“All Things Choice and Excellent”: Commonplace Books in the History Classroom

IMG_9134In eighteenth-century America, readers from Thomas Jefferson and William Byrd II to Milcah Martha Moore and John Adams copied out notable extracts from the books that they read into their own journals, often called commonplace books. This “commonplacing” helped readers to remember and make sense of the information and knowledge that proliferated in that era of expanding print culture.

A few years ago, an article in “The Chronicle” suggested having students compile their own commonplace books. This idea immediately appealed to me as a print culture historian. I wondered whether commonplacing, an early modern reading practice, could help students in the digital age make sense of their reading? So, I tested out the commonplace book assignment in a first-year history course two years ago and have since modified it. Since most students have engaged with the assignment in fruitful ways and the results pleased me, I wanted to share the assignment here.

At the beginning of the course, I told students that they must buy a reading journal. I specified that it should be something different than the spiral notebooks in which they typically take class notes, but added that if their finances were constrained, they should just buy a regular notebook. Most students bought something unique. In fact, the first time all the students brought their commonplace books to class, it was exhilarating to see the wide array of journal covers and styles that the students had chosen, each one reflecting the students’ individuality.


Over the course of the academic year, students read a combination of primary and secondary sources from Camilla Townsend’s “Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma,” to the writings of Alexander Hamilton, and Frederick Douglass’s narrative. In response to a specific reading (a source or a chapter), I instructed students to write out 3-5 unfamiliar vocabulary words, to look up the definitions in a dictionary and record them, and to copy out another 3-5 memorable sentences, quotations, passages, and extracts that intrigued them. Sometimes I also asked students to reflect on what they learned from the reading that was new or a question that remained unanswered.

I emphasized that the commonplace book was not a pedantic exercise, but a practical one. Book historian Robert Danton explained how in the early modern era “reading and writing were … inseparable activities;” they “belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things.” I wanted the commonplace books to serve as a similar bridge between reading and writing for my students. The commonplace book represented the foundation for everything else they’d do in class — preparing for class discussions, team work presentations, and essays. One student took this instruction to heart when he wrote on the first page of his book that “Commonplace books are to record what you read for your use [emphasis his].”

Students’ commonplace books exceeded my expectations. ( I even enjoyed grading them!) When I read through their entries on Douglass’s narrative, the well-chosen passages inscribed into their books captured the essential brutality of the institution of slavery as well as Douglass’s growing desire for freedom. In writing down Douglass’s words, students did more than merely copy them onto the page. They distilled a few hundred pages of text into a few dozen quotations. “There were no beds given the slaves, unless, one coarse blanket be considered such,” one student recorded in her journal. Reading through all these sentences and extracts recorded into the students’ commonplace books gave me a new perspective on Douglass’s narrative, an account I’ve read several times in the past. It illustrated the powerful testimony embedded in each word and sentence of Douglass’s narrative to the cruelty and deprivation of slavery and to his unrelenting desire for freedom.


Having the students track new vocabulary in their commonplace books proved another valuable part of the assignment. They highlighted words like “obduracy,” “concomitant,” and “avarice.” It was even useful for me as the instructor to see that the students considered some words like “blasphemy” and “schism” unfamiliar, a good reminder that first-year students’ vocabularies are often not as deep as one might expect. This part of the assignment enabled students to expand their vocabulary in a deliberate way, illustrating the obvious connection between reading and vocabulary development.


From evaluating the commonplace books, I gained insight into not only students’ engagement with the reading but also their intellectual development. It was fun reading some of my students’ reactions, including that of a student who described a letter from Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Schuyler as “swoon-worthy.” The commonplace book provided a space for students to record their first impressions. Subsequent assignments forced them to develop these ideas and think about them more systematically.

As I have developed the assignment over two years, I have used the commonplace books as a space for students to track their learning and thinking. At the beginning of a unit, I’ll ask students to brainstorm what and how they know about a subject such as slavery. During that unit, students will record their reading and their reflections in the pages of the commonplace book, and at the end, I’ll ask them to brainstorm what they’ve learned. One one page, after answering one of these brainstorm questions, a student left the rest of the page blank, and wrote in pencil: “SPACE RESERVED TO WRITE MORE THOUGHTS AND SEE IF I CHANGE MY MIND ABOUT THAT IN A COUPLE OF YEARS.” At its best, the commonplace book assignment helps students see that their learning is a dynamic and ongoing process. It enables them to take ownership of their education, helping them to judge information while figuring out what is valuable to them.

