Sunday, July 14, 2013

Teaching the Civil War


See, I set a posting schedule and I've already had to break it.  Originally this post was for tomorrow, but I'll be getting another injection in my back tomorrow afternoon.  They give me "twilight sedation" which knocks me out cold.  Rather than run the risk of posting under the influence, I thought I'd just go ahead and do this today.

My normal daily title at work is "Deputy", however, I also have another title.  I have taught US History survey courses for several years now at a local community college, thus also earning the moniker "Professor" which is kind of amusing seeing as how I still remember sitting in those same seats myself many moons ago.  Naturally, I have the term "Adjunct" in front of my name which is almost like an epithet to some.  But not to me.  I'll be branching into Western Civ this fall as well.

Teaching a survey course, be it US, Western Civilization or World History, is rather like firing a shotgun loaded with buckshot at the past.  You'll hit some things and miss others by a mile!  Taking two US history survey courses (divided by the year 1877) in my state is the only history course the vast majority of college students will ever take.  Often times these courses are taught by adjuncts like me.  We impart what little bit of historical knowledge these students will ever get from college.  The rest will come from Pawn Stars and Dan Brown novels.  How do we compete with that?

I have taught, off and on, for six years.  (Including one year of teaching 8th grade social studies and, yes, coaching football.  I do live in Texas after all.)  Though we may bemoan the lack of general historical knowledge in the American public, I have found that students DO enjoy history.  But only if it is taught the right way.  Naturally, this includes the Civil War.  In fact, my students are fascinated by it.  There is not a dry eye in the room, mine included, when I describe Pickett's Charge.  The class erupts with laughter when I tell them about General Sickles and his somewhat amusing life.  When I talk about sacrifice and hardship, they get it.  They can understand that because, in their own way, they have faced it themselves in their day to day lives.  (Particularly our growing population of young veterans attending college.)

Am I "Professor of the Year"?  Not hardly.  After all, despite trying, I have not gotten a full time teaching position at a community college, though I have been a finalist a few times.  Academia says that military history doesn't matter.  I disagree.  When teaching about the Civil War, if they even get to it in US 1, a lot of folks spend their time discussing everything BUT the military.  They talk about politics and society.  It is almost as if the actual war was insignificant.  All those things are important.  But you have to talk about all of them.

Here is what I do and honestly, I do it because it seems to work with my students.  After all, everything I do is for them.  TALK ABOUT THE PEOPLE!  Tell their stories.  Let the students connect with them as individuals.  Make them human, not some black and white picture in a textbook.  You can cover everything and reach the majority of your students by simply talking about the people as if they are alive today.  Don't just tell them what happened.  Tell them about the people who made it happen and who lived through it.  You can't expect a student to give a coyote's rosy red behind about Pickett's Charge unless you tell them SOMETHING about the men who both made and repulsed the charge.  What were their hopes and dreams?  What about their families?  Otherwise, it is just meaningless information and numbers.

You know, I've done a lot of cool things in my day job.  I've gotten to see a lot.  I've closed major felony investigations and sent some bad hombres to prison.  I've been in a few tight spots as well.  But nothing compares to the feeling of walking into a classroom on the first day and seeing all those faces looking at you.  Those of you who have experienced that firsthand know exactly what I mean.

I apologize for delving into matters pedagogical, but if history were taught the right way, there would be more people interested in it.  After all, isn't history really one big reality show!

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Civil War Addict who means no offense to those who don't teach like me since we all have our own quirks!  And the "History Teacher of the Year" award should go to my beautiful wife who is a high school teacher and coach.  And a d--n good one at that.