Teaching Innovations

Thinking Historically in the Classroom: Allison Blakely

Allison Blakely, October 1995

After more than 20 years of teaching, I have learned that each new class is an adventure with respect to historical thinking. I know, in the broadest terms, what I want students to gain: I want them to leave with a better grasp of the way the world works, and where they fit, than they had when they arrived. History's special contribution toward that end is in discerning basic patterns that have been evident in the evolution of human societies and in revealing the dynamics at work among the forces promoting both continuity and change. But it is difficult to know how to present such an abstract concept to a collective of individuals representing so many different backgrounds. In comparing my students, I am sometimes reminded of journeys I have made across the United States by car, traversing various cultural bands whose only outward sign of their great diversity might be the vintage of the songs at roadside cafe jukeboxes. Moreover, I learned early on that just because the overwhelming majority of my students are black does not mean that there is no cultural diversity. My students come from all our native cultures and social strata, and from abroad as well. Now and then in class it is even possible to experience what seems to be a time warp.

What historical language does one use to guide an unfamiliar audience toward an understanding of the world as I see it? The first challenge is to gauge the historical awareness of students who range from majors to those simply there for the convenience of the time slot and who have little or no background in the subject matter. I have become convinced that the key to success is ensuring that instructors think historically in sizing up their classes, just as students must learn to think historically in capturing the subject matter. With this in mind, I have adopted a standard practice in undergraduate courses of requiring a two-page essay on a topic of my choosing, due the second meeting of the class. This serves as a diagnostic tool that better acquaints me with the students in a number of ways. For example, when essays on the importance of studying history or on the definition of civilization treat Africa or America as single countries, or speak confidently of the radical nature of oppressed peoples, I am forewarned of concepts needing special attention. An added benefit of this exercise is, of course, an immediate indication of writing skills.

The biggest surprise from the essays and initial discussions in my course comes in discovering that in a sense my students may not live in the "same" world as I. I have yet to meet a world civilizations class where a majority of the students have a constructive answer, on the first day, to my query: "How many of you can start a fire without a match?" My purpose in asking this question is to suggest to them how slender the thread of civilization can be. I press this point further by noting the ordinary person's still greater separation from a competent understanding of nuclear power or electricity, which is becoming the main power in even the ubiquitous automobile, gradually superseding the more fathomable and repairable internal combustion engine. Over the years I have found that the general concept of survival can be an effective means of capturing students' attention, personalizing history, and providing coherence to our discourse. Defining history as the story of humankind over time, I attempt in each course to show where our subject fits in that broader context. To further accentuate the students' personal stake in understanding the world around us, I also note that the challenge of survival may have different implications depending upon gender, race, and national grouping. The objective here is not to instill fear, but to promote a healthy respect for the connections that govern human affairs.

The same approach can clearly apply to national histories as well as to civilization in general. I have found it especially effective in teaching modern European history against the backdrop of the dramatic developments of the past few years. My course on modern Russian history is my most exciting in this regard. Designed to be writing-intensive to meet the university's writing-across-the-curriculum standards, the course requires that students maintain a journal based on news media coverage of Russia, which I evaluate periodically and grade at the end of the course. With their journals I encourage students to become historical analysts. The central theme for the journals for spring 1994, for example, was Boris Yeltsin's chances for survival in his role as Russia's leader. The emphasis in the assignment is not on making futurists of students, but on fostering their ability to identify and discuss the major elements at work in the dynamics of historical change. At the same time, such analysis develops appreciation for the inseparability of history from other academic disciplines.

—Allison Blakely, professor of European and comparative history at Howard University, is the author of Black in the Dutch World (1993) and Russia and the Negro (1986).