Sam Hitchmough, Director of Teaching and Senior Lecturer in American Indian History
Historians of any field constantly grapple with a thorny mass of official histories and unofficial/vernacular histories, histories that are constructed, invented, exaggerated or politicized, narratives and counter-narratives, memories, hagiographies, teleological narratives or triumphalist epics, even when the events are relatively recent. Often, history is rescue work, uncovering voices and perspectives from the past that have previously been lost, disassembling and reforming our understandings. Historians are, as a result, regularly accused of re-interpreting past narratives from modern standpoints with active agendas, of retro-fitting, or else attempting to re-engineer our societal foundations and ‘re-remember’ events in certain ways.
Teaching American history is one such minefield: frequently a triumphalist history, a story of empire, destiny and progress. A predominantly white, male, Euro-centric narrative has been rightly challenged, particularly in the past 50-60 years, and whilst this has resulted in important revision, the way that American national history is presented and taught is still problematic at many levels. Amongst the most overlooked histories (and indeed communities) are American Indian, and when we give due weight and space for discussion to arguments forwarded by scholars of American Indian history (both American Indian and settler) the challenges to the celebratory narrative of the American national project are numerous and robust.
There has been a steadily growing body of academic work that makes the case that American Indian experiences in the U.S. should be discussed with reference to the terms ethnic cleansing and genocide. Whilst not making significant inroads into school curricula, these arguments have nonetheless gained widespread traction in academic circles as well as growing references in popular culture. There is, however, another layer of argument that is fearsomely controversial and is a debate that many historians have preferred not to engage with at all.
Can, and should, American Indian experiences be referred to as a Holocaust? Some argue that this should encompass over 500 years of interaction since 1492, whilst others focus more directly on 19th and 20th century experiences of successive U.S. administrations. The implications of this argument are profound and the debate around it fierce.
There is not a consensus on this amongst scholars of American Indian history, and it also creates debate amongst scholars of the Holocaust, with one prominent Jewish historian, for example, suggesting that we should ‘dare to compare’ the two experiences, whilst others claim the Holocaust in the Nazi era is ‘phenomenologically unique’ and resists all comparison. The comparisons explored involve apparent similarities between the American ideology of Manifest Destiny and the Nazi ideology of Lebensraum, both giving rationale for the annexation of land for a perceived to be superior race, the official Removal policies of successive U.S. administrations and the forced marches in Nazi Germany, and terminology utilized in the U.S. that frequently and openly called for extermination of ‘inhuman savages’. Whilst this already carries some pedagogic challenges, some have gone a step further and suggested that closing the door to comparisons, those that wish to conceive of the Holocaust as unique and that the term remains exclusive to events in wartime Europe, are actually committing the great crime of denying a holocaust elsewhere.
How can this debate be utilized as a lens through which to explore the teaching of difficult topics? More broadly, how can we use cases like this to effectively share experiences and strategies that can be adapted to make a whole range of teaching difficult subjects less daunting?
I can share some reflections on the way that I have taught the question of whether the word Holocaust can or should be used; I have taught this using a debate format for nearly ten years in two different universities.
Focus on the question comes roughly half way through a course on American Indian history from the 1830s to the 1950s, so the first few weeks deal with context and major emerging themes in terms of American Indian ideologies and U.S. policy. Arguments around ethnic cleansing and genocide are introduced and scrutinized in order to broach issues of applying modern terminology to past events.
Two weeks are typically set aside for a debate about whether the word holocaust should be used to describe American Indian experiences. One or two further weeks are used to reflect on the debate, largely online so that other topics can be moved onto.
Key staging posts:
Length: These are 2-hour sessions
Debate: Should the word Holocaust be used to refer to American Indian experiences in the U.S.?
Form: 2 groups, one arguing that it should, one that it shouldn’t.
- ‘Space.’ It’s been useful having short discussions about the nature of academic learning spaces (in addition to the introductory session that talks about learning expectations and the adoption of a shared learning model), including freedom of expression so long as doesn’t cause offence, the validity of opinions that might be different to our own.
We’ve also discussed the importance of the art of argument: this is an exercise that reveals how effective arguments are constructed, nuanced and critiqued. As such, students are reminded they may wish to engage with the debate as devil’s advocates (for some students in the past this seems to have offered a degree of objectivity that they’ve preferred)
- Why do students think this is an important question to ask? Are there aspects of the debate that students imagine will be difficult or controversial? This can be a short written exercise that is useful post-debate, and I’ve also read some of them out beforehand.
- I’ve often asked at this point how students feel they most effectively learn about difficult subjects, not necessarily to get fully-formed responses but to encourage them to think that others may learn differently, and to prepare them for the range of tasks involved in reflecting on the debate.
- Knowing the debate question, the group is split into two by sign-up. If the numbers are uneven then any absent students are added to the smaller group.
- The groups spend some time discussing their possible arguments, assign reading to do over the week.
- I show groups the VLE pages dedicated to the debate – online discussion pages for each group, suggested readings, and a whole-group discussion forum. They are encouraged to communicate with each other over the following week.
- The ‘architecture’ of the debate is discussed. Depending on the size of the group, various roles are sometimes introduced: ‘debate facilitators’ (one student who acts as a ‘chair’ if discussion needs to be re-focused) and student ‘scribes’ (one or two students who take fairly detailed notes that capture key points, to be made available to entire group afterwards).
- ‘Conduct’ is discussed and earlier points reiterated about the nature of academic expression, that debates flourish when multiples voices and perspectives are heard.
Ensure that the space is appropriately configured so that students don’t need to raise their voices and don’t have defensive lines of tables/desks in front of them.
- The first 30 minutes is used for the two groups to reconvene and run through their arguments. They are reminded to present two or three short and precise points that act as springboards for discussion.
- A coin toss to see who starts. One side then forwards its two/three key points, the other side does the same, and then it’s an open discussion that usually uses the points as hooks.
- The debate itself has around 60-65 minutes to run.
- I’ve found it important that the debate doesn’t run up to the end of the session – some sort of reflection is crucial. Each side is asked to reflect on how they felt it went and to identify three points that the opposing side made that they found persuasive.
- Discussion of what the most challenging and difficult questions/points were – what did they think were the best ways n which to tackle these?
Possible related tasks: in the past I’ve asked students to create posters that reflect the debate, write up reviews of the debate for fictitious magazines or newspapers that can either require objectivity or else op-eds work well. Students have also engaged in a post-debate online discussion forum.
I’m particularly interested in how we teach difficult subjects, the kinds of pressures and challenges (and often pitfalls) that they create (to the extent that in some cases we can become relatively vulnerable) and how these subjects affect the learning environment and the student learning experience. In the case-study here I’ve known that many students will be upset by the topic, some will get angry, and that some have had relatives who died in, or survived, concentration camps. In some cases I’ve followed up in the next session with a silent debate for around 30 minutes. This is an opportunity to have students in smaller groups, of around 4 or 5, focus on specific points from the previous week’s full debate and explore them further. These are often the most contentious or controversial, and it’s interesting to use the silent debate format as an alternative as it often allows students who might have been frustrated or subdued during the debate to have an opportunity to express their opinion in a different setting.
I’d be very interested in talking with anyone about the challenges of teaching difficult subjects, perhaps with a view to writing up a number of case-studies that might prove useful to colleagues across the university.