As a scholar and instructor who sincerely believes in the power of the Humanities for changing minds, transforming lives, and strengthening our democracy, teaching history, for me, is much more about the present than it is about the past. When I first began studying history as an undergraduate at Sonoma State University, I knew very little about either European or world history, let alone the political and economic dynamics of my own society, and was unable to think and write critically and logically about the topics I was studying. Thanks to a handful of dedicated professors and mentors, however, I was able to gradually gain a more sophisticated understanding of the past, as well as a deep appreciation for the importance of historical thinking in helping to resolve our own society’s various social, political, and economic challenges. In my own teaching, therefore, I seek to provide students with the same tools, skills, and inspirational sparks which led to my own intellectual awakening and sustained scholarly, social, and political engagements.
When teaching history, I want my students to understand the complexities of past events and processes from both macro and micro historical perspectives. To help students appreciate the experiences of historical individuals and groups “on the ground,” for instance, I assign a wide variety of primary sources for 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 Ranging from period-specific audio samples to images and video footage to excerpts from historical documents, plucked either from primary sourcebook collections or essays and letters I have personally transcribed and/or translated, my primary source-driven teaching approach helps students both practice the historian’s craft by exploring historical topics and themes as any research historian might do and, no less significant, empathize with past individuals, groups, or societies by comprehending the broader influences at work in shaping the political and economic conditions around them. When teaching the history of the First Industrial Revolution, for instance, I often assign primary sources written or generated by members of the diametrically opposed manufacturing and laboring classes in order to both encourage students to empathize with conflicting values and viewpoints and to comprehend the coming of early industrial civilization from the perspectives of those who directly shaped its developmental course. Ranging from excerpts from the infamous Sadler Hearings (1832) on the abuses surrounding children’s labor 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 representing the manufacturers’ points of view and the rest of the students advocating for the country’s working masses—and encourage them to respectfully debate one another within the spirit of their assigned historical “characters.” Not only do students enjoy this type of group exercise, they come away with a deeper understanding of the multifarious values, interests, and forces at work within the shaping of such a complex process as early industrialization in England. As one of my former students put it in their course evaluation, commenting on my primary source-driven pedagogy, “I don’t think I’ve ever learned anything with as much detail as I did in this class.”
In addition to teaching history from “above” and “below,” I endeavor to help students understand the constituent elements which collectively shaped large-scale historical events, processes, and changes. For instance, what were the primary contributions to the coming of the First World War? And how did the War contribute to the emergence of new or the strengthening of old ideologies, such as Fascism in Italy and Germany or Communism in the Soviet Union? And in what ways where those socio-political movements and experiments connected to the origins of World War II and the perpetration of the Holocaust? To help students better comprehend these types of macro level, and oftentimes deeply abstract, causal relationships, I use a variety of collaborative digital tools, such as group timeline software (including the “Cool Timeline” plugin in WordPress or “JS Timeline” by KnightLab), collaborative mapping software (such as “StoryMap” by KnightLab), and a wide range of other resources designed to help students 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 entries to each of my students, consisting of dates, an image, 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 historical subjects and agents within large-scale historical processes taking places within our contemporary society.
Students learn more efficiently, I believe, when they have been invested with authority over their own educational experiences. To stimulate active learning in my classrooms, I use collaborative course weblogs, which my students and I contribute to as joint authors and editors. In addition to a handful of JS Timeline and StoryMap assignments, I have my students compose a handful of short analytical summaries of specific weeks’ secondary and primary source readings. By doing so, students not only learn by writing for the weblog’s broader reading audiences, they gradually build a collaborative encyclopedia of the course’s assigned readings, which they can use in preparing for any exams or term papers. Beyond these analytical summaries, I require my students to respond to at least two of their colleagues’ weekly articles, which stimulates a peer-to-peer learning environment. In the Summer of 2018, I taught an upper-division course on Europe’s “interwar crisis” between 1919 and 1939 at UCSB, whose coursework 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 the “[b]est course taken at U.C.S.B.”
Overall, I am enthusiastic about teaching, mentoring, and helping students both learn about themselves, the present, and the past, as well as 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/.