Check Out Our AHA 2018 Posts

AHA Logo 2018

Here you go:

“Someone Sat on the Remote”: Teaching Conservatism in an Age of Trump

AHA 2018 Dispatch: The K-16 Teaching Charrette

Spotted in the AHA 2018 Book Exhibit

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump is Spotted at the American Society of Church History Meeting in D.C.

A Middle School History Teacher Reflects on Positive Changes in the Historical Profession

AHA Dispatch: Case Studies in Evangelical Parachurch Ministries

More Teaching Panels at the 2018 AHA

Conference on Faith and History Session: “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History”

AHA 2018 Dispatch: Teaching History in Community Colleges

“Someone Sat on the Remote”: Teaching Conservatism in an Age of Trump

Republican U.S. presidential candidates Carson and Trump talk during a break at the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley

Is Trump a conservative?  How should we teach conservatism in the age of Trump?  Inside Higher Ed was at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association this past weekend and reported on a session titled “Teaching Conservatism in the Age of Trump.”

Here is a taste:

WASHINGTON — Seth Cotlar, a professor of history at Willamette University in Oregon, isn’t a historian of conservatism (or a conservative). But around 2010, as the Tea Party raged, he felt increasingly alarmed by some students’ tendency to dismiss conservatives as ignorant racist who, in his paraphrasing, “just aren’t as smart as me yet.”

So he began teaching a course on the history of conservatism, to engage one small corner of the overwhelmingly liberal Willamette universe in informed political debate. Cotlar’s duty wasn’t to change minds, he said, just to open them to what conservatism actually is: “a politically robust, complicated phenomenon.”

Now, Cotlar said here Thursday at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting, President Trump has complicated all that.

Donald Trump’s election “totally has thrown into disarray my understanding of American history,” Cotlar said during a well-attended panel on teaching conservatism in the age of Trump. “The last 200-plus years of American history have been like a series of West Wing episodes and then [last] November, someone sat on the remote and now we’re watching a marathon of Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Describing Trump as caffeine-crazed and hyperactive, rather than the “slow, steady hand” typically associated with conservatism, Cotlar said the president’s rhetoric and policy positions not only defy conservative principles and political norms but also pose urgent pedagogical questions.

“How do we think about and engage with conservative Trump voters?” Cotlar asked. “What does it mean to empathize with people who advocate white nationalism?”

As always, Seth Cotlar is asking the right questions.

AHA 2018 Dispatch: The K-16 Teaching Charrette

Middle school history teacher Zach Cote checks in with another post from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington D.C.  Read all of Zach’s AHA 2018 posts here.  -JF

In my previous post, I noted that this year’s AHA sessions lean more heavily toward teaching.  In this post, I want to expand a bit more on this.

Teachers often live in bubbles–the classroom, the department, and even the school district’s social studies program.  On Friday morning, I attended the K-16 assignment charrette. My bubble was burst. In the charrette, about eight educators analyzed, critiqued, and questioned each other’s lesson plans. The participants came from diverse classroom contexts, ranging from the middle school level to the university.

I brought a DBQ (Document-Based Question) essay on the Civil War that I give to my students.  I was hoping to receive some minor feedback on how I could tweak it to make it stronger. Instead, I listened as a circle of people much smarter than I am asked dozens of questions related to my desired outcomes, my students’ prior knowledge of the subject, the assignment’s format, my reasoning for using certain sources and for focusing on certain standards, and many more. My pen, unfortunately, was moving slower than my brain, but I did the best that I could to write everything down for later reflection.

In the process, I realized that good historians ask good questions.  Each person listened to one another’s contextualization and explanation of their lessons.  They then built questions to help shape a conversation. The whole process showcased the art of historical thinking. They were trying to not simply understand what the assignment did, but what each teacher was trying to reveal to his or her students through it. Strong feedback did not start with a suggestion or an answer, but with a question.