As with all work, some students put greater effort into their commonplace books than others, but most students went beyond the instructions of the assignment. Students added their names to the book. One student on her title page wrote “Property of [name],” making ownership clear. Another student added a table of contents. Another pasted in the lyrics to “Rule Britannia,” which we discussed in class. Others pasted in ticket stubs from the performances they had seen at the Utah Shakespeare Festival or the Utah Symphony. Some added in notes from guest lectures they had attended, such as a book talk by historian Spencer McBride on campus, or a TED talk they watched such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Danger of a Single Story.” They added illustrations and diagrams from their biology and physics classes, as well as their own doodles and drawings. They recorded memorable quotes from their professors too. Ultimately, each commonplace book became a material artifact that preserved not only their learning from one history class, but also memories from their first year of university.


From the design of the notebooks they chose to the inscriptions and markings they made in them, the commonplace books reflected students’ own intellectual journeys. Writing about early modern readers who kept commonplace books, Robert Darnton asserted that in the early modern era “by keeping an account of your reading, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.” By the end of the year, my students had done this. And, I relished reviewing their reading experiences, as I graded their books. As I perused the pages, students’ intellectual development unfolded before me in books of their own making.

For research on commonplace books in the early modern era, see Kevin Joel Berland, Jan Kirsten Gillam, Kenneth A. Lockridge, eds., “The Commonplace Book of William Byrd II of Westover.” (Chapel Hill, 2001); Catherine La Courreye Blecki and Karin A. Wulf, eds., “Milcah Martha Moore’s Book: A Commonplace Book from Revolutionary America.” (Penn State, 2007); Kenneth A. Lockridge, “On the Sources of Patriarchal Rage: The Commonplace Books of William Byrd and Thomas Jefferson and the Gendering of Power in the Eighteenth Century.” (New York, 1994)

For the best overview of commonplace books in the eighteenth century, see David Allan, “Commonplace Books and Reading in Georgian England.” (Cambridge, 2010)

For the article that suggested using commonplace books in the classroom, see James M. Lang, “Small Changes in Teaching: Making Connections,” February 08, 2016: “The Chronicle of higher Education”: https://www.chronicle.com/article/Small-Changes-in-Teaching-/235230

The two quotations from Dartnon are found in: Robert Darnton, “The Case For Books: Past, Present, and Future.” (New York, 2009)


Memes, Paragraphs, and Footnotes, Oh My! : A New Kind of History Exam

meme 14

Students cheered the first time I told them that their exam would involve designing a meme. When I added that they had to write an explanatory paragraph accompanying the meme, the reaction was much less enthusiastic. This final exam experiment, a.k.a. the meme exam, occurred in Jumpstart Stage and Screen, a team-taught, year-long, inter-and multi-disciplinary class at my institution that fulfills nearly all of first-year students’ General Education requirements, including their American history requirement.
In our unit on colonization, we focused on the mythology of Pocahontas, comparing the story in film and popular culture with the history. We read Camilla Townsend’s Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma.
As the culminating assignment in this unit, I asked students to design a meme based on Townsend’s book. They had to choose an image from the Pocahontas Archive, an online collection of dozens of images of Pocahontas throughout history, organized by Dr. Edward J. Gallagher of Lehigh University. No outside images or sources were permitted. I instructed them to communicate one aspect of their new and/ or revised understanding of the Pocahontas story after reading Townsend’s book.To accompany the meme, students wrote a one-paragraph explanation of the idea behind the meme, documenting it from the book. They had to cite Townsend’s book with examples and illustrations to support their idea and then add Chicago-Style footnotes to those references.
The students had fun with the memes. They designed of a variety of them to illustrate their learning. The key to success for the meme was that it had to demonstrate a concrete and specific insight into history they had gained from Townsend’s book. Students couldn’t simply say that the real history of Pocahontas differed from the mythology. It had to be focused one one issue or insight derived from the book. Some students focused on the significance of Pocahontas adopting English fashions, while others focused on John Smith’s key role in shaping the mythology of Pocahontas by writing his “History of Virginia” in the early 1620s. Still others designed memes based on the significance of tobacco or disease in shaping the early history of Virginia.

meme 1

Meme 16

Meme 15

Meme 17

Most of the memes were strong and funny. For example, one meme depicted an image of Pocahontas with a blank gaze, captioned as “When John Smith tries to get back with you even though you’re married, or the same image, captioned as “When John Smith looks nothing like his Tinder profile.” Others were profound, such as one meme with an image of Pocahontas with a knowing and deep gaze, captioned with a quotation from Townsend’s book: “Rolfe’s writings prove, however, that she was not a blank slate upon which he could write: clearly she was not always doing as he wished.”

meme 2

meme 6


meme 12
While the memes were strong, the quality of the paragraphs varied. I had instructed the students, in composing their paragraphs, to write a topic sentence that communicated their one new insight or issue, then to illustrate that issue with a few examples drawn from the monograph and explanations, and to conclude with a brief reflection on the significance of that issue. Some students struggled with paragraphing, especially using evidence from the monograph to support their ideas and explaining the larger significance of their insight, that infamous “So What?” question.

