• Democrats Try to Put Out Some Fires
• Voter Enthusiasm High in Georgia
• Demings, Rubio Square Off
• Does Trump Care about a Republican Majority in the Senate?
• Bestseller in Politics? Yeah, Right
• Question of the Day: Don't Know Much about History
• Today's Senate Polls
For various reasons—age and approval ratings foremost among them—there is a very good chance that Joe Biden will be a one-term president. If that does come to pass, he would prefer not to spend the latter 2 years of his term as something of a lame duck. And that is what he would be, in many ways, if the Republicans retake either the House or the Senate (much less both). So, he is using every trick in the bag to try to retain (and possibly even strengthen) the Democratic trifecta.
First up is abortion rights. In a speech yesterday, he promised that the very first thing he will do next year, if the Congress is controlled by Democrats, is send a bill to them that would codify the right to an abortion nationally. The President said he would very much like to sign that bill into law on the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, which will arrive on Jan. 22, 2023.
All other things being equal, Biden would prefer to keep this promise implicit rather than making it explicit. In contrast to many Republicans, particularly Donald Trump, Democrats don't particularly like to over-promise and under-deliver. And the problem here—the reason Biden won't be sending this proposed legislation to Congress today, or tomorrow, or later this week—is that it won't pass. With the filibuster in place, it's dead on arrival. And even without the filibuster (or with some black magick that persuades Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough that abortion laws count as fiscal policy, and so can be passed via reconciliation), there are several Senate Democrats who are anti-choice (e.g., Joe Manchin, D-WV). Barring a blue wave that gives the Democrats at least 52-53 seats in the Senate, that calculus isn't going to change.
So, Biden is making a pledge that he and his party almost certainly won't be able to deliver on. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and so he wants to give voters something concrete to vote for. If the Democrats do maintain the trifecta, but by the skin of their teeth, then the President will... well, he'll cross that bridge when and if it presents itself.
Similarly, Biden knows he and his party are being hurt by the state of the economy. And the most visible manifestation of that is gas prices, which are currently on the rise. If you were to make a list of the factors most responsible for the high prices, OPEC, the Ukraine War, increased demand for fuel in Europe, refinery issues in California and the Midwest and ongoing supply chain issues would be in or near the top five. The actions (or inactions) of the President of the United States probably wouldn't even make the top ten; no one individual, regardless of how much power they have, can control the global petroleum market.
Still, even if voters shouldn't blame the President and his party doesn't mean that they don't blame the President and his party. Biden's been around the block a few times. Heck, he's been around the block enough times that his first trips were surely undertaken with leaded gasoline. So, he knows the score, even if he doesn't like it. To that end, the White House announced that it will release 15 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in December. That's something of an upper limit, because there isn't capacity to ship any more than that (on top of the millions of barrels that have already been released).
So, the administration is doing "something." But Biden also knows that his action is basically symbolic, since such a small amount of oil isn't going to affect prices much. And what effect it does have won't be felt until December or January—that is, after the elections. And so, the President has decided to deploy a second tactic. It's not nice, or particularly honest, but again, desperate times...
In the movie A Few Good Men, the lawyer Lt. Kaffee (Tom Cruise) says:
My father always said a jury trial is not just about the law. It's about "assigning blame." Santiago's dead, and he shouldn't be. These nine people are going to insist that someone be "blamed" for that. Ross is handing them our clients. We're gonna hand them Kendrick. This is about a sales pitch. It's not going to won by the law, It's gonna be won by the lawyers.
Biden is preparing to apply that general lesson to politics. He's being blamed for high gas prices. He can't really do much about high gas prices. Ipso facto, his only real option is to try to pass the blame to someone else. And his target will be... American petroleum executives. After all, nearly everyone loves to hate a rich guy, especially a rich oil tycoon-type. Perhaps you're familiar with the show Dallas, to take but one example.
To that end, Biden is going to give a speech today in which he will effectively accuse the nation's oil companies of price gouging, saying that the petroleum interests have made plenty of money on the backs of hard-working Americans over the past decade, and now it's time for them to be a part of team America and dial back the profits. After all, nothing is more American than mom, apple pie, and cheap gas.
