Relearning How to Teach (and How to Speak)

Hi folks,
Sorry about the lack of posts this past week. One reason is because I’ve been busy with the three courses I’m teaching this summer, as well as spending time with visiting family. Another reason is that I received the proofs for my upcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890, and I need to review every word of it to make sure that the printer has correctly set the type (which looks gorgeous, by the way).

But a third reason is algorithmic: suddenly, due to both changing accounting measures at WordPress and Google Analytics, as well as too-rosy-to-be-true assumptions on my part, my day to day site traffic plunged this week from what I thought was a few hundred views a day to about a dozen. While that realization this week did not necessarily cause me to not want to blog anymore – after all, I’m not doing this to be a social media influencer or a professional blogger, but to give my actual writing and teaching work a virtual home base for both new and existing readers of my work – it has reduced the urgency I feel to produce filler content when not blogging about my Grandpa’s Letters (which, as mentioned elsewhere here, is the basis of my current book project).

I say that partly in exasperation over the sheer amount of work it takes to obtain a blogging audience, but also because I want to say a couple of things about online teaching, and while this might not be one of those promised album reviews this blog is the best place for me to do it.

First of all, teaching on Zoom in my office is more difficult and much less fulfilling than teaching in a classroom. It’s easy to understand the “less fulfilling” part: I am a bit of a ham when I’m in front of an audience (a few of you may remember me “acting” in my high school’s plays during the late 90s), and even on days when I don’t feeling like teaching a class for whatever reason the time seems to speed by when I’m in a classroom. I love the energy, the forced extroversion for an hour and a half, the campus atmosphere. I love the libraries, the manicured lawns, the trees when they explode pink and green during the spring and burn crimson and yellow in the fall. I love the ritual of grabbing a pre-class coffee, and I love it when students approach me on campus with a question or a comment. I miss all that. There’s nothing Zoom or Canvas or any other online intermediary can do to make those things better, unless they combine their AI and invent a vaccine for this ghastly disease.

Then there’s the job itself. I love telling stories. I’m thrilled that I have found a way to make it my job to tell stories. Have you ever watched Moana? In some ways I believe the historian’s job is not unlike that of Moana’s grandmother: she is both an educator and a keeper of the island’s lore and legends. She is the keeper of the island’s past and its secrets. She knows where the skeletons – and the boats – are buried. But she also loves the island and its people. History is not just a growing collection of books and vast archival holdings. It is tactile, visual (hence the debate over statues), and interpersonal. Human connection and lived experience are history’s emulsifiers. Unfortunately, these things are largely if not wholly absent on Zoom. If history was born around a campfire, it will someday die on a closed browser tab.

If you’re a Moana fan, there’s a ton of backstory in the deleted scenes . . .

Of course, Zoom and other intermediaries are necessary at the moment, especially given the sudden rise in new COVID-19 cases throughout the United States, including here in California. And we are all learning how to navigate these new challenges throughout the world of education . . . in fact, my grievances hardly compare to those who are now tasked with teaching Kindergarten and First Grade online. But those challenges do seem to exist across the board, including for those of us who already have some online teaching experience (like me).

One of those challenges is my tendency to say “um” a lot. Weirdly enough, this is something I don’t do in class, since part of my theater and speech training was to excise such filler words from my vocabulary when speaking to an audience. However, when speaking on Zoom, I am sitting down and talking to a webcam, which is not even close to being the same thing. Suddenly, my lectures are full of “um”s, whereas when standing up and giving a lecture I will typically pause when I am thinking and, if necessary, fill the time with a sip of coffee (another great reason to bring coffee to class!).

In an effort to make my lectures more accessible, I started taking the sound files and mixing them into podcast episodes. That way students can listen to their lectures on the go or while doing other things. While this was a good idea, I think, the execution sounds very different in that I realized just how many filler words I use now:

17B Lecture Series, Episode 10: World War II Horse Thief Historian

The 17B Lecture Series is a repository of my summer 17B Zoom lectures for my HIST 17B: United States History from 1865 to the present. In this episode we review WWII and I defend my native son attachment to Harry S Truman. Note: all episodes are labeled "explicit," not because there is an overabundance of cursing, but because a curse word does sometimes slip out every now and then.
  1. 17B Lecture Series, Episode 10: World War II
  2. 17B Lecture Series, Episode 9: The New Deal
  3. 17B Lecture Series, Episode 8: The Roaring 20s and the Beginning of the Depression
  4. 17B Lecture Series, Episode 7: World War I
  5. 17B Lecture Series, Episode 6: Progressive Era

Practice will make perfect, and now that I am aware of the problem it is something I can begin to work on. One thing that I think will help: I just bought a nice, entry-level microphone for my broadcasts. It is not unobtrustive . . . like many broadcast mics it is inconveniently large. But I hope that, in addition to dramatically improving my sound quality, it will also trick my brain into believing that I’m actually behind a podium, and not my desk.

Speaking of my desk, I built the top out of oak and attached it to a standing desk base. Maybe my lectures would be a good time to dispense with the desk chair and start standing again.

In any event, although the podcast is a fun way to distribute lecture content, I’m not a podcaster at heart. Unlike with my recent blog analytics, I won’t be bothered by the fact that I can count the number of downloads on one hand. I can’t, ummm, imagine having to do one of those podcasts, ummm, regularly, you know? But my new microphone does look pretty cool.

One corner of my table-sized desk, complete with a picture of my kid manhandling my guitar, a Buffalo Bill mug with a bunch of pens and probably more scissors than I need, a set of horse coasters I bought in Kentucky (where else?), and my new Blue Yeti microphone. And yes, I need to clean my desk.

