Friday, January 25, 2008

It's More Than a Living

Tenured Radical tagged me to write about the reasons that I love teaching history (or something to that effect). Articulating our reasons for teaching, she reasons, will be a modest attempt to break apart the notion that universities provide a mere commodity for eager cogs in the capitalist machine (or something to that effect). I figured it would also be a good balance to my previous post. GayProf doesn't spend all of his time complaining about students.

Here are the reasons that I enjoy teaching history:

1. I can facilitate students discovering that they actually do enjoy learning about the past. Until college, most students’ education worked to crush their interest in learning about the past. Social Studies (which many people confuse with “history”) most often required them to memorize names and dates until they were ready to puke. How could anybody come to like history as an academic discipline if their only exposure required them to mindlessly spill out things like the exact date of the Treaty of Paris? Does knowing that it was signed on September 3, 1783 really do much for our understanding of the nation? What does that date even mean without any sense of context about what else was happening in the rest of the world in 1783? Most students, after dutiful memorizing such things, promptly forget them twenty-four hours after their high school exam. All-night cramming leaves a bad taste in their mouth. No wonder they are often filled with dread when they see that their university will require that they take six hours of history credit.

Yet, I have found that most people are quite curious about the past outside of academic environments. That curiosity might run the gambit. Some people might wonder how certain individuals became president or why we don’t remember other presidents (*cough* William Henry Harrison *cough*). Others might wonder how our modern assumptions about race, gender, and sexuality appeared. Still others might be more interested in questions about day-to-day life in the past. Some might ask, how and where did people take a shit in New York in 1833? I am thinking of you, Torn.

All of these questions have answers if we know where to look. If I can free students from the date/name phobia, they actually start to realize that learning about the past is – gasp – interesting.

2. Teaching history encourages students to develop skills in critical thinking. This is related to number one, but so important it deserves separate mention.

Memorizing all those names and dates? It does nothing for students to acquire actual abilities to think on their own. Now that we have entered into the “No Child Left Behind” era, things look even more grim. Apparently the marker of being educated is no longer being able to reason or form arguments. Nope, the marker of an education is the ability to play Trivia Pursuit: Scantron Edition.



Teaching history at the university level offers students the opportunity to think about the ways that others have created stories about the past. They learn that there is never one true history. Instead, there are always multiple and competing narratives about the past. This requires all of us to think critically about sources, perspectives, and context as we piece together the meaning of the past.

3. It beats shoveling coal. Teaching history also doesn’t require a lot of heavy lifting.

4. Teaching history can help students feel less lonely. The contemporary U.S. can be a grim place: unwinnable wars, a looming economic depression (don’t kid yourself – It’s nearly upon us. Cutting taxes again will only exacerbate the problem and continue to push the nation into debt), racism, sexism, and homophobia.

By studying the past, we learn that other people have dealt with similar (or worse) problems and survived. Individuals who identify as racial or sexual minorities, in particular, can find people in the past who weren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. Knowing such people existed can make one feel not so isolated. Because school boards mostly refuse to consider that history isn’t only about dead, white, straight men, the university classroom is often the first place that people even learn about the existence of different perspectives about the past.

5. I get to provide students with numerous anecdotes for their future cocktail parties. As I mentioned in number one, people are usually interested in the past (even if they are scarred off from the actual discipline). Interesting vignettes from history make excellent small talk for parties. Taking my class with undoubtedly improve students’ future social standing.

Did you know, for instance, that the nineteenth-century inventor of the Graham Cracker, Sylvester Graham, was obsessed with ending masturbation in young boys? Graham believed that one’s carnal desires were directly related to the food one consumed. Indeed, his cracker was imagined as part of a homeopathic system to “cure” all sorts of sexual vice. Think of that next time you make s’mores.



6. I learn a lot from students. Because history depends so much on discussion and trying out new interpretations, the classroom is not just a one-way venue where knowledge is imparted from behind the podium. I also take away new ideas.

Do I learn something from every student enrolled? Well, no. Still, there have been several students who arrived in my classroom with a different set of life experiences and/or a different intellectual trajectory that challenged and enhanced my own presumptions about the past.

7. Teaching history provides a means to buy sweet, sweet liquor. Hey, I might have noble sentiments about teaching, but it is also a paycheck. That paycheck permits me to eat, have shelter, and keep my bar quasi-stocked. Besides, with students like those mentioned in the previous entry, teaching history sometimes becomes a reason to buy sweet, sweet liquor.



8. Teaching is easier than trying to have a career in stand-up comedy. Both stand-up comedy and teaching require a lone individual to talk for an hour in front of an audience. Students, however, are usually so grateful that I make any attempt at humor in lecture that they will laugh at my corny jokes. In a night club, I would be booed off stage and possibly burned with cigarettes. Moreover, my students don't show up drunk -- most of the time.

9. By teaching history, I can provide an antidote to contemporary misuses of of the past. We would be in a sorry world if our only interpretation of the nation’s past came from politicians, CNN, Fox, or the National Treasure movies.



