Publication Date

May 1, 2009

Some years ago, in the midst of a too-long faculty meeting on general education requirements, a colleague in biology spoke to the question of whether the college should require that students take a lab science course. So far as the science faculty were concerned, she said, they would prefer a lab requirement without a course over a course without a lab. To learn science, she maintained, you had todo it.

I would like to say the same about history. But can we actually get students to do history? Most take one or two entry-level courses to satisfy General Education requirements. These are usually surveys of U.S. or world history or of Western Civilization. There is a textbook and a reader or, more commonly now, a course web site with links to primary sources. The textbook covers the same content as the lectures, albeit more ponderously. Despite its heft, the text’s treatment of virtually every topic is superficial. And, despite the best efforts of publishers to make theirs different, most textbooks are very much the same. This is because each must cover a standard list of people, events, and topics. Whenever something new needs to be added, a fuller account of the Native American experience, let us say, a committee of authors must figure out what to delete. Textbook revising is a zero sum game. If you care to see this in action, read the treatment of the Paris Commune in several standard Western Civ books. Note how little information each provides.

This state of affairs determines what our students do in our courses. They take notes during our lectures, when we do not save them the trouble by printing out our PowerPoint slides or putting them online. They read some primary sources for the weekly discussion. They study for quizzes, the mid-term, and the final exam. Out of all of this, what counts as doing history? The discussion of primary sources helps. But what do we ask students to do with those sources? No doubt there are a variety of strategies for getting students to prepare for the discussions. But what happens after the discussion? We may test students on them. Do students, on the other hand, use them as historical evidence?

Doing history requires a good deal of “cognitive flexibility,” to borrow a phrase from psychology. Unlike disciplines such as chemistry with its periodic table of the elements, history is as unstructured as life itself. We need, it seems, an approach that seeks to erase the boundaries between pedagogy and epistemology, that is, between studying and doing history. I attempt to do this when teaching a U.S. history survey course, particularly in the second half, when dealing with immigration and nativism in the late 19th century. (for details of the course as I taught it in the spring 2008 semester go to and scroll down to Feb. 11).

We start with a cartoon assailing supporters of Chinese Exclusion and an excerpt from the San Francisco Real Estate Circular that sought to explain why Chinese immigration is a menace while Irish and German is not. We start, that is, with cognitive dissonance. We then move to the source of the phrase “Chinee Haythun,” Bret Harte’s comic poem “Plain Language from Truthful James.” Then we look at how Thomas Nast appropriated the poem in his “Blaine Language” mocking the “Plumed Knight of Maine.” We look at two more Nast cartoons and then read a short essay from Denis Kearney’s, “Chinese Invasion,” and look at the ballot his party distributed.

This is, deliberately, a pedagogy of cognitive overload. The course is a survey of U.S. history, after all. None of the students will have ever heard of Denis Kearney or James G. Blaine or even of Chinese Exclusion. They will have little experience in analyzing 19th-century political cartoons. They will have little experience using poems, especially comic poems, in historical analysis. This is all right, provided the instructor acknowledges all of this, legitimates confusion, and sets appropriate expectations. Note the nature of the initial round of questions. They are variations on a single theme: comparisons between the Chinese, other immigrants, and Old Stock Americans. In the case of “Every Dog Has His Day” the comparison is even more complicated. Note that there is no question about it. I will bring it up in class at whatever point strikes me as appropriate. I want to emphasize the centrality of the admonition—Pick several phrases and/or passages from “Chinese Invasion” that strike you as especially interesting, revealing, and/or confusing—to this pedagogical approach. This is an invitation to “show and tell.” It empowers the students by having them choose the passages we will discuss and by sanctioning confusion. Being confused is a part of the assignment. It is also part of being a historian. I pursue topics that puzzle me. As we all do.

