This is the first entry in our series on Teaching Amid Political Tension. Today’s post is by Tara Strauch, who is an Assistant Professor of History at Centre College in Danville, KY. You can find her blogging at Teaching United States History, and Centre Trail (where she will soon also have podcasts.) Find her on Twitter @historian_tara.
I teach at a small liberal arts college in Kentucky. Like many academics, I spend most of my time teaching, thinking about teaching, and mentoring. I genuinely enjoy my students; they are smart, thoughtful, engaged, and generally eager to learn new things. And while the past year has been an interesting one to spend on a college campus, my students haven’t seemed remotely surprised about the political, racial, and class tensions that have occasionally swept across campus.
This lack of surprise is in part because my students have lived in a polarized political and cultural world for as long as they have been aware of current events. They cannot point to a time when Facebook was not an echo chamber and Twitter was not reactionary. It is rare to find a first-year student who hasn’t already learned to identify with a side and to speak the language of a political world. Politics has become a spectator sport and our students are lifetime participants.
Yet when academics and non-academics alike have commented on the difficulties of teaching in this era, I have been left with little to say. Like my students who have lived only in this age of polarization, this is the only era in which I have taught; and my students, regardless of political opinions, have mostly been willing to learn.
I start all of my syllabi the same way, with a quote from Gordon Wood’s The Purpose of the Past. Wood notes that
“To possess a historical sense does not mean simply to possess information about the past. It means to have a different consciousness, a historical consciousness, to have incorporated into our minds a mode of understanding that profoundly influences the way we look at the world. History adds another dimension to our view of the world and enriches our experience. Someone with a historical sense sees reality differently; in four dimensions.”
Now, Wood may not be a fashionable scholar for many these days but he pretty succinctly states my overarching goal for students in my classes. I want them to have a historical sense that not only helps them put current events into context but that allows them to appreciate the complexity of human choice and action.
How do we help students cultivate a “historical sense” in this age of politics-as-sport? How do I engage students whose politics I don’t share, or who feel threatened by the world, or who have been taught to be wary of academics? I’d like to throw out three ideas for making the classroom more functional in this polarized era. These certainly aren’t prescriptions. If anything, they are reminders to myself about what has and hasn’t worked in my classroom.
First, move away from what feels familiar in history and into the weird, uncomfortable, and unknown. Despite my deep love of Hamilton that brilliant musical has not always served us well. My students assume similarities between the late eighteenth century and the twenty-first century because of the way the musical has entered our public sphere. When my students feel familiar in the past it is often hard for them to see past their modern beliefs, e.g. immigration debates and multiculturalism. Instead, my classroom can derail into assumptions that there is a linear connection between Hamilton’s concerns about the federal government’s finances and our modern discussions about federal debt.
When I move my students towards people, events, and places that they cannot easily place into our contemporary world, they can shed their modern habitus and treat historical actors as such rather than as imperfect versions of the modern world. If Alexander Hamilton feels familiar, my students often struggle to understand the movements of Moravian Indians in Ohio Country and find themselves surprised by the freedom promised to Lord Dunmore’s Regiment when they expect the British to be oppressive. Moving out of the known also has the added benefit of telling the stories of women, people of color, and political minorities. Of course, some students are disappointed not to recognize the historical actors and events in my class—and yes, that shows up in my evaluations from time to time—but more of them appreciate the new dimensions of their world.
Second, moving into the weird doesn’t mean that there is no place for the present in my classroom. But, rather than allowing students to build silent equivalences to the modern era, I prefer to be overt in my discussion of the present. I also try not to let the conversation become simply about how we got there from here; I like to ask why we modern Americans care, or don’t care, about historical people and events. Why does it matter to us whether the Revolution was a social or an ideological event? What stories do we tell about slavery? Why are these the stories we tell? Shifting our conversations to investigate our modern assumptions exposes our biases and how we are different from historical actors. And, following the politics-as-sports model, my classroom is again all on the same side—interrogating ourselves and our break with the past rather than accusing those in the classroom or in the past who espouse different beliefs.
As a professional historian, I am constantly using my “historical sense” to assess the present. But precisely because I am a professional historian I also recognize that comparing Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson requires not only lots of historical context but the ability to create a historical narrative between the two Presidents. hat is a lot to ask of my students, especially in entry-level courses. I want to show them how to do it and I want them to practice the skill, but impromptu in-class comparisons don’t build their skill sets; instead it encourages them to lean on political rather than historical narratives.
Third, I consciously choose to love my students rather than antagonize them. My students are traditional liberal arts students—age 18-22. They are adults and should be treated as such, but their ideas, beliefs, and ideologies are the products of childhood and the adults that surrounded them. If I walk into the classroom expecting them to disappoint me with their beliefs, they will. When I walk into a classroom trying to win recruits or silence the opposition, I reinforce their expectations about academia and about adults. If I treat them as individuals instead and care for them as people then I can engage them in scholarly debate and critical thinking.
I have often failed at loving my students and I have also had situations where a student said inappropriate or hurtful things that required attention; my classroom can’t function if they won’t respect one another. I have had openly antagonistic students. Occasionally these are just students looking for a fight but more often I have opened the door to this behavior by not being mindful of modern meanings of historical ideas, such as by not putting the term “evangelical” into historical context and allowing students to use modern and political phrases like “War on Terror” to describe events in the past. While these are relatively brief interludes in class, like stones dropped into a pond the ripples disrupted more than that one small moment. If I take their ideas seriously and treat our historical subjects with nuance, they will (hopefully) be willing to accept my historical narrative as a valid world view even if they still disagree with me historically, politically, or otherwise.
We can’t keep politics out of our classrooms and if we want others to think that history is an irreplaceable discipline we shouldn’t try to make the classroom a political void. But, I think we should be mindful about the goals of our classroom. I don’t want my students to accept my historical narrative without thinking because then they will accept narratives from people less trustworthy than I am. I want them to have a historical sense and a sense of how people have used the past to influence the present. But on a more basic level, in this age of political spectator sporting I want them to believe that they have sat in a classroom where they and their classmates were respected. My response to teaching in an age of tension is to invest in my students as individuals and to respect their path from childhood to adulthood because I believe that in a classroom based on mutual respect critical thinking and civil discourse will follow.
 Gordon S. Wood, The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (New York: Penguin, 2008), 11.