How Radical Change Occurs: An Interview With Historian Eric Foner

Historians in the News
tags: Eric Foner

For thirty years, Professor Eric Foner has been teaching his popular Civil War and Reconstruction history class to undergraduates at Columbia University. Foner has written seminal books in the field, including Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, on the ideology of the Republican Party before the war, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, the definitive study of that time period, and The Fiery Trial, about President Lincoln and slavery. The themes running through his work—race in America, the influence of radicals on history, and economic oppression as a force of white supremacy—have never felt more relevant.

He is also an amazing lecturer. I know this because I’ve been following the class via a massive open online course (MOOC). Foner wanted to document his last time teaching the course, and he’s teamed with edX to present it as three online classes. The first, The Coming of the Civil War, is over and available on Youtube. The second, on the Civil War, recently concluded, and the third, on Reconstruction, starts at the end of February. All three will be available on iTunes afterward for posterity.

I sat down to talk with Foner about what it’s like to teach the Civil War and what his experiences with working online have been like. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity, with hyperlinks added in the text.) —Mike Konczal

Mike Konczal: What are some of the challenges in translating your course to an online audience?

Eric Foner: I’m a pretty low-tech kind of person. I don’t exist on social media. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter. That’s how I actually get work done, ya know? I don’t worry about it. One of the challenging things according to the people involved is that people’s attention spans online are shorter. My lectures are an hour and fifteen minutes, but here they have to be broken up into ten-minute segments. But I wasn’t lecturing with a clock, timing the transitions. So I had to go back over all the lectures and find a place to have a break. And then you add in quizzes and primary sources in-between those segments.

So what I see as a seamless lecture gets broken up into segments. Fundamentally, this is my course, just with a lot of bells and whistles. It differs from most of these MOOCs, which are produced in a studio. That’s not what I’m doing; I’m showing what a class at Columbia is....

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