Monday, February 13, 2012


When I returned from Afghanistan some years ago, I decided to bring a more unconventional style of instruction into the classroom, one that utilizes music, humor, and drama.  So I ended up buying a nice Taylor acoustic guitar and an authentic cowboy outfit—including spurs, alligator skin boots, and a black Stetson—and at times made a spectacle of myself. Heretofore I had always kept my musical side separate from my academic life, even though both have equally shaped my ethereal and creative nature.  But there I was, trying to get the class to sing a song about, say, genocide or terrorism.  Sometimes I’d write lyrics that pertain to a lesson and set them to a known pop tune; other times I’d write both the lyrics and music, a simple ditty, usually rockified, to get the class vocalizing.  I beefed up the humor, music, and drama less because I wanted to bring diverse pedagogical strategies and tools into the curriculum, though that was part of it.  Really, I just wanted to amuse myself.  Boys just want to have fun, or Spaß!

I suppose I had already brought humor into the classroom before my deployment to Afghanistan, as it’s intrinsic to my temperament, but I upped the ante, if you will.  Humor can of course be subjective, and my brand of humor is not straightforward joke-telling in a standup routine; rather, while I might take on the demeanor of a standup comic at times, what with gestures, posture, facial expressions, and tone, I infuse sarcasm, wit, and self-deferential comments into the discussion.  Depending on the student, such quipping and ranting can be misconstrued, but I try to make the connection to the curriculum.  It might seem strange that I bring humor and music into courses on genocide, terrorism, and epidemics—which are the subjects I’ve taught over the years.  I don’t consciously think of humor as a coping mechanism, but that’s what it is, increasingly so as I’m making my way through the fabulous forties.   For the student, though, I think it's good to break up the discussion of hatred and mass murder with something, namely music or humor, that eases the tension.

By drama, I mean a dramatic approach in my presentation of the material; it might take the form of storytelling or role-playing.  Good history is essentially good storytelling.  Don't get me wrong.  The historian must get the facts right and offer plausible and cohesive interpretations; but the centerpiece to any consideration of the past is the story of people doing ordinary or sometimes extraordinary things.  As far as role enactment goes, I have on occasion channeled the spirits of bygone eras, impersonating particular or generic historical figures.  Sometimes, I think, I convey a lesson about humanity or make history alive and relevant by such antics; other times, I probably miss the mark and merely amuse (or annoy) my audience.  Oh well.  Either way, I have fun, a difficult and rare feat for me these days.