Monday, February 18, 2008

Fakin' It Til I Make It

Are there any history peeps out there? Particularly ones who won't want to nail my feet to the floor for doing a little work in their discipline? I hope so, because I'd love some advice. Be gentle...

So, I'm teaching an liberal education course on a particular topic---the literary and cultural production of a particular array of ethnic groups. I should remind y'all here that this is a set of people that the students have little to no direct knowledge or information about. As in, brainstorming a list of popular culture representations---or any associations AT ALL---of/with these people didn't take long, even with prompting. Particularly because I have to constantly remind them of the difference between these people as they have inhabited the U.S. for generations vs. people who look like them and come from the largest continent on earth. You know what I'm saying? Hello, forever foreigner!

Right, so. I've found that it's crucial to give them some historical background on each of the groups in order to help them understand the ways that immigration patterns and geopolitical contexts shape the daily lives and experiences of these peoples. I like, particularly, to assign sections from one of the first, and still most cited, historical book in the field. Why, you ask? [You'd be alone in that asking; I try to explain my rationale to the students, and they think I've gone mad. Just like today when I tried to explain Farm Aid in the 80's. Hello? Willie Nelson? Anybody? Bueller?] For at least two reasons: the book is comprehensive but very readable; it carefully analyzes the difference in the treatment of immigrant populations and their communities on both the mainland U.S. and the state of Hawaii (which really begins to highlight the power wielded by a majority population); and because, on occasion, the author inserts his own personal stake in the history he's documenting. [Yes, I know that's three! Thank you!]

So what's the problem, you ask? Is it that the students are bored with the text? Is it that they don't read it carefully? Is it that they value the "truth" of it over and above that of the literary texts we're using? Well, yes, but we're hashing that all out---not my main issue. My main issue is this: what the hell are the best practices in history pedagogy? In other words---how do you people teach this stuff?!! Seriously. I've never been much of a lecturer, and I'm still not. I'm perfectly prepared to lead students in the practices of interpretation of a text---whether that be a work of literature, a film, or a visual art piece (or, more likely, a print ad or a website. Puppybowl? WTF?!). But when it comes to guiding them through the historical text, I'm a bit at a loss. What's really important to me is that they understand the relationship between the oral histories and, as they call them "stories" that the author includes (ah, narrative, my old friend!), and the economic and legal situations that condition those "stories." As in, when the government says you can't own land, and neither can your children, it has an effect on your relationship to the nation, yo. So, not to be all pedantic, but how do I avoid being pedantic? What kinds of questions do you people ask to help students get the point?

And on a related note, I mentioned, offhand, in class the other day that the American government was implicated in the overthrow of the Hawaiian government, and imprisoned Hawaii's last queen in her own palace until she abdicated her throne. Oh, looks of shock and surprise around the room! Quel horreur! Um, is it safe to assume that this is not common knowledge, or should I just chalk this up to the provincial nature of my students' education?

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6 Comments:

Blogger Sisyphus said...

I'm totally not a historian, so no help here. Bet I've read that text though. I have led students in section through Omi and Winant, and I usually ask them to come in having marked the thesis and then I have a whole bunch of questions that I either ask them or have them break into groups and find out for us the answers to those questions. It's not really a "history" though, so they can find an argument and we can fight over that. Then I try to get them to use it as a model for their own papers if we still have time and all is going well. I've also been in classes where we had a history textbook assigned as a chapter or so each week in addition to other texts, and then they had quizzes every week or so in lecture. But these are pretty huge classes.

And yeah, the Hawaii stuff is totally news to my students (heck, even I'm fuzzy on it --- I read plantation/Pearl Harbor stuff but not earlier history) and the fact that we went into the Philippines is totally news to them too. And these are Californians. Maybe that explains a lot, actually. I keep hearing our public school system kinda sucks.

And I haven't taught it, but I bet that that dude, where's my racial stereotype? movie would be really fun for them. And it kinda feels like it's written to follow along with the chapters of an RES textbook.

Monday, February 18, 2008 10:30:00 PM  
Blogger Ashley said...

As a measure, there was a question about which was the only state to have a diacritical mark in its name on Teen Jeopardy the other night, and nobody guessed Hawai(tinypause)i, so either they don't know wht a diacritical mark is or they forgot Hawai'i was a state. I'd say the answer is probably both.

