Teaching ‘Hard History’ To Help Students Understand Past & Present – transcript

Ideas to Innovation - Season Two


Dr Hasan Jeffries: A lot of time, students are all over the place. There’s a lot of myths and misconceptions and stereotypes about the American past and present. We got to deconstruct those in order to get to some accurate history but I can’t get to the accurate stuff because they’ll dismiss it unless I understand where they are. Really drawing on that organizing experience or organizing lessons of being effective at grassroots organizer works really well in the classroom because it’s centering the students and empowering them in their own educational journey.

Announcer: Ideas to Innovation from Clarivate.

Neville: Civil rights in the United States is a topic never far from the headlines. Understood today as a dark side to the story of America’s history over almost 250 years, civil rights remain a complex part of the fabric of America. Helping university students understand the history of civil rights, the important milestones in that ongoing struggle, and what it means for them has been a life’s work for our guest in this episode of Ideas To Innovation.

Joining us today is Dr Hasan Jeffries, Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. He’s an adviser to ProQuest part of Clarivate, helping to shape some of its most trusted and valued resources on African American history including its open Black freedom struggle website, and a new digital resource for colleges and universities called ProQuest Black Studies. Hasan has earned a stellar reputation as one of today’s foremost educators and teachers on civil rights and the Black Power movement. He teaches, researches, and writes about the African American experience from a historical perspective. Hello, Hasan, and welcome.

Dr Hasan Jeffries: It’s great to be with you. Thank you.

Neville: We’re going to talk about areas of your work in teaching that demonstrate matters that are very important to you. All to do with how you open your students’ minds to new ways of understanding the past and the present. To start, though, I wonder if you would share with our listeners a little about your work as an educator. What personal experience can you share that drives your passion for teaching what you refer to as hard history?

Hasan: Well, I’m really motivated by a desire to understand the past. Not simply for the sake of retrieving knowledge but for the purpose of making better sense of the present. I see history as serving a purpose. That purpose is to prepare us to solve not only the problems of today but also to prepare young people, students, and future generations to solve the problems of tomorrow.

Neville: I know that you’ve written books on this topic and did a TED talk as well, haven’t you? Tell us a bit about those books.

Hasan: Yes. My first book was called Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt. It looked at what was truly a remarkable story. In the heart of Alabama in 1965. Lowndes County, Alabama, that was 80% African American and had zero registered Black voters. Over the course of a year and a half local Black folk, ordinary people, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers and small landowners, in partnership with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, young people, SNCC activists, they transformed that county level from what was the citadel of violent White supremacy to the centre of Black power.

Not only registering the majority of African Americans but creating an independent all-Black political party which was the first Black Panther Party. The book explores that process, that transformational process. To connect the history that I do to the teaching that I do, it is that process of small d democratic organizing, centering local people, making them being a part of the change experience that I really draw on in my teaching.

Neville: Got it. Tell us a bit about the TED talk you did. That got a lot of attention, if I recall.

Hasan: It did. I’m happy that it did. It was titled, Why We Need To Confront Hard History. Why we need to confront the most difficult aspects of our past. I drew on an experience that I had visiting the plantation estate of America’s fourth President James Madison. James Madison was the architect of the Constitution. The father of the Bill of Rights, but he was also an enslaver. He enslaved over 100 people over the course of his lifetime and he never freed a single soul. The TED talk really explores this contradiction of why we will study someone like Madison, a political genius to be sure, but ignore the fact that his ability to do what he did was predicated on his holding in bondage and profiting off of the labour of some 100 African Americans, and the fact that he was a third-generation enslaver. This was the family business. This was not a side hustle, this is what he did.

The talk looks at both a little bit of that history, but then explores why we choose to ignore it, favouring a nostalgic version of the past, the Disney version of the past, if you will, rather than confronting these difficult aspects because, in truth, they really make us uncomfortable in the present. That’s what I mean by hard history, those aspects of our past that make us uncomfortable in the present.

It’s important that we figure out and identify why we don’t want to confront them directly and then, at the end, not just leave it there, but say, “Aha, we see it, we understand it, and now we have to do something about it. Not only the past but of course the legacy of the past, the ways in which we’re living the past today.”

Neville: Right. You mentioned legacy. That’s a good word because I was amazed when I read about the work you did for the renovation of the National Civil Rights Museum, the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, which, the site of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. How did you feel about that? That must have made a huge impact on you, just, generally speaking, to be involved in something like that. It’s such an incredible location.

Hasan: Totally sure. To be asked to be a part of a project that involves telling the history of the African American freedom struggle is one thing. To be asked to be a part of a project to tell the history of African American freedom struggle at the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King, it’s a totally different experience because that is sacred space, and our charge going in, and for me, serving as the lead historian or primary script writer was above all else – and this was from the folk who were in charge of the museum itself, was above all else, get it right, get the history right, tell the truth.

Let’s not just center this story around Martin Luther King, around a handful of preachers, around a handful of men, let’s talk about the people who were involved, the local people. Let’s talk about the women who were involved.

