UT history professor uses Twitter to unravel history

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History professor Henry W. Brands greets fans at signing for his book “The General vs. The President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War” on Tuesday night. Brands tweets U.S. history haikus to make history interesting for his students.
Photo Credit: Juan Figueroa | Daily Texan Staff

History professor Henry W. Brands is chronicling the history of the United States one tweet at a time. 

Since joining the site in April 2009, Brands has posted over 1,000 tweets chronicling past historical events such as the Dred Scott Case of 1857, the battle of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the Watergate scandal of 1974. By compiling these 140-character haikus, Brands relates issues that people in these time periods faced to things students may be struggling with today. 

“I want to spark their curiosity. Initially the main idea was to tell [students] interesting stories and get them to think about their place in the world,” Brands said. “UT is a fascinating place because there are people who are knowledgeable about all sorts of things. There is almost no topic of human curiosity that you can’t find something about.” 

Brands was originally inspired to create his Twitter account when a student asked if he had ever written history as haikus. Intrigued at the possibility of such a condensed writing medium, he decided to begin tweeting out historic haikus. As Brands continued with his project, other educators began using haikus as teaching mechanisms with their students. 

“There’s a high school teacher in Utah who every year has his students write out haikus, and [he] sends me the best ones,” Brands said. “I take great pleasure in reading them and seeing other students and teachers have fun with it. At least in that small universe it has caught on. It’s very interesting what they can come up with. People don’t realize that there is a poet within them.”

Brands’ interest in history came from his father. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, his Sunday afternoons became adventures filled with historical sights that sparked a curiosity inside him. He specifically remembers discovering the book “Young Mac of Fort Vancouver” as a kid.  

“I used to imagine that I was this kid in the book and go back 100 years in time and envision what the world looked like and how I would respond to it,” Brands said.

Brands sees history as a treasure chest full of stories and said he considers his haikus to be an extension of his teaching.     

“I happen to think that history is the most fascinating story of all, and if I can convince my students of that, then I will have succeeded,” Brands said.

Economics sophomore Seth Sageser is in Brand’s foreign policy undergraduate studies class. He said his professor is knowledgeable and deeply dedicated to his work.

“He inspires me to completely dedicate myself to something that I love,” Sageser said in an email. “His class challenges people to critically think and puts into perspective what foreign advisors struggle with on a daily basis.”

As an author and co-author of 30 books and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Brands spoke and held a book signing on Tuesday at BookPeople, where he introduced his latest book, “The General vs. The President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War.” 

“I like to generate interest and radiate positive energy toward any new projects or book ideas,” Brands said. “History is not simply a dry collection of facts and dates. History, I feel, is the best story of all time.”