History class can be exciting or dull as dirt depending on the teacher

Ned Jilton • Oct 31, 2018 at 2:39 PM

The Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia has come up with a novel way of teaching leadership and management in its business classes by using the Battle of Gettysburg.

Students attend four sessions with Professor Gary W. Gallagher, from the UVa history department, where they learn and discuss roles the various generals played as leaders and subordinates before, during and after the battle.

These sessions are followed by a battlefield walk conducted by the U.S. Marines in which the students travel to Gettysburg to see what the generals saw, follow the various paths of the soldiers and listen to the Marines’ views on the decisions by the generals.

The students then return to the classroom for one final session in which they attempt to reconcile what they saw with what the generals actually did.

I have watched two semesters of this class online. The thing that makes this class really interesting to me is the teaching style of Gallagher. Seventeen seconds into the first class I watched he said, “I want you to interrupt me anytime you like, if there’s something you want to follow it doesn’t bother me at all. I can remember where I was, and even if I don’t we’ll still be fine. We’re going to get where I want to go tonight, and I’m not worried how we get there. Anything you want to bring up or talk about, anywhere you want to go, I’m willing to go.”

Gallagher challenges his students, sometimes turning their questions back on them. “Make the case why Lee shouldn’t attack,” or “If you were in Mead’s position, what would you do,” and encourages debate among the students.

This is a far cry from the art history course I took at East Tennessee State University.

First, let me point out that when you go to college you will take a lot of history classes. You take the classes for your core requirements, then you take history classes for the disciplines you study. At ETSU, I took American history for two quarters for the core requirement, geological history for a science requirement, followed by the history of journalism for my major and art history and the history of photography for my minor.

The art history course I took was the exact opposite of Gallagher’s course. No questions were allowed in class. There was no discussion or debate. We sat in the dark looking at slides projected on a screen while the instructor droned on. If you wanted to ask a question, you had to make an appointment to see the instructor during office hours.

The only way I passed that class was due to my knowledge of photography. I identified the artworks on the test by the tint of lighting used to make the photo. If the photo had a green tint, that meant it was made under fluorescent lighting and was museum A. A yellow tint was tungsten lighting, meaning museum B. Professional lighting would be museum C and so on. I learned nothing and remember less.

On the other hand, my history of photography class was interesting as we had actual discussion during the class. In fact, it was that class that first sparked my interest in the Civil War.

Photography came of age during the Civil War, and the book for the class, which I still have, was filled with images of the war and stories of the photographers — Brady, Gardner and Sullivan to name a few. I spent so much time on this part of history that I missed the chapters on the modern art photographers. I confess that I jumped ahead to the documentary and photojournalism section.

When test time came, I couldn’t remember the names of many of the artsy modern photographers, but then I remembered a name that showed up frequently in the captions, Moma Geh, so I put it on the test.

When the test was graded, the teacher called me up after class and asked me where I got the name Moma Geh. I told him I remembered it from the captions in the book, and he laughed and said, “At least I know you opened the book.”

For the record, Moma Geh was not the name of a famous photographer. It was the abbreviation of the place where the photos shown in the book are now kept, the Museum of Modern Art, George Eastman House.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected] .

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