We try to tell a complicated, complex story that involves many voices over an extended period of time. Again, with the point of not just pouring out the history, but then charging visitors to do something with that history. There are aspects, Neville, about the past that once you see, you can’t unsee, and then the question becomes what do you do with what you now know?

Neville: Right. I guess that’s important in the context of the podcast that you were involved with the Teaching Hard History podcast. I listened to a couple of episodes recently. I think your season finished about May, right, and 70-plus episodes?

Hasan: Correct.

Neville: That’s quite a legacy in itself, frankly. What were you trying to achieve with that podcast, Hasan?

Hasan: Well, the primary audience for the podcast are teachers, but we also, from the very beginning, defined teachers/educators very broadly, and so, certainly, it is geared towards teachers. We talk about content, but we also talk about pedagogy, how do you deliver this content? Whether it’s slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights, how do you deliver it accurately, which is critical, but then also effectively to reach your students, K -12, and even into college?

Like I said, we defined educators broadly, and so I always smile when I meet people who aren’t formal teachers, who say, “Hey, I listen to the podcast. I’m enjoying the podcast,” because we’re all lifelong learners or we should be lifelong learners. We try to frame the podcast and produce it in such a way that even if you are not in the classroom, in a physical way, you’re still in that lifelong classroom.

We really wanted everyone to be able to listen to it and learn something about the past. Also, even if you’re not a formal teacher, informally, ways to talk about these difficult subjects so that others can learn, too.

Neville: Right. Well, let’s talk about learning in that context then. Let’s talk about what a classroom could or should be, and the shift in thinking about how you expand it to create greater engagement with students. I know that’s a huge topic in the context of what you’ve been doing. Tell us about your vision for the traditional four walls of the classroom and going beyond them.

Hasan: Well, there are limits to what we can do in a formal educational setting. As you point out the four walls, students, I’m the teacher, they’re the students. They come into the classroom, and we’re, “This is the space in which we occupy, meet, and exchange information.”

I think, in this era, there are two things that are really important that should really drive educational instruction, especially in something like the humanities and history in particular. That is, we ought not be confined by the four walls. We ought to think expansively about ways to transport our students outside of the confines of the classroom, both physically as well as temporally.

I think that that’s so critically important because place is so important, and I really believe in the power of place. That place, you can learn something more about the past and even the present if you are present in a different place. I think technology now allows us to transport ourselves to different places and certainly different times, but then we also need to think about, and hopefully we can explore this a little bit, about actually physically leaving that space as well.

Neville: Yes. You did that, didn’t you? I read about what you did with small groups, undergraduates at James Madison’s Montpelier, his plantation home in Virginia. Tell us about that, Hasan.

Hasan: Well, one of the things that became clear to me as I’ve been on my journey as an educator is that the powerful results of taking students on trips, if you will. The Ohio State University, like so many other universities, has done a terrific job of engaging in study abroad and taking students to different countries. I said, “Well, if we can take a kid to Costa Rica, we can take him to Virginia.”

I developed a pilot program that has since evolved for the last five or so years of taking small groups of undergraduates, as you said, from Ohio State to James Madison’s Montpelier. His plantation and state, what I did the TED talk about. There, we explore the color line. We explore race, we explore democracy, we explore slavery, we explore freedom at this seat where literally the foundations for American freedom are established.

We literally spend time in the room, in the library, personal library of James Madison, where he conceived and conceptualized the Bill of Rights. Then we also engage in archaeological exploration because Montpelier is an active archaeological site exploring what enslaved folk, and the physical culture of enslaved folk that they left behind. In other words, you got the Madisons, that’s James and Dolly, that’s two White people, but you got hundreds of African Americans so the material culture left behind at Montpelier is really an expression of the Black experience.

Being able to bring students there to walk where, not just Madison walk, but where enslaved folk walk who had an equally clear vision of what freedom ought to look like, because they’re living in the presence of people who enjoy it, and yet they do not enjoy it themselves.

This is the beginning of America. We talk about slavery often as being America’s original sin, but it’s really America’s origin. Exploring this and the beginnings, the foundation, the contradictions, the paradoxes, and then how does that play out over the course of the next 250 years, it takes on new meaning when you’re standing at this plantation site and the wind is blowing, and you feel that wind, and that’s the same wind that enslaved people would’ve felt. That’s witness wind, if you will, and it transports you back to this moment, and you get a better appreciation of the struggle and the sacrifice that enslaved folk went through to help build this nation.

Neville: How did your students respond to it? What were their impressions? What feedback did you get from that? How did you think they perceived that whole experience of being at Montpelier?

Hasan: Well, of course, I wasn’t sure. This was an experiment in my mind that I said, “I think they could get something out of this, but who knows?” It was quite clear the first group that I took down there, no more than 10 or 12 students, that while we were there, I could tell that this was different. That they were experiencing something different in the conversations that we were having, in the silences that we were having.

Montpelier also has an exhibit on a permanent exhibition called A Mere Distinction of Color on Slavery at Montpelier and in America as a whole. This wasn’t just an emotional experience because you’re in the place and doing archaeology, you’re also looking at this interpretation of the historical past. I remember that first group, and every group after has done the same because this is a hand-selected group of students who I’ve had in classes, and I invite them individually to be a part of this experience.

