Culling the Story from the Sources

If ever there was a time to be good at telling stories, it is now.

For the past two weeks, I have been attending the James Madison Seminar in American History at Princeton University.  We’ve been immersed in the elements surrounding the birth of our nation, most specifically how the ideas of Republicanism, Liberalism, and the Enlightenment all had tremendous influence over the founding of our nation.

Most of what we have done has been fairly traditional: we’ve sat in class and been talked to, albeit by some talented and learned folks.

Today, however, looked and felt very different.

We spent the day at the Philadelphia Museum of Art exploring collections within the museum and architecture in nearby Fairmount Park.  Doing so amounted, in my opinion to some real moments of clarity regarding what we do as teachers, and specifically as teachers of history.

One of our guides, Justina Barrett, took us through two homes in Fairmount Park managed by the museum: Mount Pleasant and Cedar Grove.  The houses were distinctly different in their architecture and function, but Ms. Barrett, in her discussion of the homes crystallized something for me.  On the second floor of Mount Pleasant, she asked us a simple question about how they came to know what each of the rooms functioned as during the initial life of the home (over 225 years ago).  With that question as a springboard, she spoke about how the job of a historian, especially art/architectural historians is to cull the story from the homes, the historical record, and each room individually.  Her main role, and that of teachers of history for that matter, is to deduce an interpretation of what happened right from the primary sources.

Think about that.

We laugh at how little people in later life remember of the “stuff” of history, but I ask, if they forgot a good amount of the stuff, but could still distill a relevant story from several sources, was the stuff important?

Secondly, during our time in the museum itself, we examined the following works:

I’d forgotten what it was like to sit around with a group of intelligent folks and dissect a work of art, fully basking in the multitude of perspectives each one of us brings to the painting.  The work of Peale astounded me, and as our guide, Mary Teeling, explained, brought forth so many of the ideals we have spent time studying over the course of the last two weeks.  Peale was a natural philosopher, a true enlightened man, who brought into his work the polymathic principles of the period.

Ms. Teeling asked us to examine these pieces with playfulness, to see what came to us and what struck us.  We took stabs, we built off of one another, we contradicted one another.  I thought for a while on the way home about how much fun that was to project out those thoughts and then listen as the group interpreted them or rejected them.

Sadly, in education, whether in teaching our students or in collaborating with colleagues, we rarely get that time to build what is known as neuroplasticity–that time we take to re-shape our minds through engaging play.  Today provided a window into that for me once again, and gave me that time to wrangle with some conflicting ideas, and it took a visual medium to do that.

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“That” Student.

Have I become “that” student?

It’s been a long time since I sat in a graduate class of any kind.  I’ve dabbled in various situations, thought long and hard about various programs to enter, but as for sitting in a traditional classroom setting as a serious student, it’s been nearly ten years. For two weeks this summer, I’ll be part of a Teaching American History Grant through the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, at Princeton University in July.  Surrounded by other history junkies, I am wondering what the experience will bring.

So much has changed in the way of how I learn now: it’s much more immediate, more on-demand and free-form, that I am wondering how I’ll fare in the structure of the Seminar.  Each day consists of a three-hour lecture in the morning followed by lunch and a discussion session in the afternoon.  Pretty standard university stuff, but can I do it like that anymore?  Have I become the type of student that can’t handle that format?  Will I be “that” student you hear about in diatribes in the Chronicle about today’s students lack of focus?  Will I be the guy that causes the professor to ban laptops?

Holy cow.  I hope not.

The reading list is heavy, and it reminds me of the type of reading graduate students are asked to do in order to contribute to the learning community at that level.  However, the reaction of my colleagues and I to the reading immediately reminded me that things have changed.  Our initial idea was to create a schedule of the readings so we could pace ourselves, but then we stated that we needed to share our information so that we could enter the two-weeks with as much of a perspective on the readings as time would allow.  Luckily, the seminar has set up an internal social network called mydolley where each of us can post our work.  We set up a group page where we could easily outline the readings, including our major ideas about them.  As for taking notes and backchanneling during the seminar itself, we are exploring if we should use something like etherpad rather than Google Docs, or todaysmeet rather than twitter.

Already, you can see I will be that student, won’t I?