Last Monday, a student came into my office for advice. He’s one of our Social Studies Ed majors, and he had just finished his first day of his teaching internship. He was already looking ahead to graduation and the possibility that he would be able to get an available position at one of our local high schools in December. He was concerned, however, that taking this position would mean teaching African American History, even though he had no specific undergraduate coursework in the field. He came to me, presumably, because I teach most of our institution’s Af-Am classes.
He expressed several concerns: teaching in a subject that was not particularly familiar (although he said he preferred any kind of U.S. History to World History); establishing both rapport and authority as a white teacher of African American History with predominantly black students; navigating the many layers of racial tension in our poor, rural county. He hit me in a vulnerable spot, and I’m not sure I gave him terribly good advice.
I became responsible for African American History at my university by accident. My research projects required a strong background in late antebellum U.S. slavery — which makes me about as much of an expert as we have, particularly in the pre-emancipation period. But there was significant student demand for a general education African American History course, so I created one. Our student body is about 35% African American — but this particular class attracts black students almost exclusively. So I feel more than a little of what this student was worried about, especially this year.
I’ve been watching #FergusonSyllabus with interest and awe, trying to figure out where to make room in a class that must span the entire western hemisphere from 1500 to the present, wondering just how much current events I’m comfortable inserting into a history class, and worrying that any step I take in that direction could blow up in my face. I agree with the argument these professors are making that we have a responsibility to teach matters of public concern and prepare our students to engage in public debate, but I also feel most effective as a teacher when I have a good organizational plan and at least basic mastery of the subject at hand.
To return to the young man in my office last Monday: I told him that the tools he had learned in his pedagogy classes should be his starting points regardless of the subject material. What are the learning objectives? What classroom activities and assignments would best convey each objective? Remember that the purpose of history class is not to make people feel good or bad about their ancestors. I told him what my vocal pedagogy teacher told me in college: your job, as a teacher, is to help each student move forward one step from where he or she stands right now. Especially if he was going to pick up a class just a few weeks from the end of the semester, a few key concepts would have to do. I told him to figure out what those concepts should be by learning the current major debates in the field, something he should have learned to do in his history courses. Finally, I told him that African American History is American History, and so he should have a good sense of its basic contours from the 4-6 U.S. History courses he had taken with us.
This last part is the thing I’m not sure I conveyed as well as I wanted to. Putting the black freedom struggle at the center of U.S. History is certainly the right way to go, but I doubt that’s what he heard — I’m sure he was thinking, when he walked out of my office, that all he needed to do was go through the basic events from a generic U.S. History survey course but talk about black people, and he’d be fine. And if thrown into a classroom with two days’ notice and four weeks until the end of term, it’s probably not the worst solution, but it’s not what we should really be striving for. Because truly approaching U.S. History from the perspectives of African Americans means we will end up changing the questions we ask and the very framework of the course.
I don’t know if I do this enough. Designing a #FergusonSyllabus would have been one approach, but I don’t know how I could have done that and been properly organized for the semester (especially this semester, when I have a weirdly large number of conferences to attend, and have to prepare class activities for other people to cover). I probably do it well in the areas I really know: after being assigned Eric Foner’s Reconstruction four years in a row beginning my junior year of college, I put black political actors at the center of Reconstruction in every class, not just African American History. Runaway slaves drive wartime emancipation, Wilmington 1898 was a coup d’etat, and Joann Robinson is the real heroine of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. For many students, this is sufficiently revelatory.
So which learning objectives make the cut? I’m only half-joking when I say I’d be happy if students ended the class knowing there was more to the Civil Rights Movement than the “I Have a Dream” speech and Rosa Parks being tired one day. I want them to know that for each “big moment” they’ve heard about during Black History Month, there was decades of preparation and grass-roots work by dozens (or hundreds) of regular people. I want them to know that a demand for economic justice was always part of struggles for civil rights. I want them to be able to trace and identify long-term historic roots of current events — and so we will talk about redlining and state-sanctioned violence and the many events erroneously termed “race riots.” I want them to read and analyze primary sources. Will it be a #FergusonSyllabus? I doubt it. But I hope the end result will move slightly in that direction, providing students with the groundwork for engaging in a more informed public discourse.