I thus began to ask new questions about what I wanted my students to accomplish and achieve.  I thought more deeply about  how to situate the lesson as part of my broader course goals. I now expect to tweak the wording of the DBQ question to prompt my students to see more contention between the sources. I am going to rewrite the questions that accompany the documents so that they focus on what the documents reveal, rather than simply what they say.  I also hope to draft a new rubric that marries my district’s common core standards to the historical thinking skills that should be at the heart of our pedagogy.  These changes will give this assignment new life, something that I honestly was not expecting from the workshop.

With that in mind, treat this post as a call to action. I strongly encourage anyone who teaches history, regardless of grade or age, to participate in this workshop next year. You will be a better teacher for it, and most importantly, your students will be better learners.

*Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump* is Spotted at the American Society of Church History Meeting in D.C.

My colleague Devon Manzullo-Thomas took this picture and tweeted it.  Thanks Devon!  And thanks to readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home for pre-ordering!  If you haven’t pre-ordered yet, you can do so here at 21% off.  The good folks at Eerdmans tell me that pre-orders are important for generating interest in the book and its message.

Indeed, Niebuhr IS mentioned in the book!




A Middle School History Teacher Reflects on Positive Changes in the Historical Profession


This dispatch from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association comes from Zachary Cote, a middle school history teacher in Los Angeles, California.  Some of you may remember his great posts from the 2017 AHA in Denver.  Enjoy!  –JF

In perusing the various sessions here at the AHA, I have noticed two things:

1. Sessions lean more heavily toward teaching the subject over purely new research, and

2. Historians are vocalizing something resembling an identity crisis.

I will address the second point in this post rather succinctly and save my thoughts on the first one for another, more in-depth response. If one scans the AHA 2018 program, one finds sessions dealing with “reflections,” “Why history matters,” enrollment issues, “The State and Future of the Humanities,” among others with similar themes. When I see words and phrases like this I sense urgency and perhaps a bit of fear. Sessions with such topics imply a sort of redefinition of what the profession entails. In fact, when I attended the “Why History Matters” session this morning, I could hear the urgency expressed by professors and graduate students eager to equip their students with the skills that will help them find jobs outside of the academy.

As a middle school teacher, I cannot offer too much commentary on this perceived shift in the historian’s focus, but I can express my excitement. In teaching 8th grade, I can already see in some of my students a disregard for history and historical thinking. This worries me, but it also encourages me to be a teacher that can change their attitude toward historical study.  In attending some of these sessions, it appears that my micro-observations are fairly widespread.

I am excited to see the academic side of the historical profession shifting its focus to further bridge the gap between the public and the past. The profession is changing, and I am comforted that at least some in the academy are not only recognizing it, but taking steps to respond.

AHA Dispatch: “Case Studies in Evangelical Parachurch Ministries”


We are very happy to have Brantley Gasaway writing for The Way of Improvement Leads Home from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  In this report, Gasaway reflects on a session at the American Society of Church History, a historical organization that meets at the same time as the AHA.  Gasaway is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Bucknell University. He is the author of Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice.  Enjoy! –JF

As almost every observer knows, modern evangelicals have created countless parachurch ministries. Working “beside the church” and most often independent of ecclesiastical control, parachurch ministries focus either on a specific group (such as college students or military members) or on a particular issue (such as education or medical needs). In fact, one could argue, parachurch organizations have provided much of the vitality and institutionalization of the evangelical movement, as they draw together Christians from across different denominational traditions for common evangelistic, social, or political causes.

During a Friday morning session of the American Society of Church History—“American Evangelical ‘Niche’ Ministries and Religious Negotiation of the Postwar Era”—several early career scholars analyzed the ways in which respective parachurch groups both reflected and responded to broader cultural and political debates from the 1940s to 1970s.

