Friday, January 2, 2015

Erin Bartram on the First Day of the 2015 AHA

I am once again happy to have Erin Bartram, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Connecticut, blogging at The Way of Improvement Leads Home this weekend.  You can read her bio and access a link to her posts at AHA 2013 here. --JF

For my third trip to the AHA, I've found myself drawn to panels on pedagogy and methodology rather than those on historical topics relevant to my research. To that end, my first panel of the day (after finally registering only to find out they'd run out of lanyards!) was Session 3, "Teaching Students Chronology: Strategies to Help Students Develop Chronological Framework." This panel, sponsored by the College Board, featured three high school teachers presenting on various aspects of chronological thinking: causation, continuity & change, and periodization. Honestly, I was a bit wary of the session, as I'm not convinced AP courses always accomplish what they set out to do, and I often find they indicate the social background of my students more than they indicate their mastery of historical thinking skills. The three panelists, however, were really engaged in thinking about pedagogy, and overall, it gave me some good ideas to think about for the coming semester.

I particularly enjoyed the first speaker, Patricia McGloine, who teaches in Virginia Beach. She took us through how she helps her students understand the complexities of causation, beginning with assigning them to each select the most telling word, phrase, and sentence from their nightly reading. The students then use these selections to identify short- and long-term causal factors for the topic in question, which for today's purposes was World War I. McGloine supplements these choices with her own, and then distributes all of the short-term causes among the students, which she did with us today.  Around the room she had posted signs for the "main" causes of the war - militarism, alliance system, imperialism, and nationalism - and had us do what she has her students do: walk with our short-term cause and stand with the long term cause we thought it was most connected to, something more challenging that it first seemed. She then asked us to go stand by the long-term issue we believed was the most fundamental cause for the war and make an argument for it with the rest of the participants assembled there. While my classrooms rarely have the space for anyone (including me) to move around, I found the concept of this exercise tempting. I am often frustrated when my students cannot make connections beyond short-term causes, and I think I'll try this sort of structured assignment this coming semester.

Geri Hastings spoke next about using simulations in class. She has her students each research and inhabit a historical figure in preparation for two 83-minute simulations in which the students act and speak as their characters. In the scenario she presented to us, students inhabited black leaders in the U.S. throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, and held a simulated colloquium in 1968 to discuss "the degree to which the visions of political, social, and economic equality...[had] been realized" at that point in history. I found the project compelling, but I struggled to figure out how I might integrate it into my own very different teaching schedule. The final speaker, Erik Vincent, argued that it was important for students to engage in discussions about periodization, but discussed the difficulty of finding useful periodization for the "long nineteenth century" that was applicable in a world history context. Several times in the presentation he cited a recent piece by Peter Stearns () which I will definitely add to my reading list. Unfortunately the panel ran a bit long and there wasn't time for questions, so I didn't get to ask whether anyone in the room had used Timeline JS, which I'm hoping to use next semester so my students can collaboratively construct a timeline as we go along. If anyone out there has used Timeline JS this way, I'd love to hear about your experience with it.

From there, I went to my first ASCH panel. Well, I waited for elevators and hunted for stairwells for fifteen minutes and then went to my first ASCH panel. When I finally got to "Doing History," I discovered, with a crowd of people, that a panel featuring some of the most prominent scholars of the history of religion in America had been put in a room the size of a shoebox and we couldn't fit. The panel started, but a few minutes later everything stopped, and they moved the whole thing into another room with more space so we could all attend. "Doing History," like tomorrow's "Believing History," was held in honor of Grant Wacker. It featured papers by David Steinmetz, Catherine Brekus, and David Hall, with comment by Peter Kaufman. Steinmetz's paper explored the difficulty of crossing the cultural divide and "going native" in our study of the past by considering the difficulty of inhabiting the intellectual worlds of Reformation thinkers. Brekus explored the possibilities and problems of individual agency, criticized by theorists who would argue that there is no self, only subjectivity, on the one hand, and proponents of "big history" and "deep history," particularly Guldi and Armitage, for whom the extreme longue durĂ©e is the only appropriate way to study history and give it an impact in our contemporary world. Hall used the examples of Elizabeth Knapp and Anne Hutchinson to consider the ways that historians avoid interrogating the mediating factors that affect our texts and may diminish their authority and, in his words, their "magic." Kaufman's wide-ranging and expertly-crafted comment joined Brekus in a rejection of the push for big data and big history as a path to influencing policy. To paraphrase his final plea to the audience, is it not enough for historians to enlighten and entertain, to foster critical thinking, to unsettle people and make them sympathetic to the lives of those in the past, and to cultivate compassion? Or are these things, in Guldi and Armitage's terms, too sentimental to be the ultimate goals of historians?

Tomorrow I'm starting the day with the Women in Theology & Church History breakfast, which I've never done before. I'm really looking forward to it. After that, I head to "Doing More with Less: ThePromise and Pitfalls of Short-Form Scholarship in the Digital HistoryAge," followed by a break in the afternoon to trim a hundred words or so from my paper so John doesn't have to give me the "stop talking now" sign on Sunday morning. If I get lucky, I might even find a lanyard somewhere along the way.

Editor's Note:  Thanks Erin.  We can also expect an update on the "Doing History" session from Mandy McMichael.  Stay tuned.  And I need a lanyard too.  Let me know if you find one!  Oh, and by the way, the paper looks fine.  Keep the 100 words.