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Hamilton (the musical) has a Genius (the website) Problem

If you follow me on Twitter or have read my post over at Pedagogy and American Literary Studies, then you likely know I’ll be incorporating Hamilton: An American Musical in one of my classes this coming semester.

In other words, “if ya don’t know, now ya know.”

In my class I’ll be approaching Hamilton by pairing it with several excellent of examples of public writing written by historians and cultural critics. Additionally, I plan on pairing Hamilton with several online exhibitions from various museums and libraries.

However, I’m on the fence about using the annotations for Hamilton provided by the website, Genius.

genius

Genius is a crowd-sourced and web-based platform that allows users to annotate the lyrics of songs. Genius originally began as a way to annotate the lyrics of rap music, but has since expanded to a variety of other texts, including Hamilton. On the surface, Genius is cool. It allows for crowdsourced knowledge that can be enhanced with links, images, and gifs. It allows for annotations and comments from users. Many works, like Hamilton, can be linked with YouTube or platforms like Spotify that allow for a multimedia experience that echoes the format of VH1’s Pop-Up Video. On first pass, it is a dizzying array of resources presented in a fresh and exiting way. As other people have noted the applications for the classroom are apparent.

check chernow

However, Genius has an authority problem that centers on a veneration of Lin-Manuel Miranda and the musical’s major source material, Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton. The community of editors on Genius makes the veneration of both Chernow and Miranda clear in the instructions and advice to new annotators of Hamilton. One of the editors’ stated goals involves Miranda verifying annotations. Another piece of advice extols users to #CheckInWithChernow. Andrew M. Schocket addresses the problems with the history detailed by Chernow, especially in light of the biography’s resurgence in the wake of the musical’s success. And Schocket isn’t alone. William Hogeland, on Twitter and his blog, has critqued the problem of the musical and its main source material. As a teaching tool, the issues with Genius and Hamilton result in a thorny intertext that requires spending extensive time working through issues of the practice of history as a field, dealing with source evaluation, or exposing students to issues of authority.

First year students often have difficulty navigating issues of authority when it comes to evaluating sources. The difficulty of students becoming critical readers and thinkers, especially in their first semester, is one reason that I find myself pondering the authority problem of Hamilton and the Genius annotations. Chernow’s biography has many of the hallmarks that students see as a “good source”: it is big, it has notes, and it has a bibliography. Or, as the Grumpy Historian, pointed out on Twitter, Chernow’s biography is an example of “How biography (and primary sources, and footnotes) can hide #BadHistory.”

I am wavering on my class using the Genius annotations for Hamilton. It is an extensive source that could be used in powerful ways to discuss authority and source evaluation. I’m using Hamilton in the context of a composition class. We will address issues of authority and the evaluation of sources. However, we can’t do everything in as much depth as I would like. My main focus has to be on wiring instruction. There is not enough time in the classroom. I imagine that there would be more time to devote to such issues in an upper-level class.

my edit

Perhaps the solution is to fix the Genius annotations of Hamilton. Extensive revisions could be done in a class focused on public writing or digital writing. I did an experiment. I wanted to see how easily Genius annotations could be revised and updated. I set up an account on Genius. I created a profile in which I leveraged my academic authority. I made a revision to “The Reynolds Pamphlet.” I made a small suggestion. The original annotation links to a full-text version of “The Reynolds Pamphlet” provided by a partisan political website. I altered the link to take users to a full-text version of “The Reynolds Pamphlet” provided on the Founders Online site from the National Archives. I left a comment that I made the change and the reason for the change. Perhaps there is an even better link I could use, but the purpose of my edit was to incorporate a sound source and see if the change would be accepted.

As a result of this experience I learned that revising annotations on Genius is not as easy as revising entries on Wikipedia. I made my edit on June 30th and it is now July 8th. The original annotation for “The Reynolds Pamphlet” has not been updated. If users click on the list of proposed edits, located at the bottom, then they can see my proposed change. In the intervening days between my edit and writing this post, I did receive an upvote on my proposed change. Small victories.

As another experiment, prior to writing this post, I took a look at the annotations for the line “Martha Washington named her feral tomcat after him” from the song “A Winter’s Ball.” I did this in the wake of a recent article that exploring the veracity of this anecdote. As Joanne Freeman noted on Twitter: “Seems like a non-story, folks, as I noted when interviewed yesterday. Story clearly from a 19th c “story” book.” I thought the “tomcat” line could be a quick candidate for an easy revision. Believe it or not, there are extensive annotations to this one line of the song. It was not a candidate for a quick edit and I didn’t make any changes.

one user noted

One user did comment about the partisan nature of a linked site.

