The AHA Guide to
Teaching and Learning with New Media
Western Civ. Examples
This assignment, based upon Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, introduces a segment on the Romantic era:
Feb. 2: Discussion of Barzun, “The Work of Mind-And-Heart”; submit via e-mail one hour in advance of the class meeting two questions based upon Barzun’s discussion; briefly explain why you think each worth asking.
I routinely begin our explorations of topics by asking students to come up with questions. There are several reasons. The most important is that it legitimates confusion. All learning begins in puzzlement, but teachers and students routinely connive in the illusion that students understand the causes of the French Revolution and any number of equally complex developments. The first and second year students in my “Modern Europe and U.S.,1815 to the Present” do not. This is not a failure on their part or mine. A good undergraduate math student can learn to integrate equations in a Calculus I course. An equally good history student cannot master the causes of the French Revolution in an introductory history course.
Once we establish the principle that it is normal to find the past confusing,we can move on to what specific students find most problematic. This makes class discussion far more effective. I began one class with this comment from Daniel, a first year student:
I felt that the question “What would be the most accurate definition of Romanticism?”would be worth asking because, according to Barzun, respected historians found at least 18 different definitions for Romanticism. Because Romanticism “was not a movement in the ordinary sense but a state of consciousness exhibiting the divisions found in every age,” it was hard for scholars to come up with a single definition for this era. Furthermore, Romanticism is hard to define since there are many different characteristics exhibited during this era. In order to arrive at a single, accurate definition, one must be able to combine most of the similar characteristics present during the Romantic [sic] into a few concise statements.
Daniel was one of many who found the many meanings attached to Romanticism troubling. All wanted “a single, accurate definition.” As Barzun seeks to explain, however, their wish cannot be granted. Daniel’s comment was so helpful because he quoted Barzun that Romanticism exhibited “the divisions found in every age,” the beginning to Barzun’s argument that there cannot be a single, accurate definition.“Why then use the term?” students asked. Barzun had anticipated this question:
. . . if one asks why in the face of such divisions, one speaks of unity at all, the answer for all periods is that the ultimate unifying force of an age is its predicaments: the urgent demands, the obstacles to social peace or progress, . . . things that alert minds cannot ignore; every living thinker or artist works to fulfill these calls or deny them in some way. The ways differ but converge on the challenge.
We started to thrash out why we cannot define historical movements or eras the way we can chemical properties. History resists that sort of precision, students grudgingly began to accept. Some started to find consolation in the idea that we can identify the predicaments that unify an age. What were the urgent demands that every thinker or artist living in the nineteenth century had to confront one way or another? This became our new question.
What happened in that class was the beginning of a semester-long conversation about history as an intellectual enterprise. I want to stress the word beginning. No one walked out of class with a sophisticated understanding of how historians think, but a number of students had started to move away from an ahistorical way of thinking about the past, one fostered by years of taking tests featuring short answer questions. There is no fifty-word definition of Romanticism. Years of conditioning do not give way in fifty minutes. So we had to grapple with the impulse to define historical phenomena all semester.
From Romanticism we turned to British struggles to address some of the urgent demands of industrialism.
By the Reform Act of 1832 the British aristocracy decided to share political power with the propertied middle class. This tactic effectively split the middle classes away from the demands for universal manhood suffrage. . . . A succession of other reforms—ranging from factory inspection to the repeal of the hated Corn Laws in 1846—demonstrated that the British political system was flexible enough to cope with the social and economic challenges posed by industrialization. British reform did not extend to universal suffrage, despite the enormous size of the Chartist movement of the 1840s, until 1867. Britain was responsive enough, however, many historians argue, to working class demands to spare Britain from the wave of revolutionary agitation that swept much of Europe in 1848. We can perhaps see this most clearly by contrasting the failure of Chartism with the success of the campaign to repeal the Corn Laws. We will divvy up the two sets of materials.
Feb. 9: annotate either the Chartism chronology or that for the Anti-Corn Law campaign. More specifically, choose 4 events that strike you as of unusual importance and briefly state your reasons in each case. Submit one hour in advance of the class meeting notes explaining your choices.
This segment of the course used materials available at the Peel Web site. These include contemporary accounts and historiographical discussions. Most of the events on the chronologies on this site are linked to descriptions of what happened. Usually the descriptions contain links to other topics and to primary sources. Students can, as a result, gather different pieces of information, even when they choose the same events to explore. This is an opportunity, not a problem, because I have their e-mail responses an hour before class. I go into class knowing who has read what and who has the most interesting things to say. Here is Janeen’s response about the impact of the Irish Famine on the campaign against the Corn Laws:
I think that the potato famine that struck Ireland is of unusual importance to the Anti-Corn Laws.The website states,“the Irish Potato Famine gave Peel the excuse for which he had been looking. He felt unable to repeal the Corn Laws on purely economic grounds but the crisis in Ireland together with the poor harvests in Britain was an opportunity too good to let pass.” I find this so unusual because the famine didn’t really have much to do with the poor economy. The famine struck Ireland because a fungus had infected the potatoes. The surge in population in Ireland at this time also helped contribute the poor conditions. Now there were too many people and not enough of their staple crop. I find it really unusual that this crisis helped Peel with his argument. I’m not exactly sure how it helped aid his argument. But I was really intrigued that the famine helped him.
