My Favorite First-Day Activity
I came up with a version of the following activity for a tiny U.S. history class about a decade ago. Since then, I’ve revised it and used it successfully in both world and U.S. history survey courses, for classes ranging in size up to thirty-five students. It’s become my go-to exercise for illustrating what history is and why it matters.
I make minor adjustments to fit the course and the students, but here’s how it usually goes. I call it “The History of Your Lifetime,” for obvious reasons. It happens on either the first or the second day of a survey course.
First I ask students to form groups of three or four (just based on where they’re sitting) and take a couple of minutes to introduce themselves and get to know each other a little. This obviously has the benefit of encouraging a little first-day conversation and promoting neighborly interaction.
Then I direct the students each to take out a piece of paper—any paper will do, just something to scribble on—and individually write out a list of seven things he or she would include in a history of the United States (or the world, as appropriate) during his or her lifetime.
The things on the list can be events, people, inventions, trends, ideas, whatever.
(They don’t have to be things the student remembers personally, as long as the student was alive for them.) I encourage my students to be creative with their answers–but to remember that the goal is to list things that might help our descendants understand what the world was like.
Now I have the students compare lists within their small groups. I direct them to decide as a group what seven things to include on a combined group list. I ask them to talk together about their criteria and reasoning in order to come to agreement before writing down their group’s answers.
By now, the room is usually buzzing fairly loudly. Undergraduates often like comparing notes on how they remember their childhoods, and the exercise typically leads them into general conversation once they’re done with their lists. Even fairly shy students often respond enthusiastically. Especially in a larger class, I often have to interrupt the proceedings for the sake of time.
Now I stand in front of the class at the blackboard and call for volunteers to name some of the things they put on their group lists. As they do, I write their answers on the board. I keep calling for nominations until the board is mostly full; if necessary, I prompt the students to contribute things they don’t see on the board yet, or things that might seem offbeat, or things they weren’t sure about including, or things that didn’t make the cut for a group list.
The September 11 attacks are always among the first things students mention. (If you call for a show of hands to see who had September 11 on the list, virtually everyone will put a hand up—an instructive fact.) This has held true even for students who increasingly have no clear personal memory of that day. (Remember, traditional college freshmen in 2018 are likely to have been infants at the time.) So I ask my students why there’s so much agreement on this point. Why do we all agree that September 11 is crucial for our descendants to know about? They usually furnish excellent answers to this question.
Then I continue asking questions about how they arrived at their lists and about what they see on the board for the class as a whole:
“What did you decide to leave out of your group lists? Can you explain a criterion you used in order to reach your decision?” (Often students will realize that they tried to focus on things that seemed to have a big impact in the world—i.e., things that caused other things, including other things on the board, to happen. Sometimes I draw lines between them to indicate this.)
“Where are you getting your memory of these things? If you don’t remember them all personally, where did you learn about them?”
“Look at the board as a whole. If we wrote a detailed history of our lifetimes based on this list, using it for a rough outline, would our audience get an accurate impression of the world we lived in? Why or why not? What’s missing? What’s distorted?”
“What kind of a story would we be telling about our lifetimes?” (Answer to this question often include “It’s depressing” or “It’s full of conflict.” In world history courses, students often realize that their answers are very U.S.-centric.)
“Is this how you remember your own lifetime? Is this the world you lived in, or is this a misleading picture?” (Answers will vary, but they’re often pretty emphatic in one way or another.)
“What is missing from this story we’re outlining? What things should we add in order to give future generations a more accurate picture of the world we lived in?”
Finally, I try to wrap up the exercise with something like the following observation: “To complete this exercise, you all had to make judgments about significance. You were deciding what, or how much, these things meant in some bigger scheme of things. You didn’t just write lists of facts. You were thinking about how to tell a story that would be about something—a story with a point.
“Well, that’s what historians do when they write about the more distant past. They are figuring out how to use pieces of information—about all kinds of things—to tell a true story, usually about things they don’t remember personally. It’s basically the same process.”
Then, if I think of it, I try to ask one more question: “Do you think your lists would look any different if you made them again twenty years from now?” That lets me talk about how our perspectives about what matters can change over time, even when the facts don’t change.
In the years since I started using this exercise, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it really fail.