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From “Just History” to Student-Centered Time Travel

Graduate work in history was all that was needed when I began teaching at a university in 1968. Education courses were not essential because standing in front of students and lecturing was what any successful graduate student could do, or so we thought.

My perspective changed as I taught about one hundred students the first term. Making a point of getting to know each student, I saw that many of them lacked writing and study skills needed to succeed in a history course. Colleagues noticed when I handed out reading and writing tips and then counseled struggling students. My office-mate expressed concern, saying my job was to teach history, not other subjects. When my radical behavior persisted, the head of the department said I was hired to “teach history, just history.”

Today, my students at Georgia Gwinnett College have tutoring and counseling services free of charge. Each fall semester, faculty must adjust to upgrades in classroom technology and to the learning management system. Through a Center for Teaching Excellence, we learn about new educational practices for improving student engagement and can seek help using classroom technology. While keeping up with scholarship in history, I am also expected to uphold institution-wide goals for engaging and retaining students who also must achieve high performance standards.

This college teaching environment, as I approach the end of a professional career, is the most invigorating and enjoyable of my life. The belief in teaching “just history” has yielded to revolutionary innovations in teaching and in the field of history itself – both of which are personally satisfying.

I share with colleagues of all disciplines many values based on the educational environment of our institution. However, my approach to teaching “more than history” takes a direction somewhat different from many of them by emphasizing skills expected of professionals today. Among historians there are also varying opinions on the best approaches for studying history. I differ from some colleagues by viewing all history as both contemporary and world history; and arguing that science and history should be taught in combination by interdisciplinary teams to ground students in a more holistic view of life.

Professional Skills

Survey history courses that orient students to fundamental knowledge need to also develop essential skills for citizenship and the demands of most professions. Students today need to seek and interpret reliable evidence, a skill which the election of 2016 made even more imperative for those who get their news from social media. They also must learn basic habits and proficiencies required of professionals today.

Contrary to the expectation of many students, history is not just committing important dates, events, and people to memory. Learning the importance of evidence and how it should be interpreted is essential for building values and skills of citizenship. Understanding that historical accounts take many forms (books, newspapers, magazines, websites, and social media), and to look for documented evidence (valid primary and secondary sources) with accurate and responsible interpretations, is an increasingly important skill. Students today live in a world deluged with audio, video, graphic, and written content over the Internet, some of which comes from tainted sources such as terrorist groups or foreign powers wanting to destabilize our government. Using rational analysis to filter out unreliable information is becoming ever more difficult. The Internet is a great educational tool – but it is equally useful for radicalizing people vulnerable to emotion, propaganda, and misinformation.

For me, an enjoyable part of being a historian is recognizing the role played by interpretation. Specialists in a field differ on fine points of interpretation because of the evidence they select and how they arrange it. The same kind of debate occurs in political media.

When I was in college in the 1960s, televised news coverage shaped national opinions. The outlets were relatively few and news coverage rarely lasted more than three hours a day. Variations in opinion, such as those in the north and south over civil rights, were aired; yet the differences in interpretation between news outlets was less obvious than today.

Cable channels brought important changes to the way people gained news before social media arrived. Competing outlets segmented the public based on political leanings, making it possible to shop for a news provider that caters to specific points of view, consistently presenting interpretations along certain lines and being selective in the evidence and range of stories they show. Internet sites and social media have magnified the segmentation of interpretations to fit even smaller audiences. But size of the audience is not insignificant when a radicalized terror group uses the Internet to recruit worldwide.

My point is that accurate use of evidence and skeptical consideration of interpretations need to be taught in history courses as citizenship skills. This also makes discussion of current issues important, a point that will be discussed presently.

On the first day of class, as we review the syllabus, I emphasize the importance of professional behavior and skills as objectives of the course. The days when a student need only show up for exams and turn in a paper are gone. My courses now build in team-based activities counting 20% of the grade.

Rules of the course emphasize concentrating on the business of the class for the entire period. Temptations are many when students use laptops, tablets, and smart phones in class. They are not allowed to make or receive phone calls, check or send texts and email, surf the Internet, or work on anything except the class assignment – but students will always test to see how vigorously rules are enforced.

