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History Watch

TEACHING HISTORY RADICALLY:
THE 4 PILLARS
Audra A. Diptee, PhD

A few years ago, I taught a first-year university level World
History course. It was scheduled for 8:30 on a Monday
morning and, as might be expected, the lecture attendance was The Preamble …
low. There were, however, a few very committed students.
They would show up to lecture, take notes, and ask great
questions. It was those students who kept me going. As I recall, only a minority of them were
history majors. The rest were students majoring in Public Affairs, Economics, Journalism, and the
other areas of study that they believed were ‘useful’ and would help them ‘get jobs.’

At the end of the academic year, a number of these very keen students were to be awarded
Certificates of Excellence at the annual undergraduate colloquium organized by the Department of
History. They all showed up and also attended the reception that made it possible for them to
informally mingle with faculty members. As I would find out, for the students, it was an opportunity
to ask questions that they did not feel comfortable asking a professor in a classroom setting.

One of those students – let’s call him ‘The Very Bright Student from Public Affairs with a Knack for
History” – came up to me and said, very respectfully, something along the lines of “Professor – I
really liked your course, but I need to ask you a question… What was the point of learning
everything you taught us in that class? ” As you might imagine, I was dumbfounded. I don’t recall
my answer at this point, but I do know that I have often reflected on that moment. Unknowingly,
that student had alerted me to the fact that I had committed a major pedagogical “fail”. Over several
months, I taught some very keen students and, at the end of their time with me, they left wondering
about the relevance of what they had learnt.

That student was essentially saying, “I liked your course but you didn’t teach me how to use the
historical knowledge I now have.” He was letting me know that I didn’t show him how, as a student
majoring in Public Affairs, his historical knowledge was to be applied. As you might imagine, it was
an important turning point in how I would approach my work in the classroom. It was the moment
when I began to think about teaching history radically.

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Just so there is no confusion, I want to be clear about what I
mean by ‘teaching history radically.’ I am talking about
Teaching History employing a pedagogical approach that exposes students to

Radically?
the ways in which historical knowledge and methodologies
can be used for social transformation. This means teaching
history in a way so that students understand how it is
applied beyond the boundaries of history as a discipline. So
what does that look like?

Below are 4 elements that need to be included in a radical teaching agenda:

1. Never neglect the non-history majors. In some ways, our responsibility as educators to non-majors
are even more burdensome than the responsibility we have to history majors. Students who major
in history will take many history courses and will perhaps go on to graduate school. The non-
history majors from economics, political science, and journalism (for example) may only ever take
the one course you are teaching them. And heaven knows, if there is anything the world needs
right now, it is more non-historians who understand the value of history. Even better, if those
people are economists, politicians, and journalists. Never forget the non-majors. We need them
to understand how history works.

2. Teach students what history is not. Students enroll in history
courses with all sorts of pre-conceived (flawed) ideas about the
discipline. Dedicate class time to confronting those ideas and
disabuse your students of them. Show them what history is not,
so that you can educate them about what history actually is
…The History Watch Project has created a list called What
History is Not that you might find useful. You can read it in PDF
format or watch a short video on YouTube.

3. Show the Application (and Misapplication!) of history in the
classroom. I recognize this particular item might be controversial
– but I’ll take the flack and include it because evidently the world
is going to hell in a handbasket: people across the globe are
proudly using the Swastika as a symbol of their personal politics;
apologists for colonialism are making themselves known; and,
the defenders of all acts racist, sexist, and xenophobic have left the underworld to hold political
office. Planet earth has been here before and to have to battle all this again is, quite frankly,
tiresome. Personally, I would rather put these issues to bed and start battling other challenges.
But to repeat an oft-used saying: “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting
what you’ve always got.” Clearly, historians need to ask themselves why we are going down this

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road again and why we have not been effective in arresting it. The answer to that question – I
believe – can be found by engaging with the conversations that are taking place beyond the
parameters of our disciplinary practice. More to the point, we also need to take these engagements
to our classrooms. Students need to be shown how politicians, policymakers, journalists (among
others) have used and abused narratives of the past in support of a point of view or to advance a
particular agenda. Never again should a student leave a history course asking “What was the point
of learning all this?”

4. Teach students less content and more discernment. Let’s be absolutely clear about one thing: The
ground has shifted beneath us. It is a case of “adapt or die”. Forgive my tendency for hyperbole,
but it’s warranted in this case. We are not our students. Their professors still read the printed
book. They read our syllabi on their cell phone. You can thank or blame Google for that difference
but the problem remains the same. University students access information differently and many
of them digest information indiscriminately. Much class time is used sharing content and helping
students develop the skills to construct historical narratives. Less time is spent teaching students
how to deconstruct narratives of the past. There is an urgent need to prioritize teaching our
students how to see the flaws in the historical interpretations that they find on random websites,
embedded in journalism, informing political debates, and woven into policy discourses. How this
is done needs to be addressed directly in the classroom and standing at the podium as we pontificate
interpretations of the past does little to remedy the situation. We need strategies to teach students
how to discern which historical assumptions and narratives are worthy of their consideration and
reflection.

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