H. W. Brands on the study of history, with technology

Spent half a day with H. W. Brands, professor of history at the University of Texas, and author of at least one of my favorite history books, The First American (and several others).

Brands banned the use of computers for notetaking in his classrooms this fall.  It’s not the notes he objects to, of course, but the students’ side-activities of checking e-mail, eBay, and ESPN, rather than paying attention to the lecture, and other activities in lieu of taking notes.

Nominally our discussion centered on the decade of 1890 to 1900, the Reckless Decade, as Brands’ book on the era titles it.   Brands took a larger, circular route to the topic, today.  These discussions come under the aegis of the Dallas Independent School District’s Teaching American History Grant, and the Gilder-Lehrman Institute chipped in today, too.  We are a polyglot group of teachers of American history, and a few other related social studies subjects, in Dallas high schools.

I asked about technology beyond lecture, or “direct instruction” as the curriculum and teacher berating  rubrics so dryly and inaccurately phrase it.   Brands focused on the effects of connected students in the lecture, a problem which we officially should not have in Dallas schools.  We discovered he’s using Blackboard (probably the electronic classroom standard for UT-Austin).  I’ve used Blackboard in college instruction, and a somewhat less luxurious version in high schools.  Blackboard works better than others I’ve tried.

Over several hours Brands said he teaches best when he performs well as a story teller — when the students put down their note-taking pencils and listen.  Two observations:  It helps to be a good story teller, and, second, that requires that one know a story to tell.

Our grant could give us better stories to tell.  Most educational enterprises produce great benefits as by-products of the original learning goal.  Our teacher studies of history are no different.

3 Responses to H. W. Brands on the study of history, with technology

  1. Bryan says:

    I’ve only had the chance to read “Lone Star Nation”, but it showed me that Prof. Brands is a great story-teller. I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Texas standards make bullet points, but no narrative. Dallas curriculum materials, until this year, were big on student “products” that could be stapled to a bulletin board, a sort of 3-D “Kilroy was heer” display, but almost completely lacking in narrative. We’ve got new stuff from the district, but it came out too late to use it this year (the Wizards of Smart downtown are rolling it out piecemeal, but we planned the year last June). It’s got a touch more narrative, but not much. We have instructions from the State Board of Education to lie about Thomas Jefferson and don’t talk about Crusades, the Moorish rule of Spain, nor the caliphate.

    In short, in Texas, story tellers are frowned upon officially, and story telling is frustrated.

    Year after year, my kids tell me that what they learn from is the stories and the narratives.

    NCLB is supposed to require that curriculum changes be based on research for what works. I’m convinced educators don’t know what research looks like, and don’t know how to find it.

    Brands had some good stories, on all sides. The one question we danced with the entire day was, “Why is there war?” In relation to the Spanish-American War, a grand question.


  3. flatlander100 says:

    You wrote: “Over several hours Brands said he teaches best when he performs well as a story teller — when the students put down their note-taking pencils and listen. Two observations: It helps to be a good story teller, and, second, that requires that one know a story to tell.”

    Amen to both points.

    I’d occasionally advise students going out to start teaching [high schools and college], when they asked what they should say the first time they step before a class, to try this: “Tap on a water glass, or something to get them to quiet down. First day it’s easy. And when they’ve quieted say simply …’Let me tell you a story.’ For a while at least, if you’ve got a good one to tell, you’ll have their undivided attention. ”

    Many historians in the universities drifted away for a time from narrative history, even disparaged it. And, inevitably, in a decade or so, I began reading Very Learned Articles in Very Respected Journals about the “re-discovery of narrative history.”

    I’m hard put to think what use historians are if they are not storytellers first and foremost. We may tell stories well or poorly, effectively or boringly, but in the end, we’re story tellers, and so we ought to learn to do it well. And we ought put a lot more emphasis on doing it well [on the page and on the platform] in graduate history programs.

    OK. End of sermonette. You touched on a pet peeve. Sorry.


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