Prioritizing Historical Events -The Comatose Uncle Exercise


August 02, 2022

This is a great first or second day assignment that I use in my modern U.S. history survey, which runs from Reconstruction to the present. It helps students understand that more was going on in the periods we are discussing than we could possibly cover in class. It also helps them understand how teachers and professors must choose what they feel are the most important events and issues to cover. 

My version of this assignment was inspired by Jonathan W. Wilson and is posted on his Blue Book Diaries website. This version is posted with his permission. Many thanks to Jonathan for both for the inspiration for this particular assignment and for the many thoughtful discussions of pedagogy and assignments we've had over social media. His original assignment can be found at https://bluebook.life/2018/08/21/my-favorite-first-day-activity/   
This is the script I read to the class: 

I’m very sorry to inform you that your imaginary uncle fell into a coma in August of 2002. He has just woken up. His doctors won’t let him watch television yet, as they fear all the changes of the last 20 years will overwhelm him. While the doctors and your parents are out of the room, your uncle asks you to explain what has happened in U.S. history in the last 20 years. You can name only 20 items/events/people. What makes your list? Write or type your answers. 
What are the 20 most important events in the last 20 years of U.S. history?
I give the students several minutes to come up with their lists. Some will struggle to think of 20 events, while other will struggle to keep it to just 20 events. 

After everyone has their list made, I start calling on students from the back row to the front. Each student has to give me one event from their list, which I then write on the white board at the front of the room. After I get thru the entire class, I ask for any events on a student's list that we don't have on the board yet.  We usually end up with a list of 30-35 events. 

Next, I tell the students that we as a class can only have 20 items on our class list to tell our uncle. We have to eliminate the events we don't feel are as important. What would we really want our uncle to know? 

As students suggest items to cross off, I make them defend their choices. Why does this event matter less than the ones we're keeping? 

Eventually we narrow our list down to 20 events.
Example of one class's results
Next I ask the class to look at our final class list. I ask them: "Would our uncle get an accurate impression of the world we lived in based on this list? Is this a good representation of what it was like to live thru the last two decades?​"

Usually students comment on how bleak our timeline looks. We notice that a lot of super important events are rather depressing. But that doesn't mean that living thru these times was entirely melancholy or hopeless. 
Questions to Think With
I also call students' attention to everything we've crossed off our list. These events are still important.  We just couldn't tell our uncle about them in the limited amount of time we had.

I point out that in this exercise, the class had to make judgments about significance. They decided what, or how much, these things meant in some bigger scheme of things. They didn’t just write lists of facts. They thought about how to tell a story of the past that would make sense to their confused uncle. 

That’s what historians do. We think about how to use pieces of information—about all kinds of things—to tell a true story, usually about things we don’t personally remember. ​I'm a suffrage historian, but I wasn't alive during the Progressive Era. I'm not that old. 
This is What Historians Do
I tell the students that this is also what I do when making their lectures. I can't cover everything. I must trim my list down to a manageable amount of content.​
This means that, like our example, sometimes a decade may seem really bleak, because the big stuff we cover is dark. But just like their experience in the last 20 years, people continued living their lives and enjoying themselves despite sometimes dark moments.

Finally, I ask students if they think their lists will look any different if they made them again 20 years from now. I ask if they think my lectures over more recent history like the Obama administration have changed any since he left office.

After some discussion, I conclude with the point that our perspective about what matters can change over time, even when the facts don't change. The Apprentice television show wouldn't be remembered in history books, except for the fact that its host went on to be president. Barack Obama's Vice President may have been a footnote, except for the fact that he too went on to be president. The future changes how we see the past.

If you'd like access to my slides (pictured above), use the link below for a shareable version.