The last class is always a challenge. What can I say that best ties together the big issues of the course? Can I say something new, provide novel insights or insightful interpretations for the things we’ve been doing, not be redundant, offer encouragement if not wisdom? I usually spend a lot of time thinking about what to say during my last chance with the students. And, since we had (rather unconventional) guest speakers all last week, I really wanted to try to work with the students to integrate the guests’ presentations into the rest of the course.
On Friday, five days before my last class, rumors began to circulate that President Obama–and Jimmy Fallon–would be coming to campus. Rumors were confirmed by a Sunday email sent to all faculty asking us not to penalize students absent to see the President of the United States.
The students entered to an interview with the creators of the Egyptian “revolution song” I had shown some weeks earlier. The song is so upbeat, it is terrific to begin on even a rainy day. (President Obama arrived on one of those amazingly beautiful days when the sky really is Carolina blue.)
I began with a quote from an oped I had read just that morning. I wanted to bring home to the students that what we had been doing all semester was not some kind of avoidance of “real education,” the dates, names and places they had learned as “history” before coming to UNC. For both conservatives like David Brooks and for progressives, education is about critical thinking, complex reasoning, and learning to communicate effectively in writing. That was what we had been engaged in all semester. The technologies, the questions, the efforts to get students to think about causes and outcomes, they were all part of that project.
I revisited the mind map, reminding them of the four big questions we had been trying to answer and the ways that events and ideas could be connected to larger questions. Then it was back to those historiographical issues: how do historians do what we do? What is the difference between argument and opinion? How do we analyze evidence?
I really wanted to find out from them how they thought the poetry and music we heard last week could be used as sources for understanding history. They had read James Gelvin’s Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know. But in class, we had focused on performance and culture: on Tuesday, Will McInerny introduced them to Poetic Portraits of a Revolution and on Thursday, Omar Offendum talked about music and Syria and uprisings and growing up Arab in America.
What role should historians give this kind of information when trying to understand the past? The students were remarkably articulate. One student explained that we can learn about emotions, about fears and hopes, from poetry and music in ways that political economy cannot match. Another emphasized the role of poetry, story-telling, and narration in the history of the Middle East over centuries. And one provided a metaphor. Learning about politics and economy are like studying the banks of a river, he said. They show the shape and direction of history. But to really understand the river, you need to wade in, to feel the temperature of the water and get wet. Poetry and music allow us to do that.
Finally, I turned to the role of the lecturer–me. Because critical thinking and historical scholarship require the analysis of evidence, I pointed out, lectures are inherently problematic. I had encouraged them to view me as a source, and I pointed to their digs to remind them of their responsibility. In the course syllabus, I had encouraged students to do brief research in primary sources: Something you read, I say, or the class analyzes will strike you as inaccurate, outrageous, or otherwise unacceptable. You get credit this semester for proving it wrong (or proving it accurate). You can get up to 5 points for writing a “dig” based on primary sources that will let you bring new information to the debate and give you firsthand experience with how historians write history. I summarized the 15 digs I had received in which their classmates had taken the initiative to critically engage with course material.
I ended with that David Brooks quote, thanking the TA’s for their remarkable efforts to help the students develop those critical thinking, complex reasoning, and especially, coherent writing skills. And now they are gone to exams and to summer, some to graduation and new lives. I hope some of them stop by next year.