Aaron Griffith, a Ph.D. candidate at Duke University, began with a paper entitled “’Free on the Inside’: Evangelical Prison Ministry in the Age of Law and Order.” Through the 1960s, prison ministries were mostly run by liberal Protestant chaplains dedicated to reforming and rehabilitating inmates based upon the latest social scientific insights. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, evangelicals’ increasing interest in prisoners’ spiritual needs led to an explosion of new ministry initiatives. (Yes, they realized they had a captive audience.) During those years, evangelical leaders vocally supported calls for “law and order” made by conservative politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. Despite endorsing harsher and longer penalties, evangelicals believed they were best helping prisoners through ministries by focusing on spiritual conversions and salvation—the true, ultimate need of inmates that they accused liberal chaplains of neglecting. This conviction reflected most evangelicals’ individualistic and spiritualized approach to social reform, in which the aggregate of personal religious transformations would lead to true social change. Thus even as evangelicals told prisoners to seek pardon from God, Griffith quipped, they helped to ensure that prison gates remained long locked. The paper concluded by describing how evangelical prison ministries began to change under the influence of Chuck Colson. After his own incarceration for crimes committed during the Watergate scandal, Colson founded Prison Fellowship and began to urge fellow evangelicals to support criminal justice reforms. Griffith argued that Colson’s dual emphasis on prison reform and inmates’ spiritual needs was part of most evangelicals’ broader embrace of “compassionate conservatism” at the end of the twentieth century.


Rebecca A. Koerselman, assistant professor of history at Northwestern College, presented “Piety, Pageants and Playing Indian: Gendered Identity at Summer Camps in the Postwar Era.” In her paper, Koerselman compared the distinctive goals and activities of two Southern Baptist-affiliated camps in North Carolina—Ridgecrest for boys and Crestridge for girls—in the 1940s and 1950s. Organizers designed these camps primarily to encourage the faith and character development of children from Christian families rather than for evangelistic purposes. At their respective camps, both the boys and girls participated in a wide range of similar athletic, outdoor, and musical activities. Yet, Koerselman argued, the camps differed in ways that reflected divergent gender expectations. The promotional literature and daily activities of Camp Ridgecrest for boys displayed less attention to specific religious training than to nurturing masculine characteristics of strength and leadership. In particular, directors used Native American motifs and lore at “Council Rings” to promote these and other masculine ideals. At Camp Crestridge for girls, however, the religious language and purpose appeared much more explicitly and more often. In addition, organizers placed significant emphasis on the feminine ideal of purity. Rather than employing Native American imagery, camp directors constructed a “Council of Progress” with ranks that mixed beauty pageant concepts (the most outstanding camper was crowned “Queen-Crester,” and “Belle” was the highest level) with colonial themes (other ranks were “Trekker,” “Explorer,” “Pioneer,” and “Pilgrim”). Camp Crestridge did train girls for leadership positions, Koerselman noted, but only for positions deemed suitable for females such as Sunday school teachers. Ultimately, she argued, these summer camps served as agents for inculcating the social ideals of masculinity and femininity as imagined and promoted by mid-twentieth century evangelicals.


Paul Emory Putz, a doctoral candidate at Baylor University, presented the final paper—“Evangelical Sports Ministries and the Black Athlete in the Long 1960s”—that drew from his larger dissertation research regarding the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). FCA was founded in the mid-twentieth century by middlebrow mainline Protestants who were committed to racial integration. Yet FCA leaders responded hesitantly to the rise black student-athlete activism at a number of college campuses in the late 1960s. Rather than support demands for systemic and legislative changes to dismantle institutionalized racism, FCA continued to defend its own focus on individual character development through combining sports and Christianity. Though sensitive to protestors, leaders merely highlighted FCA’s history of racial inclusiveness and the experiences of its minority black members. Yet by believing that this ministry approach would alleviate racial injustice and even heal cultural divides, Putz argued, FCA maintained the privilege and power of its white Christian leaders while alienating more liberal and black constituencies. Indeed, he concluded, these responses to black athlete protests helped move FCA farther away from its mainline roots and closer to the evangelical movement.

