It took me a few days to realise my mistake. Around the third week of the semester, in this my first year teaching the “Foundations of American History” survey course here at Birmingham, I slipped up in a way I’d never have imagined. I was lecturing about Bacon’s Rebellion, and about Stephen Saunders Webb’s provocative, half-mad 1676: The End of American Independence. I found it odd that my students didn’t seem to see what was so funny, or at least glib, about Webb’s title. Those blank looks spooked me. So I said, “well, you know guys, because, 1776, right? That’s… when the Americans declared independence? Remember?”
It turns out 1776 is not one of the dates the British school system necessarily drills into its pupils.
At the time, I thought little of it. I went on with the class. But for the rest of the week, I thought about it. And eventually I realised: bugger. I just had an opportunity most lecturers would love to have. I could have taught the history of Britain’s colonies without my students knowing in advance when everything was going to go down. By giving the game away in week three, I’d just perpetrated one of history’s most heinous spoilers.
Going over that in the weeks that followed, kicking myself, also got me thinking about narrative, pacing, and plot as factors in how we teach the survey course. I’ve already radically overhauled the way we do the “foundations” course here. It’s supposed to go from 1600 or so to (for reasons unknown) 1890 over the whole two-semester span, but the way it’s been done in the past is the “get to independence as quickly as possible” method, which blasts through the colonies in three or four weeks. I’ve shifted the 1776 moment to the end of semester one: which means the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries only get half as much time as the nineteenth, rather than, you know, almost no time at all. It means the lecture I’m about to give tomorrow, the last one of term, ends on the opening shots in the revolutionary war. Will this weird coalition of uppity lawyers, ambitious smugglers, and heavily indebted anxious patriarchal slave-owners succeed against the might of the now-globally-dominant British empire? You’ll have to come back after Christmas to find out.
It’s not as though you need the audience to be totally ignorant in order to pull some basic narrative manipulation. My students do know that the United States exists, after all. So maybe the spoiler wasn’t quite so bad. There are plenty of TV shows that reveal the ending early on, and still manage to create uncertainty and tension. I’ve just finished watching Bloodline, which I think is a decent example. It forces the viewer to keep juggling events and connections in their heads, rearranging things, making the evidence fit. And sometimes what you thought you saw turns out to be something quite different, once you see it from a new perspective. Everything falls into place. Oh, that’s how he died! Isn’t that exactly the experience we want students to be having? I mean, isn’t that what we live for in our research, too?
We seem to be told quite often that the “traditional lecture” is a bad way to teach. And a lot of that I buy. But I still think there’s something that you can’t get any other way—the sense of unfolding a narrative; of building themes and manipulating expectations, then twisting them; placing students in the situation of having to think through how these pieces fit together, and having to shift their interpretation as the story moves. In other words, I don’t think cliffhangers are just gimmicks. Narrative lecturing should stay part of the historian’s repertoire. We could stand to borrow more from TV, or I guess its predecessor the episodic novel. I’d really love to read in the comments about your favourite tricks and twists, your favourite moments of narrative joy in the survey course. I mean, I do now have to spend my Christmas holiday writing those nineteenth century lectures, so it’d be a great help if you’d share.