Last week, I invited a colleague of mine, a vibrant, energetic, and incredibly academically vigorous man, to come and speak to my classes about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into his presentations about the Holocaust. Tom, the outreach coordinator for the center for Holocaust studies where I did my summer fellowship this year, travels the region delivering presentations to schools and organizations about topics that range from Nazi political policy to Anne Frank to Darfur to Holocaust denial. Because of the incredible importance of the work that he does – and because Tom is a man deeply concerned that he always comports himself in as moral, respectful, and ethical a way possible – a lot of work goes in to these presentations. It was this work – this research, this consideration of credibility and validity, and this organization – that I wanted my students to see.
I thought the presentation was excellent. Tom did a wonderful job breaking down his process; he led us through his consideration of his topic and his audience, his intent for a particular presentation, his assessment of the credibility of his sources, and the process he uses to choose, place, and caption images. He spoke clearly and eloquently about analyzing a topic and seeing it for its component parts. He explained the elements of his introductions and the ways in which he defines terms, lays groundwork, and establishes context. He emphasized the importance of tying a presentation together at the ending; about synthesizing the whole back to the elements that were laid out in the introduction, and about leaving the viewer with a powerful, unifying image.
None of my students got any of that.
When I polled my evening kids about what they were able to take away from Tom’s lecture, to a person they all said “nothing.” One of them said that she understands that it’s important to not show Jews as victims; that showing them as they would choose to be represented is respectful, “but,” in her words, “that’s about it.”
I knew this would happen. About five minutes into Tom’s talk, I looked into the blank faces of my students, who were respectfully listening and watching as Tom gave his overview of the work he does, and I knew they were all thinking, “but I’m not doing a paper on the Holocaust,” or “none of this applies to me,” or “I’m not even using pictures in my paper.” My guess was that one common thought running through their heads was “MAN! I wish I’d slept in this morning.”
It was at this point that I started taking notes. I translated everything that Tom was saying and expanded it so that it would be relevant to my students. He spoke about how he needs to be careful when using pictures in his presentations, and I wrote about the importance of understanding the context of images – not just pictures, mind you, but concepts and ideas as images – before using them in a paper. He talked about one of the Nazis’ “reasons” for the Final Solution, and I wrote about analyzing an issue to uncover and represent its basic elements. He talked about pissing off a high school class who expected a particular kind of Holocaust presentation (“You’re the Holocaust Guy, right? We’re going to have an easy class today!“) by giving them something that struck a lot closer to home than was comfortable for any of them, and I wrote about understanding one’s audience and knowing what they expect, what they think they already know, and how to get them to where you want them to be at the end of the paper. He spoke about considering what’s not represented in a photograph, and I wrote about how important it is to be aware of both the obvious and the unstated (or the subtle) when one is putting together a piece of writing – sometimes what is not said is what’s most important.
When I broke it all down like this for my evening students (I don’t see my morning kids again until Monday), they grudgingly conceded that they could see that, maybe, Tom’s presentation really was relevant to them. They just haven’t had enough practice looking beyond the plot – beyond what’s literally in front of them – to see how something that seems unrelated to their immediate concerns can be important and meaningful. I modeled that behavior for them, and my hope is to give them some practice in this kind of work at least once more before the semester comes to a close.
I’m not just teaching these freshmen how to string a bunch of sentences together and how to cite in the MLA format; I’m teaching them how to be conscious and critical consumers of information. I want to teach them how to really see.