Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Teaching Tuesday: A Night with John Fea

For more than a year now, ever since I met him, I have looked forward to inviting John Fea to participate in my class via online video chat. Tonight was a huge success.

My HIST 103 Introduction to American Civilization course is reading Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? We’ve read portions of it as it relates to the origins of colonial America, the “Anglicization” of the colonies in the eighteenth century, and the colonial crisis leading to the Revolution. We also read his introduction in which he discusses the “Five Cs of Historical Thinking.” All of this has been a delight to read, re-read, and teach.

But the real delight was the opportunity to pick Fea’s brain about his book and to introduce students to the workings of an author’s mind. For nearly all of my students, they had never discussed with an author his or her book. This was a first for all but one student.

Fea was bright, engaging, and jovial. He seamlessly discussed the debate du jour in his house (“Which country singer is better? Carrie Underwood or Taylor Swift?”), his favorite Springsteen tunes, and the political implications of the “Christian America” debate. After a thorough treatment of why he wrote his book and to what audiences he intends to reach, he fielded students’ questions with grace. He responded positively to students’ challenges (i.e. “Do you think you are too harsh on Puritans when judging their treatment of religious outsiders or Native Americans?”) with humility but also with thoughtful explanation for why he presented the historical characters the way that he did. He listened carefully to the students’ thoughtful concerns about religion as public and private human phenomenon and the importance of that distinction for the historical question. At all times, Fea showed gratitude for my students’ interest in his book. He interspersed his talk with anecdotes about speaking engagements at churches, historical societies, and radio shows. He even sang a few lines of dcTalk’s “Jesus Freak.”

After our hour-long chat, Fea disconnected to return to his debate about the merits of female country stars. I can only hope that he made an impassioned defense of Loretta Lynn or some other truly “country” female vocalist. Anyway, afterwards, I talked with my class for another 20 minutes about Fea and their impressions of discussing a book with an author. Here are some key lessons we gleaned from tonight’s chat.

1. Sometimes you can’t judge a book by its title, because chances are the author did not choose it.

2. When addressing a controversial topic such as Was a America Founded as a Christian Nation?, you are bound to get attacked from the Left and from the Right. This is especially true if you do not have a definitive answer.

3. It is refreshing to hear a committed evangelical such as John Fea confess his faith, discuss a contentious topic, and yet not tow the party line of the Religious Right. Students really appreciated that.

4. History has complexity and nuance. Historians live in the past much of their time to appreciate the complexity and nuance of the people in the past.

5. George Washington wouldn’t have said anything about Roe v. Wade primarily because he had been dead 175 years by the time of that Supreme Court case.

In the end, it was a delight to have John Fea in my class tonight. After a few weeks in which the grueling commute, volumes of midterms, crummy weather, and tiring class lessons (e.g. we discussed the Meiji Restoration in my World Civ class), it was invigorating to have such a positive classroom experience. Moreover, it was a pleasure to see that students did indeed learn some valuable lessons about the historical process and about the nation’s founding.

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