Final Thoughts, Lessons, and Musings from 2012 on Wineburg. This is an excerpt from my reflections after my first year of teaching. As I look back on this, students 5 years later still don’t question bias or question me as a source. This is particularly interesting in our current political and media climate. I’ll be interested to see where things are in another 5 years. Here is my previous post about Wineburg’s influence in my classes.
Primary sources are another resource I used in my World Civilizations class. Wineburg included an anecdote of a teachers’ workshop that explored the classroom textbook and The Midwive’s Tale. Many students, and surprisingly their teachers, believe that the textbook tells facts and “how things were.” Bias is ignored and students and their teachers do not often think to question the textbook’s story. The Midwive’s Tale was previously seen as trivial information, in spite of the important bits about daily life and people that can be gleaned from it. I hope that this will continue to change as we strive to personalize the past. One of the most important things I tried to get across to my students was that they CAN question everything: the textbook, authors, and even their instructors.
Finally, there are three other concepts from Wineburg’s book that I particularly enjoyed. Wineburg’s explanation of context and strangeness through Marco Polo’s excerpt on unicorns/rhinoceros is a great example of people interpreting what they see and learn through their own knowledge and ideas. It is an important thing to remember both in my own personal studies and in teaching undergraduates.
Presentism, viewing the past through the lens of today, is another important concept for my students. Trying to get students to remove themselves from the present and look back is a hard thing to do. When we covered the Mayans and bloodletting rituals this was particularly evident. My students were appalled and could not understand why people let mutilation and “torture” happen. It was hard to explain to them that their worldview and religions were different, and that perhaps the people who were being sacrificed or who were mutilating themselves to give blood to their gods did so willingly. At the same time, I tried to explain that they were people and not that different from us even though they seem so strange. I used the analogy of wrestling or cage fighting today and even the ancient Romans and gladiators to explain the allure of seeing executions. At the same time, there was a difference in Mayan culture because of the religious meanings behind sacrifice and bloodletting rituals. Lastly, this chapter introduces context; this word is from the Latin “to weave together.” History and context are inextricable, and historians and teachers must connect the past into a pattern to understand what happened, why it is important, and what we can learn from it.
The second section of this book is called, “Challenges for the Student.” Chapter 3 again looks at reading history and understanding the bias that is present in all writing and sources. Wineburg suggests having the students think aloud as they read. I have experimented with this to some extent in my own classroom with group primary source interpretation. Next time we do a similar activity I will try to explain to my students that, “The comprehension of text reaches beyond words and phrases to embrace intention, motive, purpose, and plan- the same set of concepts we use to decipher human action.” School texts and their expected level of trustworthiness are somewhat disturbing: students take the text at face value. They often believe that the textbook is the source. Students, and sometimes teachers, reason that the text is written by nameless important editors, so it must be true.
Students must be taught how to decode the text and ask such questions as what is the author really trying to say? What is the author’s purpose? Students should engage with the text, and they should not just read it. This raises a question to myself about my own class and methods. I require students to read the text before coming to class so that we can engage in discussion about the concepts they read about that relate to my lecture for each day. I have built in five pop quizzes to the semester to make sure that my students are doing their homework and coming to class prepared. The tests are made up of five multiple choice questions that cover the bigger concepts and important “facts” from the pages they were supposed to have read. They are designed to make sure the students are doing the readings and to judge their reading comprehension. Perhaps they are learning to list useless facts, but perhaps reading comprehension and actually looking at the text is the first step to analyzing the words they read.
In many classrooms it seems that there is no interpretation of history but rather the presentation of a chain of “facts.” To me this immediately raised the question, “are there really any facts?” Students also do not ask how something happened, just know that it did. Instructors and history teachers should strive to explain the implications of each “fact.”
Also in this chapter Wineburg claims that in many classrooms knowledge is detached from experience; how can we incorporate more experiential learning into secondary education and college-level survey courses? Many students do not come to school with a motivation to learn. This brought to mind the concept of “edutainment” that has been discussed in museum classes and conferences I have attended in the past five years. It is still somewhat controversial; are we entertaining or educating our students? Does it matter as long as students are engaged and learning something? If edutainment can happen in museums and institutions of informal learning, can it or does it already appear in classrooms? Perhaps some of the experiential learning concepts can be brought into the traditional classroom to engage students and help them learn in another way.
In my own class I have developed four homework research assignments to try to engage students at their level using entertainment. The first assignment, which was generally well-received and successful, asked students to think of three references in popular culture to ancient, classical, or world history. Many of their examples were things I had not even thought of, and we were able to open discussion on whether or not we can learn anything from popular culture, the motives of advertisers or writers who use popular culture, and the validity of historical content found in popular culture. I hope that this, and the future assignments in the class, gets my students thinking about history in the sense of their everyday lives rather than as the distant and strange past that is presented in the textbook.
This book helped spark a lot of thoughts on my own study of history and how I taught the students in my World Civilizations class. I have often wondered why exactly it is that I study history and what I want my students to learn through my class. I do not necessarily want them to learn dates or a chain of chronological events, but rather I want them to understand the bigger concepts, critical thinking, globalization and worldview changes, how to study for a test, how to think critically, how to be a citizen in a global world, and to some degree empathy and understanding of difference in culture throughout the world. I wish I had more time to plan and to give them more resources that are “fun.” Next time I teach this course I want to give the students more hands-on and interactive opportunities instead of just lecture with powerpoint slides of pictures.