Anyway, I'm of no help to you, despite being told by a colleague that I should go teach in the history department, since that was all I wanted to teach. I just own my pedanticism on history days, I guess, and do straight-up lecture, which I rarely, if ever, do when talking about literature. But I think, if your students have a grounding in rhetorical analysis at all (do they have to take comp?), you could take them through some standard historiography questions: who's writing? What position is s/he writing from? Who seems to be the audience--a member of the group the author's a part of? Outsiders? What types of evidence support the author's theory? Blah dee blah.

Talking about Puppybowl would be infinitely preferable though.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008 7:43:00 AM  
Blogger kfluff said...

Sisy---ah, reading assignment! Why didn't I think of that? Sorry--this is a bit more general than your very specific suggestion, but clearly, I should be prompting them to look for specific things in the text before they read. Thanks!

I'm wary of the racial stereotype film; not because it isn't good, but because I fear that one of the effects of the multiculturalism age is that students think that as long as they recognize stereotype, they're not racist. There's nothing more disheartening than doing an entire semester on history, social conditions, economics, politics, collective action, the use of aesthetics,etc., only to read 20 papers on various stereotypes. argh!!

Ash---ah, diacritical markers! Or, the Okina, as the peeps like to call it. Which totally f'ed me up in French, man, where it works differently---not so much with the tiny pause. I think my poor French teacher thought I was insane.

I'm down with the historiography questions---my fear was that that was all I did. Prompting questions like "are you saying that he's biased" Well, yes. And no. And how did I get here?

Perhaps you could come and lecture for me?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008 9:10:00 AM  
Anonymous New Kid on the Hallway said...

Even though I'm a historian, I actually have a hard time teaching what I consider plain old facts, like in a textbook, which is why I much prefer teaching primary sources (the abundance of which confuses my students, sigh). I'm not familiar with the book you're describing, so I don't know how much it's "straight narrative of events" over something that feels more interpretive (with the obligatory caveat that of course even textbooks are interpretations, and are making arguments, but honestly, when it feels like the argument is something like, In DATE X happened and it looked like this, I find it hard to discuss much about that). My usual questions would be things like:
What's the author's main argument?
How does he support that argument?
What kind of evidence does he use?
Do you find the argument convincing?

I also tend to ask some plain-old "tell me what it says" questions: What's going on with the economy? (Okay, I ask it better than that in real life.)
What is the legal position of ethnic-group-in-question like?

I mean, these are lame questions in that they kind of have "right" answers, which you're supposed to avoid, but I use them sometimes as warm-up questions to remind everyone what it was they actually read (if they read it to begin with).

A little more interesting:
How is that different from non-ethnic-group folk at the time (or today)? (I'm big on compare/contrast, where possible.)
What effect do such economic and legal conditions have on people's actual lives?
I might even ask something about the fairness or equitableness of the conditions.

And finally, I'd probably straight-out ask them, How do the "stories" reflect these legal/economic conditions? (I can understand if you'd prefer "engage with" or "respond to" rather than "reflect"!)
What do the "stories" tell us about how people experienced these conditions?
Or I'd flip it around and ask, What do these stories reveal about the legal and economic conditions of their authors?

As for the "biased" thing - damn, I hate that word! I'm at the point of banning it from my classrooms. I usually respond by saying that everyone is biased. Or else I'd throw it back at them and ask them why they say that, do they think he's biased, what does that mean to them, etc. etc. But it is frustrating.

(And yeah, I don't think they know anything about Hawaii. I think it's a shock to think that people actually lived on Hawaii before it became a state - because hasn't it always been a state??)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008 2:35:00 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

Not a historian so I can't help with the teaching stuff, but... I'm embarrassed to say that *I* didn't know the Hawaii stuff. Another piece of history I'll need to go and self-educate about, I suppose!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008 8:22:00 AM  
Blogger kfluff said...

NK--Thanks so much for the detailed response!! I feel like I've been given permission to ask the "tell me what it says" questions. I like the idea of these as warm up to the others (and I got no problem with "reflect"---that's essentially what I'm asking them to consider).

What an abundance of answers---thanks again!!

Kate--judging from the answers above, I don't think you should be embarrassed. It seems to me like Hawaii has such a particular history that challenges American ideas about itself (everyone wanted to be a part of the union!!) that it's not exactly circulated as common knowledge. And sheesh, how many of us know individual state histories?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008 8:34:00 AM  

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