I’m currently thinking about how I can adapt my HIST101: Foundations of European Civilizations Part 1 course when my university’s new Core Curriculum plan rolls out in the fall. As I think about the projects that have worked, or not had the outcomes that I wanted, I looked back to my first year of teaching this course for inspiration.
Here is what I thought, back in 2012, as I participated in my Ph.D. residency colloquium and taught my first college course, World Civilizations: “Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts was the most influential and interesting book that I read not only during my residency year but probably in my entire academic career.” Wow! Big claims. I need to revisit Wineburg’s book soon and see how this holds up. As a resident in the program, I had no intentions to teach full-time, and instead I planned to enter the public history field on the ground, which I did. Now, however, I’m back in academia, teaching 101, public history courses, and even a graduate course.
The author approaches several questions I have wondered about both in my studies and in the beginning of my residency such as why people study history at all, what history can teach us not just about the past but about humanity and ourselves, how history should be taught, and what exactly history’s place is outside of the classroom. Wineburg’s analysis of how people learn, and how history has been taught in the past is enthralling. Additionally, the questions he asks, such as why to study history and what students should learn from their history classes, were intriguing and thought-provoking, I taught my first class in a “traditional” classroom. I wish that I had read this book a lot sooner, as both an educator in museums and historical sites, and as a new teacher of college-level survey history.
In planning for my own World Civilizations I course, I wanted to introduce my students to the global culture through the class and stories that can be found throughout ancient and classical history. I wanted to focus on the connections of cultures through themes to humanize the people and civilizations we talk about. Additionally, critical thinking and questioning are ground stones for my course structure. Explaining to my students that the people in the past are foreign to us and some of the things they did were strange is not difficult; students often bring that up in class and claim that they find something about ancient cultures “weird.” I often tried to relate the actions and values of people from the past to my students here in the present.
Wineburg claims that “strange” history that excludes people and does not engage others. I keenly felt this with World Civilizations which many people find to be foreign. However many people have an inexplicable love for Ancient Egypt as evidenced in popular culture, museum exhibitions, Halloween costumes, and countless other venues. Perhaps in the case of Egypt the strangeness is what is appealing. In my class I tried to appeal to the interesting “strangeness” of each culture or group that were studied in an effort to engage students in conversation and thinking about these people, or even to get them to remember any little detail about these people from the past. In class we asked such questions as, what will people in the future think about our civilization? Will we be considered strange by people looking back to the past in which we live?
I love looking back at my old work (even though sometimes it is cringe-worthy), and I can’t wait to re-read Wineburg. I hope time hasn’t spoiled him for me!