Animating the Past
December 1, 2016
More than anything, I want my history classes to complicate how students think about the past. Many students in my class on the sixties, for example, start the semester assuming that the Civil Rights Movement was limited to the contributions of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. They never realized civil rights struggles were everywhere, in cities and towns across the nation, at southern universities, even on their own campus.
Adding dimension to my students’ understanding of the issues does more than deepen their knowledge; it sparks their curiosity and fuels their creativity.
I understand well the impulse to know the details of how a story turned out. After earning an engineering degree, I spent a decade doing grassroots political organizing. During that time, I worked with someone who knew luminaries of the civil rights and radical pacifist struggles, went on the 1961 Freedom Rides, and served time in the Mississippi State Penitentiary for his activism. His powerful stories made me want to know more. I decided to study history, to follow my instinct to learn from past struggles and to understand people’s audacity, courage, and even limitations.
Part of the creative part of any discipline is in the analysis. The study of history is thus about more than uncovering basic facts; it’s about interpreting significance, about answering questions of “why” and “how.” So I teach my students how to evaluate other people’s interpretations and come up with their own. I’ll have them read several articles about a topic, such as Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War, and then identify what they would contribute to the scholarly conversation. This exercise forces them to hone their analytical skills. It’s not me explaining history to them; it’s me leading them to their own moments of insight.
One essential tool I use in my courses is blogging. Shared blog entries offer students a fun and low-risk way to try out new ideas. The students incorporate images and video clips into their writing and comment on each other’s work. The exercise raises the level of their creativity, interactivity, and thinking.
We also engage in digital storytelling. My Historical Methods students spend half of each semester doing original research, culminating in a five-minute video on the topic they’ve chosen to study. In exploring options for articulating and presenting their ideas, they struggle with the essential questions all historians must confront: What evidence do you use? Whose voices do you include? How do you construct your story? But the challenge of distilling their choices into a short video inspires a heightened level of focus and ingenuity.
In teaching, I try to meet my students where they are and then take them where they never expected to go. I tell them surprising stories, give them new analytical tools, and stoke their curiosity, knowing they’re just beginning their own journeys of discovery.
Marian Mollin, an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech, has received numerous honors for her creativity in the classroom, including, in 2016, the Carroll B. Shannon Excellence in Teaching Award and the Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching.
This essay appeared in the 2016-2017 issue of Illuminators, as part of the “Creative Genius” roundup.