History Is Not a Box—You Can't Think Outside It

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:00 AM
Thurgood Marshall West (Marriott Wardman Park)
Anne Kristina Berg, University of Michigan
Most students who say that they are not interested in history think of history as a box, filled with facts, names, dates and lots of old white men with questionable ties to the present. The numbers of the disenchanted is growing at an alarming rate. They join the chorus running away from the humanities toward more 'practical' disciplines which promise 'certainty' in an increasingly uncertain age. Historians shouldn’t merely advertise with cooler course titles, funny videos, career fairs and track-focused programs (though these all do help), but take their cues from the questions embedded in what appears to be a mass flight. Often, the history we teach does not account for the present the students inhabit. The questions they bring are both excessively personal and refreshingly undisciplined. They are big questions, too, and almost all of them are directed at future, their own and the that of the world. In my view, students’ questions (and here the cool titles do come into play) rather than the historian’s own research speciality and field-specific expertise should serve as a starting point for course development. For most students our fields are irrelevant and our specialities appear inaccessible and insular. If the courses we design recognize and address their questions about the world, we can teach nuance, complexity, perspective, evidence, and narrative informed by but not narrowly limited to our own expertise. My comments will reflect on the curricular innovations at the University of Michigan, my conversations with students as their chief departmental advisor and some on examples from my own teaching. I will share the design of two unconventional classes on the history of waste as well as some unconventional approaches to a departmental staple – a course on the origins of Nazism. 
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