Neil J. Young, author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics (Oxford, 2015), offered insightful responses to each paper. Recognizing the time and space limitations of a conference paper, Young offered useful suggestions and posed thoughtful questions to each participant regarding how additional sources and perspectives might enhance their respective analyses. For example, he asked Koerselman how families and the children themselves understood their experiences at Ridgecrest or Crestridge. Are there examples, Young questioned Putz, of the testimonies of black FCA members who criticized the organization’s response to their or other students’ activism? Finally, Young asked Griffith, what role did theology play in the division between “law and order” prison ministries and those like Prison Fellowship that began to endorse criminal justice reform—and how did sensitivity to issues of race (or lack thereof) influence these differences?

Operating on a smaller scale than larger institutions and religious denominations, parachurch ministries like these illustrate the ways in which evangelicals’ theological frameworks intersect with their particular historical contexts and questions. As such, they offer useful case studies in thinking about how different groups of evangelicals negotiate cultural challenges and changes. An excellent model for this type of analysis is John G. Turner’s book Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: the Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America. “It is difficult to overstate the significance of parachurch organizations in contemporary American evangelicalism,” Turner writes, “as they structure and direct billions of evangelical dollars toward humanitarianism, political advocacy, and evangelism.” Turner’s book skillfully uses the history of Campus Crusade (now CRU) to examine prominent (though not uncontested) evangelical attitudes towards higher education, politics, and gender roles. I hope that one day we will see in print how Griffith, Koerselman, and Putz continue to develop their own investigations of evangelical “niche” ministries.

More Teaching Panels at the 2018 AHA


Mike Davis, one of our correspondents at the 2018 annual meeting of the American Historical Associationchecks in with some reflections on three panels on teaching history.  Read all of Mike’s AHA 2018 posts here. –JF

I attended three panels at the AHA conference on Friday (Day 2), each one engaging with issues relating to historians and their relationship with the broader community.

The first was a sales meeting for Pearson’s new Revel “interactive learning environment,” billed as an alternative to traditional online and physical textbooks designed to meet 21st century students where they live by letting them engage with ADA compliant audio, video, primary sources, and other learning techniques. While I found Revel engaging, I felt particularly empowered by the number and diversity of faculty present for the talk. Junior and senior faculty from high schools, community colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and comprehensive state universities all turned out for the opportunity to learn better ways to engage with their students.

The second panel: “The Culture Wars of the Texas K-12 Schoolbooks” dealt with Texas K- 12 schools and the efforts by both AHA members and their community allies to both build Mexican-American history studies programs and defend those programs from a hostile state legislature eager to heavily regulate – or outright abolish, any programs that encouraged “nationalism.” The panelists emphasized how the anti-Mexican historiography the state had considered was not simply immoral; it was also bad history, omitting decades of recent Mexican-American historiography. Having used this scholarship myself in the classroom, I was particularly looking forward to this panel and I was not disappointed.

I was particularly pleased at how the panelists – Emilio Zamora (taking the opportunity to present as two of the attendees had been unable to attend thanks to the inclement weather) and Carlos Blanton – emphasized that the focus of their work was on promoting critical thinking and student engagement rather than simply promoting ethnic pride. As they pointed out, this work benefited not just students from a particular ‘minority’ – but all students who get the opportunity to learn the contested nature of history and the way various disempowered groups have fought for power inside historical narratives.