Students often resist the rules for team work. Many say they like group work because, in practice, good students often carry the load for weaker students to protect their own grade. Having been a team-building consultant, I insist they follow rules for full participation by making consensus decisions for which all members take responsibility. Assignments must undergo thorough team review so that the product, such as a presentation, looks as if it were prepared by a single person. The team grade on these assignments is also the grade for each team member. As in military basic training, failure of one person in team performance drags down the grade for everyone.

Although students will say they know how to work in teams or that my rules are not new, the skills I enforce can only be learned through practice under realistic pressures to work as a unit. Students usually discover they have not experienced real teamwork and that, like babies trying to walk, it is learned only by persisting after early failures.

Presentation skills are highlighted in my courses. Teams report the results of activities in class and undergo class discussion of their work. They also make a formal presentation on an assigned topic using presentation software. For this assignment, they are provided written guidance on making effective presentations and professional-looking slides. The outcome is expected to be a ten-minute presentation on a historical topic that demonstrates competent historical and presentation skills. Since this is also a team assignment, they must demonstrate their product followed the rules for teamwork.

Individual writing skills are also developed through two short essays and a paper. Class activities involve teams in preliminary work on writing assignments. When teams come together, weaker and stronger students can form peer mentoring relationships that boost performance of the weaker student on the individual assignments.

One of the rewards of teaching is the opportunity to write recommendations for jobs or admission to graduate programs. Thus far, even though teaching primarily freshmen, I have a high success rate for those who ask for recommendations. I believe the key to success, along with the overall grades of the student, is my ability to describe how they behaved as professionals, both individually and as team members.

Contemporary and World History

Two revolutionary changes to the study of history in my lifetime modified attitudes toward contemporary and world history. My high school (1950s) and college (early 1960s) history classes usually stopped before getting to recent history. Some writers made a distinction between history as stable knowledge of the past and current events for which long-term impacts were not yet known. The German philosopher of history Georg Hegel stated this view poetically in The Philosophy of Right: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” Wisdom about history, in other words, is only possible in retrospect. Hegel and the historian Leopold von Ranke also expressed the traditional view of world history, which saw it as European mastery extending over the globe.

History teachers are rightly cautious about too much political discussion in class. The dilemma becomes obvious when thinking about the campaign and early presidency of Donald Trump. Opinions for and against both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were voiced in my classes. Especially important to me were the almost weekly statements and actions disrupting normal rules of American elections. Trump’s behavior and agenda overthrew normal expectations in a way not experienced since Andrew Jackson. Recognizing the occurrence of one historical precedent after another made the Trump experience an unavoidable topic, yet teachers like me needed to avoid turning classes into outbursts of opposing political speeches.

The current effort to revive American nationalism, in my view, represents opposition to loss of international dominance. The University of Chicago historian William H. McNeill was the first to describe world history in terms of interactions (such as trade, communications, epidemics) of cultures east to west and west to east across North Africa and Eurasia. Worldwide cultural interactions, now referred to as globalization, began as Europeans arrived in the Americas and then the Pacific islands. European and American assumptions of superiority have been resisted by former colonies as the planet is increasingly united by air and space travel, nearly instant communications, international trade, and danger of epidemics.

Our understanding of the importance of Columbus illustrates the joining of current events and a global view of world history. In high school and college, I learned that Columbus “discovered America” – a marvelous achievement of European superior knowledge and technology. But textbooks today recognize there were native populations in all the lands explored by Europeans who had cultures of their own and felt no need to be discovered. In fact, interaction with European powers often brought epidemics that decimated peoples not previously exposed to diseases that had long circulated in North Africa and Eurasia.

The achievements of Columbus look quite different when seen as part of the ongoing theme of human migration on planet earth. Patterns of migration are a constant issue of world history, as seen in the Trump campaign and electoral issues in European countries in 2016-17. Human beings were the first species to inhabit every continent. As they continue to move about, they disrupt old cultural patterns of religion, race, social relationships, and law.

What Columbus achieved was to inaugurate modern globalization as the Americas were brought into ongoing contact with cultures of North Africa and Eurasia. Innovative technologies keep intensifying the forces of transportation, economics, and communication that push cultures of European descent to treat other cultures equitably. These same forces are also intermixing populations as new migratory patterns keep emerging to challenge old cultural beliefs.

Even the remotest of historical events, like the first migration of humanity out of Africa or the arrival of humans in the Americas across land that is now under the Bering Strait, are still contemporary issues. There are political groupings in the United States today for whom the implications of human origin in Africa or rights of native groups in the Americas are urgent religious or constitutional issues.