I noticed, in reading the annotations of the “tomcat” line, that one of the annotations takes Genius users to a partisan blog on Hamilton and Christianity. An additional link takes users to another partisan political website with an article on Hamilton and John and Abigail Adams. Genius annotations for Hamilton reveal links to similarly partisan websites and blogs. However, making meaningful edits to Genius is not as easy as it appears, as my experience with “The Reynolds Pamphlet” shows. Making revisions isn’t just about changing links. Much of the information from the sites cited by users is extensively embedded in the user-generated content on Genius.

Revisions of Hamilton on Genius are needed if the site has potential uses for the classroom, which makes such a project a seemingly ideal candidate for an upper-division class with a digital humanities or public writing focus. Last summer, I wrote about the potential of a digital humanities project focusing on revising entries of American women writers on Find A Grave. In my post I addressed the potential difficulties of such a project because of the prevalence of entries locked by users, many of whom are no longer active users. Hamilton on Genius has many of the same problems because the entries are a year old and the editors behind the project may no longer be active.

I thought writing this post would help me make a firm decision about using Genius in my classroom. I’m still not sure. One reason I like Genius is because it is a repository of musical and cultural references that I’m not in a position to connect for students. However, if my extra credit assignment on Hamilton is any indication, students are very capable of making the popular cultural connections that I can’t provide for them.

I still have a few weeks to plan my classes. I’ll no doubt continue to waiver on the topic of using Genius in the classroom. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Filed under digital humanities, digital pedagogy, Hamilton, history, pedagogy

Sharing Bad Days in the Classroom

Over on PALS I wrote a short piece on teaching a pairing of Thomas Jefferson and Phillis Wheatley. Each time I write for PALS or I write for my own blog—I’m looking for a chance to write small. The aim: shorter posts, but more frequent posts.

I tried to write small today. For the sake of time, especially for something that wasn’t planned, I tried to write small and I tried hard since I needed to write other bigger things.

I’m always trying to write small when it comes to the blog. I know that is the best blog practice. I know small is good from the blogs I read. I’ve seen the change from longer and in-depth posts to shorter and more frequent posts.

I tried to write small today. It didn’t happen.

Then I thought: maybe it isn’t writing small—maybe it is editing small.

So I tried to edit small.

My post on Wheatley and Jefferson was personal because I shared failure. I didn’t think folks would want to read about my personal experience. Well, at least not in that way. Most things we post to PALS are personal and based on classroom experience. I aimed to cut my story of failure out. However, my bad memory of teaching Jefferson and Wheatley was central to what I had to say. I think. I still waiver on that.

Ultimately, the reason I included my failure was because it was about failure. It is rare that people share failures in the classroom. Social media is awash with awesome, especially when it comes to teaching. We often send out vibes about being awesome teachers and all but scream our students are from Lake Woebegone. People rarely share the bad. You’ve probably read articles about the link between social media and our self-perception changing by reading about every other person’s awesomeness.

I wanted to buck the trend.

I put off writing small or editing small—in order to share the bad. I think that is important. As teachers we need to share more of the bad. You can read about the good and the bad of teaching Jefferson and Wheatley here.

Check out more on #teachingfails with this roundtable post from Pedagogy and American Literary Studies.

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Ending 24/7 Finals Culture

Finals time is here again and with it, at many schools, comes 24/7 study culture. Student lounges and campus buildings give up the late regular semester hours and throw the doors open to a 24/7 study atmosphere. The apparatus of the university goes into overdrive as food courts and libraries are kept open. All the while students scramble for space at the various tables across campus.

The 24/7 mode of finals has to stop because it isn’t healthy. And we, of all people, should know better.

As educators, scholars, and researchers we should know that the 24/7 finals culture isn’t good for students. Read Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education with enough regularity and you’ll see plenty of content focused on work and life balance. As educators in higher education we know that letting our work overrule us is bad for our work, our health (both mental and physical), our relationships, and myriad of other individual factors.

Throughout the semester many of us extol the virtues of working and researching in chunks. Many of us teach writing as a process. Our bible of graduate school was Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. We subscribe to the slow and steady wins the race pace of Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks with its methodical chipping away at an article over a period of time. (Side note: Wendy Laura Belcher deserves props for including a section on mental and physical wellbeing in her book.)