It is not a total lie to accuse the petroleum companies of proce gouging, because they most certainly do squeeze every nickel they can out of the American people. But it's not entirely fair, either—they are subject to the same pressure the country as a whole is (refining issues, supply chain issues, OPEC, etc.)—and they can't just change their pricing on a dime. Indeed, what Biden is really doing here is channeling his inner populist. That's not historically been his style, but when the rubber meets the road, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. (Z)
It is 20 days until Election Day and, of course, early voting has already commenced in many places. That means that if a particular candidate's ship appears to be sinking, there's no longer time to hope that it rights itself—direct action is called for. Here are a few places where the Democrats are trying to avert disaster this week:
- New York: Gov. Kathy Hochul (D-NY) got her job by being in the right place at the right
time, and since then, she has left a lot of New Yorkers unimpressed. The economy isn't doing well (not her fault), her
pick for lieutenant governor was crooked (partly her fault), she made a dubious deal to build a new stadium for the
Buffalo Bills (definitely her fault), etc. Now, some (but not all) polls
that Republican Lee Zeldin might be within striking distance of the Governor. The latest from Quinnipiac, for example,
has Hochul at 50% and Zeldin at 46%. There isn't a lot that the DNC or other Democratic groups can do to help Hochul
financially, since they just can't afford to burn the large amount of money it would take to make a dent in New York,
with its many expensive media markets. But some pretty heavy-hitting blue-team pooh-bahs are going to the Empire State
to campaign for her. If Hochul loses, it will not be a great portent for the Blue Team on election night.
Also in New York, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) is in a closer-than-it-should be race against state legislator Michael Lawler (R). In part, the problem is that Maloney did some district shopping this cycle, and inserted himself into the district of another sitting Democratic member of the house (Mondaire Jones, D). This is known as bigfooting, and may have aggravated some Democratic voters (in particular, some Black Democratic voters, since Jones is Black and Maloney is white). On top of that, Maloney's new district is pretty swingy, and so has been targeted by Republicans as a pickup opportunity. Add it all up, and Maloney needs help. He's going to get it, to the tune of a seven-figure ad buy. Being chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has its privileges.
- Rhode Island: We were skeptical that blue Rhode Island would send a Republican to
Congress. And several readers wrote in to take us to task, observing that the Democrat running for the open seat in
RI-02, state treasurer Seth Magaziner, is somewhat uninspiring, while the Republican in the race, former Cranston mayor
Allan Fung, is pretty moderate and pretty popular. It turns out that those readers were right to challenge our
assumptions, as Fung (aided by multiple millions from the National Republican Congressional Committee) has
kept the race very close.
The Democrats are doing everything they can to save Magaziner, and have bought up nearly all the remaining ad inventory in Providence for the next few weeks. However, they are running a national campaign, apparently forgetting Tip O'Neill's warning that all politics is local. In other words, Democratic ads are warning that Fung is a right-wing semi-fascist who will vote to ban abortion, overturn elections, etc. That may be true of many Republican candidates, but it doesn't square with the moderate record Fung has compiled in his time in office, nor with his public statements. So, the Democratic campaign against him may prove ineffective. Rhode Islanders aren't stupid, especially now that Curt Schilling moved out of the state.
- Georgia: Rev. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) is not in need of money; he's swamping Herschel Walker (R) on that front. However, despite being the vastly more qualified candidate, Warnock has failed to put the race away, and is in some danger of losing. So, instead of playing the calm, even-keeled senior pastor role he has been playing, Warnock is preparing to roll up his sleeves and to start aiming some haymakers at Walker. It is worth noting that even Martin Luther King Jr., who is Warnock's role model and his predecessor in the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church, got snippy sometimes.
And so, there are some races worth paying a little extra attention to in the next 20 days. Undoubtedly, there will be others that reveal themselves. (Z)
Yesterday was the first day that the good people of Georgia could vote in person. That is a state that politics-watchers are quite interested in, of course, since control of the Senate might well be determined there. On top of that, the Georgians will determine if Stacey Abrams continues to be a rising Democratic star, or if she comes crashing back down to earth, like Icarus. Oh, and it's also a test case for the impact of more strict voting access laws, since the Georgia legislature took harsh steps last year to crack down on alleged "voter fraud."
