Acclaimed Author Taylor Branch Brings His Civil Rights Expertise to UB—and to Students Around the World
The buzz started among students early last fall: A new class taught by acclaimed author Taylor Branch, a Baltimore resident, would be offered next spring to honors students only. Then more news: Anyone, anywhere with an Internet connection could sign up to audit the seminar-style class online and, what’s more, for free. It was to serve as a pilot program for UB to test the viability of offering courses in this format.
Among history students (and many others), Branch is a recognized name. Some UB students who registered for his class, HIST 493: The King Years, had read parts of his America in the King Years trilogy, the first volume of which, Parting the Waters, won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1989. With his recent projects, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President (2009) and The Cartel (2011), in which he likens the NCAA college sports environment to plantations, Branch is known for offering readers uncommon and in-depth perspectives into his subjects.
Drawing on his previous collegiate teaching experiences and on feedback from teachers across the United States, Branch reworked his trilogy into a shortened form designed for teaching in the digital age. This spring, with his freshly printed text The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement under his arm and in ebook format, Branch stepped into a UB classroom and onto computer screens worldwide.
You taught a version of The King Years class at Goucher College and at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. How did you end up teaching at UB?
Last summer, I mentioned to a couple people that I’d like to consider doing it online … and UB was the most interested. They have their eyes open about potential shifts in higher education.
What shifts do you mean?
Why, in the information age, should we have 4,000 teachers teaching the same thing on 4,000 different campuses? … Is that a sustainable model? I think no. I think it’s going to force some sort of restructuring in college[s] to deliver good value to the students.
“ … there’s a citizenship imperative to try to teach [this] history better.”
You mentioned your interest in offering this class online. Now, as part of a UB pilot program for testing the viability of this format, 150 people around the world are auditing the class and watching your live lectures from remote locations. How has that gone?
The design of the experiment has been that, so far, I’m really trying to pay my attention during the class to the people in the class. I don’t want the people in class to think that I’m distracted by the fact that we’re running an experiment.
Between classes I ask Jay, the grad student [responsible for monitoring online students’ participation during the live class], “What are the online students saying? Are they asking the same questions?” What we’re testing is to what degree the students in the classroom are successful surrogates for the interests of the people. I think the jury is still out.
How is this course different from what’s offered at other universities?
Lots of schools … don’t have a course on the modern civil rights movement. There can be a tendency in universities, particularly prestigious universities, to offer courses that are more esoteric than basic. The more esoteric it is, the more [of a] mark of distinction it is, almost like if you can understand it or feel any practical need for it, it’s not really worth teaching.
My course, in some sense, is a meat-and-potatoes course. It’s what happened in the peak years of the 1950s-and-’60s civil rights movement. But to me, it has all the profound and difficult issues you’d ever want to tackle on violence and democracy and citizenship and everything else, and it’s a historical story about citizenship—in large measure driven by ordinary citizens interacting with leaders—that makes it kind of unique for a country like ours that’s built on the proposition that we are all responsible for our government.
And I think there’s a citizenship imperative to try to teach [this] history better.
What do you like about teaching this class at UB?
What I like about the UB class is the diversity and the mix of students by age, by ethnicity, by everything. We’ve got all different types in there. We have poets and we have 50-year-olds and we have regular college students and we have working people. I really do value that [diversity].
What do you want students to take away from your class?
That the key to citizenship and a free government is what you can build with strangers. Citizenship is about building new bonds with people that are different from you ... and that’s what the civil rights movement was an incandescent period of: getting outside the little tribal huddles. So I’m hoping that they will see that intellectually—by studying the movement—and that they will feel it a little bit.
What can your students, or anyone, learn from the civil rights movement?
To what degree is this applicable to your future as a citizen? To our future as a country? I find that a lot of kids are kind of pessimistic about the future. What I challenge them to see is that black kids in the civil rights movement, who were invisible and had no education and were segregated in a period of terror, expressed great hope and worked miracles of progress for everybody in that time. And if they can do that, we ought to be able to do it. It’s just that you have to open your mind.