Still, it was a useful exercise for both the students and me. Students practiced the skill of writing a concise and focused paragraph, one that made a historical argument with documentation. They learned that in a university history course, a paragraph is not simply a random stream-of-consciousness reflection written the night before it is due, but rather a deliberate, well-designed, and documented unit of composition. I’m in a much better position now to give my students advice in writing their essays this semester.
In sum, this final assessment was about basic units —  memes, paragraphs, and footnotes — of both visual and textual media. Having the students design a meme was definitely a hook to get them excited about the project and engaged in it. The meme prompted them to spend a lot of time finding the right image and choosing the right theme or issue to communicate, and expressing their idea concisely. This semester, I’ll be telling students that they need to invest as much time, if not more, in writing their paragraphs.
In trying this assignment, I do not mean to suggest that I will be abandoning more traditional, essay-based exams in the future, but I liked how this particular assignment combined old and new media. My students taught me something about new media like memes, while I’m teaching them to write paragraphs and document their ideas in footnotes, the building blocks of historical scholarship.

For a link to the Pocahontas archive of images, please see: http://digital.lib.lehigh.edu/trial/pocahontas/images.php

For fun, here are more memes:

meme 7

meme 5

meme 3

Writing in the Margins: From Reading Assignment to Reading Experience in the Classroom

IMG_8972Often I turn to reading quizzes, book reviews, and exams to make sure students engage with books that I assign in my history classes. However, my own field of print culture studies and book history inspired me to try something new this semester. Since my undergraduate years, the history of reading has fascinated me. How do we recover a person’s experience of reading a book or other printed material? Can we even reconstruct those reading experiences when very few traces of evidence remain?

Book historians sometimes turn to marginalia to gain insight into reading in the past, reconstructing those experiences from the marks and marginal notes that readers have made in books. If those textual practices worked for people in the eighteenth-century, I wondered if they would work for students living through the twenty-first century digital revolution? So, I asked my students to write in the margins this semester to help them cultivate the habit of critical and engaged reading.

I used this new method in my American history survey, in a section that’s part of an inter-disciplinary, team-taught General Education course at my institution called Jumpstart Stage and Screen. In that class, I approach American history through theater and film. In our first unit on colonization, I assigned Camilla Townsend’s magnificent “Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma,” a work which relied on a combination of textual sources, oral histories, and archaeological evidence to relate the history of Pocahontas and the early colonization of Virginia from the perspective of the Powhatans.

The book is wonderfully accessible to first-year university students because the subject is familiar (Thanks, Disney?!) and Townsend’s narrative is compelling, but still most of my freshmen students have not read a historical monograph before. Perhaps one or two have read popular books of history, but not academic monographs written by professional historians. In assigning this book, then, I need to teach them how to read for main ideas and arguments without getting lost in all the details.

I used four different methods of engaging students in reading this semester. Students wrote marginalia, they kept commonplace books, in groups they did presentations based on individual chapters, and, as a final assessment, they designed memes based on the book. In this post, I’ll discuss the marginalia assignment. (I will probably discuss some of the others in subsequent posts.)
Here are the details of the assignment. First, I instructed students to sign their names in their printed books to indicate ownership. Second, I asked them to underline or highlight main ideas and passages of interest to them. I told them the key was to underline enough, so that when completing their other assignments, they could readily locate key information and insights. Third, I asked them to write notes to themselves or ask questions in the margins or on post-it notes.

I was impressed with the results. As with any assignment, student engagement varied. Some students added more notes than others, but overall the marginalia indicated that most had engaged with the book continuously from beginning to end. I suspect that marking their books helped students to maintain their attention while reading and that tracking their developing thoughts and questions in the margins proved to be a useful memory device. Their marks and marginalia illustrated their thought process and reading experience to me, something usually hidden from professors. This assignment turned out to be the equivalent of “showing your work” in math classes.
The individual nature of the marginalia helped me gain some insight into their learning experiences and personalities. Students noted what was old or new for them. In a passage discussing English colonization as a solution to unemployment and social disorder in the early modern era, one student wrote “like what I learned in high school.” Another remarked: “I’d never thought much about this before,” in the margins of a passage in which Townsend discussed her attempt to reconstruct the actual historical experience of Pocahontas.

