Teaching US History Through Disasters

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My favorite restaurant after Hurricane Ike. I took my wife here on our first date and later proposed to her here. They were closed for six months after the storm.

Dear Readers,

Yet another long delay in between posts. I just finished teaching two five week summer classes this past week which took up quite a bit of my time. Also, my novel So Others May Live has gone to the editor. I realized today that I had not written a teaching related post in a long time. As it so happens, I’ve been working on creating a thematic US History course and so I decided to pen a few lines, or rather type a few lines, about it.

I’m no stranger to emergencies. With all the time I spent in public safety responding to calls as a firefighter/EMT and later as a police officer and arson investigator, I’ve built up quite the emergency resume. Fires, car accidents, hurricanes, and various and sundry medical calls still haunt the recesses of my brain. As a student and later professor of history, I’m also well aware of the role disasters have played in the American past. From the Triangle Fire to the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire to the Station Nightclub and from the 1900 Storm to the Tri-State Tornado to the Texas City Disaster, I can still recall all the photographs or videos I’ve looked at over the years. I’ve seen hurricane damage and felt the winds firsthand. Hurricane Ike was my 13th Storm to live through or work during and I experienced the eye from the front seat of my city issued SUV. We are coming up on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey which caused widespread flooding in my area, though I escaped without any significant damage.

Disasters can serve as great catalysts for change. When one considers the historical significance of disasters, we can learn social history, the history of science/technology, study human behavior, and draw lessons for the future. Since I teach at a community college, I only teach US History Survey courses. 1301 is US History to 1877 and 1302 is US History Since 1877. What I’m looking at doing is creating a thematic 1302 class where I still cover the usual items, but view it through the lens of disasters, both natural and manmade.

The first issue to tackle was which disasters. Obviously there are plenty to choose from, but I wanted a cross section of different types of disasters which struck at different times but with a focus on disasters close to home (Southeast Texas). After much internal debate, I came up with the following list:

  1. 1900 Galveston Hurricane (Galveston, TX)
  2. 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (NYC)
  3. 1935 Labor Day Hurricane (FL)
  4. 1947 Texas City Disaster (Texas City, TX)

I’m including two hurricanes since they are the most frequent disaster in our area. Plus, the Labor Day Hurricane ties in with my existing discussion of the Depression and the Bonus Army. I wanted to stay away from more modern disasters (Katrina, Ike, Harvey, etc) and I also wanted to focus on non-intentional acts (ie: not terrorism). We will discuss these disasters with an towards how they illustrate the history of science at the time, technology, race, class, labor relations, etc. I cannot assign a book on each one of these disasters, so instead I will have my students read a few articles about each one, there will be a lecture on the topic (I already do one on the Triangle Fire), and finally a discussion following the lecture. To tie it all together, I’m probably going to have them give a presentation on a disaster not covered here (as a group). I may instead assign a paper in which they trace a common theme among all four of these disasters. I’m still a bit on the fence about that one.

Have a disaster free day!

L.H.

A Reader’s Life

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Dear Readers,

As I was contemplating my personal library today, I began to ponder the influential books I’ve read in my life; books that have changed the way I see the world around me. Now, my own books number around 2,000 physical volumes with several hundred more on the Kindle. I’ve read them all, and I’ve read many more that I don’t have personal copies of. Some have been good, some have been bad, some have been ugly, and some have been in between. That said, a select handful have had such an impact on me that I still think of them and the lessons they taught me.

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The first great book I remember reading when I was in 4th grade was the award winning young adult classic Rifles For Watie by Harold Keith. It is an excellent Civil War story set in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. Though I was already a Civil War enthusiast by this point in my life, this was the first Civil War novel that I remember reading. It taught me how a novelist can teach you as much as a historian can. I found myself drawn into the story and though I’ve read the book many times since then, I’ll never forget the first reading.

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When I was in tenth grade, I came across a copy of Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson in my high school library. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest World War Two novels ever written. What I like about it is how he manages to capture but the humorous and the tragic scenes that war brings. The back and forth banter between the young RAF pilots is so skillfully done that you don’t catch all of it the first time you read the book. It takes a second or even third reading to pick up on all the one liners. If I had to pick a writer who has influenced my own writing the most, I’d probably say it is Derek Robinson, not just because of this book, which I consider his best, but because of all the books in his RAF and also his RFC series.