The last panel I attended today was “Teaching the Master Narrative: American History Textbooks in the 20th Century”, a panel inspired by the scholarship of Kyle Ward (Minnesota-Mankato) that looked at the changing (or unchanging) ways various key moments in the “master narrative” of American history have appeared in secondary schools. The University of Miami’s Michael Horton looked at Columbus, offering his audience an interesting antidote to usual Whiggish notions of “historical writing improving over time” by looking at the historians of the 1920s and 1930s who were actually quite critical of Columbus and his career. In the same vein of anti-Whiggishness, Michael Kniesel at Kent State looked at the Boston Tea Party in high school textbooks – finding no particular improvement in accuracy in the way textbooks have discussed the Tea Party from the early 20th century. American teachers are reluctant to paint figures from the American Revolution as economic terrorists – despite the historiography in recent decades leading that way.

Finally, Lindsey Bauman looked at the way textbooks in the 1950s dealt with slavery – finding that textbooks generally relied on Ulrich Phillips’s master-centered economic history when telling the story of slavery. Bauman’s research showed that even as historiography in the academy moved beyond Phillips’s white-centric and white supremacist take on the history of slavery, school textbooks continued to directly use arguments and evidence from a work published some thirty-five years earlier even by the 1950s.

This was a good day – and it left me with good thoughts for my own panel presentation tomorrow. I look forward to seeing readers at the Early Career Lightning Round at 10:30AM on Friday.

Conference on Faith and History Session: “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History”

BibleEarlier today I chaired a session titled “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History.” It was co-sponsored by the American Historical Association and the Conference on Faith History.

In recent years, several important monographs have been published examining the role of the Bible in American culture and politics.  In 2015, Oxford University Press released Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783, the first book in his projected multi-volume work on the history of the Bible in America.  In 2017, Oxford also published The Bible in American Lifethe culmination of a four-year interdisciplinary study by the Center for the Religion and American Culture at IUPUI.  The study focused on Bible-reading as a religious practice.  Two of today’s panelists–Amy Easton-Flake and Emerson Powery–contributed to this volume.

The editors of The Bible in American Life–Philip Goff, Arthur Farnsely, and Peter Thuesen–write: “According to Gallup, nearly eight in ten Americans regard the Bible as either the literal word of God or as inspired by God.  At the same time, surveys have revealed–and recent books have analyzed–surprising gaps in Americans’ biblical literacy.  These discrepancies reveal American Christians’ complex relationship to Holy Writ, a subject that is widely acknowledged but rarely investigated.”

The panel I chaired today reflected on the history of the Bible in American history with four scholars who have contributed to this ongoing conversation.  I asked each panelist to take a few minutes to describe their ongoing work.

Daniel Dreisbach of American University talked about the challenges–both real and imagined–of writing about the Bible’s contributions to the American founding.  He is interested in the question whether the Bible’s contributions are sufficiently significant that it merits mention alongside other intellectual influences on the founding, such as British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism (in various forms), and classical and civic republicanism.  He also addressed criticism that some of his work has been used by the defenders of the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.

James Byrd of Vanderbilt Divinity School focused on the relationship between his book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution and his current book project, “The Bible and the American Civil War.”  Byrd is particularly interested in the ways the Bible was used to justify and explain war.

Amy Easton-Flake of Brigham Young University spoke on women’s deployment of the Bible in late nineteenth-century America.  She used three case examples: the portrayal of Latter-Day Saint women in the journal Women’s Exponent, Harriett Beecher-Stowe’s portrayal of biblical women in her Women and Sacred History, and the Suffrage Movement’s use of the Bible in Revolution and Women’s Journal.

Emerson Powery, my colleague at Messiah College, offered a few thoughts on the integral use of the Bible in arguments surrounding slavery during the antebellum period, especially from the perspective of those whose bodies were most affected.  His way into this discussion was through the voice of the formerly enslaved though the so-called “slave narrative.”

