World Civilizations Reflections

For reflections from my personal blog on aspects of teaching World Civilizations please click here for information about using Facebook and social media to teach in the academic classroom, and please click here for information about using popular culture, media, and documentaries for critical thinking and teaching historical thinking.

Historiography and Teaching World Civilizations

Historiography is an integral part of any history educational program, and Public History is no exception.  The historiography of public history was first introduced in the Introduction to Public History course in Fall 2010.   All of this was important to me in teaching both general education students in World Civilizations I during the Fall 2011 semester and later in the Spring 2012 semester as I taught history majors and minors the finer details of public history as an introductory course.   Teaching a survey course poses many challenges and triumphs, as I detail throughout this semester.  However, teaching this course would be unfathomable without a background in historiography and the historical process.  The way that teaching and thinking about history has changed throughout time, the different theories and schools of thought, and developments through research and scholarship had a great impact on the course that I taught to undergraduates.

World Civilizations was an interesting class to teach with students from varying backgrounds and interests.  The expanse of information that is covered in that course, prehistory to circa 1500 C.E., also creates challenges in imparting information, deciding what the most important aspects are, and keeping students interested.  I used public history as often as possible to keep students interested in the subject matter.

Colloquium Readings, Pedagogy, and Professional Practice in Teaching World Civilizations

Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts[1] was the most influential and interesting book that I read not only during my residency year but probably in my entire academic career.  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.[2]  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?

Related to this strangeness is also the development of feelings of kinship and relationship to people in the past that we study.  A movement towards learning about humanity and social history is evident in the past several years, and perhaps because of this familiarity and my own personal training, social history is what I enjoy the most.          Primary sources have been another resource I have used in my World Civilizations class.  Wineburg included an anecdote of a teachers’ workshop that explored the classroom textbook and The Midwive’s Tale.[3]   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.[4]  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 me.  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.”[5]  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.”[6]  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. 

History is also constantly changing and new ideas are developing, especially with archaeological findings.  One way I imparted this knowledge to my students was by having students bring in recent articles and findings for extra credit. Through this, the class and I learned all kinds of new things.  Archaeologists provide new data that is valuable and sometimes overlooked by historians and especially teachers.

In reading Defining Memory: Local Museums and the Construction of History in

America’s Changing Communities[7] I had several questions related to my own work and especially to teaching undergraduates.  I wondered, how does memory affect how students learn in the classroom and the museum?  Are memories about the historical events at sites as important as personal memories, and how can those two things be reconciled?  What is collective memory.  How does all of this work when there are many histories, and no one can “own” history?    Many of these questions were answered by my Explorations in Public History class through our many readings and discussions.  In many topics this idea came up, from oral history and cultural repatriation, to popular culture and museum exhibit fabrication.

                [1] Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. (Temple University Press, 2001).

                [2] Ibid.

                [3] Ibid.

                [4] Ibid.

                [5] Ibid.

                [6] Sam Wineburg. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001): 67.

                [7] Levin, Amy K., ed. Defining Memory: Local Museums and the Construction of History in

America’s Changing Communities. AltaMira Press, 2007.

History and Contemporary Society

Throughout the residency, contemporary society and the relevance of history and particularly public history to people today has been an important discussion.  Teaching World Civilizations I was one way that the link between history, context, historical thinking skills, and more was made clear.  Though I do hope that students from World Civilizations I will always remember what makes up a civilization or what most religions have in common, I realistically believe that they will forget most of this knowledge unless they actively engage themselves in historical study.  However, I do believe that the critical thinking and research skills they learned through homework assignments will remain with them throughout their academic and professional careers.

Residency Dynamics: Self and Mentor

Throughout my residency I learned a lot about myself, and I also received valuable lessons from both of my mentors, Dr. Dawn McCormack and Dr. Brenden Martin. For the Fall 2011 semester while teaching World Civilizations I (HIST 1110) Dr. Dawn McCormack served as my mentor.  Dr. McCormack has a background in Anthropology and Egyptology, and she holds a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2008 she was hired as an Assistant Professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University.  She has taught World Civilizations in the past; she also taught the course in Fall 2011.  We met to discuss syllabi and potential class lectures, and I met with her regularly throughout the semester to discuss problems and concerns as they arose.  Dr. McCormack taught me several teaching and professional skills.  I learned from her how to relate to students and work with various groups of people.  Understanding the college student is a difficult lesson, even though I was in their shoes at this same university only four years ago.

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