And the news, after one day of early voting, is... very interesting. Yesterday 131,318 ballots were cast in person (along with 11,759 absentee ballots that have already been received). This is despite the fact that wait times were in excess of an hour in some polling places. By way of contrast, there were just 70,849 ballots cast on the first day of voting in 2018. And in 2020, a presidential year, the total was 136,739. So, yesterday's tally was just a few thousand votes off of that.
Not much is known about the demographics of the voters, and it's certainly not known how many votes each candidate got. However, the turnout does seem to support the general conclusion that if people want to vote, they will find a way to make that happen, regardless of the obstacles put up in their way. So, the new, more restrictive laws might not have the impact the Republicans hoped and the Democrats feared.
Beyond that, if you absolutely had to guess "what party got good news yesterday?," you would have to guess the Democrats. First, it is the party that holds the White House that tends to have enthusiasm issues, and yesterday's tally suggests that, despite this being a midterm, it won't be a low-enthusiasm year. Further, if there were hour-long lines, those would tend to be in urban areas. And urban areas, particularly in Georgia, skew Democratic and Black. Certainly, all the pictures we saw of people waiting in line featured mostly Black voters.
Again, this is all guesswork. But it's educated guesswork, at least. We will have to see if the enthusiasm holds, or if there is a larger-than-average drop-off next week. (Z)
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Val Demings (D-FL) participated yesterday in the first of what will likely be two candidates debates this cycle.
The thing about Rubio, as politician in general, and in particular as a debater, is that he is an automaton. His staff programs him with some pre-set lines, winds him up, and sends him out there. He delivers the lines in a near-monotone, raising the possibility that he might actually be a robot (Stepford senator?). But it's hard for him to really step in it, unless there is a programming glitch and he gets caught in an infinite loop. That happened back in 2016, when the then-presidential candidate repeated the exact same scripted talking point four times (including three times in just 4 minutes): "And let's dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing."
Last night, Mr. Roboto... er, Mr. Rubio gave his standard debate performance. He recited a list of Republican "greatest hits" (gas prices, socialism, Afghanistan withdrawal, etc.) in an entirely unremarkable manner that conveyed no depth of feeling whatsoever. So, he won few converts. But he didn't hurt himself, either. And as the candidate who is leading in the polls, maintaining the status quo is all he needs to do.
Demings, for her part, tried to take C-3PrubiO down a few pegs, but it's hard to get a rise out of a creature who evinces no emotion. The Representative did do a little damage by bringing up Rubio's co-sponsorship of Sen. Lindsey Graham's rather draconian anti-abortion bill. Unfortunately for Demings, her best line of the night was one aimed not at Rubio, but at a different U.S. Senate candidate. The Democrat, who used to be a cop of course, got out her badge and observed "this one's real." In case you've been taking a break from the news, that's a potshot at Georgia U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker (R), and the cereal-prize badge he flashed at this weekend's debate against Raphael Warnock.
In sum, it's yet another candidates' debate that doesn't look like it will change the trajectory of the race very much, if at all. One imagines Demings will be more aggressive in her next, and final, chance to take down Marcutus of Borg. (Z)
Actually, that is an easy question to answer. No, no he doesn't. Donald Trump's #1 priority is Donald Trump, and he only cares about the fortunes of the Republican Party to the extent that they affect Donald Trump. The only reason that we raise this question is that, apparently, GOP operatives are asking it right now. The headline in The Hill yesterday was: "Trump attack leaves GOP wondering if he cares about Senate majority."
The specific reason that this comes up is that Republicans are still dreaming of knocking off Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO). And for Bennet's Republican opponent, Joe O'Dea, to make that a possibility in purple-to-blue Colorado, O'Dea has to run toward the center and away from Trump. So, O'Dea has been critical of the former president, up to and including a promise that he would campaign against Trump if The Donald was to launch a presidential bid in 2024. The Donald doesn't like to hear things like that, so he's been taking potshots at O'Dea, with the usual litany of attacks (e.g., RINO).
We can't honestly believe that professional Republican operatives and politicians have any doubt as to where Trump's loyalties lie. He's the most self-involved politician that America has ever seen, and that's in a country that has witnessed the careers of Jim Traficant, Newt Gingrich and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA). If the choice is between helping the Republican Party and settling personal scores, Trump will choose the latter every time.
