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

September 26, 2010

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.


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