Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Why do dates matter? This is an English class!

I'm an English proffie, but one with an historical bent, which I'm able to indulge in my one literature class this semester.   The class includes among its goals fostering students' ability to make connections between literary texts and their historical contexts, so we're looking for additional documents that provide contextual information for the literary texts we're reading.  Overall, it's going pretty well,  but I'm learning that some of my students have very little sense of time (and/or they don't want to admit to having a sense of time, because that would require them to pursue their research beyond the first vaguely-related source they locate).  So far, I've learned the following interesting facts:

--Years beginning with 19 can be classified as belonging to the 18th century (even though we're currently studying the 19th century, so I'm not sure why this classification would be useful or desirable).  I'm used to the starts with 19=19th century mistake (in fact, it took me a while -- as in part of elementary school -- to stop making it myself, and a few more years after that to stop having to consciously think it through each time), but I'm not sure where this one came from. 

--Someone who published his memoir in the early 21st century can be argued to have firsthand knowledge of the mid-19th century  (he lived a long life, but not that long). 

--Nobody knows how to read roman numerals any more (and apparently it's too hard to learn -- even though I'm pretty sure I did so by third grade -- or to google). 

I'm getting the impression that a substantial proportion of the class considers anytime before they were born (mostly in the very late 20th century) a vast, indistinguishable wasteland of "back in the day," with little differentiation between the mid-20th century, the 18th century, and when dinosaurs roamed the earth.  At least I'm pretty sure that most of them don't believe that dinosaurs roamed the earth 6,000 years ago, but that's not a great deal of comfort when I'm trying to get them to consider how much change 25 or 50 years can bring, and they're blithely treating texts created nearly 100 years apart as more or less contemporaneous. 

I suppose if my students advance a bit in their understanding of any of the above subjects, they will, in fact, have learned something useful in the gen ed class they're taking from me, but I really didn't expect to be explaining any of this to college students (or to find them apparently unembarrassed at not knowing it already). 


  1. I'm taking english because I'm just not good at math. Math is haaaaarrrrd.

    Someone . . . can be argued to have firsthand knowledge of the mid-19th century

    That looks like the 19th century = 1900s error.

  2. All of the above, yes.
    Fundamentally, 18-22 year olds have a very weak sense of historical time, largely as a result of not having experienced it consciously. Returning students have at least some idea what a decade is, a generation, etc. so I often find communicating with them easier.

    I try to take some of the memorization terror out of the process: I require only approximate dates on tests (depending on the semester, anything from a decade to a century span) and I tell students on the first day that exact dates don't matter anywhere near as much as getting things in the right order. It's about context and causality, and making sense of things; dates are a tool for that.
    I also tell them that I have a very bad memory for dates, but manage to be a historian nonetheless.

    1. Not just time either, but also the concrete fact of social and technological change. Many (most?) of them just don't get that the ways and customs of here and now are neither immutable law of nature not the right lens through which to analyze the past.

  3. I continuously made the mistake of discussing the historical origins of some of the concepts I presented in the courses I taught. My purpose in doing so was to illustrate that there was some legitimate reason why, say, a particular equation was considered important or the context in which it was derived.

    I figured, "Why not?" My parents, when they were apprentices, learned about similar things in their respective trades, giving them an appreciation of why, for example, certain procedures were being used.

    Did my students appreciate what I did for them? Of course not. Their reaction, aside from their eyes glazing over, was usually: "Just show us the formula!" I admit I was like that when I was an undergrad, but I was nowhere near as hostile about it as they often were.

    Then again, my institution, over the years, stopped seeing itself as an educational facility but one geared towards "training", whatever that was supposed to mean.

    1. I'm dealing with a bunch of "just show us the formula" right now. Don't you want to run some scenarios so that you get a feel or gain some intuition on how this stuff works? That way you could have a better idea whether you've picked the right formula, or put the right numbers into it, because the result will have to match your understanding.

      Nah, just give us the formula. And can you put a list of formulas on the test? Remembering all those formulas is haaaaaaarrrrrrrd.

  4. Confusion over the 19th century grows by an order of magnitude when students are faced with ancient sites built in the "third millennium" (2001 to 3000 BC or BCE). Then there's the relationship between BC and BP (before present, used with radiocarbon dates). I present these, but tell students just to focus on the BP dates, and not even those too much, for exactly the reasons stated by Jonathan Dresner, above.

    Notice I'm not calling them Little Dears right now because it really is confusing, especially when the dates run backwards.

    But not knowing the 20th century? Sheesh, they make me feel old. And smart.

  5. This discussion has brought to mind my own early experiences with learning about history. I'm not maligning the way it was taught, but the way I tried to retain it.

    While still lacking a broad historical knowledge of almost anything outside of my personal experience, I treated each new fact as almost isolated from the others. To impose order on the growing catalog of such facts, what else could I do but simply memorize names and dates?

    The irony is that at the same time this was going on, my family was occasionally freaked out by my then seemingly eidetic ability to recall events and dates from our shared history. To me, it seemed simple: the people had relationships to each other, and they participated in events that related to other events in causal and consequential ways, and if you remembered perhaps one date you could fill in the others by understanding the relationships, the latter being the real meat of the matter anyway. Each new fact that I put into this catalog had several other facts I could attach it to already in the catalog.

    But while I was still in school, I never made the jump to trying to fit "book-learned" history into my head in the same way. Regrets, I have a few.

    1. That's exactly what I tell my students: when you know the relationships and context, the dates are pretty easy.

    2. Right. And that's why I tell my students to make time lines and draw contemporary cultures on maps. Ancient history finally clicked for me when I realized that Place X was very near Place Y, so that's why THEY had more trade and wars than Place A and Place Z. Suddenly it made a lot more sense.

      But it's hard to persuade students to do anything extra, such as examine maps and globes on their own time.