Studetns’ marginalia even revealed how they had incorporated a reading by Daniel Richter from “Facing East from Indian Country” into their understanding. Students learned what was distinct and different about the Powhatan perspective from Townsend too. In learning about the matrilineal organization of Powhatan society and the power of women, for example, one student observed in the margins: “Whoa! Girls rule! (literally)” At one point, another student observed “In some ways the N.A. [Native Americans] were ahead of the Europeans. / I wouldn’t want the English there either if I were in the Indians shoes.”
As they gained new perspectives, many marginal comments were full of sarcasm, much of it directed at the English and John Smith. For example, next to one passage in which Townsend discussed English plans to exploit Indian labor, one student added: “no, really? The Indians didn’t want to be slaves to the English? How strange… (sarcastic).” Students also added acronyms in the margins from “lol” to an occasional “wtf.” Much sarcasm was directed at John Smith. Next to the famous engraved image of Smith, one student wrote “Disney made him hotter… just saying.” A few students remarked he was a creep or liar. “What a guy!,” another wryly said. The book definitely deflated Smith in students’ eyes. They were disillusioned with Smith’s creative myth-making in his “History of Virginia,” and his appropriation of the story of Pocahontas for his own purposes.

Disney’s film invariably provided an important reference point for the students. One student summed it up well in the margins: “so Disney didn’t make it up. They told the lie John Smith created.” At one point in the book, Townsend had written … “speak with their king just around the bend in the river.” (49-50) One student when reading this heard a song from the film in her head, as she wrote “just around the river bend,” bracketed by two musical notes. But, most students went beyond this by noting the points in which Disney’s version and Townsend’s book converged or diverged. Annotations like “This wasn’t in Disney” or “This is different than Disney” appeared frequently in the margins.

In the best notations, I saw the students following the story of Pocahontas along, their knowledge of history expanding as the story developed, They asked big and important questions in the margins such as “how does history develop into legend?” They noted key insights. In a section discussing the relationship between Pocahontas and John Rolfe, one student wrote: “Her love was a practical one, then, not a romantic one.”

Students knew in advance that I would be reading their marginalia. As I read through their books, I felt that the students were in conversation with me, teaching me about their learning and their reading experience. “I loved this chapter!,” one student noted at the end. “Kind of sad ending, but honestly I really enjoyed it,” another student wrote on a post-it note on the last page of the last chapter. Students led me through their journey in reading the book.
Ultimately, this assignment worked well and I would use it again in small to mid-sized classes without hesitation. Rather than assigning a book and quizzing students on it to make sure they read, I tried to turn a reading assignment into a reading experience. I liked that this took some pressure out of the reading experience for them. They did not have to memorize anything. They could work at their own pace. Moreover, a reading quiz would reflect my concerns and interests as the instructor, but students’ marginalia taught me about theirs.


“Do you think you’ll be able to get through?”: “Anne of Green Gables” and Exam Anxiety


If we have comfort food like mashed potatoes and chicken soup today, we should also have a genre of comfort literature. For me, Anne of Green Gables would fit perfectly into that category. It’s a familiar and beloved story that I remember from childhood. I can turn to it now for comfort and consolation in the midst of my hectic life as a middle-aged professor juggling personal and professional responsibilities. Written by Lucy Maud Montgomery and published in 1908, the novel tells the story of a strong-spirited, red-haired girl growing up in rural Prince Edward Island in the late nineteenth-century.

