What do you do when history is happening?

This month for my post I planned to interview a curator at the Smithsonian. We got it all approved and I was going to send her questions the following day. But the partial government shutdown began that night and she’s been out of the office since.

I had a minor panic because my women’s history class had an assignment due on the tenth using the Star-Spangled Banner online exhibit through the Smithsonian website. Would it go down like the Library of Congress and National Archives? If it did, would the government reopen before the tenth? What would I do if I couldn’t use the assignment? It turned out I didn’t have any problems and the students had a productive discussion about patriotism and the role of women in making American history. (In the case of this famous flag women literally and figuratively “made” a national symbol.)

On another level I debated whether I should take time out during class to discuss the shutdown. We were in the midst of the American Revolution when it started so it seemed slightly relevant to discuss the operations of the government with the class. Ultimately I decided not to talk about it; there just wasn’t time to get into the complexities of government finances today while trying to teach the importance of gender in the country’s founding. I suppose if the Smithsonian site had gone down we could have talked about the shutdown and how it impacts women in the United States today, including learning about past women.

This brings me to the more general question of current events. Do you include them in your class? Are they formal assignments or impromptu discussions if something big is happening? I have never done a current event assignment for a class grade, but I have used class time to discuss events happening around the world and the country. Usually I’ve shown video clips, pulled up articles from reputable news sites, and taken the opportunity to teach my students about navigating the web for information that is informative rather than provocative. I’ve also been known to show clips from The Daily Show or Colbert Report, discussing the meanings and uses of political humor and satire to understand historic events. This is never the entire class period, typically a brief description or a fifteen minute discussion.

I haven’t given much thought to a current event assignment or what it would entail at the college level. I am sure we all remember doing reports using the local newspaper in grade school and high school. I recall hunting through microfilmed papers at the college library to report on the Taliban and bin Laden in pre-9/11 times, which turned out to be more of a lesson in the spread of knowledge than the event itself. Of course now students get their current events news from all over the world simply by Googling the topic, yet we know that they struggle to vet their sources.

So, TUSH community, do you discuss current events in class? Do you design assignments using them? If so, what do your assignments look like? Do you think discussing/assigning these topics helps to bring relevancy to the practice of history?

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