Elmer Luckett and the Shreveport Kid

“It’s a wonder he didn’t shoot his foot off.”

That’s my dad, Steve, commenting on one of the non-Pearl Harbor-related stories my grandpa liked to tell about the War. My grandpa was never really much into guns, at least as far as I know, and my dad has a deadpan sense of humor. But to tell you the truth I never really thought of Elmer as the kind of guy to step onto a train, in uniform, like an Old West sheriff, with a .38 holstered to his hip.

But that’s what he did on Thursday, December 16th, 1943, during his brief tenure as a Master at Arms in New Orleans. On that day he was given a special assignment: take the train up to Shreveport, Louisiana, and bring back a deserter who was currently in police custody back to New Orleans for court martial. He hopped an overnight train that evening, with a pistol at his side and handcuffs in his pocket, and after a sleepless night he rolled into his destination. With the sun rising above the glimmering Red River, Elmer stepped out of the station and into the cool morning. Nervous about the task at hand, he began to walk straight ahead, resolved to complete his assignment and bring justice home.

There are better, more recent examples of Louisiana cops in popular culture, thanks to NCIS and True Detective. But I’ve always been partial to Remy McSwain in The Big Easy.

OK, OK – I might be getting a little carried away here. I do study horse thieves, after all. As far as historical subjects go the stories I tell can get a bit animated at times.

So here’s what Elmer wrote to his parents about the trip:

I left New Orleans on Thursday night, arriving at Shreveport Friday morning. Good traveling by Pullman Sleeper. Got to spend about four or five hours looking the town over. And left with my prisoner in the afternoon, and reached New Orleans late at night. The prisoner was just a kid about 17, who ran away for seventy some-odd days. Didn’t have any trouble at all. The trip was something new and I enjoyed it.

Far from being a hard-boiled, bayou-noir escapade, the scene somehow seemed so quintessentially grandpa: a leisurely trip, a nice breakfast, some exploration of the town, and a nice chat with a new friend. He even sent his parents a postcard in which he alludes to “picking something up.”

Yet it’s exactly this kind of adventure that I find so enrapturing about both these letters and my grandpa’s Naval career as a whole. Elmer’s War experience truly ran the gamut, from moments of sheer terror to peaceful evenings under the stars surrounded by hypnotic seas, from gunnery practice on Shell Beach and escorting prisoners in Louisiana to studying physics in Missouri. As historians we so often focus on those moments of terror, and perhaps rightfully so – it is important to write widely and often about Pearl Harbor, Midway, Guadalcanal, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and so many other moments of dramatic decision. But war was much more than those flashpoints. Sometimes it was getting to where you were going. Sometimes it was killing a few days before moving on to a new assignment in a distant corner of the world. And sometimes it was just sending one’s parents a quick postcard to let them know they’re OK.

As the United States once again learns what it is like to face a critical and existential crisis both at home and abroad, it would do us well in the future to not just remember the virus, the pandemic, the sick and the death, COVID-19’s domino impacts on our world, and its ability to creep into seemingly everything (like, admittedly, this blog), but also the time we spent at home with our families, the books and the Netflix, the walks and the bike rides and the spring gardens outside, the connections we made and remade over phones and chatlines, and the many little misadventures along the way. As we all push against the present and future darkness together, we cannot cede to it control of the past.

Anyway, I’d tell everyone to stay healthy, but since that is now a hackneyed saying, I’ll put it like this: try not to shoot your foot off.

Next Entry:
“Just a few lines to a very swell girl:” The First Letters to Grandma

[Previous|First Post|Grandpa’s Homepage]

Coming up in April 2020 and Beyond

Hi folks,
So far I like taking a month-on, month-off approach to my posts about Elmer’s letters to his parents, so I think I am going hold off on talking about 1944 (which was a VERY eventful year for Elmer) for at least a couple of weeks. But in the meantime I have started scanning and reviewing my grandparents’ correspondence with each other, which starts in summer 1943 with Elmer’s letters to Rose and in summer 1944 with Rose’s letters to Elmer. The latter will be a nice change of pace, I am sure – while Elmer’s letters are observant and contemplative, Rose had a sharp wit and a more playful writing style. They wrote very different kinds of letters, but each kind is fantastic in its own way. For April, I have written four posts that chronicle the first few months of their courtship. Although I briefly introduce Rose here, I’ll save most of her story for when I begin discussing and analyzing her letters. And her story is extraordinary.

Although I will be writing about these letters well into the summer, there will be a few other things going on as well. Barring any COVID-19-related disruptions I am still expecting my forthcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890, to be released this fall by the University of Nebraska Press. I will begin using this space this summer to promote that book as well as tell my grandpa’s story, so expect some weird pivoting between horse thieves and World War II sailors. But I have some fun things planned, including some interesting stories that did not make it into the book for one reason or another, so once again please stay tuned.

Some other notes:

  • In case you haven’t noticed, I have programmed the Grandpa’s Letters posts to drop on Monday and Thursday mornings at 10am Pacific Time. I will do the same for the above-mentioned posts coming up about other Grandpa’s Letters-related documents. Posts on other subjects (like this one) may pop up at other times during the week.
  • Once again, if you have not subscribed yet, please do so! It would be a big help to me, even if you sign up using a spam email account or something similar that you seldom check. But it’s also great for work accounts, because, let’s face it, sometimes you need a five minute break from the grind.

Thanks again for reading along, and please don’t hesitate to share any posts you like on social media to help me get the word out.

Best,
Matt