Remember Jock Jams? Volume 1, perhaps, featuring the finest work of Tag Team, Snap!, and other fine artists, or Volume 4, which Chumbawamba took to number 20 on the US charts? Ahh, the Nineties…. Anyway, we historians and other academics could use something like that. I’m not sure what CD I’d suggest — Matt Damon reading Howard Zinn, maybe? — but we definitely need something to get us pumped up for (the jam of) teaching. I had a really flat day in class last week, and I’ve been dwelling on it. Things had been going so well in previous sessions: students talking to each other instead of me, critiques of the text, insightful suggestions for further exploration of the topic. And then, splat. And while a nasty string of heat and humidity didn’t help, I take the blame. At first I thought the problem started with my notes and discussion questions: not sufficiently provocative; too many yes/no questions. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that I just didn’t bring enough enthusiasm into the class. I was bored with the material, and I’m pretty sure that came through in my body language and tone of voice. The students picked up on that and responded in kind. And so I’m going to try something new during class prep. In addition to coming up with provocative, open-ended questions (paired with follow-up questions that anticipate where students might take the discussion), I’m also identifying the things about the reading and the topic that I find particularly intriguing and exciting. In my Environmental Ethics course today, for instance, we’re talking about Bjorn Lomborg’s Cool It vs. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. I think it’s an interesting exercise in understanding different forms of anthropocentrism and the policy implications of those differences. But what gets my blood running is this proposition: because of the way Gore sets up the terms of the debate, Lomborg wins every time. If humans are at the center of the justification for environmental policy, as Gore argues, then Lomborg’s cost-benefit analysis scheme might just be the perfect approach. But that doesn’t feel right to me, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t feel right to some of my students. That’s fascinating and exciting, and I’m going to try to bring that into class. Enthusiasm can only get you so far, of course — you actually have to prepare the material — but I’m betting it’s a critical component of good teaching. We’ll see.
A few days ago, Historiann posted a piece on the point of learning history, and, for whatever reason, it found a little nook in my brain. I wasn’t really thinking about it, it was just…there. And then this morning, while reading Luigi Giussani‘s The Religious Sense, I came across a few passages that struck me:
- “We must recognize that — in order to react now –we need to use something given to us in the past: flesh, bones, intelligence, heart. Therefore, although the force for building the future lies within the energy, the imaginativeness, the courage of the present, the richness of the present comes from the past” (83).
- “Because even as the human person is one, so too is history, and the force of the present undertaking lies in all that has preceded it” (83).
Which brought to mind another quote from someone else that I carry with me:
- “…[T]o be without history is to be trapped in a present where oppressive social relations appear natural and inevitable. Knowledge of history is knowledge that things have changed and do change.” From Cultural Politics: Class, Gender, Race And The Postmodern World by Glenn Jordan and Chris Weedon
Both Jordan/Weedon and Giussani advocate for knowledge of history, but for different reasons: Giussani values the traditions from the past, while Jordan/Weedon value its revolutionary potential. Giussani loves continuity; Jordan/Weedon love change. And that, of course, is history: the stories we tell about change and continuity in the past. We need both, and I think these quotes get at something fundamentally important about the value of the past. From Giussani, we get a sense of the reservoir of experiences, practices, traditions, and examples offered to us by the past. “The richness of the present comes from the past” that has established, through experimentation and trial-and-error, certain forms of wisdom. From Jordan/Weedon, we see the possibilities of the future suggested by the past — the “knowledge that things have changed and do change” is empowering; if change has come before, it can certainly come again. I think part of my job as a historian is to weave together those strands of change and continuity and demonstrate their empowering value.