As a scholar and instructor who sincerely believes in the power of the Humanities and Social Sciences for changing minds, transforming lives, and strengthening democracy, teaching history, for me, is both a professional calling and a public service. When I began studying history as an undergraduate at Sonoma State University, I knew very little about either modern European or world history, let alone the political and economic dynamics of my own society, and was consequently unable to think critically and write logically about the topics I was studying. Thanks to a handful of dedicated academic mentors, however, I was able to gradually acquire a much deeper appreciation for historical thinking and analysis, as well as an ability for applying historical knowledge towards the resolution of my own society’s social, political, and economic challenges. In my approach to teaching, therefore, I seek to provide my students with the same tools, skills, and inspirational sparks which led to my own intellectual awakening and sustained scholarly, social, and political engagements.
In my History courses, I help my students to understand the complexities of past events and processes from both micro- and macro-historical perspectives. To help students witness and appreciate the experiences of historical individuals and groups “on the ground,” for instance, I assign a wide variety of primary sources for in-class group discussions. Ranging from period-specific audio samples to images and video footage to excerpts from historical documents, plucked either from primary sourcebook collections or essays and letters I have personally transcribed and/or translated, my primary source-driven pedagogy enables students to both practice the historian’s craft by exploring historical topics and themes as any research historian might do and, equally as important, to empathize with past individuals, groups, or societies by comprehending the broader influences at work in the shaping of the political and economic conditions around them.
When teaching the history of the First Industrial Revolution, for instance, I assign primary sources written or generated by members of the opposing laboring and manufacturing classes in order to encourage students to grapple with conflicting values and viewpoints and to comprehend the coming of early industrial civilization from the perspectives of those who directly impacted its developmental course, from both “below” and “above.” Ranging from excerpts from the infamous Sadler Hearings (1832) on children’s labor conditions in England’s northern textile mills and factories to selections from Andrew Ure’s Philosophy of the Manufacturers (1835), I break the classroom up into two groups—a small handful of students representing the manufacturers’ points of view and everyone else advocating on behalf of the country’s working masses—and encourage them to respectfully debate one another from the perspectives of their assigned groups. Not only do students enjoy this type of a role-playing exercise, they come away with a deeper understanding of the multifarious values, interests, and forces at work within the shaping of such a complex and contentious process as early industrialization. As one of my former students put it in their course evaluation, commenting on the efficacy of my primary source-driven pedagogical philosophy, “I don’t think I’ve ever learned anything with as much detail as I did in this class.”
In addition to teaching with primary source documents, I help my students understand the constituent elements which collectively shaped large-scale historical events, processes, and developments. To help students better comprehend macro-level and oftentimes deeply abstract relationships of historical causality, I use a variety of collaborative digital tools, such as timeline software (including “JS Timeline” by KnightLab), mapping software (such as “StoryMap” by KnightLab), and a wide range of other resources designed to help students work together and visualize, or “see,” these concepts and processes in both temporal and spatial dimensions of analysis. Using broad categorical labels, including “politics,” “economics,” “culture,” and “gender,” among others, I assign a number of Timeline or StoryMap entries to my students, consisting of dates, an image or video, and a short textual summary. By the end of the term, students are not only able to better understand the principle influences, and influencers, behind the course’s primary topics, themes, and events, they are able to recognize themselves as individual and collective agents within the shaping of contemporary large-scale historical processes.
Students learn more efficiently, I am convinced, when they have been invested with a measure of authority over their own educational pathways and experiences. To stimulate active learning in my classrooms, I use collaborative course weblogs, which my students and I contribute to as joint authors. In addition to JS Timeline and StoryMap assignments, I have my students compose a handful of short analytical summaries of specific weeks’ primary and secondary source readings. By doing so, students not only learn by writing for the weblog’s public-oriented audiences, thereby bringing the intensive learning of the History classroom to a much broader online readership, they gradually build a collaborative encyclopedia of the course’s assigned readings, which they can use in preparing for their exams or term papers. Beyond these analytical summaries, I require my students to respond to at least two of their colleagues’ articles on the course weblog, which stimulates a peer-to-peer learning environment both within and beyond the classroom. In the Summer of 2018, I taught an upper-division course on Europe’s “interwar crisis” between 1918 and 1939 at University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), which was centered on a collectively-managed course weblog.1 In my course reviews, many students commented on how much they enjoyed completing these weblog assignments. “The Interwar class blog was very helpful and interesting,” wrote one of my students, while another exclaimed that using the weblog helped make “Interwar Crisis: Europe, 1918-1939” the “[b]est course taken at U.C.S.B.”
Overall, I am enthusiastic about helping students to understand the complex relationship between the past and today’s society and world and, equally as important, to become informed and engaged citizens of the global twenty-first century.
- To explore this course blog, which I have left unchanged, see “Interwar Crisis: Europe, 1919-1939,” Brian J Griffith, available at: http://www.brianjgriffith.com/interwarcrisis/. See also Jim Logan’s July 2018 article, “History Course at UCSB Lets Students Learn—and Teach—about Europe’s Interwar Decades (1918-1939),” in UC Santa Barbara’s news and announcements blog, The Current: https://www.news.ucsb.edu/2018/019113/echoes-turbulent-era/.