Teaching and Learning History - 030116

Classroom Applications

History Soapbox

By Antoinette Burton
Department of History
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Recently I have been trying to think about different forums for engaging students with history as a subject of study and a practical discipline. I teach at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where we have a very vibrant History Department but where, like many of our peers, we face declining enrollments in the major. We’re doing a lot to rethink our curriculum and devise ways of drawing undergraduate students into the possibilities of history when they are, perhaps understandably, drawn to subjects they believe have more contemporary relevance or can get them a secure job. Last year, in an effort to dramatize the power and impact of history, I helped to organize an event in the department called the History Soapbox. The theme was “Ten Books that Changed the World.” I issued an invitation to faculty and graduate students to suggest a book whose impact was so enormous that it could be considered transformative for how we think about – well, everything!

The real challenge was that the case for the book they chose had to be made in 6 minutes.

True confessions: I borrowed this idea from a colleague in England who used it at a conference she organized, to spark debate about how books and the ideas in them actually make a difference in the world. I adapted her original idea to do just that, as well as to highlight the need for historians to be able to make a concise presentation, a succinct case for an idea or a material object like the book. These are skills that are rooted in historical thinking but that are eminently portable into all kinds of workplace situations. My hope was that the History Soapbox might just underscore what history has to offer as a major, and the benefits of historical training beyond the major as well.

I managed to entice 10 participants whose books ranged from Thomas More’s Utopia to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Faculty and students presented the books they had chosen, in some cases via a speech alone, in others via PowerPoint or other bells and whistles to supplement their oratory. And I kept really strict time: I had an hour glass that emptied at 5 minutes, at which point I gave a one-minute warning and then hit my bell at 6 minutes – cutting off some prolix colleagues in mid sentence.

The presenters really got into it. The professor who chose Thomas More’s early modern book presented his case through the persona of Leon Trotsky, a modern utopian thinker, to show the long historical reach of one powerful idea.  The colleague who did Mary Shelley’s novel appeared in a black turtleneck, the neck of which he slowly pulled down to reveal an inked-on imitation of the bolts through Frankenstein’s neck. That sent a wave of laughter through the audience! Keeping people to time was a challenge. One presenter, a senior professor well known and well liked for his lecture courses, was engaged in a lengthy disquisition on Sigmund Freud’s Three Essays on a Theory of Sexuality, when I hit my bell at six minutes. He looked at me in horror and said: are you cutting me off?! I said, YES! The crowd roared.

That crowd was overflowing in our student union lounge – undergraduates flocked to see the History Soapbox and people from our local community showed up too. I asked the officers of the History honor society (Phi Alpha Theta) to be the judges and they made their picks with as much flourish as the Soapboxers had. The winner? Corpus Juris Civilis ("Body of Civil Law,” 529- 534 C.E.), commissioned by the Emperor Justinian. Our medievalist argued that she had to win because her choice was, she said, one of the first “books” ever to be published between covers. Our judges agreed, though it must have been a tough call given all the talent on display.

I hope you can see from this short description that we managed to present a lot of historical knowledge and get students excited about history in the process. This year we plan to stage the event right before registration for fall classes, so its power to bring students literally into our classrooms will be put to the test.

I think the History Soapbox format could be adapted to almost any classroom setting, and might even be used as a culminating assignment in some courses. So, for example, it could come at the end of AP US History: what are the 10 biggest events in the period you covered, and why? Or it might figure in a global studies class: who were the 10 most influential figures in global history and why? The choice of specific cases or themes matters less than the persuasive power of the historian herself. The presentation requires forethought and preparation; research, even. And when students get to judge, they feel a part of the process. That is exactly what we are trying to do: to bring students directly into the arena of history – as knowledge makers and interpreters of the past and its long life.

So give it a try! And let me know how it goes.