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In college, I first read the three volume Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote. Yes, I know that Civil War historians take great issue with much of what you can find inside these volumes, but as a freshman in college, that was far from my mind as I read through Foote’s weighty tomes. Foote was a novelist writing history, and in his hands, the lives, loves, tragedies, and triumphs of those who lived through this tumultuous era in American history leapt from the pages and came to live within my head. Foote once said that historians can learn a lot from novelists. I took this to heart. Yes, I have a graduate degree in history and I guess technically I’m a historian (though I consider myself first and foremost to be a storyteller), I am first and foremost, a writer. As such, Foote’s ability to bring these long dead individuals to life had an impact not just on my own writing, but on my teaching as well.

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Several years ago, I came across Bomber by Len Deighton. I was already familiar with both he and his work, but I had not read this particular book. It takes place in a 24 hour time frame as pilots prepare to bomb a German town. The town and its inhabitants also factor into the story and it builds to a terrifying crescendo. This novel taught me quite a bit about pacing and how to create and build suspense, even in novels that are not mysteries or thrillers. It also taught me the importance of careful research. Deighton made sure to get his facts right, and as a writer of historical fiction, I strive to do the same in my own work.

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I first read Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry when I was in junior high. This book taught me how to create characters that appear real. When we think of Augustus McRae and Woodrow F. Call, we think of them as real people, not fictional characters. McMurtry was a master of creating a world and inhabiting it with realistic, believable characters. Far from being “just a western”, as my creative writing professor dismissed it as being, this Pulitzer Prize winner shows us that a book about a simple journey from Point A to Point B can be a masterpiece, which Lonesome Dove definitely is.

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The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War by Peter Englund serves as a vivid reminder that history happens to real people, just like us. Also like us, they share all of the same emotions that we do. Though times may chance, human emotions do not and they are the link between us and those who came before. This book paints a portrait of ordinary lives disrupted by the Great War and does so on a broad canvas. The author also uses, whenever possible, the words of the individuals themselves to tell their stories. From this book, I learned the importance of letting the participants speak for themselves as they saw the events, I did not.

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Payback by Gert Ledig is a long out of print novel by a German veteran of the Second World War. The book begins like this: “When the first bomb fell, the blast hurled the dead children against the wall.” It takes place over the space of an hour in a nameless German town and consists of very short chapters, each a vignette, of how a resident experiences an Allied air attack. It is at times humorous, but more often tragic and stomach churning. This book taught me the importance of not shying away from the more horrific aspects of writing about warfare. By sanitizing our history or cleaning it up, we do absolutely no justice to those who lived through the events.

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Antietam: The Soldier’s Battle by John Michael Priest is, in my humble opinion, the best book written about a Civil War battle. The author delved deep into many an archive and though the book may appear disjointed to those who are not already familiar with the ebb and flow of the fighting around Antietam Creek, the reader experiences the battle in “real time” from the standpoint of the soldiers on both sides. If it is confusing at times, well, so was the battle. This book provides a valuable view from the ground, as it were. It is chock full of great quotes such as the Confederate artillery officer who, while under heavy fire, said to his aid “If I am killed, tell my wife I’ve never been happier in my life!” With this book, you really get a glimpse at the chaos and carnage of the Civil War battlefield.

This is not an all inclusive list, Dear Reader, as there are many others, but the above list are the best of the best. As you can see, some are fiction and some are not. So I ask you this: What books have influenced you as a writer, a reader, or as a person?

L.H.

Some Other Beginning’s End

 

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Dear Readers,

In 1999, my senior year of college, the band Semisonic recorded a song entitled “Closing Time”. There is a line in the song that says Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. This is, of course, quite true. I have one new beginning that is ending this week and another new one which will start in January.