Still, we are complicit in the 24/7 finals culture just as much as the midnight-make-your-own-waffle-bars and 24/7 library hours that normalize such a culture. Our courses cram everything into the syllabus. Massive projects, papers, and exams on the last day of class that are then followed by final exams. For some students the message of accepting 24/7 final culture isn’t only codified in the syllabus, but it is made clear in messages that students should work every day of Thanksgiving break, except for the day of the actual day of Thanksgiving. The messaging is the same for fall breaks, Easter Breaks, spring breaks, and so on.

And why shouldn’t they receive that message about working all the time? For every column in an academic newspaper about work and life balance there are pieces extolling the virtues of working on a day off or a holiday. And let’s not even say anything about the comments to such pieces. As humans we should know better and as educators we should know even better. Cramming isn’t learning. The diminishing returns on learning that occur when students cram is steep. All-nighters to finish a paper or a project don’t represent true learning or intellectual pursuit.

While students are bombarded with the messaging of 24/7 finals culture there are voices on many campuses trying to push back. Student health centers, mental health centers, and wellbeing centers share messages of rest, extol the virtues of self-care, and showcase the diminishing returns of cramming. With the increased focus on the role mental and physical health on campuses, we should be mindful of these messages. This is especially the case given the large number of academics that have struggled with depression and mental health issues in graduate school or in their current positions. The connection between physical and health and depression is well known. Sleep deprivation, not eating right, not socializing, and not exercising are triggers to bouts of depression. The 24/7 finals culture is a perfect cocktail to exacerbate the triggers for depression.

As educators we have a great deal of power to shape the approach to work that students develop and within our small circle of control our own syllabi represent a great place to start. We can choose to not have projects due on the last day of class. We can make the decision not to have an exam on the last day of class and a final exam a few days later. We can schedule and stagger heavy reading loads during the semester. We can make substantial changes to our approach and still maintain the academic rigor we desire. We do not have to be beholden to the academic calendar of midterm exam weeks and where school breaks fall. And, at a smaller scale, we don’t have to assign due dates for submission of assignments that cap at 11:59 PM.

In many cases we have little control of shaping the culture of our campus, but when it comes to modeling healthy modes of academic work we do have an opportunity to do so. And we should certainly make use of that opportunity.

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A Novel Approach to Marginal Notes

As an undergraduate when I was given a free choice to write about a work I often wrote about poetry. Writing about poetry was an easy thing because in a time-crunched-world poetry’s brevity allowed for rereading. When it came to novels I often felt I didn’t notice patterns until well into a book and I wasn’t about to reread an entire novel for a five page paper.

I’ve become a better reader over the years. I’ve also figured out my interests and those interests pop a lot more when I read. The rise of searchable online texts also makes the search for evidence a lot easier. What a time to be alive!

While in graduate school I developed a model of reading and note taking that relied heavily on a system of abbreviated tagging. This was a response to the time crunch, reading for specific class themes, reading for comps, and reading for teaching. I eventually codified many of my abbreviations into a handy chart. As my classes changed each semester and my research interests evolved, so too would the chart evolve.

Abbr Chart Sample

Behold! The Chart! Well, one version of the chart from many years ago.

As you can see, it is made up of a lot of scholarly buzzwords and an abbreviation for the words. As I read, I tagged things I see in the text with an abbreviation in the margins. If what I read in the text was an outstanding example, bizarre, or noteworthy in some other way, then I also tagged it with an exclamation point. Regarding characters or plot, I used the blank space on my chart to record page numbers of note corresponding to those folks and/or plot points. If I was inspired to add additional tag to the chart, then I’d also record that, too.

 

After I was done reading, or as a break from

Portion of the chart filled out

A filled out version of the chart.

reading, I’d go through my book’s tags and fill out the chart with the corresponding page numbers. I recommend filling in the chart as you go and not waiting to do an entire novel!

I can see the time crunch and exhaustion of the spring coming down the pike. My thoughts turn to my chart. I’m not one to meticulously plan out every detail of my classes, which are discussion based since I try to keep lecture to a minimum. The chart helps as a reference point in class when it comes to discussing specific topics. If I want an example, then I consult my chart, and refer to the tagged section of the book. No searching through minuscule notes or bookmarks. It saves time in the classroom.

One positive about the chart is that it allows for a safety net when students want to lead discussion to unlikely directions. Like I said, I don’t like planning out my classes in excruciating detail. I’ve had far too many experiences where students became animated about an aspect of the text and want to go in a different direction. The notetaking system I’ve developed, in most cases, allows me to follow my students and have a stable of examples or instances from the text that fit their thrust of discussion.

