Monday, January 21, 2013

Tours, Teaching, and Charity


[My thoughts on Becker's 1931 Presidential Address -Mary]


“If we remain too long recalcitrant Mr. Everyman will ignore us, shelving our recondite works behind glass doors rarely opened. Our proper function is not to repeat the past but to make use of it, to correct and rationalize for common use Mr. Everyman’s mythological adaptation of what actually happened. We are surely under bond to be as honest and as intelligent as human frailty permits; but the secret of our success in the long run is in conforming to the temper of Mr. Everyman, which we seem to guide only because we are so sure, eventually, to follow it.”

Here is a fact about me:  I am a horrible tour-goer.  Seriously.  I should not be allowed on historical tours.  I trail near the back, halfway paying attention, creating mental lists of things that are inaccurate and questions to trip up the tour guide.  In other words, I become the exact opposite of my typical self: instead of an overachieving, Type-A, generally positive and kind graduate student, I become an elitist, snobby jerk.  Granted, I try to keep it to myself, but my eye-rolling gives me away.

This stands in direct contrast to the version of myself that exists in the classroom.  In the classroom, I strongly advocate acquiring historical knowledge in any way possible.  My paramount goal when I teach is to make the information relevant to my students.  This takes many different forms, but one example is an assignment I’m giving this semester.  I’m teaching “Classical Literature,” (basically, Ancient Mesopotamian and Greek literature with lots of historical info thrown in).  I’m tasking my students with offering an interpretation of one of the plays we read using the language of the Internet—Facebook, Twitter, memes, Pinterest, Reddit…whatever their minds can come up with.  I’m excited about this assignment; the goal is for the students to stretch themselves.  I hope that Grumpy Cat makes an appearance at some point.

After reading Becker’s speech, I’m left with this thought:  What is the difference between tours and what I’m asking of my students?  Both attempt to make history relevant.  Both ask their participants to use the information available to create their own interpretations.  Both don’t conform to the notion of “traditional historical scholarship.”  I can imagine some professors I’ve had who would be shocked at the assignment I’ve designed.
Becker points out that history should be Everyman-driven.  My assignments are student-driven.  My students certainly qualify as “Everyman.”  In the end, perhaps there is no difference.  And perhaps I should be more charitable in my tour-going.


Case in point.

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