Janette shared this uncertainty. She wrote:
Peel was the head of the Tory/Conservative group, and won his position on the grounds of maintaining the Corn Laws. In order to keep his seat of power in government, he needed an excuse to repeal the laws. He blamed the idea for repeal on a “stagnant economy.” He said, “Something effectual must be done to revive the languishing commerce and manufacturing industry of this country ...We must make this country a cheap country for living.”
. . .The Potato Famine was his excuse to finally present his plan to repeal the laws. Why was this? It seems as though this is important, but I am unclear as to why. How come Peel couldn’t use the issue of a stagnant economy to repeal it?
I began the class with their question. A number of students, including virtually all of Irish ancestry, had chosen the impact of the famine. Some knew a surprising amount about it. Since there are several excellent online sites, I was able to show contemporary accounts and drawings. This did not answer the initial question but did prompt Janette to remark that she could now begin to see how so vast a disaster could be used to political advantage. You might portray your opponents as favoring the starvation of the Irish or, at least, as unwilling to sacrifice your own self-interest in order to save millions.
I ask students to invest considerable time thinking about chronology. On the other hand, I never quiz or test them on dates. It is a matter of no importance whether they know the date of the trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It does matter that those who chose that event thought about its significance in the history of Chartism and British trade unionism. Kristi commented:
The treatment of the Tolpuddle Martyrs demonstrated the resistance the Chartist movement had to face. I found this reading interesting because it mentions how the “Tolpuddle martyrs” were suspected of ruining the “masters” of business. This showed how the government and court favored big business leaders at the expense of the workers. The government believed that if you let the workers have a say in business, then they would start asking for extravagant working conditions. Even though the courts could find little evidence against the Tolpuddle martyrs,they still found them guilty and punished them. This was meant to ensure no more workers would try to protest against how their company was run.
This is the sort of “shallow” comment I tell students I want them to make. Most of them had never heard of the Corn Laws or Chartism. So, I explain in class, I do not expect them to write anything particularly profound or incisive. Every once in a while, one of them would, I go on. That is wonderful, but rare.“Don’t be afraid of the obvious” is a mantra in my introductory courses. As a result, opening discussions feature students wrestling with the import of events they have flagged as important. It makes no difference which they choose. Nor does the order in which they come up matter. One of the charms of chronology is that it enables you to organize a discussion on the fly simply by noting that one event came before another.
Allowing students to select the events we will discuss might seem problematic. It does surrender a degree of control over the class. Suppose no one brings up the one event I consider most crucial? Years of experience have taught me that someone almost always will. The student will not phrase its significance as I would have and will not make the same connection I would draw. But everything you want to come up, will. And everything that does has one or more student sponsors. They think the event is crucial. This is far better than me telling them. But isn’t it confusing to have some students reporting on the Corn Law agitation and others on Chartism? Sometimes it is. But confusion breeds questions. And the instructor gets to rephrase the questions and to explain why historians ask them in ways different from the student’s formulation.
The follow-up to the chronology exercise and discussion focused upon primary sources.
Feb. 11: Choose two/three primary sources that seem to you most important for making sense of your topic. Briefly describe the source and explain why you think it so important. Submit one hour in advance of the class meeting notes explaining your choices.
Francis, a Catholic priest from Tanzania for whom English is a fourth language, made this choice:
Cobden deliberately adopted the use of the Phrase “Food Tax” or “Bread Tax” for its propaganda value:
“ I think it is better to use the word Bread Tax than the Corn Law. A Bread Tax is good term to fix upon our opponents.”
This phrase is very revealing, because people starved of hunger and many died. People died not because there was no food. People died because they had no money to afford to buy the food. Although Ireland was affected by Potato blight, but at the same Ireland was exporting food to England. There was plenty of wheat, meat, and diary product, therefore there was no reason for people to starve. Moreover people had no money to buy food. The repeal of Corn Law had no effect on Ireland, because . . . the Irish peasants could not buy it [the cheap grain].