I recently re-read that Canadian classic over the Thanksgiving holiday for a break from a busy semester of teaching. More than ever before, Anne’s experience of taking exams resonated with me. As Anne prepares to take the entrance examination to Queen’s Academy in Charlottetown (a teacher’s college), her guardian Marilla observes “You’ve only two more months before the Entrance” and she asks her “Do you think you’ll be able to get through?” In response, “Anne shivered” and said “I don’t know,” adding “Sometimes I think I’ll be all right — and then I get horribly afraid.”
Though the significance of this passage escaped me when I read the novel as a child, on my re-reading, I took immediate comfort in the recognition that one of the most famous characters in literary history experienced exam anxiety. Writing at the turn of the twentieth-century, Lucy Maud Montgomery depicted both the physical and psychological components of exam anxiety, conveying how the stress affects both the body (Anne shivered at the thought of the exams) and the mind (Anne’s mixed and fluctuating emotions from day to day). As a former student, I related especially to those mixed emotions. In graduate school, in particular, one day I’d feel like everything was going to be just fine, and the next day I’d fear becoming an apocalyptic failure.
As a professor now, I see my students struggle with exam anxiety, and it’s a topic that attracts a lot more attention today than when I was an undergraduate. The focus on mental health and self-care among students is a positive development, in my view. But, exam anxiety is not only a contemporary phenomenon. As illustrated in the passage from Anne of Green Gables, exams have always stressed many people out. On a very basic level, I take comfort in this kind of historical continuity, knowing that concern and stress about exams is a natural part of being human and knowing that I am not alone in my anxiety.
During the last two weeks of the semester, as we prepare for final exam week, I am going to share the passage from Anne of Green Gables with my students and address the issue of exam anxiety in class in hopes of helping students cope with their own end-of-the-semester stresses. In the past, I have shared my own experiences and memories of taking tests with my students, letting them know that I sympathize with them.

I also have recently started trying to explain my rationale in giving exams to students. I typically emphasize that I make my exams as reasonable as possible. I tell them that my purpose in teaching is helping them to learn some of the important themes in American history and that exams are my way of figuring out how well they have learned that material. I make it clear to them that I don’t give tests to trick them or work against them because that wouldn’t serve my purpose at all. I’d only end up making them hate history when all I want is for them to learn and recognize the significance of history. Students hopefully understand that I am on their side.
This semester I think I’ll be even more explicit in giving students some concrete survival tips for final exam week, strategies from getting enough sleep and eating regular meals of (mostly) healthy food to taking some time to decompress in between deadlines and rewarding themselves after meeting those deadlines. I will also mention my university’s counseling services for students who feel that they need an expert listener/ therapist in coping with their struggles at university. In terms of academic preparations, I will stress to the students that while they cannot control their final exam schedule, which university administrators set long ago, they can come up with a plan and study schedule for meeting those deadlines and try to think ahead and prepare in advance. These are all obvious strategies, but ones that can stand being repeated.
But, even more than that, as a professor who has survived the stress of graduate school and the tenure track, I feel a responsibility to use my experiences to help my students gain confidence and resilience. As a result of my experiences, I have gained perspective and can generally put my present problems and challenges in a longer-term perspective. (Though sometimes it still can be a challenge to maintain that perspective!) In Anne of Green Gables, Anne mentions to Marilla that the prospect of her entrance examinations “haunt” her and that she fears the worst: “Sometimes I wake up in the night and wonder what I’ll do if I don’t pass.” Without missing a beat, Marilla responds “Why, go to school next year and try again.” This is not to say that I expect my students not to pass, but only that in the midst of a stressful and anxious moment, students need to be easy on themselves and let go of a “win or lose” attitude with final exams.
A few weeks ago I met with a first-year student. She had a “B” in my class, but told me how she was working towards finishing the class with an “A.” She also mentioned that even with her present grade in the class, she had never done so well in a history class nor had she ever felt like she understood or enjoyed the subject until now. I told her that it was wonderful that she was ambitious and hard working, but I also stressed that she should be proud of everything she had accomplished in this one history class in her first semester at university. I also mentioned that I had earned a “B” in the first history class I took at university. This touched a nerve. Her revelation: “You got a “B” and you ended up getting a doctorate.” I hope this realization helped her gain a longer-term perspective. We all need to be reminded of that sometimes.



“In the Eye of a Hurricane”: Connecting History, Science, and Current Events through “Hamilton: An American Musical”