I remember that first group, Neville, asked me, “Well, Dr Jeffries, why did you want us? What separated us?” I said, “Because each one of you, I saw that you’re really thinking. You’re thinking about these problems. You’re thinking about the world in which we live, and I thought this would help you think a little deeper, think in more complex ways.” Just this past summer, I had a student who went on one of those trips and she’s a law student now here in Ohio. We were sitting down for lunch, and she said, “Dr Jeffries, you told us that you selected us because we were thinkers.”

At the time, she’s like, “I don’t know what this dude is talking about,” but now she says she’s entering a third-year in law school here. She says, she’s looking around and she’s like, “Why aren’t these people thinking about these issues?” She said, at that moment, she realized that’s what it was, that she was one of those people trying to figure this stuff out. That’s what drew me to those students, and I hope that this experience would help them think a little bit deeper, not provide answers per se, but provide questions.

Neville: That’s really interesting. This whole idea of taking the students, the history is really fascinating. Where did you learn about this, Hasan, this innovative style of teaching, and has it been easy to implement it at Ohio State?

Hasan: Ohio State has been very supportive, but ain’t nothing ever easy in academia but the style itself of it is really– this ties in my teaching with my historical research because I really draw on the grassroots organizing expertise of those young people, those young SNCC organizers in the 1960s who were following the organizing philosophy and implementing the organizing philosophy of the veteran civil rights organizer, Ms. Ella Baker, who was the advisor for SNCC but also the person who breathed life into the organization in the first place.

She charged students, these young activists working with local people and doing so in a way that empowered them. She said, “If you want a democratic society, you got you practice democracy. That means not going into communities and telling people what to do, but going into communities and asking people what do they want?” Part of that means starting where they are, understanding how they view the world, how they view the problems, and what their thoughtful solutions are, their proposals.

That start where the people are is something that I really have embraced as an educator. Start where the students are, talk to them, see what they’re seeing. What do they know? What don’t they know? With American history and the African American experience, there really is, in my classes, as much unlearning as there is learning. Before we can get to a lot of the learning, we got to do some unlearning, but in order to do that accurately, that first part, I got to know what they know. That’s starting where they are.

A lot of time, students are all over the place. There’s a lot of myths and misconceptions and stereotypes about the American past and present. We got to deconstruct those in order to get to some accurate history, but I can’t get to the accurate stuff because they’ll dismiss it unless I understand where they are. Really drawing on that organizing experience or organizing lessons of being effective at grassroots organizer works really well in the classroom because it’s centering the students and empowering them in their own educational journey.

Neville: Yes. I think you’ve given us much food for thought on what you’ve achieved and what’s next in this field. To that point, let’s consider the future of this approach to education. From what we’ve been talking about, it seems clear to me that shifts in thinking and behaviors are key to opening students’ minds to new ways of understanding, and those shifts, by the way, are universal. It’s them, it’s you, it’s everyone involved in this whole thing, to new ways of understanding the past and present that will equip them to better understand the future. The big question is, how optimistic are you about this journey that’s still  to come? What do you think needs to change and what won’t? I guess, in essence, what will 2030 look like?

Hasan: Well, I think, as educators, one of the things that we have to do going forward, and this is something that I have done in my own classroom teaching, is we have to teach less in order to teach more. In other words, students today bring into the classroom more information in their back pocket, in their cell phones than we could ever dispense in the classroom.

Information-wise, we really ought to be presenting less because they have access to everything. Now we have to help them with critical media analysis so that they can interpret information that’s out there on the web and these other places, digital resources. What we can do is take less and drill down deeper and students can get more out of that going forward. That’s why I think we really need to shift. Because of technology and access to information and what information is available and digital resources and the like, students also can do more outside of the classroom.

Certainly more than simply reading a textbook. In that sense, I think as we move forward through this decade and beyond, this idea of teaching more by engaging in less information per se but digging deeper and bringing in other ways such as documentary films. I use that a lot in the classroom to transport students out of the classroom. We can’t all get to the Montpelier but we can all show films and other kinds of media that will allow us to transport ourselves intellectually to these other places.

I think the future is bright in that sense. Whether we’re talking about virtual media, for example, or documentary films or access to primary sources, that is all there, and the students are really eager to engage in it. We just have to figure out that right balance and harness it and then the students will take it from there. In that sense, I’m very optimistic about what’s ahead and I’m also hopeful that we will do what’s necessary to engage these new forms of media, for example, and kinds of access to information to engage and empower students.

Neville: Well, thanks, Hasan, for your time and sharing your knowledge and insights. It’s been a great conversation. I really appreciate it. Thank you very much indeed.

Hasan: Thank you, Neville. I have enjoyed.

Hasan: For more information about Dr Hasan Jeffries and his work on civil rights education and teaching in the United States, visit history.osu.edu and search Hasan Jeffries. You can also learn more about his work on African American history at blackfreedom.proquest.com. Season 2 of Ideas to Innovation continues with our next episode in a few weeks’ time. Visit clarivate.com/podcasts for information. Thanks for listening.


Announcer: Ideas to Innovation from Clarivate.

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