognizing the importance of clear introductions and conclusions in all forms of communication, whether it’s an essay or a lecture. This fall, I’m trying to extend the metaphor and think more critically about how I open class. What does it tell my students about first sentences when I begin class with “Okay, today we are going to…” I mean, it’s clear, but a little dull and didactic, right? Shouldn’t history be more exciting than that?

Toward this end, I’ve taken to writing and delivering short, compelling narrative introductions for each week (it’s not every class, but it’s a step in the right direction). For example, I began a lecture on the Gilded Age with the following little opening:

July 4th, 1892.  Independence Day celebrations draw to a close.  Darkness descends on Pittsburg. A small mercenary army of Pinkertons gathers on the shores of the Monongahela River.  They load their Winchester rifles, draw up a battle plan, and silently slip into specially designed boats to sail to their invasion point.

By 3am, the floating army has been spotted, and riders race through town warning of their advance. Men, women, and children pour out of their homes to defend the Homestead Steel Plant, the source of their livelihood.

Before the Pinkertons can reach the plant, thousands of workers and their families surround the mill, blocking the landing of these invaders. Shots break out, and for over 14 hours the two sides exchange gunfire.

From their steel plated boats, the Pinkertons fire into the crowd. The workers throw dynamite and create bombs of all kinds, including a railway car soaked in gasoline they attempt to ram into the Pinkertons. By 2pm the workers flood the river with oil and try to light it on fire.

By 5pm, the Pinkerton’s have had enough.  Under a white flag, they lay down their arms and surrender.  The workers rejoice.  The mill had been saved and with it their livelihoods preserved, or so they thought. But their success would be short-lived.

This is just but one of the many turn of the century battles between capital and labor, owners and workers, the rich and the poor.  The late nineteenth century brought many of these conflicts, and this week we will explore the tumultuous origins of modern American capitalism.

Narrative is important. It’s one of the great advantages of our discipline. We’ve all had the experiences of being at a dinner party and after explaining what we do having someone gush, “oh I love history!” (usually to be followed by an upsetting anecdote about something seen on the history channel or read in a dubious work of “history”). This does not happen to my colleagues in sociology, art history, or physics. Our discipline is fun, and our lectures should include at least moments of the narrative tension that makes history exciting. Lecturing involves at least a measure of performance. If we are going to lecture, I think we are best off embracing this and work on our performances. Narrative tension can go a long way in this regard and using it as an attention-getter can teach our students to open their papers with a similarly compelling opening.

It takes a little time to write these brief openings, but they offer a fun way for me to begin class, and the students have even come to look forward to them. Maybe most importantly, I’m getting less and less papers that begin with “Since the beginning of time…” or “Many people believe….”

What do you do to teach our students how to write introductions? How do you begin your classes?

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