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Government Shutdowns as Class Activity

On two occasions this semester, faculty at my institution had to grapple with the possibility that if the government shut down, all civilian faculty would be furloughed for an indeterminate amount of time, while our students continued to come to class. So we had to create contingency plans for our students to mitigate learning loss as much as possible. Before the first shutdown threat, I created a meta-activity for my students in HH200: The Historian’s Craft, the first of our sequence of seminars for our history majors. I constructed an activity whereby over the course of 7 or 8 class days, they would research every single government shutdown that has happened in the United States and then write about each one. Then they would put their writeups and their collected metadata into a TimelineJS timeline and build themselves a digital project.

As it turned out, the government did not shut down either time the possibility loomed. But I decided that we were going to do the shutdown project anyway, under my supervision but otherwise just like they would have done during a shutdown: no out-of-class work, only working on it during our normal meeting time. I wanted to do this for a few pedagogical reasons:

  1. I wanted to see how they did research online. This has been an interest of mine for a while now, and I was curious to see if these history majors went about research differently from my freshmen. (Largely, they don’t.)
  2. I wanted to force them to think with specificity about causality, context, and contingency. I asked them to identify all the relevant Congresspeople, as well as the reasons for the shutdown and the way the shutdowns were ended. Many of them expressed repeated surprise about how the government works (or worked) and what kinds of things would hold up an entire government’s budget approval process. This project complicated their understanding of what a democratic government looks like and how it functions (or doesn’t function).
  3. I wanted to help them move from a specific event to a broader understanding of principles and themes. Each of them worked on one or two shutdowns, providing all the information I asked of them in a spreadsheet generated by one of the students. Once the spreadsheet was filled out, before we made the timeline, I asked them to look at all the information and identify trends or surprises. They did a really good job of coming up with continuities and contrasts across the entire 50-year swath of shutdowns.
  4. I wanted to see if they could follow directions and edit themselves. Once they had put all their information into the spreadsheet, we talked about how to regularize data (e.g., do you call Tip O’Neill “Tip O’Neill,” which is how everyone refers to him, or do you call him “Thomas O’Neill,” his actual name?). And we talked about why these kinds of questions are more than just a flip of a coin—choosing how to represent things is important. Additionally, TimelineJS is extremely user-friendly but you do have to follow the directions precisely in order for the timeline to populate.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. There are some inconsistencies, of course, but the students worked hard and came up with a fairly detailed timeline! Here’s the final result.

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