One notable abbreviation is the “T.” That stands for teaching. Those include passages that offer significant opportunities for the classroom. Those might be substantial moments in the text. They might be unusual. They might fit with the theme. You know these moments when you see them. The nice thing about the chart is that the “T” moments can be easily cross-referenced with other parts of the list since everything is recorded in numerical order.

2015-12-08 09.13.58

Sample pages with abbreviated notes.

Using abbreviations in my reading has many practical aspects beyond the ease of notetaking. First, my handwriting is not very good. It is large and sloppy. The abbreviations can be small and neat. The ease of writing helps with the arthritis in my hands. Additionally, when we read we often read through a particular lens geared towards our class or research interests. The abbreviated note taking allows for a marking of the text that isn’t obtrusive. Because the notes are scant there will be plenty of space remaining for future rereading from different perspectives that geared towards other themes.

Over my scant semester break I’m planning to reread the texts for my classes. I’ll be breaking in new versions of texts I’ve read before for other classes. I want to have good notes and references on these works. This model of note taking may not work for you, but I wanted to offer it since many of us will be pressed for time and will reread works over the break—works we might not get to teach until well into the spring semester. Over the break, I’ll be using my chart to take and organize my notes. I’ll also try working with my phone’s native dictation feature to save some time on notetaking. For a more traditional take on notetaking, but with a technological twist, I recommend reading about the dictation/research/notetaking approach used by Kevin Gannon.

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Some thoughts on my time teaching at #Mizzou

In light of the events happening at the University of Missouri over the past few weeks, and especially this past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about my time there, especially in the classroom.

As many of you know, from the Fall of 2011 until my last teaching semester at Mizzou in Spring of 2014, I taught a composition course themed around the American Civil War. Over that span, I had the opportunity to speak with my students about a variety of issues that related to the legacy of the Civil War. Since we read Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic and spent much of our time focused on the legacy of the Civil War, we spent much of our time in class discussing contemporary issues affecting the state of Missouri, the city of Columbia, and the University of Missouri campus itself. We talked about incidents of racism on campus, Confederate Rock, race relations on campus, and the advocacy of African American students on campus over the past 50 years. You can find a few reflections on my time teaching the Civil War course here.

Often such discussions were difficult. Often they were wide-ranging.

I wonder if these class discussions mattered. Did they stick? I’m thinking about those discussions now, but are the students that took my classes thinking about those discussions? The first sets of students enrolled in my classes have likely graduated by now. Those that remain are juniors and seniors. How do they process that experience now in the context of what is happening on campus right now?

Prior to my class on the Civil War I taught composition classes themed around campus and places on campus. Students wrote about a variety of locations from the Rec Center to the Art Museum to the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center. Students discussed campus places, decorations, and how Mizzou represented the history of the student body. Students talked about the people included and the people left out. The students in these classes on campus places are likely long-gone and hopefully have graduated. Do they think about those times in class? Does how they think about the places that they saw everyday and discussed in class change now that these are also scenes of protest and struggles for recognition?

In addition to teaching composition at Missouri, I taught several introductions to American literature. I’ve been thinking a lot about those courses, too. I think especially about a curious and frequent comment in my course evaluations. I often received comments that my courses were depressing. They were depressing because of the works we read dealing with slavery and the African American experience. I received other comments that my class focused too much on race and African American authors. Now I wonder if those students think back on those classes. Does the story we tried to tell in those classes make sense to them now? I don’t know.

I hope I did the right things in all of my classes. By saying I hope I did the right things I think I mean I’m hopeful that I did things that mattered. We write in our job letters and teaching philosophies about the transformative experiences of our classrooms. We depict our classrooms as places of change and as locations for difficult discussions. In our classes we like to think we are grappling with important issues. Am I really doing that? Are the students doing that? I think we did many of those things in the moment of an individual class. But do those moments come back now?

How much did the experiences of students in my classes matter? Did the conversations matter and did they linger long after the semester ended? Do those conversations awaken now in light of everything that has happened the past few weeks?

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Kicking off Syllabus Week without a Syllabus

I did not email students a syllabus today. Nor did I upload a syllabus to a course management site. And I did not give students a copy of the syllabus in class.

I am struck by the above sentences because they are filled with authority. I made choices. I did things—or in this case I did not do things. I have power, control, and authority to do things in the classroom, like not hand out a syllabus.

