The students had read three primary sources this week: a chapter from US Ambassador William Sullivan’s memoir, a few short chapters from the Shah’s memoir, and two short speeches by Ayatollah Khomeini. Fortunately, I had a very bright student come to my office during office hours on Wednesday. He seemed surprised that anyone would follow the “irrational rantings” of someone like Khomeini. William Sullivan’s writing was much more measured, much more believable. He wanted to know how he should be reading these.
His questions made me realize I was making some important and unwarranted assumptions about the way students read the documents I assign. I decided to spend lecture on Thursday trying to help them figure out how to read historical texts.
Instead of music, I opened with ABC news stories about the hostage crisis, explaining that the legacy of that drawn out affair had left their parents’ generation with a longstanding antipathy toward Iraq.
I knew, after talking with my student, that I had to make them understand that, while Khomeini may have seemed to them like a ranting crank, he had been viewed as a respected leader by many, many Iranians. I showed them a brief news clip to make the point.
I asked them to think about how one could account for the differences among the three authors they had read. What made their views so different? I was impressed with their list:
- Motives of the author
- Author’s experiences
- Chronology (before or after the event)
- Author’s agenda/Advocacy/justification
I had come in with three A’s: Author, Audience, Agenda.
I divided the huge hall into three groups. One would analyze the Shah’s writing, another William Sullivan’s memoir, and the third would focus on Khomeini’s speeches. I asked them to come up with the five most important claims in each piece, and to draw a map describing the relationships among the three men. After a few minutes, I asked each group of six or seven to send a spokesperson to another group to compare what they had come up with. My goal was to arrive at a consensus among all the small groups working on each man. Unfortunately, there was too much chaos and not enough time to share among most of the small groups.
Nonetheless, their reports were really fascinating. Each group took “their” person seriously and explained his point of view, though only one produced a map.
Update: I found myself exhilarated by their work on the assignment in class, but at the same time, haunted by the idea that I should be really lecturing. I was awake during the early hours of the morning replaying the class, wondering whether it really is more effective to have them figure things out, remembering how seriously they engaged with the discussion in their groups and at the same time worrying about the students who have told me or the TA’s that they learn better from lectures. I was struck when attending a discussion section after my partly sleepless night when one of the students repeated my three A’s in analyzing a source. Maybe they needed the practice?
Yet, once again, I fear I left them with the sense that each document, all information is equally valid. That is where I must begin on Tuesday.