The more interesting, and rather more conspiratorial, question is whether Trump is actively trying to sabotage Senate Republicans. When it comes to the House, Trump is all-in on a Republican win, since would-be Speaker Kevin McCarthy (D-CA) has made very clear that he'll be a loyal Trump flunky. But Republican control of the Senate means more power and prestige for current Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is Trump's rival and his nemesis.
The bottom line is that when Trump takes a run at O'Dea or other would-be Republican senators, he's definitely not thinking "Uh, oh! This could stop the Republican Party from controlling the Senate." But he might well be thinking "This might just stop that a**hole from Kentucky from getting his old job back. Excellent!" (Z)
Let us present you with a sequence of events that was pointed out by Forbes this weekend:
- Jared Kushner published his White House memoir, Breaking History.
- The Donald Trump-affiliated Save America Joint Fundraising Committee reported spending $158,000 on "books" (title/titles unspecified).
- Kushner's book was declared to be a #1 bestseller by The New York Times.
- Not long thereafter, the Save America Joint Fundraising Committee began giving out signed copies of Breaking History with every donation of $75 or more.
Perhaps, given this sequence, you have reached the same conclusion Forbes did, about how much of a "bestseller" the book really was.
This is not all that important, of course, but it's a useful reminder that "bestseller" is a somewhat meaningless term, as those lists can be manipulated with a fairly minimal amount of expense. And the risk of that is particularly great for political books, as the primary goal of such volumes might not be to make money, but instead to influence people. Even political books by non-politicians are subject to this; the "bestsellers" of Ben Shapiro, for example, have gotten an assist from Dan and Farris Wilks on more than one occasion.
If you want to be certain that a book really did reach a large audience on its own merits, you want to look, first of all, at overall sales. It's plausible to buy 10,000 copies of a book to secure that desirable "bestseller" label; it's considerably less plausible to buy 200,000. The second thing to look at is duration; normally the list manipulators go for a week or two of placement, and that's good enough. If a book lingers for many weeks or, better yet, many months, that's a pretty good sign it's legit. Not a perfect sign, mind you—for example, the Church of Scientology made strategic purchases of Dianetics for years and years in order to keep that book on the charts in near-perpetuity.
The real point, however, is probably this: Who cares about bestseller charts? If a book looks good, buy it and read it. If it doesn't, don't. Problem solved! (Z)
This week, as everyone probably knows by this point, we are running answers to questions we posted this Sunday. (V) and (Z) bat leadoff, followed by 10 readers whose submissions we've selected.
Today's question, from A.P. in Kitchener, ON, Canada:
I am a professor at the Canadian equivalent of a community college. In such a setting, sometimes I end up in teaching classes that are outside of my direct field of expertise (political science masters, geography doctorate). If I were ever asked to teach a history class what general advice would you provide? I enjoy reading about history, but only took a couple of courses in undergrad on the subject. I imagine this advice would be germane to high school teachers, as well.
Let's see what advice folks have for a communit-eh college professor:
(V): Forget which king died when. Focus on the big picture.
(Z): I have some advice I give to teachers of any stripe, like "do a play, or some stand-up comedy, or some improv; something that gives you experience with performance and paying attention to an audience."
However, A.P. is already a professor, so here are the two pieces of advice I give to history teachers in particular. First, teach the class that you would want to take as a student. Second, for everything you teach in a history course, ask yourself "Why would a 21st century student want or need to know this?" If you can't answer that question for something you intend to cover, you probably shouldn't cover it. And if you feel you absolutely must cover something, then asking that question will force you to do whatever it takes in order to make the material relevant.
Oh, I also start every lecture with at least one song apropos to the day's topic, and at least one trivia-type question. For example, today's lecture is on the rise of Silicon Valley. The song is "One Too Many Mornings" by Bob Dylan (Steve Jobs' favorite song), and the question is "What celebrities thrice sued Apple for copyright infringement?" (The Beatles). Both serve to highlight a main theme of the lecture, which is that 1960s hippie culture played a significant role in the rise of Silicon Valley.
T.B. in Detroit, MI: I have a degree in history. On my first paper, of my first class, in my first semester, the only note my professor made was to cross out where I had written "In my opinion..." Teach your students to construct an argument, based in evidence, citing sources. This is a skill I use daily in my present career as a city planner.
