Talking about The Present

I’m now two sessions into my American History and Memory course (the re-vamp of my old syllabus I talked about here) and so far, things are going well. I’m nervous, though, and I don’t think that feeling is going to be going away anytime soon. I’ll be spending some of my posts this fall talking about the things that are making me nervous about this class. Namely, I’m planning on talking about the present. This really excites me, which is why I’ve designed the class in the way that I have, but it is definitely me stepping outside of my comfort zone of the 18th and 19th centuries.

So, why did I design a class that is going to make me nervous? Partly it’s what I had talked about last spring when I wrote about redesigning the course. I’ve taught a non-honors section of this social science general education course four times now, and I was getting bored and wanted something new. But it’s also been a matter of recognizing the particular opportunities of the gen ed classroom and the particular duties that I think this raises for me as a history professor. Namely, my classroom is filled with students who generally would not think of taking a history course.* While many of my classes have plenty of non-majors (actually, ususally the majority of the students are non-majors) they all have at least some interest in history. They chose to take a history course. Most of those classes don’t count towards any requirements. This course does. And it is taught by enough professors from enough different departments with enough different interests that any two sections of the same course could have very different content (the official course title, National Diversity and Change, offers a lot of room for variation). So students don’t always know what to expect when they walk in the room. They are a very captive audience.

What an opportunity to talk about the importance of history!

We’re living in a moment when history is all over our news. This is probably always true, but we seem more willing to recognize it right now. I’d like to help give my students the tools for understanding that, for making sense of the ways that the past is present in their daily lives, and for becoming informed consumers of some of those historical narratives that surround them.

The goals of the course, as defined by the program office, are as follows:

  • Assist students in distinguishing their personal assumptions and beliefs from conclusions based upon critical thought and the analytical exploration of human behavioral patterns and trends.
  • Expand students’ awareness of the ways that enduring and universal social issues and resolutions can be distinguished from those that are the consequence of specific or transient contemporary conditions.
  • Provide multicultural, international and national perspectives on human behavior that address the particular challenges and opportunities for a multi-racial and multi-ethnic American society.

These are great and important goals, all of which can be met by a course that gets students to think about the place of history in the present day. So that’s what I’m trying to do. We’re talking about monuments and museums. We’re talking about oral history and what voices we listen to and those that we don’t. We’re talking about $10 bills and women’s history. We’re talking about what to make of the “difficult people” of American history—how we ought to remember those who we admire in some ways and abhor in others. We’re talking about the role of historians as experts in court cases, and what the history curriculum should look like in schools. And then for their final paper, they’re going to read a book from the #CharlestonSyllabus and tell me how this historical perspective helps them to understand current events.

It’s going to be a great semester. I’m just a bit nervous. Wish me luck, check out the syllabus here, and stay tuned for more.

*This semester, though, I do have one exception in a former women’s history student who elected in to my section.  It’s great.

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