My aim in extending this authority to not hand out a syllabus is ultimately to relinquish some of my authority and privilege to my students. I do this in hopes to make a better class through collaboration with my students.

I’m not sure how well it went today by not beginning class and the semester with handing out a syllabus. I tried this very thing last semester on the first day of classes. It did not go so well. I think today went better than the previous semester.

I did tell students that our class would be themed and that the theme would be higher education. I think having that theme gives some structure to the thought-process of students and myself when confronted with a day without out a syllabus. The things we talked and wrote about in class today had a direction to move towards.

Last semester, I learned a great deal about students and myself by not handing out a syllabus. I realized how accustomed I became to the syllabus as a first day crutch. I learned that students do need a certain level of assurance on the first day of classes. They need to leave the class that day with a sense of some expectation and a trajectory for the course. That is only natural. However, it is also a byproduct, and I learned this by teaching dual enrollment courses, of the public school system where everything is spelled out and students are robbed of any agency.

Since students are likely presented with an opportunity to exert their agency in the classroom for the first time in an educational setting, I knew that my first day needed to be planed out in greater detail than I usually do for the first day of the semester. I came with the day mapped out on a piece of paper. I had questions written down to use as writing exercises. The writing exercises, all questions relating to the course, class expectations, and college, too, provide students an avenue to engage their agency. It provides an avenue to create something of their own when they don’t have a document like a syllabus on the first day. These short pieces of writing and the experience of sharing them in class provide students opportunities to engage collaboratively with the purpose and the direction of the course. I think that is important because an on-the-fly discussion can be overwhelming the first day of class. On the first day of class, in time that would have been eaten by going over a syllabus, students created and shared something that did not exist when they entered the classroom. That, I think, is more powerful than reading a syllabus.

There are several immediate benefits to not handing out a syllabus and they have, I think, some profound pedagogical impacts, especially for the composition classroom. In prefacing the brief writing we did today, I encourage students to be themselves, to write what they wanted to write, and to not write a correct answer, or an answer they thought I would like. It seemed, to me at least, that I received some knowing head nodding in response. Hopefully my encouragement worked. Perhaps it didn’t. However, I think such encouragement is more likely to work when it isn’t prefaced by a 10 page document of authority, policies, though shall not and don’t do this. Even the most student centered syllabus, void of language that allows, permits, and gives permission, is still a powerful contract with a great deal of authority. I’m not sure there is a way around that authority of a syllabus, but not giving out a syllabus on the first day of class certainly helps.

Having learned from my experience on the first day of class last semester, I knew that I needed to do something today that would also provide students a level of comfort and expectation for the class. We did two things in class to help address these concerns. First, we briefly looked at the course description and outcomes for class that are hosted on the website of the first-year writing program. I shared with students how to find it and I’ll be emailing the link to them today. I also briefly discussed the requirements for the course that are dictated by the program. I also described some of the areas in the course where we can collaborate on the policies. Second, I invited students to write down any questions or concerns that they had about the course. Those will be useful as the course and the syllabus comes together. I also suspect they will be more honest when not prefaced by an extensive presentation on the rules and regulations contained in the syllabus.

I certainly think today could have been better, but it went okay. My class today was my first 50-minute class in years. I’ve grown accustomed to the pacing of longer classes. I accounted for this in my class preparation notes by triaging certain things that I wanted to do in class. I will follow up with these items on Wednesday. For the longer classes, I suspect we will be able to cover what I did not cover in the class today.

Walking back to my office I had the chance to overhear many instructors handing out their syllabi. The more classes that I passed, the more that I overheard things, the better I felt about not giving out a syllabus today. I overheard one instructor tell their class that they like to go over the syllabus line by line. I certainly did not want to go over a syllabus line by line. While today could have been better, I am hopeful that it was a better experience for the students and myself than going over a syllabus line by line.

Note: My thinking about not handing out a syllabus is largely shaped by following Jesse Stommel and many, many others on Twitter over the past year or so. I’ve also found that reading materials shared on Hybrid Pedagogy has also been helpful, too. I’ve found a great community via Twitter; I’m thankful for that.

I realized in writing this post that I used we a lot—as in we wrote about this and wrote about that. In writing this post I am aware of the fact that I did not write anything in class. For class on Tuesday, I will certainly do my own writing. Not writing today was a mistake on my part.

Yes, there will be a syllabus. I’ll have it posted by the end of the week. It will be crafted based on what comes out of class discussions over the course of the coming days.

