Resurrecting Clio: Teaching against the Textbook, Engaging the Historian’s Sensibility

AHA Session 277
Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Congressional Room B (Omni Shoreham, West Lobby)
Patrick Timmons, El Paso Community College
Rick Halpern, University of Toronto

Session Abstract

The past permeates popular culture in film, television, the arts, the news and social media. But while the past fascinates the popular imagination, historians fail to recognize how they can use popular culture to advance understanding about what historians do and the importance of the arguments they make. In spite of the past’s pop culture presence, since 2014 the number of history majors has declined. Even so, students in secondary and higher education take required history survey classes. These classes can bring popular understandings of the past into the classroom as ways to inspire students in the skills and methods of historians. The decline of the history major, the resilience of the history requirements and the popularity of the past in popular culture, offer opportunities to ensure that whatever their major all students can respect and learn from history as a discipline. The survey classes can teach that the techniques, skills and knowledge historians produce are invaluable for whatever major they choose.

This panel issues a call to resurrect Clio in the required history surveys. Experience varies but many non-history majors report suffering through their required history surveys. Students are rarely taught what historians actually do, and even with the advent of the Internet, the commonest forms of history education in the form of the required surveys still rest on simple factual recall. Faculty also suffer through these “service classes.” Instead of inspiring a historian’s sensibility in students, drawing from their own research and writing many course instructors rely on mass-produced textbooks, with almost all variants of secondary and college level history surveys accompanied with web-based components, much of which is dedicated to memorization exercises and online testing. All of this comes at a price, faculty and students produce grades but fail to engage in historical thinking, impoverishing themselves and the communities in which they work and live. Encouraging students to think in terms of historiographical arguments seems like an impossible dream. It is not.

This panel argues for a radical approach to history education that sees the required history survey courses as an invitation to show students history is a craft, available and of benefit to themselves, their families and their communities. Each presenter comes from different educational settings, where history classes are required but may not lead to a major in the subject: a High School, a Community College, and a Polytechnic Institute.

The goal is to practice a radical, democratic form of history education that exploits the popular imagination, making its comprehension relevant with a scholarly approach to the same material. In the surveys, students can learn historical methodology. These are skills of selecting, analyzing, interpreting and creating new historical understandings from historical material, but using what students already know, not what they are supposed to know because of previous classes or presumed to believe because of patriotic or civic duty. The history surveys taught in the way described in this panel are ways of advocating for democratic historical understanding, as way to resurrect Clio.

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