Allan M. Winkler: sings and strums songs to give students a broader education

Historians in the News

[Allan M. Winkler is a professor of history at Miami University of Ohio. His most recent book is Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Making of Modern America (Pearson Longman, 2005).]

The first time I ever played my guitar in class almost ended my musical career. I was teaching American history for a year at the University of Helsinki, and as I prepared to lecture about the civil-rights movement, I decided to sing a couple of songs. I was not an accomplished guitarist. I had bought my first guitar in college, in the 1960s, and had fooled around without ever taking formal lessons for the next decade and a half.

At my first semipublic appearance back in 1978, my playing was ragged, but I managed to get through "Blowin' in the Wind" and "We Shall Overcome." When the class was over, one young woman came up to me and in her not-quite-fluent English said, "Sir, that was wonderful." I smiled expansively — then cringed as she went on: "Do you know why? Because you were so bad!" As my face fell, she realized what she had said and tried to repair the damage, going on to explain that she meant that I was not a professional, but was still willing to get up in front of a class. But her comment, however much it may have been the result of an awkwardness with English, stayed with me for years to come.

I didn't bring my guitar back to class for another 10 years. By that time I was teaching in Ohio, where I sometimes took charge of the large American history survey class, with its 360 students. I thought I had gotten a little better on my guitar in the intervening years and decided to try a couple of railroad songs like "Freight Train" and "Wabash Cannonball" as I lectured about industrialization in the late 19th century. I was nervous with an audience that size, but once again got through without embarrassing myself too badly, only to learn after that one of my teaching assistants was a good guitarist who played in a band and regarded my efforts with mild amusement. That set me back a few more years....

I took to putting the words up on the PowerPoint screen and asking my students to cross their arms, join hands, and sing along with me — just as students did in the 1960s. It was hokey, and they laughed sheepishly at first, but I felt just like Pete Seeger as I cajoled them into singing out, loud and clear, and each year they finally did, swaying back and forth with the lines together, united as they sang. Once, at the end of class, a few African-American students came up to tell me how much it had moved them to hear everybody singing along.

I've always played recordings in class, just as I have shown film clips and used slides (now with the aid of PowerPoint), for I think those resources illustrate the mood of a period better than words alone. But singing has given my teaching an added dimension. It's a way of letting students begin to feel what life was like in the past. For a generation raised on music, it helps capitalize on their interest.

It's also my way of trying to give new resonance to songs my students may have heard on an oldies station, but rolled their eyes at. And that's a part of the larger effort to get them interested in history itself.

My students humor me, to be sure, but I think it creates a kind of rapport, and an acknowledgment that our common endeavor can be fun. We can deal with critical analysis and close examination of texts in other parts of the course, and yet accept the fact that it's just fine to have a good time while we do. And oh yes, it's all right to take a chance and risk embarrassment, whether with an idea or a song.

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