Is history objective or subjective? That was the question Dr. Brian Leech posed to the dozen students in his class at the beginning of this Monday morning session in Old Main on one of the first days that really felt like fall at Augustana College.
What a provocative question to set the tone for a fast-moving discussion.
The class session was divided into two portions. First was a thought-provoking lecture and discussion, and next was a student presentation. I’ll share a bit about both, but want to begin with a couple of take-aways.
- Feedback helps shape the discussion of history—The first question Leech asked was about the text students read in advance of class. They thought it was “too dense” and complicated. Leech agreed with the observation, but pushed back a bit and asked for a few take-aways, which the students provided. I think everyone was reassured of the value of the text. The constant refrain of “what did you think of…” forced the students in this class to move beyond a superficial response and think.
- Leech’s teaching style invites a feeling of familiarity—I was very impressed with how comfortable the discussion was. Everyone contributed and I even heard a “hell yeah” at one point. During the student presentation, Leech sat down at a student desk and surrounded himself with the class. It was pretty clear to me that he encourages the type of in-depth discussion and deep learning that one could expect in an upper-level history class.
- No one gets off with a weak explanation or position—Leech is tough and strategically inserts information to make the students even tougher. The number of times that a clarifying or impossible-to-ignore follow-up question was asked reminded me how important small, intimate classes are to honing and improving communication and problem-solving skills. Everyone held each other accountable, which was the case when one student posited: “President Lincoln didn’t really accomplish much.” After the gasps, there was a rich discussion of Lincoln’s presidency.
Leech’s lecture on whether or not history is subjective or objective revolved around the viewpoint of what he described as “positivists, idealists and postmodernists.” He asked students to vote on how they view most historians. Ten voted for idealist and two for postmodernist.
Leech’s lecture posed questions like the following to get these students to really think:
What is the impact on history if only certain peoples’ records are preserved?
What if documentation is limited?
Does one really know about XX or just what was written about it?
I could see these students really thinking about whether or not history is objective or subjective, and am quite sure Leech accomplished his task.
The second part of the class involved three students leading a discussion of a reading on the Midwest as a region. There is too much to discuss about the content, but the assignment was clearly intended to help students understand how to organize information, work in a team, think critically and communicate persuasively.
Small, upper-level courses like Leech’s are essential to a liberal arts education—not just because of the content, but because of the skills developed through complex reading, challenging and engaged discussion, and on-stage student presentations. Attending this class was a great reminder that no class of 100 or 300 students can build the skills needed by today’s and tomorrow’s leaders like this class of 12.
Brian Leech teaches courses in the first-year sequence about food studies and images of the natural world, as well as courses for the history department on modern U.S. history, oral history, public history, the environment, and health.
Students in his recent courses have researched health care artifacts for the museum at Palmer College of Chiropractic, developed a digital historical map of the nearby Keystone Neighborhood, and crafted an oral history of the local WWII homefront with the help of the Rock Island Arsenal Museum. Leech also serves as a first-year advisor and teaches an advising course.
A native Montanan, Leech uses his personal research as an excuse to return to the mountains. He recently has published a book about the intended and unintended consequences of open-pit mining in Butte, Montana.
The book is “The City That Ate Itself: Butte, Montana and Its Expanding Berkeley Pit” (University of Nevada Press; Feb. 28, 2018). In this podcast, Dr. Leech discusses the book and his interests in history with Christina Lamberson, assistant professor of history at Angelo State University.
He also recently has started research on a couple of new projects. One looks at the portrayal of mining in popular culture and another investigates the history of speed limits in the American West.