At this point we returned to the question on the relationship between the repeal of the Corn Laws and the famine. Cheaper grain did not help the Irish peasant who had no money. Who did it help? Kate had an answer:
The Anti-Corn Law league was supported by a majority of the lower classes. While universal suffrage was an excellent idea, the need to get rid of the Corn Laws must have seemed much more necessary. If the cost of the bread dropped, then there would be more money for shelter and for clothes which in turn basically covers every aspect of what the chartists wanted, right?
As students talked about sources, I projected them on to a large screen. The mouse belonged to them, I said. Think of this as show-and-tell for grown-ups. Again, this may seem I was giving up of control over the class. I was not. I chose the web sites, I formulated the assignment, I decided who would speak and in what sequence. I often cued students by linking something they said to what others had brought up. At the same time, I was able to make class participation an integral part of the course. If you are like me, you have been to more workshops about encouraging students to participate than you care to remember. The ones I have attended always focused on getting students to speak in class. This is all well and good. But there is another, more important goal—to get the student to say something useful. Getting students to e-mail brief responses to specific questions achieves this more important objective. Students get to talk about sources they choose and that they intend to use in a future assignment, in this instance an oral report on either the success of the Anti-Corn Law League or the failure of Chartism. They know that, when I ask them to speak, it is because I think they have something worthwhile to contribute. This makes for a lively and a relaxed classroom atmosphere. And it eliminates the awful silence that sometimes follows our efforts to begin a discussion by asking someone to volunteer an idea. In my courses, students do volunteer comments and raise questions. They also expect I will call upon them to share what they have written.
Below is the response from Melissa, a student who grew up in India and France. I tell students to submit their notes in whatever form they find most convenient. Most write in full paragraphs, but some use outlines and/or bullets.
Contemporary views of Chartism
1*working class views:
*varied middle class reactions:
#by having chosen these documents,you can see the chartists’ views and reactions from different classes that you would not in a revised edition say through the press
2*Images of Chartism 1848
b. Cufty (Irish physical force chartist) “arming for the fight”
#here you can see how images can show a lot of the time period and ppl’s reaction
3*The Chartist Demonstration in London 1848
#it can be seen how a person from an upper class probably communicates to a middle class person emphasize how the chartist movements was done for a good cause.
Melissa’s response, once I realized that ppl was her abbreviation for people and that b/c stood for because, provided an excellent frame for organizing the class. It also contained a mistake, a misunderstanding of the 1848 London demonstration that had opposed Chartism. Because I had her e-mail before class, I could take her aside, explain where she had gotten confused, assure her that her work as a whole was fine, and let her know she would play a leading role that day.
Spotlighting conscientious work does more than encourage the students who produce it. It establishes a set of expectations for the course. Students look at an outline like Melissa’s and realize that the bar is being raised.
After the President’s Day holiday,we turned to “Reform and Reaction in France and Germany, 1830–1848.” The first assignment was to create a student gallery of political images.
By 1848 radical frustration with the “bourgeois” monarchy reached a climax in France. There is a famous Daumier cartoon showing Louis Philippe, the “Citizen King” who took office as a result of the July 1830 uprising, metamorphosing into a pear. It nicely captured his loss of prestige in the years leading up to 1848. Daumier played a key role in this process. There is a major collection of his lithographs at Brandeis. Click on the Search feature and type in Louis Philippe. You will get 33 lithographs. . . . Choose two or three with the pear motif. Submit one hour in advance of the class meeting of February 18th notes explaining your choices.
Students enjoy such exercises; proof lies in the fact that the majority submitted three rather than two choices.
From the start of this course, the pear motif of Louis Philippe always somewhat interested me. Before we reached this section of the course, I would scroll through the web site to see if anything caught my eye and this picture had. It’s . . . not every day you see some leader of a country being turned into a piece of fruit.
In addition to enabling students to have some fun, the assignment got them interested in French politics in the nineteenth century, something my colleagues had difficulty believing. After looking at the lithographs, they had lots of questions. And they had started to tease out the beginnings of some explanations.
A third lithograph of Daumier’s that I find interesting is entitled Judgment After Death. In this picture Louis Philippe is shown as a mummy. I find it interesting because even portrayed as a mummy, Louis Philippe is still in the shape of a pear. . . . Another thing that caught my attention in this picture is that there is a man holding a scale with a pear and a hat on it. The pear, which . . . represents Louis Philippe, is lighter than the hat. This is kind of like saying that Louis Philippe does not have that much control and is not very important.
Caroline chose an image of:
Louis with big crown covering his head. I also liked this one because it shows that Louis did not always see what was occurring around him because he was so interested in being king that he didn’t pay much attention to what was going on.
Lindsay chose a different image but came up with a similar analysis.
