In Defiance of Boring Facts: History Professor Michael Groth
“Facts themselves are boring,” says Professor Michael Groth. “What makes history exciting is the interpretation of facts—finding meaning in the facts.”
In Professor Groth’s popular history courses, each assignment and discussion goes well beyond the stories of past events.
At the end of the spring 2011 semester, his American history students wrote letters to their future children or grandchildren explaining what it was like in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. “They had fun remembering their own personal experiences and tying that in to course material,” says Groth. In the final class meeting, he asked the students to consider if people in the U.S. are better off today than 150 years ago. They had very different opinions, making for a memorable discussion to cap off the year.
In all of his courses, Groth invites students to think of themselves as historians, asking them to develop their own answers based on critical analysis of primary and secondary source material. Did slavery cause the Civil War? Did the market revolution of the 1800s lead to more or less opportunity for Americans? Such scholarly debates have evidence on each side. Groth’s students interpret the evidence and develop and substantiate their own positions.
A member of the Wells faculty since 1994, Groth rarely gives lectures, preferring instead class discussions and small group exercises. And every year is different. “Even if the material is the same, the skills, interests and dynamic among the students are different,” he says. It’s the people that make his classes fascinating—those in the classroom and those in the history books.
“History is about people, and there’s nothing more interesting than people,” says Groth.
Perhaps that’s why Groth is so committed to his work with undergraduates. “I know many high powered faculty members—distinguished writers with national reputations—who are not great in the classroom. I like to research; I like to write; but I really love to teach,” he says.