In early August of 2013, two weeks removed from my final day on the job after my injury, I was offered the opportunity to teach dual credit college courses at an early college high school that was just about to open its doors to students for the first time. (To explain, I’m a college professor. The only difference between this class and one on the college campus is that I’d be teaching a class full of 16 year olds.) I agreed to do it, though not without some trepidation. I’d taught dual credit courses before in the past, as I’ve been teaching part time since 2004. But in the past, the kids always came to the college campus. Now I’d be going onto their turf. I know full well I’m not cut out to be a high school teacher, so facing a class full of high school kids in a high school campus on the first day of school made me as nervous as a fully involved multi alarm apartment fire.

My trepidation vanished as the first class began, and it’s never come back. I feel like I’ve found a home there. Each semester I teach two or three courses and the nice thing is, I generally get to have the same students all year which is different than it would be in an “adult” class on the college campus. I’ve had the time of my life at this school. Seeing students walk across the stage and accept their Associate’s Degree and then later, their high school diploma is a feeling I cannot describe.

I have stacks of cards, photographs, and even a signed poster board that I’ve been given by students over the years. Every professor or teacher struggles with self doubt, at least if they are a good one or want to be a good one. On those days, I need only look at what I’ve been given and know that at least for someone out there, I made a difference. Since I deal with chronic pain from my injuries along with an incurable autoimmune disease, my weeks are filled with some really rough days. But when I walk through those doors on Monday and Wednesday mornings, all the pain vanishes to the deep recesses of my brain as I look forward to spending the day with my kids. Sure, I enjoy my regular college classes too, but there is something special, perhaps even magical, about this place.

Over the past five school years, I’ve shared a ton of laughs with my students, sometimes at my own expense, and even shared a tear or two. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life on one hallway it seems, and the thought of leaving for a full time position, while obviously a no brainer financially, still tears me up inside to think about it. Wednesday will be an emotional day for me. I’m not going to lie and say it won’t be. My students mean the world to me and no words I can say or type can fully express that to them. I see my students as my own children. I care about them. I worry about them. And I try to look out for them, just as I do my own son who is around their age.

So when I walk out those doors for the last time on Wednesday, it will be with a heavy heart. I’m excited for my new beginning, but I mourn the beginning that is now coming to an end. I’ll take away a lot of good memories, like coaching the junior girls in the powder puff game this year. I can only hope and pray that I did enough for my students so that they know that no matter where they (or I) end up, they’ll always have me in their corner.

Hutch

The Sound of Distant Cannons

 

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“Are you hot in that uniform?” “Well, some women think so…..”

Dear Readers,

Whenever I teach about the Civil War in class, it makes me a bit nostalgic. Not for the war, but of the sixteen years I spent as a Civil War reenactor. Yes, I spent four times as long reenacting the war than the war itself was. I guess my reason for getting this way is because I was younger then, of course. And it was before I suffered a serious injury which ended my public safety career and left me in constant pain. Also, I miss my friend and comrade of all those years, Robert, who passed away unexpectedly a few years ago. The laughs we shared, the funny incidents we witnessed, the people we met and the places we saw are just as fresh in my mind today as they were back then. You can see the post I wrote upon learning of his passing here.

Since I now dwell in an academic world and not one filled with fires and arsonists, I have come to understand that many (I dare say, most) academic historians look on living historians (my preferred term for what I did) with barely disguised and often open disdain. I’ve heard them claim that all reenactors are racist, Lost Cause types. I’ve heard them claim that reenactors are all gun freaks or super right wing nut jobs. People who proudly boast of how “open” and “tolerant” they are quickly lump all reenactors into one category. Are there people within the ranks who are all those things? Of course! But most are not. They are men and women who love what they do and try to bring history to a wider audience.

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The 13th US Infantry on the field at Liendo. 

Apart from those criticisms, the other major one I’ve heard over the years is that “Reenactors get too bogged down in details and don’t care enough about the big picture.” Maybe that is a valid criticism. However, the majority of them portray humble privates in the ranks and NEWSFLASH: they didn’t know much about the big picture either. Grant and Lee were not in the habit of discussing grand strategy with enlisted men. Does it really matter in the grand scheme of things what the specific thread count of a Union sack coat was? Probably not. Another criticism is that reenactors don’t care enough about the cause of the war. Honestly, I’m not quite sure why professional historians often fixate on this. Reenactors are not reenacting the secession crisis. I think this might touch on why it seems like over the past several years, academic historians have all but removed the battlefield from the teaching of the Civil War, preferring to talk of other things. Which, by the way, need to be discussed, but the question of slavery was decided ON THE BATTLEFIELD.