“Current crisis is getting even more serious”—This picture is of Louis Philippe (again looking like a pear) sitting down, actually sleeping, with a quill pen in his hand and his hat says constitution on it. The caption describes the seriousness of the situation in France and at the end says Long Live the King. I think that’s sarcasm because he’s not doing anything so they’re saying “woohoo good job...not!” I don’t really understand the concept of the pear,maybe you could clarify that for me (and some others that hopefully are also confused like me) in class next time.
This is just a guess but is he portrayed as a pear because he is lazy and doesn’t do much therefore he just sits around and gets fat and the fat all settles down creating a pear like shape? Pears don’t move or do anything so I imagine this is why he’s portrayed like this. I also get this from the lithograph in which he is sleeping reinforcing the fact that he doesn’t do much.
This response is a good example of how the course worked. Lindsay had no qualms about admitting her confusion or about venturing “a guess.” I started the class with her and then turned to ask Jillian to repeat her comment about not seeing royalty turn into fruit every day. Then we compiled a list of accusations against Louis Philippe students had found in the lithographs. I took the last fifteen minutes of the class to sketch out where we would go next. We would split up into four groups. One would look at the February Days in France in 1848. Another would look at the revolutionary uprising in Berlin the following month. The third would report on the June Days in France, on the election of Louis Napoleon, and upon his overthrow of the Second Republic. The final group would tackle the triumph of conservatism in Prussia. We would use materials at the Mass Politics and the Revolutions of 1848 site, a publication of the TLTP History Courseware Consortium. Students could choose which area they wished to work on.
The reports went into great detail, in large part because students first encountering such complicated stories are afraid they might leave out something important. They need the detail. They also stressed how confusing the revolutions were to participants. People in one part of Berlin did not know what was happening in another. Rumors sometimes drove events. In Paris, in February, a horse panicked and galloped in the wrong direction, leaving French soldiers without a commander at a crucial juncture. This is why historians abjure theory, I interjected. Theoreticians never factor in the horse. Amidst all of these details, students had little chance of seeing larger patterns. So their reports were narratives in which chronology trumped analysis. This was fine because there was one more exercise in this portion of the course.
Despite the failure of many reformers and revolutionaries to realize their goals, a whole range of ideas and movements outlived the1848 revolutions. Utopian Socialism, which had its origins in the early nineteenth century, gave way to Marx’s “scientific” version, which called for a revolutionary struggle of the working class (“proletariat”) against “bourgeois” capitalists and against systems of government that supported the rule of the “bourgeoisie,” i.e., owners of capital. Consult the annotated and excerpted version of the Communist Manifesto at Washington State University. Submit one hour in advance of the class meeting notes discussing the issue: How adequately did the Manifesto explain the uprisings?
Instructors often assign excerpts from the Manifesto. Our task, I explained, was to gain a basic familiarity with Marxism, on the one hand, and to understand its appeal on the other. We would next look at the Paris Commune of 1871 and its impact in France, Germany, and elsewhere. The Communards would understand themselves to be heirs of the earlier French revolutions, including 1848, and pioneers of a communist future.
Here is the response of Daniel, the freshman who had wanted a clear definition of Romanticism.
Karl Marx explained the uprisings between the working class and the bourgeoisie in a clear, effective manner. He summed up the explanation for these uprisings in one concise phrase, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Marx saw all of history as a struggle between different social classes for power and privileges. Oppressing and oppressed classes consistently struggled with each other throughout all of history, leading to an ongoing fight that has ruined the contending classes. Even in more modern times, Marx observed that class antagonisms have not disappeared. Despite that fact that society had moved away from a feudal concept, class struggles were still a part of daily life.
Marx did mention that class antagonisms have simplified since feudal times. Instead of many different groups struggling and fighting with each other,modern societal classes usually consist of two groups in opposition: “bourgeoisie and proletariat.” The Bourgeoisie class, in Marx’s opinion, had changed societal practices into “egotistical calculation.” Personal worth had been resolved for exchange value and innumerable freedoms had been exchanged for the freedom of “Free Trade.” In other words, Marx felt that the Bourgeoisie had reduced the bond between individuals and classes to simple terms of cash payments.
Naturally, The Communist Manifesto had a great appeal to many individuals. Members of the working classes could easily relate to the struggles between themselves and higher classes such as the Bourgeoisie. Marx’s work was written in a clear manner, allowing less educated people to be able to read and understand it. . . .
Members of the proletariat class were able to understand The Communist Manifesto and relate to the points mentioned within the work. Working class individuals could read this work and immediately understand that all of their problems stemmed from class struggles that had roots since the beginning of organized civilization.
Daniel had a far surer grip on Marx’s ideas than most of his classmates. But all had clear ideas about who the bourgeoisie and the proletariat were. They had watched the two battle on the streets of Paris during the June Days. Class war was not a misty abstraction. It was one of the urgent demands that defined an era.
Last Updated: August 1, 2007 2:32 PM