April 29, 2016

A Public Historian's Flirtation with Academia - Teaching HSTA255 at Montana Tech

Rich Aarstad
Senior Manuscript Archivist
Montana Historical Society

History is the study of the past, but not for the past’s own sake. …Only if we utilize the past to comprehend the present and engage the futures is its study worthwhile” - Harry Fritz, Professor Emeritus at the University of Montana.

Main Hall, Montana Tech, Butte, MT
Photo courtesy of Rich Aarstad
This quote formed the basis of the final classroom assignment for HSTA255 at Montana Tech.  The students were asked to defend the statement in the context of one of the individuals covered in that day’s presentation.  Below is an answer using Mark Twain’s letter to Hezekiah Hosmer asking for information regarding the lynching of Jack Slade.

It is very difficult for me to describe interesting, because I am a solver.  When I look at history it seems like a puzzle on a table that is missing pieces.  If I knew that under the table would be my satisfaction then I would be a happy historian.  However, even if I had every piece and the skill to complete the puzzle I fear the trouble would only be the beginning.  Twain says that he had breakfast with Slade and survives.  He still calls him a friend and asks for information about him ten years later.  The complete puzzle may show a Slade that was so rambunctious that he was hanged, but so polite as to offer coffee to a guest.  This is not interesting to me; it’s difficult to swallow.  If I consider Fritz’s quote I can only know for sure that things are complex and not on the surface. 

P.S. I’ll be under the table, looking.

 As you can imagine I was delighted with the student’s argument; it showed depth, humor, and critical thinking.  This came at the end of a semester filled with conflicting expectations and shifts in classroom instruction.

Final classroom assignment HSTA255
Photo courtesy of Rich Aarstad
When I was asked two years ago, by Doctor Chris Danielson, tenured professor of history at Montana Tech in Butte, whether I would be interested in teaching a Montana History class while he was on sabbatical in Spring 2016, I agreed with little pause or trepidation. I was intrigued about presenting Montana history in a college classroom setting.  I planned to introduce my students to use of primary sources and the excitement that the real deal brings to history.  Calling on my MHS colleagues, my students learned about interpreting primary sources such as archival documents, photographs and newspapers.  However, while I had envisioned a course centered on student led discussions driven by their three burning questions based on the reading assignments, reality quickly derailed this expectation.

HSTA255 Classroom exercise
Photo courtesy of Rich Aarstad
The class met once a week, and on that second day the vast majority claimed they had no idea how to access the assigned articles through the Tech library in spite of me going over that on the first day. I stressed once again how and where to find the readings listed on the syllabus and emphasized the importance of completing the readings each week.  And then I lectured for two-plus hours. Halfway through the semester the majority of the students were still not completing, or often even attempting, the reading assignments.  As a result, I shifted from the three burning questions scenario to classroom writing assignments based on the readings. This change prompted an impromptu but spirited debated between the advocates for Helena and Anaconda for state capital; an interpretation of the historical content and context of two D.J. O’Malley poems; defending or castigating Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin for her “no” vote against declaring war in 1917. 

This history class would be the first and likely last one these Tech students would take and in some instances it also represented the closest thing to an English comp class they would experience.  I did not realize the implications of this scenario when I planned the class.  The cultural shift in education that stresses math and science above all else was readily demonstrated by the students' disinterest in reading and lack of critical thinking and writing skills.  For well-rounded students who are prepared for the 21st century job market, an H(umanities) should be added to the acronym creating STEHM.  I certainly hope Montana Tech and the Montana historical Society can partner up again for the 2018 spring semester of HSTA255.  Montana history and the skills humanities classes teach definitely have a place at the academic table.