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A few anecdotes on what my students knew about the Civil War

From the fall of 2011 until the spring of 2014, I taught a Civil War themed composition course at the University of Missouri. My thematic approach varied over the semesters as the course covered the legacy of the Civil War, the memory of the war, and representations of the war on social media and online. Regardless of minor thrusts in the course’s focus, students wrote conventional papers, blogs, posted to Twitter, and wrote a variety of pieces in class. The main course text was Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic.

I found Horwitz’s book, though a little dated, to be an excellent choice for the class and students often gravitated to parts of the book in surprising ways. However, Confederates in the Attic can be a difficult teaching text because Horwitz frequently steps back from his content, especially in the case of writing about the people that he meets, and he lets the legacy of the Civil War play out in front of readers in a seemingly unmediated way. Navigating Confederates in the Attic is also difficult because of students’ tendencies to latch on to the personal opinions of the many compelling and interesting figures encountered by Horwitz. Horwitz’s style of presentation means students need to learn how to engage and read a text that seems to just happen. In other words, students must become accustomed to understanding that Horwitz’s quotations of other works and dialogue aren’t “facts,” but opinions that sit out there for the readers to see in often naked absurdity. Aiding students in navigating Confederates in the Attic requires helping students unpack not only what they know and don’t know about the Civil War, but also the how and why of what they know and don’t know.

In light of an article I read recently, along with some recent Twitter conversations, I wanted to share some of my impressions about what students, at least my students, knew about the Civil War. Granted these are anecdotal observations about contemporary education in the United Sates regarding the Civil War and come from my experience at the University of Missouri. However, I would point out that I was Mizzou for a long time and encountered students representing a wide geographic distribution from a variety of public and private schools, both large and small.

Talking to my students I learned that many of them had at some point learned about the Civil War. For the majority of students, their Civil War education was centered during their time in middle school, generally around the 8th grade. I did encounter a few exceptions to learning about the Civil War in middle school. A few students learned about the Civil War in elementary school, while others encountered the Civil War in high school. Regardless of when students learned about the Civil War during their schooling, once it happened, then that was generally it. There was never any follow up on it or a building upon that education. There were some exceptions to this educational exposure to the Civil War, most notably for students from Illinois that were exposed the Abraham Lincoln frequently through school or youth activities like the Boy or Girl Scouts.

I’m unsure about the exact curriculum details students encountered during their studies of the Civil War, but one nugget of knowledge that often remained was that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights. I found this hard to believe for many reasons. I had figured that any curriculum on the Civil War would be based around the ultimate goal of testing; and what would be easier to test for than the one word answer of slavery? I think I was also surprised by my own assumptions created by the intellectual circles that I’ve operated in since the days of my teenage interest in the Civil War. I was most surprised by the frequently occurring and earnest belief among many of my black students that the Civil War was about states’ rights exclusively. In class, we spent a considerable amount of time working through the issue of states’ rights by parsing Horwitz’s text and examining historical documents. I’m unsure of how effective this unpacking was, but I take some satisfaction in the nearly every semester phenomenon of a student interjecting in class discussion that the Civil War was about states’ rights… to have slaves. I often felt such moments had the potential to be a watershed moment in class. I hope that was the case for many of my students, too.

Another aspect of what my students “knew” about the Civil War was a troubling belief in the myth of black confederates. As I spent more time with my course this was a subject that I spent more time on because Horwitz seemingly passes off the idea of black confederates as truth. The persistent belief in black confederates was difficult for me to fathom for many reasons. First, I’m unsure of where students encountered this myth for the first time. Second, even though we spent a great deal of time on evaluating sources, especially online sources, I know this myth was partly furthered by dubious online sources. Third, I was troubled by the persistence of this myth throughout the semester because I knew several of my students followed Kevin Levin on Twitter and kept up with his blog where black confederates were frequently covered in detail.

I was disturbed by the persistence of the black confederate myth amongst my students, but especially in the case of many of my black students. I’ve tried to figure out why this was the case, but I’m not sure I have an explanation. I sensed a strong resistance to pushing back against the myth of black confederates. I think my pushing back against the black confederates, especially in the context of my classroom authority, is perceived not as countering a myth, but as a marginalization of African-American history. I had the sense that for some students black confederates represented a history in need of recovery, but here I was trying to bury it again. I’m not sure if my thoughts can explain this issue totally, but it is the best that I can come up with at this time.

There are certainly a few other examples that I could add about what my students know/knew about the Civil War, but the above are the broad strokes that have stuck with me in the wake of teaching my Civil War course. Feel free to share any thoughts or responses.

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