Last season’s disastrous hurricanes, including Hurricanes Maria and Irma, prompted me to address the science and history behind hurricanes in the Caribbean in my classroom. I did this in the Jumpstart “Stage and Screen” version of my American history survey, which draws on movies and musicals that (hopefully!) inspire students’ interest in history. My course was part of a program at my university called “Jumpstart GE”: a multi- and inter-disciplinary, team-taught class for freshmen that fulfills nearly all of their General Education requirements. Students studied biology and physics along with theater, philosophy, communication, writing, and American history, and it all linked back to the theme “Stage and Screen.”
Considering the popularity of Hamilton: An American Musical, I inevitably taught the American Revolution through that Broadway musical-turned-cultural phenomenon. I paired songs from the musical with documents from Joanne Freeman’s recently edited volume of Alexander Hamilton’s writings. In one class, I paired the song “Hurricane” with Hamilton’s letter to The Royal Danish American Gazette, a newspaper published on the island of St. Croix. In that letter, Hamilton described “one of the most dreadful Hurricanes that memory or any records whatever can trace.” A seventeen year old boy at the time, Hamilton survived the disaster that devastated the island where he lived in 1772. The island’s inhabitants were left “without a bed to lie upon,” Hamilton recounted. In the song, Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton recalled the experience of surviving the hurricane in the midst of his own public crisis over the Reynolds affair in the late 1790s. In my survey class, I would usually bypass this Caribbean hurricane in the rush to get to the political storm breaking out on the British North American mainland in the 1770s, but taking the time to consider this topic proved an effective teaching strategy in three ways.
First, this strategy enabled me to connect history with science. My two colleagues, Dr. John Taylor, a biologist, and Dr. Cameron Pace, a physicist, discussed air molecules, atmospheric pressure, gravity, and trade winds. They taught students how hurricanes form and why the Caribbean has been particularly prone to them. Close to the equator, the air is warmer and more humid. With more volatility in the atmosphere there, air particles swirl violently and create enough energy to move the air and pick up the water, which form a hurricane. When my colleagues displayed a world map of wind patterns that depicted the winds at the equator as converging in the Caribbean, I immediately connected this with D.W. Meinig’s well-known map of the ocean currents in the Atlantic. I have often used Meinig’s map in my classes to illustrate Atlantic history, but my scientist colleagues enabled me and my students to place Meinig’s map in a larger global and environmental perspective.
My scientist colleagues’ discussion of a hurricane provided an important framework for understanding Hamilton’s experience. It pushed my students and me to read Hamilton’s description more carefully, including his experience of the eye of the hurricane. Hamilton related how the hurricane “began at dusk” and “raged very violently till ten o’clock,” but “then ensued a sudden and unexpected interval, which lasted about an hour. Meanwhile the wind was shifting round to the South West point, from which it returned with redoubled fury.” Students were able to imagine the hurricane, understand its formation and its terrifying progress and devastation, especially after having the eye of a hurricane as a scientific phenomenon explained to them.
Second, Hamilton: An American Musical, which stressed Hamilton’s birth and early life in Nevis and St. Croix, pushed me to feature the history of the Caribbean more prominently than I ever had in a survey class. My lecture to the students drew on works by historians Richard Dunn, Laurent Dubois, Carla Gardina Pestana, Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, Ada Ferrer, Vincent Brown, Trevor Bernard, and others, which have demonstrated the centrality of the Caribbean to the colonial and revolutionary eras. Studying this history combats contemporary perceptions of the Caribbean as peripheral. Even Miranda’s famous opening question — “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore/ Dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean/ Grow up to be a hero and a scholar” — reinforces this sense of the the Caribbean as a marginal location, as the musical quickly shifts the scene to the mainland, to New York City, “where you can become a new man.” Today Americans often see the Caribbean as islands that are either mere tourist destinations or impoverished failed states. By learning the history of the region, students learned how the Caribbean was a dynamic zone of imperial interactions and competition, cultural and economic exchanges and trade where a brutal and exploitative system of slavery took root in the colonial era, a history that continues to shape the present.
Third, students connected Hamilton’s letter to the present, specifically the hurricanes that devastated several islands, including Puerto Rico, Dominica, St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Maarten, last fall. To understand Hamilton’s purpose in writing the letter, I introduced the eighteenth century concept of sympathy to the students. Adam Smith, for example, theorized that since “we have no immediate experience of what other men feel,” we can only understand another’s suffering if we “place ourselves in his situation” and “conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments.” Thus, sympathy is ultimately an “act of the imagination” and, in the eighteenth century, people believed in the ability of the written and printed word to generate sympathy. The publication of Hamilton’s letter in the Royal Danish Gazette elicited a sympathetic audience to raise funds for the young Hamilton to study on the mainland. Miranda effectively captures this idea of sympathy in the following lyric:

They took up a collection.
Total strangers
Moved to kindness by my story.