How did my time as a reenactor help me become a better teacher? At most events, there would be a school day on the Friday before the reenactment opened to the public. Schools would bus in students who frequently had to complete a scavenger hunt. They’d come by in groups of 10-15 or so and we’d talk to them and answer their questions. Some reenactors looked on this as a bit of a bother and would show up after the kids left, but I came to enjoy it. I was talking to students long before I ever thought of being a teacher myself. It gave me better insight which helped explain the decision making process on Civil War battlefields. I’ve marched ten miles (which was nothing for a Civil War soldier) as part of a preservation march and did it barefoot and on an empty stomach just to try and see what it was like for the men who did it for real. Yes, I can load and fire a rifle, work a cannon, and explain how to perform “by files right into line”. None of that really helps in the classroom, but one of the things my students enjoy the most is when I teach them how to move from a column of fours to a line of battle and back. I’m enthusiastic when teaching about the Civil War and I hope that transfers over to my performance in the classroom.

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We ran a Civil War “boot camp” for high school and junior high teachers. Here I am performing a cursory examination to declare them medically fit for service.

Now, I want to tackle one subject which was kind of the reason for my post to being with. As a Southern boy who wore “the blue suit”, I want to address a statement that people (other reenactors too) frequently made. Yes, most (though not all) of my family who was in the United States at the time fought in the Confederate Army. I don’t apologize for that, nor do I feel the need to. I’m proud of the bravery they exhibited on many a field. I’m also glad they lost. Anyway, the one thing that people said to me all the time was “Your ancestors are turning over in their graves seeing you dressed as a Damn Yankee.” Here is my answer to that. First of all, I think our ancestors would be a little amused that we dress up like them and reenact something as horrific as the Civil War. Second, assuming our ancestors approved of what we do, I would think they’d want us to get it right and in the South, Rebel reenactors outnumber Yanks by 4-5 to one at most events. Since when did the odds ever favor the Confederacy that way? Third, I would occasionally switch over and portray a Confederate surgeon rather than a Union surgeon every now and then. Fourth, and most important, if you don’t like my choice of impressions, you can kiss my Irish a$$. Truthfully though, at events in the South, the Yankees are the “bad guys” and sometimes people boo as you march out to the battlefield. To be honest, it was kind of nice to be the bad guy.

So there you have it. My humble musings on my time as a reenactor. Here are some of the regiments that my ancestors served in (all Irish immigrants, by the way).

8th Ohio Infantry

160th New York Infantry

1st Tennessee Infantry (CSA)

48th Tennessee Infantry (CSA)

6th Louisiana Infantry (CSA)

4th Texas Infantry (CSA)

Hutch

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A Union Surgeon treats a wounded Confederate drummer boy.

 

Some Small Victory For Humanity

Horace Mann once said “Be ashamed to die until you’ve won some small victory for humanity.” I think most people who teach can relate to this statement in some way. I taught my first college course in the fall of 2004. Here we are over a decade later and a lot has changed. I think I do a better job now, but I’m no expert. I’m not Jaime Escalante or the Freedom Writer lady. No, I’m just a washed up ex cop with a serious physical injury and a body racked by an incurable disease. Some days are better than others both in and out of the classroom.

I suppose on some level, all of us who teach wonder if it is worth it. After all, how useful is history really to a person who is a math or science major? Students come to class and go through the motions. As professors, so do we. I’ve been stuck in a rut the past couple of years. I’m a part time faculty member who wears the Scarlet “A” of being an adjunct. I’ve given up hope of full time employment. It’ll never happen. I left one institution because of the increased rules and regulations that singled out adjuncts for “special treatment” such as forcing us to sign a civility oath (seriously). I barely make enough money to pay the bills and many of my medical bills go unpaid. So why do I do it?