Challenging students to pay attention to historical issues, no matter how ancient, as matters of ongoing importance to contemporary groups can encourage them to broaden their ideas of relevancy beyond the newest trends in their favorite technologies. Hopefully they will become better citizens as they connect present trends with the human past.

Science and History

Another revolutionary development in the study of history is narratives based on scientific evidence that probes into the deepest past and projects the most distant future.

Historians usually maintain that writing transformed pre-history into the proper study of human stories based on literary sources. This distinction is now rejected by many of us who affirm archaeological, geological, climatological, genetic, and chemical evidence – and even theories of physics – as sources for pushing histories to the origin of the universe, solar system, and life on earth.

Some historians espouse Deep History, which reverses time in explorations of human origins. Anthropology and archaeology, now with boosted power through genetic archaeology, have extended knowledge of the origin of our species, and of important attributes like speech, ever deeper into time. Many social sciences look at earliest cultural practices of hominines and their contemporaries. With their emphasis on pushing knowledge backward, these scholars sometimes attack cultural traditions such as the Judeo-Christian belief in forward progression of time from a primordial origin.

The trend that appeals most to me is called Big History. The narrative follows the traditional progression from a beginning (the Big Bang) known through scientific theory and data. Relying on physics and cosmological theories, the story traces the evolution of complexity from ultimate chaos to the current state of the universe – and uses the same theories to project likely developments billions of years from now. This scientific-historical narrative highlights the origin of our solar system, of life, and then evolution of humanity and its history.

As outlined in the first college textbook on the subject, Big History emphasizes eight points of major transition. The three most recent concern human history – origin of the species, adoption of agriculture, and arrival of the Industrial Revolution. Like other transitions in the narrative, these bring greater complexity that offer both dramatic new possibilities and greater dangers. The challenges now facing humanity include destruction of life on our planet and collapse of systems based on ever faster innovations that test the adaptability of human societies.

Students have been excited when I introduced aspects of Big History during world history courses. Those not interested in pursuing detailed understanding of sciences like mathematics, chemistry, or physics are stimulated by seeing the results of applying them to understanding evolution of order and life in the universe. I like the way students learn important scientific information in combination with an approach to human history that is sensitive to all cultural and religious traditions.

One of the first applications of Big History to education happened at Dominican University near San Francisco. Experiments with courses led to changing the mission of the institution and requiring all entering freshmen to take Big History under the guidance of an interdisciplinary team of instructors. Part of the idea was to use Big History to promote a unified approach to knowledge in the sciences, arts, and technologies while also building an educational environment in which faculty collaborated across disciplinary lines in ways that are student-centered. The experience at Dominican University led to summer institutes for a few years and then to publication of results in Teaching Big History.

Visualizing the timespans involved in scientific approaches to history has been a challenge. Time divisions of ancient, medieval, and modern apply to life since “civilizations” began. Archaeological divisions by types of tools (old stone, new stone, bronze, or iron) keep changing in spans of years. Starting with the Big Bang requires leaping billions and millions of years, then zooming in on thousands and hundreds as literary evidence begins.

A novel insight for many students is that history involves time travel. Not the science-fiction kind of travel so popular with young people, but non-fiction travel that speeds through billions of years backward and forward as well as centuries, decades, months, and days. The University of California at Berkeley has a website, featuring work of the geologist Walter Alvarez, called ChronoZoom which allows users to jump over time from the Big Bang until the present, zooming in closer and zooming out as students travel through time. The International Association of Big History website also has a link to the Cosmic Evolution Arrow of Time site by Harvard University for another way of scooting around in time.

After a career of “pushing the envelope” as a teacher, I now espouse the radical idea of teaching science in combination with the story of the universe, and in further combination with world history and current events to emphasize globalization in its broadest definition. This goes way past the bounds of history by having teachers of sciences, literature, arts, religion, philosophy, education, and history collaborating in a course that mirrors the scientific quest for a Grand Unification Theory.

Even in an environment as stimulating as the one at Georgia Gwinnett College, there are still bureaucratic walls. For members of a state university system, those walls are fortified by state laws and regulations that can stifle experiments like Big History.

Still, I remain optimistic. Considering the extent of change I have witnessed in a career spanning 49 years, the odds favor innovation.

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