Tips on Teaching

Close Only Counts in History and Horseshoes

by Flannery Burke, Ph.D., Associate Professor in History and Fulbright Roving Scholar to Norway

Here are three historical mistakes I may have conveyed in the course of teaching American culture to high school English classes in Norway as a part of that nation’s Fulbright Roving Scholars program.  Which is most egregious?

1)     Abraham Lincoln served as President until 1868.

2)     The Navajo insisted on passports to pass through their nation in the 1970s.

3)     I married a University professor while a student at Bryn Mawr College.

I made the last mistake when introducing myself.  I explained that Bryn Mawr students prized academics over socializing.  I said that at Bryn Mawr we had a race and whoever won the race would be, according to superstition, the first to get her PhD.  “Whoever lost the race,” I’d say with a little smile, “Would be the first to marry.” “What did we care about?” I asked.  “Studying,” answered a student. “What didn’t we care about?” “Boys,” answered a student.  So far so good.  Students were interacting with me.  Some of the shyer girls were smiling a bit.  Maybe they would talk later.  Then, I made it too complicated.  “I was not the first to get my PhD, but I did get it.  I was not the first to marry, but I did get married.  I even married a University professor!  So I got to have my cake and eat it too.  Do you know that expression in English?”

Students often do know the expression, but an English-speaking teaching assistant told me later that I had given the impression that I had married one of my Bryn Mawr professors while I was a student.  “Better fix that,” she said.

Where to begin exactly?  There is no such race at Bryn Mawr – rather, the superstition involves lanterns that Freshmen receive from upper classes.  The lanterns become heirlooms, symbols of our education and the light of knowledge we received in university.  The superstition is this: whoever’s lantern goes out first will be the first to marry.  Whoever’s burns longest will be the first to receive her PhD.  It’s got more potential as a metaphor, but I find it too complicated, especially for non-native speakers.  And I like the idea of young women learning that marriage and serious study are not mutually exclusive.  So I say it’s a race.  But I’m wrong, and I know it, and apparently even beyond my knowing mistake, I’ve also left the impression that I married and received a PhD at the tender age of 19.  Should I just stop telling the story?

I’ve never been called on mistake #2.  Most of my students have probably never even heard of the Navajo.  If they have, they may very well mispronounce the name with a “y” sound in place of the soft, Spanish “j.”  I use the Navajo example to introduce the largest tribe in the U.S.; to introduce the proper pronunciation of their name; and to teach the idea of sovereignty – a very complicated idea to explain to non-native speakers.  By repeatedly referring to the “Navajo Nation,” and by bringing in a word that I know most students will recognize: “passports,” I try to convey the idea that indigenous people strive for sovereignty.  But it’s a complicated idea, and I have no evidence, aside from a vague memory that I cannot verify quickly, that I am correct.  Should I just stop telling the story?

Mistake number 3 only happened once, mercifully.   It was early in my time as a Fulbright rover, and I was teaching a lesson on woman suffrage that I usually use with my university students.  I was looking at a timeline that included the date of adoption of the fourteenth amendment– the amendment granting men citizenship rights regardless of race.  That date is 1868, and I absent-mindedly read it off the page as I answered the question. But what followed was even more concerning for this professor of American history.  No one corrected me.  The question came from the instructor, and, while I worked students through the timeline, he found online a commonly-forwarded near-conspiracy theory comparing the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy.  This was his “source” when he reminded me several minutes later of the actual date of Lincoln’s assassination: 1865.   Does it matter if Norwegian students can quickly and easily name the date of Lincoln’s assassination?  Does it matter that no one (not even me!) immediately caught my error?  Does it matter that the source that brought my full attention to the question perpetuates illogical and hysterical conclusions?

Teachers speak often of “balancing” content and pedagogy as if we put both on a scale and wait until the two sides reach an equilibrium.  Adding a role-playing exercise here; subtracting a lecture with PowerPoint there.  “You can be the sage on the stage or the guide by the side,” a teacher once told me.  But that is never how it actually goes down in the classroom.  The two can be a jumbled mess or a delicate and nuanced mélange, but however they appear, they are always tied, always mixed.  Getting the facts right are just a tiny part of the whole.  The briefest of lectures involves split-second decisions regarding word choice that can make students conclude that slavery had little to do with the American Civil War.   The decision to use a historical document that has been translated from another language or decoded, the Code of Hamurabi or the Zimmerman Telegram, can utterly transform students’ understanding of the document itself, regardless of whether they encounter it in a role playing exercise or in their textbook.

History requires nuanced thinking and comfort holding complex, and even contradictory, ideas together. And every teacher will tell you that you are always modeling for your students the skills that you want them to display.  How do you share those complex ideas without just mixing up your students?  How do you prepare them to answer a simple question when you’re whole point is that there are no simple answers?  My fellow university instructors speak of “not doing violence” to the subject matter as they prepare their syllabi.  As they hack away at the number of pages of reading and writing and ditch the war of 1812 for a deeper conversation about the Great Awakening, they shudder to think what students will actually learn in the miserly 15-week semester.  As one teacher here told me, “I just wish there was more time to reflect.  For the students and for me.”  “The clock is the tyrant in the classroom,” I responded with a laugh, but I knew what she meant.

“Just stop worrying about the history,” one teacher here tells me, smiling.  After all, I am in English classes here in Norway.  “It went fine,” says another. “Don’t analyze.”  But it’s my way.  I worry.  I analyze.  I teach history.

One often hears of the humility that comes from studying history.  Usually such statements call our attention to the wide sweep of the past — from the big bang to the present moment.  The point of such reminders is to recognize that we are small in the infinity of the universe.  More rarely one hears of the humility that comes from historical study, the recognition that no matter how deeply one digs in the archives, one can never find all the sources because some of them no longer exist and because some people did not have the influence to leave a record of their voice.  The point of such reminders is to recognize that we will never have total knowledge; we will never have the whole story.  We will never have all the answers.  But it is rarer still to hear of the humility that comes from history teaching: the pain as we tear our subject matter apart; leave aside the decades of scholarship our peers have put into the questions we’re asking; abandon the hope that students will see the same beautiful dance of inquiry and disciplined answer that we are trying to share; and embrace the meager satisfaction of knowing that even when we’ve done our very best, we only come close.


FlanneryBurkeFlannery Burke is associate professor in the Department of History at Saint Louis University and currently serving as a Fulbright Roving Scholar in Norway.  She specializes in environmental history, the history of the American West, cultural history and gender history. Dr. Burke has been involved in the scholarship of teaching and learning history since 2004, and has served on the writers committee drafting K-12 common core standards for social studies.