Honestly, I don’t know anymore. But sometimes I think back over the course of my teaching career. I don’t always remember names, but I can remember faces. I think back on all the fun times I’ve had in the classroom. I’ve had classes I loved and fortunately only a couple that I’d rather have run backwards naked through a cornfield than to have taught. I think about all the students I’ve had pass in and out of my classroom doors and thus, my life. I wonder where they are now and what they are doing. I hope they all go on to make their mark on the world.

When I was a police officer, I got used to instant gratification. Saw bad guy. Arrested same. Someone committed a crime. I arrested them. End of story. Teaching isn’t like that. You never truly know (and indeed, may never know) how much of a difference (if any) you make. The impact might be years down the road. All you can do is hope for the best. It isn’t simply teaching. Sometimes a friendly word to a troubled student or allowing them to vent about some problem in their life is what makes the difference, not the causes of the Civil War. I always say I teach students, not a subject, because some of the biggest lessons deal with life rather than Warren G. Harding’s underwear preference.

And sometimes, I learn from my students. In fact, I learn as much from them as they do from me. Not about history, of course, but about myself. Yes, they teach me about myself. They force me to evaluate what I do and why, how I do things, and how to teach when I’m so racked with pain that I’d rather be in bed. For this I’m eternally grateful to them all. Being in a classroom allows me to forget for a while my own issues. The semesters pass with the speed of lightning these days. One turns into another in the blink of an eye. It seems just as though you truly get to know your students, they are gone only to be replaced with a new batch.

Have I won some small victory for humanity? No, I don’t think I have. But I’m not ashamed to die either. Then again, I don’t know what qualifies as a small victory for humanity. Maybe I have. But I do know this. All the students who have touched my life over the years can rest assured that they have made a difference to me. If the true measure of a person is whether or not you are better off for having known a person, then I can say without question that I am certainly better off for having known them all. I sincerely hope they can say the same about me.

P.S.: Any teacher who ever doubts what they are doing must watch the Twilight Zone episode entitled “The Changing of the Guard”. It aired in Season 3 and Season 1-3 and 5 are currently on Netflix, so I recommend you watch it ASAP before Netflix removes it, as they seem to do with all their good programming these days.

L.H.

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Why History?

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Anyone who has a history degree will be asked numerous times in their life why they majored in a subject seen by many as quaint and irrelevant. I’ll resist the temptation to wax poetic (or maybe wane) about they myriad of skills one masters in pursuit of such a degree that would be invaluable in many career choices. Did my two history degrees make me a better detective? I like to think so. If anything, I was comfortable writing and much of police work, unlike the television shows, takes place in front of a computer writing endless reports that may never be read. But I digress. That is certainly not the reason I majored in history. What follows is:

First of all, I suck at math. Terribly. Anything more complex than simple addition and subtraction (and perhaps division and multiplication) is beyond the capabilities of my oft rattled brains. When I was a child of 6, I checked out my first book from the library in my hometown. I cannot recall the name, but it had a red cover and was about the Civil War. As I gaze around my 900 square foot house filled with 2,000 book and five cats, I tend to blame that book. Growing up, I suffered from a speech impediment which caused painful shyness. This drove me to seek comfort between the covers of a book. Thankfully, my parents encouraged my reading.

I never saw history as being about dead people. I fully believe the spirits of those who’ve gone before are never far away, not in a ghost hunter way, but rather in an inspirational way. Students in my classes are taught to view these figures as living, breathing people with the same hopes, fears, and dreams that we have. Though our time periods change, human emotion doesn’t. Did love feel somehow different 200 years ago? Did fear? Or hunger? The past is, quite simply, the greatest reality show ever made.

As I teach survey courses, I do not expect to convince my students to suddenly love history and major in it. What I do sincerely hope is that they at least take away an appreciation for it, that’s all. I wouldn’t say I’m a great teacher and probably not even a very good one. What I am, however, is a decent storyteller. While many professors focus on all of the “isms” that go along with history, I prefer to focus on the people. The lives they led, the deaths they died, and the dreams they fulfilled or lost. For as Kipling said, “I have eaten your bread and salt. I’ve drunk your water and wine. The lives ye led I have watched beside and the deaths ye died were mine.”

I like to think I did not choose history, but rather history chose me.

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