J.N. in Springfield, OR: My answer isn't about teaching history so much as it is about preparing yourself to address any topic effectively and responsibly. About 20 years ago, I had an interview to teach basic-level courses at a community college. It was a last-minute call, with classes beginning the following week. The faculty member interviewing me asked if I could teach a course called "Effective Learning." I had no idea what that was, but I did have a solid liberal arts background and a couple decades of adult work and life experience, so I could certainly imagine what it might entail. "Of course," I answered. I got the job.
While I did spend the term scrambling to keep barely a day or two ahead of the class, I found the experience to be exhilarating, challenging, and ultimately rewarding. When the department head observed one of my classes, her report said that she doubted any of the students would guess that it was my first time teaching the class. I use myself as the example here, but I could easily have said this about any number of colleagues I met through my years of teaching. There is no substitute for a broad liberal arts education, which prepares you for the number one skill needed in work and life: the ability to solve problems. So go into the course prep with the spirit of curiosity and discovery. Review how other history courses have been taught (the online resources are widely available), and make the topic your own. Students can tell when a teacher cares about the topic, and it's quite likely your enthusiasm will be picked up and shared by them.
C.J. in Boulder, CO: OK, so I am probably not the best to comment, but geology is history with things like dinosaurs and trilobites, so maybe a very distant perspective that might be interesting. The greatest challenge in teaching what is usually called historical geology is the tendency to have the "march through time." There is often a set of early lectures/chapters on some of the techniques used, and then we plunge into the Precambrian, suddenly abandoning a familiar world for one with a poisonous atmosphere, a much shorter day, fewer continents, no life on land, etc. In short, it is fantasyland from the perspective of the student without any clear idea what it might mean. What I've found over the years is that the students abandon any idea of applying the tools we discussed and instead sit back and watch the show as a "just so" story. My solution was to start right away with very recent (to geologists) events and work our way backward, only bringing in the techniques used when they are actually important to understanding the events in question. This helps to discredit the idea that the geologic past is somehow devoid of the same rules as today while reinforcing the application of the tools used by geologists. It isn't perfect—there are places where you have to sort of loop a bit backwards and then forwards—but it avoids the worst of the march through time.
I think history instruction has traditionally had that same risk; it is pretty easy to tell the story and just demand that students can recount it. And if the whole point is to try to build some kind of oral history, well, maybe that makes sense. But usually you want there to be some point. I have to wonder if, in teaching from the beginning (which is probably more necessary in regular history—hard to see the Civil War without knowing about how slavery evolved), the first thing to do is to anchor that part of the past in the present so that there is a sense that the lessons of the past have some meaning for the present. After all, there should be some meat in these lessons that separates history class from the latest historical dramas, so having a sense of those connections can help to crystalize the reason for teaching that part of history.
Again, just two cents from the pre-human peanut gallery...
D.K. in Stony Brook, NY: I have often thought that history should be taught backwards—that is, starting from the present and going into the past. It would highlight the relevance of past events in shaping the present. Particularly at the high school level, one could start with a headline from the day's news and step progressively backwards in time explaining how prior events led to later ones.
Take, for example, Afghanistan. Why is there trouble there now? Let's say, for the sake of argument (and, in a history class, argument is very much on point), it's because the U.S. military has pulled out. Why was the military there in the first place? 9/11 and bin Laden and A- Qaeda. Why did these arise? Residual U.S. military presence in the Middle East? OK, why was the U.S. there? Left over bases from the first Gulf War. Then, why was that war fought? Because Iraq invaded Kuwait? Why did they do that? and so on, back and back.
Or: start with the current U.K. woes, and rewind to Boris Johnson, Brexit, E.U., European Coal and Steel Community, desire for unity after World War II, etc.
Likely this method would not match the breadth of a survey course, but by establishing context and relevance for the topics covered, it might result in better retention.
E.W. in Skaneateles, NY: I'm a psychology professor who has needed to teach courses outside my immediate specialization of biopsychology. Usually, I just go with a good textbook (often recommended by the person I am covering for) and then read ahead of the students. Not the most wonderful strategy, but it will work, especially because I am not only an expert in my specialty, but also a skilled learner.