Teaching history gives students access to histories that were written based on, you know, evidence. Because it also provides students with critical thinking skills (see number 2), students are better prepared to identify when people are interpreting the past for their own political ends (whether it be the left or the right). Knowing that an argument is ahistorical is as important as knowing a reasonable historical argument.

Besides, any job where I can trash Nicolas Cage is well worth my time.

23 comments:

vuboq said...

You've trashed Nicolas Cage? When was this? Did I miss it? So sad...

I think you would be a good history prof to have. I shall recommend you to all my college-aged friends at Big Mid-Western University. All one of them.

Lesboprof said...

That was so great, GayProf! I like that you include the everyday with the philosophical. While I like this meme, it can get a little romantic, for lack of a better word.

Thanks for a good laugh in the middle of the day!

David said...

The erotic powers of chocolate and marshmallows mitigate any dampening effect from the graham crackers. And since it is a 2:1 ratio, s'mores still work as a sexual aid. In fact, the crackers serve as an important stabilizing agent to prevent the full desert from overwhelming the individual with its lustful energy.

Roger Green said...

I remember WH Harrison - first Whig Prez, Old Tippicanoe, gave longest inauguration speech, died a month later. It's his grandson Benjamin, stuck between Cleveland and... oh, yeah, Cleveland who I have no feel for at all.

I find the knowing of dates to be useful if you know enough of them. It's also great for game shows. Or Trivia Pursuit: Scantron Edition. (You mean Scranton?)

I LOVE graham crackers, and yet...ah, TMI.

Mel said...

That Mr. Graham apparently never went to Boy Scout camp (and yes, I do know he greatly predates the modern scouting movement). I very much agree, though, that high school history - AP American, in my case - sucked (Except for that historical novel my teacher had on Battle of the Bulge that had a secretly gay character crushing on his fellow soldiers. That had a hell of an impact for a gay boy growing up in rural SC) and that it was college where I really learned to love it and get interested in the undercurrents behind (beneath?) the dates.

There is, however, something to be said for being able to open up a can of serious whoop-ass at Trivial Pursuit.

pacalaga said...

I actually DID know that about the Graham Cracker. Though its original incarnation was said to be entirely bland because, you know, we can't be [gasp] stimulating those tastebuds!
I also recently read an article about the inventor of the Frito, who envisioned it as a healthy and tasty side dish in a vegetarian dinner. Apparently I need to expand my horizons.

Steven said...

As a result of your responses GP, I have so taken an interest in history again. My exposure to history in college was primarily architecture history, which, unfortunately, was a continuation of that type of history where you had to memorize but never really learn.

dykewife said...

the area of history that you teach, moreover, give the students a form of history that they wouldn't have learned in any other place. you teach the history from the perspective of those who didn't win.

tornwordo said...

Okay, but now I can't stop wondering where New Yorkers shit in 1833.

Anonymous said...

re: 5, I believe corn-flakes were invented for the same purpose.

wiccachicky said...

lol - my partner says something similiar about Nick Cage ALL THE TIME.

Michael said...

My high school AP American History teacher made me love and appreciate history for the first time really. He was an excellent and exciting teacher and also intellectually challenging. Unfortunately, I've had few other history teachers excite me the same way. I recall the professor who taught the history of England rambling on for classes with descriptions of the forests of the time most of all...

Marius said...

. . . any job where I can trash Nicolas Cage is well worth my time.

LOL. Thanks for a good laugh. I needed it.

Great post! You brought up some excellent points. I particularly agree with your statement about encouraging students to be critical thinkers. Amen to that!

Earl Cootie said...

Amen to #1. I've had little exposure to college level history, and the social studies throat-down-cramming squelched my interest for many, many years.

Frank said...

You should do "GayProf at the Movies" and dissect the many, many, many, many, MANY historical errors in the National Treasure movies.

Stacey said...

First, I want to say thank you for teaching history. My father was a history teacher and I was determined to hate it. Until I took it in college. I'm now staring down the nose of a degree in it. :D

I agree, it is far different history I've been exposed to.

Marlan said...

As bad as Nicolas Cage is, is he really worse than Mel Gibson in interpreting history? At least Cage is just a bad actor.

hazlanbh said...

Hi,
Nice post there. I got an information about mesothelioma cancer which I think you should really take a look at it. Just for information kindly visit http://the-mesothelioma-info.blogspot.com

Paris said...

Most jobs will allow for a healthy dose of Nicholas Cage bashing. I, for one, am happy to do it in my spare time as well.

I hear you on the dullness of high school history teaching, but I feel obliged to insist upon dates or else I get stupid essays that assume that Mohammed and Pericles were contemporaries. My best solution is to insist that they not only know who Mohammed was but also that he was running around in the eighth century.

pacalaga said...

so, along the meme thing, you made my day.

Will said...

The last time that graham crackers crossed paths with sex for me was MANY years ago when I invited a guy for dinner and served a dessert in a graham cracker crust. I then proceeded to nail him for the night (and for a short while thereafter). So much for graham crackers as a chastity food!

Laverne said...

"Nope, the marker of an education is the ability to play Trivia Pursuit: Scantron Edition."

Great line. I'm going to steal it.

momo said...

True! and funny. Oh, and #3.