Brought Back to Life by the AHA: "Change Over Time," Gifford Pinchot, and Me

Patty Limerick, September 2012

Reading about the rise of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), my spirits have not risen proportionately.

MOOCs mock nearly everything I have loved about the professor's privilege of being in the company of young people as they launch into life. Is there a way, in a MOOC, to offer encouragement at precisely the right time and to watch as a young person, once awash in self-doubt, comes to a lasting recognition of her talents? Maybe I am hanging out in the wrong circles (or visiting the wrong sites), but I have not yet heard a young person declare, "The MOOC I have been logging into has changed my life and given me courage and faith in myself."

MOOCs have not yet appeared in my nightmares, but they are probably planning a visit. It will be interesting to see what form my unconscious will give to them. Will they be drones appearing out of the sky to target me? Bulldozers pushing me to the side of the road? Spaceships swooping down and capturing my students in an alien abduction?

Still, I will not serve as organizer of the OCCUPY MOOC campaign. The online course has a far more robust claim on the future than I do (at age 61!). And, more important, as a fanatical enthusiast for education, I want people to learn as much as they can, however they go about learning it. I see the value of using digital communication to get students prepared to make the most of in-class interaction. I use clickers, and learn a lot from the bar graphs that convey the students' responses.

So I see my mission to respond to MOOCs in modest terms: to serve as a publicist and promoter for the irreplaceable value—and the joy, terror, and intensity—of face-to-face teaching. If those of us who have received life's most treasured rewards in this calling do not make our case positively, persuasively, and very publicly, the Empire of the MOOC is going to win by a forfeit.

Holding office in the AHA was a principal factor in getting me better equipped to make a credible case for in-class teaching. When the members of the AHA Nominating Committee called me in the winter of 2010, their call delivered an equal dose of flattery and mortification. As an innovative teacher who never yielded to discouragement, I had been at my peak some time before that call came in—maybe 15 or 20 years before. In more recent times, I had invested more time in administration and in work with public audiences than I had spent in classrooms. If I were going to serve as vice president of the Teaching Division and not perish of inconsistency and hypocrisy, it was clear that I had to recapture my standing and restore my vitality as a classroom teacher.

By the time the AHA met in Boston in 2011, I held the role of a sailor about to return to a tumultuous sea. After years of teaching small classes and being "absent with leave" from the lecterns of large lecture halls, I was heading back to that strenuous venue. Thus, the badge-bearing AHA members in the hallways of Boston appeared to me as a crew of experienced mariners who, if they would only tell me what they knew, could help keep me afloat and on course to a worthy destination.

And yet I could not conjure up a dignified way of stopping strangers and explaining my urgent pedagogical needs. The practical result of this frustration will be (stay tuned for more on this!) the launching of an interactive forum on the AHA website, a place where members can exchange the insights gleaned from their varied and rich experiences in teaching.

And, thank heavens, I am myself now much better set up to be a participant in this soon-to-be-unleashed life forum for our professional community. In my large lecture course, I have adopted techniques I would once have greeted with contempt (one involves vigorous group deployment of a rubber chicken). And I took to heart the point made by historians who emphasize contingency and seek out, in the past, once-rejected alternatives that are still in our reach. I conjured up new techniques, but I also sorted through the cupboard of practices I had inexplicably put into storage.

For instance, I returned to "channeling" historical figures, a custom I had taken up out of respect (more or less!) for Richard M. Nixon.

By the mid-1990s, in my American history survey course, my own heated feelings toward Nixon had turned my lecture on him into a kind of memoir of undergraduate days when protests against his policy punctuated the school year, and of pleasant and gratifying days when his impeachment and resignation took my mind off the challenges of graduate school.

As I wallowed around in my own past, the students were undergoing what we might call "a tuition rip-off."

Deeply irritated with myself, I tried an experiment. Taking my inspiration from the gifted humanities scholar and re-enactor Clay Jenkinson, I read several biographies of Nixon, reminding myself repeatedly to concentrate on learning about Nixon and refusing to stay locked inside my own memories and opinions. Then, with my mind well-loaded with attitudes and assumptions quite different from my own, I went into class and told the students about our upcoming adventure. Wanting to avoid unintended hilarity, I did not dress as Nixon, paint on a five-o'clock shadow, or imitate his manners. Instead, to the best of my ability, I removed myself and spoke from his perspective. I asked the students for their willing suspension of disbelief, and amazingly, I got it.

The students asked many more questions of President Nixon—and sharp, well-thought-out questions—than they had ever asked of Professor Limerick. One lively student challenged Nixon harshly on his use of executive power, declaring his own opinion that the President had violated the allocation of powers in the Constitution. President Nixon did not show much tolerance for this questioner. "Young man," he said, "you are clearly an armchair quarterback, with nothing at all in the way of experience to draw on. You are trotting out a very outdated understanding of the Constitution. You are asking me to govern, in a wildly complicated world, with Dan Rather and his ilk looking over my shoulder and nattering unendingly at me. If you think I should follow the strictures and understandings of the 1780s, you may as well ask me to send clipper ships into combat with nuclear submarines."

Did my presentation have historical integrity? Yes and no. I do not think Nixon ever spoke in terms of clipper ships and nuclear subs. But I felt that I captured and conveyed important elements of Nixon's character and worldview, and I knew that I had dramatically raised the chances that the students would remember what I had tried to teach them. Realizing my biggest hopes as a teacher, the students became ravenously interested in and curious about a dead president.

Having conjured up this deeply peculiar but madly effective way of getting students to pay rapt attention to history, I dropped it from my repertoire, surrendering it to some mysterious onset of conventionality and conformity. In the Spring of 2012, determined to reactivate forces of creativity I had let go dormant, I returned to channeling, and found the students just as receptive as students had been 20 years ago. When I spoke as Theodore Roosevelt's friend, Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot (he was, after all, a spiritualist who thought he could speak with the dead!), I reached a life goal: I became, for half an hour, many times more interesting than iPhones and Facebook. Plus, I am 100 percent sure that the students would do better answering objective questions, in an outcomes assessment, about Gifford Pinchot than if I had presented him in a conventional lecture.

As we often say, historians specialize in the study of change over time. Thus, we are distinctively equipped to draw on this expertise and to set the standards for nimbleness, agility, resilience, creativity, and innovation in dealing with the two examples of "change over time" that affect us most directly: the cognition and character of young people have been rearranged by the digital world, and the recession and student debt have given "enhance employability" a rank equal to "sharpen minds" and "expand spirits."

In the terrain of my own soul, "change over time" had acquired an unsettling resemblance to "become an old grouch." The return to the large lecture class provided the route of escape from that terrible fate.

If I brought Gifford Pinchot back to life, the American Historical Association performed a similar service in jolting me back to full vitality in the classroom. It is my hope that the upcoming new, interactive website, convening a community of people committed to bringing history to the widest possible audience (including, heaven help us, enrollees in MOOCs!), will energize us all, reminding us why this organization sails under the acronym "Aha!"

Patricia Limerick (Univ. of Colorado at Boulder) is the vice president of the AHA, in the Teaching Division. She is the author of several books, including Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, and (with Jason Hanson) Ditch in Time: The City, the West, and Water.