We shift gears cognitively with the next class’s materials. We also shift expectations. We move to a history of the period, written long after the facts, by a newspaper reporter and publisher who observed Kearneyism first-hand. Jerome A. Hart plunges us into economic conditions, San Francisco politics, and race relations. The writing is vivid, the characters memorable. There are riots, an attempted murder, an actual murder, and much else. Students cannot absorb all of this. But they do get to read a rattling good story. So the questions I raise again take the “show and tell” form. But the questions themselves require students to discern Hart’s view of Kearney and the other characters.

Why pose an analytical question in the form of a “show and tell” exercise? Because students will understand portions of Hart’s argument. Different students will understand different portions. This allows them to have something useful to say on a topic they understand only partially. This too is what historians do as we work our way through a project. We arrive at tentative judgments about parts of the puzzle. We then bat these judgments around with colleagues. We donot pretend to have solved the puzzle.

Our exploration next takes what is for students a shocking turn, the characterization of French Canadians as “the Chinese of the Eastern States” by the director of the Massachusetts Bureau of the Statistics of Labor, Carroll D. Wright in his 1881 Report. Even more stunning, perhaps, is his radically revised understanding of the French Canadians expressed in his 1882 Report. In the first they are a “horde of industrial invaders,” who care “nothing for our institutions.” In the second, their complete assimilation is but a matter of time. We devote a class to each. For the first, we build on what students have been learning about anti-Chinese sentiment. For the second, we examine two lasting contributions Wright made to the understanding of acculturation. One has to do with the role of religion. Old Stock Protestants saw Catholicism as an obstacle to acculturation. Wright explained that, in fact, it was an indispensable aid. And he explained how the initial stages of acculturation could look like a refusal to adopt American ways and practices.

We are, by this point, wrestling with very challenging concepts. And that is why the instructions to students continue to read: Be specific and cite specific passages. The goal is not simply to keep them from vapid generalizing. It is also to empower them. Students will, for the most part, not appreciate the subtlety of Wright’s analysis, especially since they will have pegged him in the previous class as a bigot. They will, however, appreciate some of what he had to say. Again, different students will understand different pieces of the puzzle. My challenge is to help them put the pieces together.

We end this portion of the course with a very challenging, rewarding, and entertaining essay, Finley Peter Dunne’s “Immigration.” By this point, without necessarily realizing it, students will have come to expect to encounter dialect as well as standard English in primary materials. Earlier versions of Irish brogues, such as those found in the cartoons, were hostile in intent and authored by Protestants. Dunne, however, was Irish and had been raised a Catholic. His use of the brogue is very different. Mr. Dooley is a remarkably sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued character. And in this essay he explores the irony, savagely expressed by Thomas Nast, of immigrants protesting against the immigration of others. Unlike Nast, however, he does not place the WASP on a pedestal. Everyone, save for the Indian, the Mexican American, and the African American, is an immigrant or the descendant of an immigrant. Rather than directing the students’ reading of the essay in this direction, I ask again for them to choose specific passages and to comment on their choices. Puzzlement isstill an acceptable position for them to take.

But, is it? Is it acceptable to leave students with more questions than answers? Yes. History is not chemistry. A first-year chemistry student can learn a good deal about how molecules bond. A first-year history student cannot learn much about the Revolution or the Civil War or immigration or nativism. What she can learn is something about how complex and fascinating we humans are, how perversely we sometimes behave, how witty we occasionally are. She can also learn the necessity of developing a sense of irony if one is to make it through this world. And she may decide she wants to come back for more history.

Two final questions: Do I assign a textbook and why haven’t I mentioned new media? As to the first, I do. It is Steven Mintz’sDigital History ( On this subject the syllabus reads: “Students will read the Mintz textbook as needed to, e.g., to acquire background information. Textbooks are tools and should be used as needed.” Students actually do this. And they appreciate not having to shell out 60 or 70 dollars. As to why I have not mentioned new media, it is my predilection for “show and tell.”

—John F. McClymer is professor of history at Assumption College. He is the author of The AHA Guide to Teaching and Learning with New Media.

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