Students proceeded to read newspaper coverage from the New York Times and Washington Post, and other news sources discussing similarities and differences in the representation of hurricanes in the past and present. In terms of journalism, I pointed out that the idea of journalists as correspondents emerged from the early days of newspapers when individuals like Hamilton, called “correspondents,” would write letters to publish in newspapers. Through this inter-disciplinary activity, students were able to analyze the power of words and images to make people sympathize with another person and take action. First-year students generally struggle with eighteenth-century primary sources, but having the contemporary newspaper articles as a point of comparison and contrast helped students connect these sources to current events. The activity helped students to situate contemporary natural disasters in the Caribbean within the legacy of colonialism, and the continued vulnerability, both environmentally and politically, of the Caribbean to such disasters.
In the end, I was satisfied with this teaching experiment inspired by Hamilton. The activity effectively layered science, history, and current events into a multi-dimensional, inter-disciplinary learning experience for my students. I certainly plan to improve on it next time I teach the subject. This was the first time I’d ever managed to combine history and science in the classroom. While knowing the science prompted my students to a closer reading and analysis of historical texts, the discussion of the history of the Caribbean allowed the students to see the social and historical dimensions of a natural disaster and their human cost.


On Jumpstart, see Paul Fain, “8 Professors, 43 students,” Inside Higher Ed, November 6, 2015: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/11/06/general-education-gets-makeover-utah-university-combining-full-year-one-course

Joanne Freeman, ed., The Essential Hamilton: Letters and Other Writings. Library of America: New York, 2017.

D.W. Meinig, Atlantic America, 1492-1800, vol. I, in his The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History (Yale University Press, 1988).

On the colonial and revolutionary history of the Caribbean, see Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. Metropolitan Books: New York, 2013; Carla Gardina Pestana, The English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell’s Bid for Empire. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2017. Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2000; Vincent Brown, The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2010; Ada Ferrer, Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2014; Trevor Burnard, Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World. University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 2004.

Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. Ryan Patrick Hanley.  (Penguin, 2009).

#HATM: “National Treasure” through the Eyes of Historians

I recently watched National Treasure with my history students. These are words that I never thought I’d say as a history professor. But, this summer I checked into Twitter the day after the first #HATM (Historians at the Movies) event took place. The previous evening (July 15, 2018), Jason Herbert (@HerbertHistory) had organized a virtual screening of the film, National Treasure, the 2005 blockbuster starring Nicholas Cage and Christopher Plummer about a bunch of treasure hunters who steal the Declaration of Independence. A number of historians live-tweeted their reactions to the film that evening. The screenwriters, Cormac and Marianne Wibberly, also tuned in and responded to historians’ reactions. The results were fun and sometimes hilarious.

It didn’t take me long to wonder whether #HATM would work for the “Stage and Screen” version of the American history survey that I teach. That class is part of my university’s “Jumpstart GE” program, a multi- and inter-disciplinary, team-taught experience for freshmen that fulfills nearly all of their General Education requirements. All the subjects in Jumpstart, including history, try to link back to movies, plays, musicals, and popular culture.

So, my students and I watched National Treasure one evening while reviewing the over 700 tweets from historians. Some students even shouted out the funniest tweets during the screening. As a reading supplement, I assigned Carl Becker’s presidential address from the 1931 meeting of the American Historical Association, “Everyman His Own Historian.” The assignment was intended as a beginning-of-the-semester icebreaker. For the next class, I asked students to reflect on historians’ reactions. What did historians notice and why? How did historians praise or critique it? What did this reveal about what historians do? How did these insights connect to Becker’s address?

The #HATM tweets enabled my students to watch the film through the eyes of historians, as one student remarked: “Watching National Treasure through a historian’s eyes is a rather different experience than watching the film simply for entertainment.” I am proud to report that Twitterstorians defied my students’ expectations. One student wrote that she expected “a bunch of boring tweets about how the movie was terrible,” but instead was refreshed to discover the dry humor and sarcasm of professional historians who engaged with the film rather than simply tearing it apart.

The biggest take away for my students was historians’ attention to the sources. Several noted John Overholt’s (@john_overholt) tweet: “I mean, say what you will about this movie, but it’s really invested in the importance of original documents. I have to respect that.” In our discussion, I brought this idea back to Leopold van Ranke, the nineteenth-century German historian regarded as the “father” of the historical profession. Though subsequent generations of historians have questioned van Ranke’s belief in the ability of historians to construct a scientific and objective interpretation of history, history as it actually happened, his emphasis on building a narrative based on surviving historical documents and evidence still is at the heart of what historians do.

Students connected this goal to Becker’s distinction between history and the knowledge of history. Becker defined history as “the memory of things said and done,” but then asserted that history, or the actual series of events of the past, is lost to us in the present. What historians do, then, is pursue “the knowledge of history.” Becker emphasized that because the future is unknown to us, and the present only a fleeting moment, the past is really all we can know. One student in class said this idea about the ephemerality and impermanence of the present “blew her mind.”

