HM - May 2014 - Burke

Partners in History

Do You Speak History?

by Flannery Burke
          St. Louis University, MO / Fulbright Roving Scholar in Norway

“How did class go?” asks a colleague.  “Did you understand?”  “I understood more than I thought I would,” I reply.  “The teacher was discussing the alliance system and imperialism before World War I.”  “Do you speak Norwegian?” she asks skeptically.  “No,” I reply, “but I speak history.”

For the past academic year, I have served as a Fulbright Roving Scholar in Norway.  My task is to share American culture in secondary English classrooms.  I have visited over forty schools across the nation and spoken to over four thousand students.  I have traveled as far south as Kristiansand and as far north as Bardufoss, above the Arctic Circle.  I have delivered lectures and led discussions, most drawn from a menu of options that teachers review online in advance of my visit.  I have visited vocational classes of prospective construction workers and literature classes for university-bound students.  I have addressed classes as large as two hundred and as small as three.  I have shared graphic organizers, websites, books, powerpoints, jokes, brown cheese, open-faced salmon sandwiches, and waffles.  I have been asked to respond to carefully prepared questions that students wrote in advance of my visit, and I have been asked to change the topic of my presentation minutes before I did so.  I have been asked what celebrities I met when I lived in Los Angeles, why Texas has the nation’s highest execution rate, how many people live in Madison, Wisconsin, what is the role of free media in a democratic society, and why the United States does not use the metric system.  But I have never been asked to teach a history class.

Around November I began saying that I have been triply challenged.  As an associate professor of American history, I do not usually teach English. I do not usually teach high school.  I do not usually teach Norwegians.

Of course, I was prepared for cultural difference before I began Roving.  Previous Rovers had published descriptions of their experiences that I had pored over prior to my arrival.  Soon I saw for myself that, yes, indeed, Norwegian teachers and students sometimes switch from snow and rain boots to slippers outside the classroom, and that in snowier towns, some students and teachers arrive to school on kick sleds!  As I had learned in advance of my visit, teachers rotate classrooms and students do not.  As a result, there are generally fewer indicators in a classroom as to what subjects are usually taught there. 
I have made some observations of my own as well.  Schools serve less as community centers than they do in the United States.  There is not the usual after-school shuffle as students switch to theatre, debate club, and soccer (ahem, football) practice.  Instead, students scatter to different parts of the city.  Discipline is generally looser than in US schools, and students are responsible for being prepared and submitting work without much teacher oversight.  There are multiple opportunities for “do-over” exams, especially year-end exams that constitute a significant portion of students’ grades.  Teachers are not assessed based on student performance, and, as a result, they generally let students find their own sense of responsibility.  I found students’ greater independence refreshing and students more mature and self-sufficient than their American counterparts.

Of course, most of my teaching experience has not been with their American counterparts -- high school students.  Indeed, my greatest worry when I began Roving was how well I would make the transition to high-school teaching, but it was probably the easiest of the transitions I made.  Students generally have quite high levels of language ability, and it was fairly easy to involve them in discussions of what makes a multicultural city or how indigenous peoplelive modern lives.  English is a required subject from first grade through the first year of upper secondary school.  Students elect English in years two and three of upper secondary school.  In year two the class topic is “International English” – a broad survey of the cultures of England, the US, and the “English-speaking world.” Students in their third and last year are the same age as university freshmen in the United States.  In that last year, Norwegian students elect either English Literature class or what is called “Social Studies English,” which was consistent enough with freshman introductory history courses in the US that I felt comfortable almost at once.  Once in a while, I even sat in on a history class or two and tried to pick up what I could.

It wasn’t teaching high school, and it wasn’t teaching outside the US.  What got me was teaching English. Scholarship in history teaching and learning has established that thinking historically requires specific disciplinary training.  History is not just the study of the past.  It is a way of studying the past, a way of using texts and other primary sources.  It is a way of reading and writing.  An instructor cannot simply add primary sources and stir.  Instructors must teach students how to identify the origin of the document; how a document relates to other sources of the time; the key words of a document that indicate either evidence of everyday beliefs of the time or an unorthodox opinion.  There was no time in my classes in Norway for such instruction, nor was there meant to be. 

Teachers and students were generally not that interested in how I thought about history – regardless of how such opinions related to my answers to their quite thoughtful questions.  They were interested in how I, literally, answered the question.  They were interested in my accent.  They were interested in those rare moments when I would code-switch, by dropping a Spanish expression or two in my workshop on the city of Los Angeles.  They were interested in what words I chose.  They were interested in how I engaged the genre of presidential rhetoric specifically as a literary genre, not a study in political history.  Historical interpretation was far from their minds.  They wanted to know how I spoke English.

Although I found the transition an adjustment, I learned that a history professor in an English classroom produces some serendipitous and productive teaching and learning moments.  While I have no quantitative data measuring student participation, several teachers told me that students who were not particularly strong in English but who did have a strong interest in history had participated in my classes more than they usually did.  Vocational students, who generally have less confidence in their English skills, often found the words to ask their questions because they could recall the historical context and some of the key names and events of the era that we were discussing.  My own knowledge of European history deepened as I looked for parallel or contrasting examples to share.  And, because I frequently led the same workshop repeatedly, I had the opportunity to refine my delivery like an actor.  By the close of the year I had developed some memorable phrases that presented often quite complicated history honestly and accessibly to non-English speakers.  (My favorite: “Indigenous Americans often met European germs before they met Europeans.”)  Connecting with reticent students, drawing vocational students to more academic study, and refining my lecture style were not my goals at the start of the year.  Nonetheless, I found that while I never knew quite what would happen when I walked into a school, I always knew that I would learn something.

Perhaps my greatest discovery was that I am first and foremost a university history professor.  I know I will miss teaching abroad and teaching to such a wide audience, but I am also eager to return to teaching American history at the college level back in the U.S.  I miss the depth of university teaching and research.  I miss the insights that come from teaching in the same region one studies.  Roving has taught me that I am a professor of American history. 

Nine months in a foreign country teaching English to students who already speak English pretty well may have been a roundabout way to learn what I already knew.  Yet the broader lesson I have learned applies at all levels and is worth remembering, however we encounter our students.  That lesson is this: Disciplinary expertise matters.  To teach history is not the same as to teach English, and we should be mindful of what hat we are wearing in a given classroom.  When we are called upon to teach history outside a history class, we engage in a kind of disciplinary code switching.  Choosing a particular phrase in a lecture or asking students to contextualize a given quote or generate a question about a piece of art are decisions that are as much disciplinary as they are pedagogical. They require us to ask ourselves: “What subject am I teaching by this turn of phrase? What about history or English or science or sculpture do I want students to take from asking a question?”  That level of reflection can be daunting.  More than once this year I have asked myself if I was up to the task, and, like any other teacher, I had some days that went better than others.  So let me add that there’s something else that I already knew that I learned again this year: We all improve with practice.

For more information about Fulbright’s Roving Scholar Program in Norway see: including the Social Education article by fellow NCHE member and Library of Congress Director of Educational Outreach Lee Ann Potter about her own experience as a Rover.