Every teacher’s fear is to find themselves in this famous scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where Ben Stein repeats himself several times while his students do anything and everything but pay attention. It is one of the funnier movie scenes you can watch. This comes to mind for a couple of reasons. First, my Civil War class watched Matthew Broderick in Glory recently and I cannot help seeing Ferris in all of Broderick’s roles. Secondly, a controversial historical topic and a Skype call with an historian helped keep our class from looking anything like the scene described above (at least for one day).
This past Thursday my two Civil War courses had the pleasure to Skype with historian, Kevin Levin. Kevin has visited my classroom via Skype several times over the past three years. Whereas previous video conferences centered on general discussions on the Civil War, Thursday was the culmination of a unit on the role of African American soldiers in the North and the South.
Our class text written by James Stokesbury provided a solid summary of African Americans in the Northern armies. The class read primary source accounts of the 54th Massachusetts and compared those accounts while watching parts of the movie, Glory. The topic of African Americans aiding the South is a far more complicated matter. Did slaves aide the South or fight for the South? Those are important distinctions even though Stokesbury writes black Confederate soldiers “hardly seemed feasible” (219). To help analyze African American roles for the Confederacy, students read three articles and answered reading questions. Those articles included: That Extraordinary Document: W.H.T Walker and Patrick Cleburne’s Emancipation Proposal“, “Virginia’s Black Confederates” and Levin’s article “Confederate Like Me.”
Kevin provided an excellent opportunity for my classes to speak with one of the authors of these articles and listen to how a historian grapples with research and analysis. For example, Levin stated that one of the most glaring and challenging legacies of the study of black Confederates is the absence of their voice through primary sources. Most slaves were held silent, not able or allowed to write about their experiences as camp or personal servant, laborer or field hand. This silence has helped some groups blur the memory of African Americans and their role in the South, stating they were actual soldiers rather than camp servants. Levin emphasized the importance of studying memory of the war and how its legacy has changed for many Southerners after the 1960s Civil Rights movement.
My students enjoyed this mini-unit of study which introduced historiography, honed analytical skills, exemplified internet research do’s and don’ts and used technology to bring a professional into our classroom. One student wrote in a follow up assignment, “Skyping with Mr. Levin was very enjoyable and educational. He, being a professional historian, provided an expert insight that I would not have known by reading a textbook or letter out of a newspaper.” Another student suggested that a discussion with an author/historian who believes that slaves actually fought for the Confederacy would be a great counter-point to Levin. That could be an interesting way to take on this subject next semester.