In recognizing that historical knowledge depends on the survival of historical documents, students saw the importance of preserving the sources. In watching the film, one student remarked that historians got all worked up on Twitter whenever someone did “something unspeakable to a historical artifact.” Historians were appalled by the “mistreatment of the documents,” another observed. Some highlights from the tweets that students quoted:

Eric Gonzaba (@EGonzaba): “I’m not an expert in the care of historical artifacts, but I imagine a general rule is to at least TRY to avoid bleeding over new discoveries.”

Laura Auricchio (@Auricchio_Laura): “I hate it when I discover an 18th-century artifact buried in the Arctic and then blow it up.”

Joanne Freeman (@jbf1755): “THEY PUT FRICKIN” LEMON JUICE ON THE DOI.”

I used this as an opportunity to discuss the importance of archives and archivists in preserving the artifacts and documents from the past for future generations, a timely topic since at that time, fire had already destroyed much of the collection at Brazil’s National Museum.

Furthermore, students recognized that the main character, Benjamin Franklin Gates’ quick logic in solving historical puzzles was not the real thing. “Ben just puts a bunch of crazy dots together within a matter of seconds,” one student commented. Instead, students were interested in the experience of research. They noted Adam B. Golub’s humorous take on the challenges of travel and research: “I’ve never had to crawl down a creepy tunnel with fire and dumb waiters for my research trips but I did forget to pack a powerboat once…”

The tweets that highlighted the film as a metaphor for research particularly resonated with students. Jordan E. Taylor tweeted: “So I’ve been joking about this all night, but if you read National Treasure as a metaphor for archival research, it’s actually kind of accurate and even uplifting,” while Angela Jill Cooley tweeted: “Of course, they have a key to the treasure room. This movie is a metaphor for historical research. You will find your way out. You’ve probably had the key with you all along. Persist.” Through these tweets, students are already beginning to see historical research as a process that goes beyond simply finding the the right source, but that entails asking the right questions and connecting those sources together, building a case slowly over time.

Finally, one student contrasted National Treasure with Becker’s argument, saying that while the film reinforced the idea that history is beyond us by presenting the history in the large-scale, “important American historical events” like the signing of the Declaration of Independence and in extraordinary and rare objects, Becker argued “how history [or historical thinking] is used daily in everyone’s lives.” Indeed, Becker stressed that this process of historical thinking and problem solving are not foreign to us, but rather an essential part of human consciousness.

Thus, in watching National Treasure while reviewing the #HATM tweets and reading Carl Becker, my students gained insight into historians’ work. They learned that the sources, the archives, and the integrity of the research process are all essential to historians. Through the #HATM tweets, my students listened in on a fun and informal conversation among professional historians. Perhaps this is not the side of historians that always comes out in a conference hall or in the classroom. The experience was more like the kind of conversation that might happen after the conference — maybe over dinner or at the bar.

But, it’s a history that’s different from what many of my students have grown accustomed to in their previous schooling, which has typically stressed history as a textbook narrative, a series of events, one thing after the other. What I try to do in my General Education classes, then, is not only to arm my students with historical knowledge, but also try to teach them about perspective, and evidence and historical thinking. I want my students to gain an appreciation for the work of historians in preserving the historical record and telling the story of the past. I want them to know that the knowledge of history is an open-ended conversation and dynamic process of questioning and collaboration. I also want them to know that historians actually have a lot of fun in the process of doing their work. #HATM helped to make that clear to my students!


For an article on Jumpstart at Southern Utah University, see Paul Fain, “8 Professors, 43 students,” Inside Higher Ed, November 6, 2015: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/11/06/general-education-gets-makeover-utah-university-combining-full-year-one-course

Dr. Michael Hattem conveniently put together all the tweets from the National Treasure screening at the following website: https://wakelet.com/wake/4cf3e484-1eee-4c0c-9888-446e160f86e9

For a link to Becker’s address, go to: https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/presidential-addresses/carl-l-becker

From Footnote to Blog Post

For Labor Day, here is a link to my post today from “The Age of Revolutions” blog. This blog post derived from a footnote in my dissertation on the Democratic-Republican Societies, which I completed at Syracuse University in 2010. Since then, the experience of being asked to develop and teach my own course on gender history in early America at Southern Utah University completely transformed my thinking about the subject and enabled me to see the historical significance of that footnote and that it actually should have been in the full text of the dissertation. The post is about the importance of women’s work, often invisible in the historical record, in upholding democracy. Now the challenge for me as I’m revising my dissertation into a book is to expand and develop these insights.

#WomenAlsoKnowDemocracy: Women, Print Culture, and Transatlantic Revolution in 1790s America