Category: teaching

    The Changing Faces of Nationalism

    As a historian who sometimes teaches about Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I have to give Trump credit for one thing: His constant upending of the broad political consensus that emerged after World War II and the Cold War means that basic historical terms are constantly making it into the news and national discourse as quasi new problems, new questions. As upsetting as these times are, as abhorrent as Trump is, it is hard to deny the value of Ron Elving’s reaction to the president’s recent statement about being a nationalist: “We are about to have a national conversation about the word nationalist. And Elving wants to offer nuances to the term’s meanings in past and present—well, as much as anyone can in some 1,100 words.

    A Hard Thing to Teach

    What was once seen as standing ‘outside’ history, demanding silent contemplation but resisting explanation or contextualisation, has now been firmly historicised. Comparative genocide studies, histories of colonialism and genocidal violence, studies of western penal practice and more besides have demonstrated that the processes which led to the Holocaust were integral to modern history, not an aberration from it.
    Neil Gregor, “‘To Think is to Compare’: Walther Rathenau, Trump and Hitler,” History Today, February 20, 2017.

    2014 Archival Seminar Report

    Here is my report on the 2014 Archival Summer Seminar in Germany. Besides saying what we did, it discusses why, and it considers the various specialties of those who attended.

    Archival Summer Seminar 2013

    The report for the 2013 GHI archival summer seminar is finally available. Stay tuned for information about applying for the 2014 trip.

    Archival Seminar

    I am excited to have the opportunity to lead this year’s summer archival seminar in Germany, which will bring me to Speyer, Cologne, Coblenz, and Munich.

    Teaching Notes: Synthesis and Process

    The main assignment for my graduate survey of modern Europe this summer was to write an essay that incorporated all of the assigned books and most of the assigned articles. I conceived of this assignment because of a similar one that I had had to do as a graduate student that I found especially productive, if difficult. (See Learning to Synthesize History.)

    The essays my students wrote fulfilled or exceeded my expectations in some cases, but there were others that did not go as well as they could have. In part, this was due to the compressed nature of the summer term, but more than anything else, I think building a deliberate approach to teaching the process of synthesis into the course syllabus would have helped. Yes, these students were in an M.A. program and had taken many history courses in their lives, but few had ever had to do such an assignment.

    Of course, we spoke about process both in class and in individual meetings, but the current senior research seminar I am teaching, which includes explicit work on process, suggests to me that I should formalize such efforts in graduate courses too, if I am going to require an unfamiliar writing task. That’s not how I learned as a graduate student, but so what?

    Reflections after Class

    One of those questions came up in class tonight with a group of MA students discussing Peter Fritzsche’s Life and Death in the Third Reich (Cambridge, MA, 2008), a question where I grow perhaps too animated, maybe conveying impatience, even arrogance, or, if I’m lucky, simply passion. What was the difference between communism under Stalin and nazism under Hitler?

    The differences are stark, but there’s that pesky word “socialism” and the collectivist rhetoric that is so easily conflated or confused with “collectivization,” never mind the existence of economic plans, mass murder, and a host of apparently shared phenomena commonly subsumed under the heading of “totalitarianism.” So why does this question sometimes cause me to push back instead of letting students gradually begin to understand, taking as many intermediary steps as they need to get there?

    I would like to blame the heat and my tiredness after a forty-eight-hour power loss at home, and there’s something to that. But this is also one of those topics that can get my goat under better conditions, unless I am prepared for it. I am ready these days when teaching History 100 (“Western Civilization”), but the question took me by surprise in the context of a graduate survey of modern Europe. I am beginning to think it should not have.

    Perhaps it’s time to choose some primary sources for the students to analyze in at least a portion of our next class.

    Something about this question can elude or confound even well-informed graduate students like those in my current class. Something is getting lost in translation from a past that grows more distant, more remote. The words “nazi” and “socialist” and “communist” are on many lips in these United States, but they’re employed in our own contemporary struggles over ideology, identity, and politics. They help us to create meaning in our own world, but this circumstance complicates the already difficult task of understanding the Germany and Soviet Union that existed in the 1930s and 1940s.

    Requiring Students to Use Chicago Style (or Turabian or Whatever)

    While talking in class tonight about forthcoming papers, I heard from several students that many of their professors haven't cared which system they used, as long as it was clear and they could retrace the student's steps if necessary. That's also long been my implicit attitude, even though I ask students to follow Chicago or Turabian and I correct their papers accordingly. Lately, however, I have come to think that teaching a specific style is actually important, even if I have done little more than point students in the right directions for style guidelines, much as I was told to use a given style manual back in the day.

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    Editing and Consumption History

    Since I began my editing job a little over a year ago, I have begun learning a little about a lot of history that I had previously never experienced. While my editing has included a variety of smaller projects as diverse as the interests of the institute's fellows and recent alumni, my main area of responsibility is editing a new series on consumption history. Two volumes are under contract, and a third will be very soon, but I've been forcing myself to sit on my hands and not go into details here until things are actually published.

    Meanwhile, I have begun to wonder how I might integrate what I'm learning about modern consumer societies into my teaching. Connections sometimes come up spontaneously in class, but maybe I could do something more meaningful. Well, in the past I have used Emile Zola's Au Bonheur des Dames (aka The Ladies' Paradise), which I first encountered as a teaching assistant for Sandra Horvath-Peterson. And next fall I will use Uta Poiger's Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany in a survey of modern Germany. But how could I approach the issue more systematically (when I am able to make some time for reflection)

    Using an iPad to Grade Student Papers

    Caleb McDaniel offers a useful blog post on grading with his iPad. I find his take helpful, because he combines the practical with the pedagogical.

    Foreign Language Competency in the U.S.

    Francisco Marmolejo's "Deficiency in Foreign Language Competency: What Is Wrong with the U.S. Educational System?," which appeared on The Chronicle's website yesterday, is worth reading. I won't summarize it here, but I do wonder if the attitudes he describes have anything to do with a comment I sometimes hear when I ask a student if he or she knows another language or plans to learn one: "I'm no good at languages." I thought the same thing of myself thirty years ago. Fortunately, life circumstances and patient teachers later taught me that motivation and practice mattered more than mere aptitude.

    The Politics of Identity and How We Learn History

    There is an interesting article in yesterday's New York Times about how Texas is changing the content of its American high school history textbooks. Instead of taking potshots at its clear abuses of history, however, the author locates it in a broader context of history curricula and identity politics over the past few decades. See Sam Tanehaus, "In Texas Curriculum Fight, Identity Politics Leans Right."

    Kevin Levin of the blog Civil War Memory thinks that the focus on textbooks in this newest episode of America's culture wars misses the point, however. He points out that much history teaching is no longer focused on textbooks. He has a point. Even those of us who still sometimes use textbooks and do not rely as heavily on the internet see history education in terms very different than those of the Texas Board. See "Texas, Textbooks, and the Battle For Our Children’s Souls" and "If I Should Teach American Exceptionalism . . ."

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