Preparing for class

Tomorrow is the first day of the American history classes I am teaching in Crookston at the university. I have taught this class two or three times before, so I have old notes and I am familiar with the basics. However, each time there is the challenge of tweaking things so the class goes better than before.

Crookston is the first "laptop university" in the world. That is, all students are required to have a laptop and many of the classes are based upon the internet and computers. Quizzes, tests, notes and research are done on the internet.

My first move will be to ban computers. You can have them in your bag, but I do not want any computers open on the desk in class. None. We'll see how that flies.

Last time I taught, the computers were nothing but a distraction. Students passed notes to each other over the internet--and would look up and smile at each other, and you knew you lost them then.

I was so impressed with Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin when I first read excerpts of it this summer that I resolved to present it to my history classes in some form.

To me, the history of the United States up to the Civil War is a story of how we got to the point where we apparently had to have a bloody civil war, the bloodiest war in human history up to that time. And Uncle Tom's Cabin lit the match for that war.

In the introduction to the novel by author Jane Smiley, she argues that Uncle Tom's Cabin is out of favor right now. Apparently, it still makes too many people uncomfortable. It deals in moral ambiguities. It raises issues still undecided. It scratches old wounds. It is not often taught in high schools or colleges.

So, the novel which did the most to alter American history has fallen into disuse.

In the same way, one of the giant American writers, H. L. Mencken, is ignored. He still makes people uncomfortable. Much easier to put him on the shelf and refer to him as if everybody knows who he is without actually having students read him so they know who he is.

Always eager to make people uncomfortable and to rescue worthies from undeserved consignment to the scrap heap, I am considering reading Uncle Tom's Cabin to my classes.

Problem: It has 45 chapters and is over 500 pages long. Tonight, I test-read a page--and it took me one-and-a-half minutes. So, that would eat up a chunk of class time.

But--I have such good memories of teachers reading to us in elementary school that I am tempted to give it a try. If the students have no computers, perhaps they will listen. And if they become familiar with a great work of literature in the process, perhaps it will be an antidote to the very dry history text I am forcing them to read outside of class.