However, I just finished Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond, and it would be the first book I would assign if I ever was called upon to teach a World Civilization course. To me, it was one of the most eye-opening books I have ever read, explaining a lot of the grand sweep of world history in a very coherent way, but also touching on American history (particularly the clash between Native Americans and Europeans). I am curious; as a history professor, what does (Z) think about the book?
(Z) responds: It's a great book for teaching purposes. It's written and argued in a manner that is sophisticated, yet engaging and accessible. Not too many books hit that sweet spot.
B.J.L. in Ann Arbor, MI: I think teaching history is a critical element of many other disciplines as it provides context for business, politics, and the growth of the industrial sector, warts and all. In fact in my engineering class this week, we have some added slides about Mayan games 3,000 years ago that made use of balls produced from local rubber plants tapped to produce it. The unique wrinkle of the rubber was that it wasn't "cured" in its ball shape so it would sag overnight and have to be remolded into a sphere the next day.
I suspect if you have to go all-in on teaching a history course, having a period wardrobe makes the stories more consumable. We had a classics professor in my undergraduate days who would pack a standing-room-only 1,000 seat auditorium as he donned a toga for every "performance" during the semester. People who weren't registered came into to class to watch the show, Rumor had it that he was lead instructor but worked out a deal that he didn't have to grade, just act or "teach."
D.Y. in Windsor, England, UK: As a high school history teacher, I'd like to offer some thoughts in response to A.P.'s question on Backwards Day.
My overall general advice is probably pretty similar to the general advice that A.P. herself/himself might offer: get students excited about what you're teaching.
There are many ways to do this. One of my high school history teachers, Mr. Jewell, told us on the first day, "When you hear two eyewitness accounts of a car accident, you start to worry about History." I still quote him to my own pupils today. Students tend to assume that firsthand accounts are always accurate, but that's not always the case; I like using clips from the Simpsons episode "Bart Gets Hit by a Car: to illustrate the point. In general, creating discussion and debate in the classroom is a good way to get students going—I know that sounds trite, but it seems to work. Whether it's an exploration of the origins of the First World War, an investigation into the Gunpowder Plot, debating the causes of the Cold War, or evaluating Abraham Lincoln, you can often split your class into different sides and have them discuss the key ideas such that they have skin in the game.
If you're feeling adventurous, you can use a side entrance into history discussions. A two-page dinner party scene in Ken Follett's Fall of Giants highlights different countries' territorial ambitions in 1914. The play Equivocation, by Bill Cain, is an excellent mix of history, drama, and English (it features Shakespeare hired to write "a true history of the Gunpowder Plot"). Eddie Izzard's comedy routine about the Second World War helps explain Soviet motivations for establishing a buffer zone. Daniel Day-Lewis in the film Lincoln is extraordinary and a helpful companion to Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals when exploring the 16th president's skills of persuasion. And that's just for the four examples above.
Two final suggestions, one rather left field and the other smack in the middle of it. Ray Bradbury's short story "A Sound of Thunder" suggests that small changes can have huge consequences (i.e., the butterfly effect), and this is tangential to history but can help get students interested in how individuals can shape it. And Margaret MacMillan's introduction to her book History's People: Personalities and the Past is a brilliant way for students understand the study of history and why it's important. She compares history to a "rambling, messy and eccentric house," with different rooms built by different historians and offering different ways to study history. She then writes, "In the end I love history because it is such a marvellous combination of enlightening and fun."
I couldn't agree more. I hope this helps, and good luck if and when you end up teaching history!
G.R. in Tarzana, CA: As a television/feature writer, there were always times when a "real" job was a necessity, and since the Los Angeles Unified School District was always in need of substitutes, you could work whatever days you wanted, and all that was required was taking an SAT type test, it was a perfect answer.
As for what I would sub teach, it was pretty much up to me, and while I was a professional writer, writing entertainment and comedy uses a different tool set than the grammar and English taught in schools, and my BA in Economics was theoretical. So as to avoid most math and business classes, I signed up for history, as I minored in it, it's most of my leisure reading and I had worked in politics.
What I found out when I would show up, often to take over a class for a week or so, was that the syllabus left was often filled with names, dates and basic generic "facts" that the students would need to know for tests and quizzes but no real insight. I also discovered most of the students hated history because was boring and just names and dates.
