Tona Hangen

History Now

[ crossposted to TUSH.0 on 12/27/12 ]

The second half of the US survey, at least in our course catalog, goes “to the present.” How many of us actually get there in a typical semester? Be real. My last unit tends to emphasize a particular theme (this time: immigration and demographic change), but rarely gets into much detail about recent events.

I do have a final project in the class, though, that I think serves multiple purposes nicely at the end of the term. It pulls together concepts and skills in a culminating activity that I like better than a paper. It began several semesters ago when I asked my students to choose and define a recent historical event. This led to an interesting quasi-philosophical discussion on what is an event, anyway, and why we conceive of history as either eventful or uneventful to begin with. Then I had them select 3-5 primary sources that would help someone understand this event, write an introductory essay and a writing prompt, and assemble them into a manila folder. The next semester, students got these “History Now” packets (with the previous names removed), and had to assess the quality of the sources and add a new one with a justification for why it should be included. And so on. It turns out that the thinking that goes into curating and selecting and justifying is actually quite complex and interesting. The students aren’t telling the story of that event, but they are thinking about what the packet’s users would need in order to tell the story using only the sources in the packet, and that’s harder than it sounds at first.

For my students, it’s one of the few chances they have to closely read peer work. Some packets contain several justification statements or revised introductory essays and they are always shocked, shocked! that not all the writing is polished, clear, or smooth. This is an actual advantage of the project, I think – discerning meaning may be easy when it comes from a well-edited professionally produced textbook, but it’s a lot harder when you’re dealing with raw evidence or muddy writing. I tell them that historians often have to deal with contradictory, confusing materials and try to make sense from them, so this project exercises those skills in particular. Another advantage is purely practical: in my experience students rarely (read never) come back to pick up graded last projects, so having one that just gets turned in to me and won’t be handed back saves us all some time and energy.

At this point I have a robust classroom set with a wide variety of recent events: many of them, perhaps unsurprisingly, concerning mass shootings, acts of terrorism, hurricanes or other natural disasters, and election results. It’s striking to me that those seem to my students the “events” worth revisiting and remembering. But there are a few oddballs to keep things lively, and I always have a few students who add new ones to the stack: the 2004 Red Sox World Series victory, the release of the 7th Harry Potter novel, proposed anti-GMO legislation in California (Prop 37)…

If you’ve just wound down a survey course, I’d love to know how you choose to test your students’ acquisition of the skills of historical thinking. What “history now” activities do you do at the end of a semester to bring US history up to the present, if that’s part of your charge?

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