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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

May 12, 2015: Semester Conclusions: A Tough Crowd

[As another semester winds to a close, a week’s series on some of the moments that have stood out to me and what conclusions I’d take away from them. Leading up to a weekend post on some of my summer and fall plans. Share your spring follow ups or summer/fall plans in comments, please!]
On an unexpected test of my public scholarly goals, its mixed results, and its value.
I’ve written at great length, not only in this space but in the introduction to my third book, about my incredible experiences teaching in the Adult Learning in the Fitchburg Area (ALFA) program. I’ve never encountered a group of students more excited by and committed to everything that happens in a classroom, nor one who bring more strong and rich perspectives and voices to share in those conversations. In each of my prior three ALFA courses, those two elements worked hand in hand to create the best pegagogical experiences of my career to date. But in this semester’s ALFA course, in which I both presented the students with five nominees for my in-progress American Hall of Inspiration and worked to elicit their own ideas for such nominees, the two elements were a bit more opposed: a couple of the strongest voices and perspectives in the group led those students to resist quite seriously my goals for the course.
This different dynamic became clear right from the outset: on the first day I made the case for remembering Quock Walker and his peers alongside the more famous Founding Fathers in our collective memories of the Revolutionary Era, and these two students (out of only eight total in the class) were having none of it. Remembering stories and histories like Walker’s is fine, they argued, but much of American history has been driven first and foremost by Anglo (or at least European) Americans, and to make the case otherwise is to allow revisionist, politically correct impulses to outweigh our sense of history. (I may be overstating their position slightly, but I don’t believe so—that was certainly the gist of it at least.) As the weeks went along, one of these two students seemed to shift in her perspective somewhat, to recognize the value of learning about the figures whom we were studying, of reading their works and voices, of adding them to our collective memories. But the other student very much did not shift—on the last day, when I was asking them for their own nominees for the Hall, she declined to answer or participate in the conversation; and on the course evaluations (which I saw weeks later), she (I believe) wrote that “The instructor allowed his political perspective to impact the class too much.”
That line, combined with the moment I highlighted in yesterday’s post, might make you think that I’m a regular Howard Zinn in the classroom. I don’t think I am, nor do I believe that my choices and emphases in this ALFA course should be defined as political in any partisan or even contemporary sense (although of course the right-wing opponents of the current AP US History standards and exam would no doubt beg to differ). Yet despite my disagreement with this student, and especially my sadness that she didn’t feel on that last day like her perspective would have been welcome (which it would, even if she nominated Joseph McCarthy for the Hall!), I came away from the experience very glad that it had happened. If I’m serious about one of my central, evolving career goals—my desire to add my public scholarly perspectives on America to our national conversations—then I had better get used to the idea of engaging with a wide variety of audiences and perspectives, including, indeed especially, those that disagree with me. I’m not sure I responded well in this particular instance, although perhaps the shift in the other student indicates that I did all right; but in any case, I’m very sure that it was great practice for such conversations, and thus an experience I’ll carry forward very fully and happily.
Next conclusion tomorrow,

PS. Thoughts on this semester conclusion? Ones of yours you’d share?

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