I proceeded to do two things, first to inform the students that they were mostly correct and the names and dates were mostly irrelevant in the overall story of history. And secondly, I emphasized that history was storytelling, and that they should like of it like they think of their favorite movies and television shows. We would discuss some of them, explaining how many of them were dependent on historical references and plots in they didn't even know about. And then, depending upon which historical period they were supposed to be learning about, I would try to engage them in discussions of what happened and why and how it impacted that era and the future, and we would pretend that we weren't talking about history, but rather writing a movie, sometimes including them casting the historical characters.
As opposed to the students barely listening to my reciting a list of boring facts, many would actually get engaged in discussions about why and how, and would often tell me that I was their favorite "history" teacher. That said, I would also inform them that unfortunately their regular teacher was going to require them to know the names and dates, but that they should take satisfaction in knowing that they could probably now teach their "history teacher" a thing or two about the subject.
D.C. in Delray Beach, FL: Teaching history can be made more helpful by including appropriate fiction into the syllabus. When I was growing up in Concord, Massachusetts we read books like Johnny Tremain: A Story of Boston in Revolt by Esther Forbes, April Morning by Howard Fast, and Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin by His Good Mouse Amos by Robert Lawson. These books help youngsters to understand the emotions and actions of individuals as part of the historical record.
B.C. in Walpole, ME: My advice, as a longtime history teacher:
- Start from the other end: You are a scholar; you have expertise. Imagine that someone without your credentials had to teach in your field. What advice would you give them?
Make a list of all the naive, well-meaning mistakes you could imagine someone, say, trained in the field of history, making if they were assigned to teach a geography course. Think about a geography course you teach and make a quick list of all the ways ignorance of the field would lead to errors. Think of the terms, concepts, interpretive tools and such that a person trained in a different field would not have. Make a list of ways someone could avoid the pitfalls, traps, and naive errors.
That should help give you a clear idea of what you're up against. The essential rule of any profession is still, "First, do no harm."
- Take your list and go to at least two other people—chair of the department in which you would be teaching the course; someone in that department that you know, respect and trust; a scholar at a nearby university or your own alma mater. Ask them how you can avoid the problems that you've already foreseen (and they may know of others).
- While you're there, get each of your advisors to come up with a list of 8-10 essential books that would help you get a quick handle on the field outside your expertise and the specific course topic.
Get all of the books that anyone recommends (and make your institution pay for them). Using your best speed-reading techniques, case every book. Read the introductions and all prefatory material carefully, note the table of contents for the structure of the book, and then skim the rest, ignoring details, and reading quickly to find the major concepts. Read with highlighter or other device in hand. Try to case each book in one sitting.
Choose from among those books one-third to one-half to read more carefully.
Keep in mind that most of the history books that most people read and that bookstores mostly stock were written by journalists, writers, and amateurs. Sometimes very talented amateurs like Jon Meacham, or accomplished writers like David McCullough, or insightful journalists like William Shirer, but they were not written by professional, academic historians and they tend to be a different kind of history.
- Play to your own strengths. In college, I had two professors for English Renaissance Drama (Shakespeare and his contemporaries). One was a fabulous lecturer, one of the best in the university; the other never lectured at all, but led discussion classes. Both were excellent. Play to your own strengths as an instructor, both inside and outside the classroom.
- If at all possible, avail yourself of any and all help from someone who has taught the course, including their syllabus, reading list, grading methods, video material. You may be able to adapt everything to your own needs, or you may merely use it as a place to begin creating your own course. If that person mysteriously disappeared, the school should still have on file somewhere at least some kind of course syllabus.
- Get someone in the department to be your mentor, someone who will answer your questions and give you guidance as the semester goes along.
Again, there were a lot of really good responses, in our view.
Who is the most influential entrepreneur in U.S. history, and how did they influence the U.S.?
There's one entrepreneur who's running away with it so far. Not to give anything away, but he starred on a TV show where he told people "You're..." Oh, wait, maybe not him. But there really is a clear frontrunner so far. And, of course, there's still time for readers to add their two cents. (V & Z)
Poll after poll makes clear that Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) really is making a contest out of this. If he wins, it will be very difficult for the Republicans to regain the Senate. (Z)
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