Friday, May 3, 2013

Documenting, 101

What I do for my students.

All this week I have been frantically trying to get my last online discussion set up for my compressed video class.  I had no idea, when I structured the course this way, that these assignments would take so long to create.  But each one requires me to locate six to nine documents regarding a specific time and issue – documents that are not only relevant to whatever question I wish to ask (which is a whole added layer of trying to figure out the assignment) but which are also, preferably, available in a digital format that can be transferred over to my assignment without retyping them entirely.

This last one turns out to be a fairly impossible qualification, sometimes.  I end up doing a lot of typing.  Fortunately I am now a relatively quick typist.

As the class has moved closer to the present, finding documents has become both easier and more challenging.  On the one hand, there are a lot of documents to choose from, as the modern era is easily the most overdocumented period in American history.  On the other hand, well, there are a lot of documents to choose from. 

I remember reading a memoir by a spy, a long time ago, who put it best.  People think intelligence is listening in the silence for that faint signal that nobody else can hear, he said, but it isn’t that at all.  Most of the time it’s being stuck in a roaring crowd trying to pick out a single conversation.

So I do a lot of reading, in other words.

Sometimes this is fun.  For the previous assignment I had them take a position on whether Ford pardoning Nixon was the correct thing to do, and once I figured out that this was the question I wanted to ask the documents just flowed right onto the page.  It’s also not an issue I address directly in my lectures, so it was interesting to see how they responded without getting my interpretation.  Sometimes I worry that no matter how often I stress that my interpretation of historical events is just that – as opposed to, say, absolute truth – and they need to evaluate it just as they would any other secondary source, this is not an action that comes naturally to students.  It takes a few times for them to believe me.

But this time?  No fun at all.

For this final assignment I wanted to do something with the onset of the Culture Wars, and since most of what we will be covering in class during the week this discussion is open will be the late 1970s and the 1980s, I figured the emergence of the Religious Right would be a good topic.  And it is a good topic – one almost guaranteed to get some interesting comments.

But it did mean that in order to find the right documents – including enough on both sides so that the students could pick either side and still have abundant evidence to work with – I ended up reading an astonishing amount of blather from the Moral Majority and its defenders, promoters and partisans.  They were so blithely arrogant about their ability to read the mind of God and declare His will on secular issues, and so utterly clueless about the devastation they would wreak on the American ideal of Constitutional law.

It made my head hurt.

So long as my students conform to the structural requirements in these discussions – thesis statement, supporting evidence, connections explaining how the latter actually works to confirm the former, citations – then they will be fine.  Agreeing with the professor is specifically listed in the syllabus as being worth 0% of their grade.  My goal here is twofold – a) to get them to think critically about a specific issue, and b) to teach them how to argue in a historically appropriate manner, to think like historians.

And if that means slogging through Jerry Falwell’s purple prose, well there you go.  I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.

A glass of wine would be good right about now, though.

1 comment:

Janiece said...

I would think washing your brain in lye would also be good right about now.

Jerry Falwell. ::shudder::