It was a lively session.  I encourage you to explore this subject further by reading the books and articles of these panelists:

Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers

Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible in the American Revolution

Easton-Flake: Mormon Women’s History: Beyond Biography

Powery, The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved

Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society

AHA 2018 Dispatch: Teaching History in Community Colleges

College classroom 3

We are pleased to have Professor Mike Davis writing for The Way of Improvement Leads Home this weekend from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  Davis teaches at Northwest Florida State College. He is a scholar of American history with a focus on the politics and culture of 19th century America. His most recent publication is a history of the Anti-Masonic movement in Thetford, Vermont. His current project is a history of the National Christian Association (1868-1983)Enjoy!–JF

On Thursday, January 4, 2018, I attended a panel titled “Teacher, Historian, Scholar: The Professional Identity of Two-Year Faculty.”  It focused on (among other things) the role that two-year faculty should play in the community outside their classrooms. A recurring theme among panelists Paul D’Amboise (Vermont CC), Nathaniel Green (Northern Virginia CC), Elizabeth Bryant (Houston CC), and Tony Acevedo (Hudson County CC) was community engagement, both inside and outside the classroom.

Paul D’Amboise pointed out that two-year college faculty are uniquely placed to be a bridge inside the historical community between K-12 educators (who might have more pedagogy), four-year college faculty (who might have more content), and museums and historical societies.

Furthermore, the preponderance of surveys and the growing number of students beginning their careers at two-year colleges make two-year college historians the ‘fulcrum’ of historical education – the front-face of the historical academy and the best way for scholars to get a feel for the general public’s knowledge of and engagement with history. There are no better scholars for teaching skills of critical thinking and citizenship to the average American.

Reversing typical expectations for community college faculty, Nathaniel Green argued for CC faculty to embrace research – making the case that the best way to promote student confidence, success, and satisfaction is to give them the understanding that their community college faculty are professors of history rather than just teachers of it. A scholar with an active research agenda is a scholar making vital contributions to their field, suggested Green, meaning that said scholar can show students that their learning is just as important, and their institution just as ‘real’, as their counterparts at four year institutions.

On the subject of promoting student engagement, Elizabeth Bryant took a pedagogical route, suggesting that faculty adopt the role of “learning manager”, explaining the term as faculty abandoning the idea of disseminating information and becoming masters of strategies to ‘promote understanding’. Community college students are too diverse in their backgrounds and college preparation for anything less, given that many lack the support systems or personal freedoms of students at the four-year college level. On that subject, she led the panel in championing “growing relationships” outside of the classroom, reminding those in attendance of just how diverse the role of community college faculty is.

Finally, Tony Acevedo reminded us of two “facts of life” of community college faculty ] they tend to be happy and satisfied with their jobs and their strong focus on teaching, but concerned about the issues of professional isolation (as they tend to work solo or in small groups), poor conditions (5-10 course teaching loads are not uncommon for community college faculty), and in general how the tension between teacher and scholar is particularly difficult for faculty members working at institutions that may give no weight to the latter at all.

Moderator Mark Smith’s promotion of disciplinary mastery led us into a final discussion of themes that felt familiar to scholars at any institution – declining enrollment, poor treatment of adjuncts, the increasing need to teach learning strategies to products of an era of standardized testing, and other crises that afflict both two-year and four-year institutions. It was an engaging discussion for this author, a teacher at a two-year institution, and a rewarding one – as career paths for Ph.Ds change amid broader evolutions in the nature of higher education, it’s reassuring to know that the American Historical Association is engaging with the interests of two-year faculty.

AHA Bound!


I’m heading to Washington D.C. today for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. I will be joining thousands of historians in a weekend of presentations, panels, conversations, job-searching, book-browsing, receptions and other history-related activities.  As always, we will have the conference covered here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Check back often for updates from this D.C. history-fest!

I will be participating in two sessions.  Both will take place on Friday:

Placing the American Community: Lessons from the Digital Harrisburg Project

The Bible in American Cultural and Political History

I hope to see some of you there!

Late December Update


Several of you have asked when The Way of Improvement Leads Home will be up and running again at full capacity.  If all goes well, we will be back to our regular blogging rhythm in the first week of 2018.  As always, we will begin the year at the blog with our extensive coverage of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.

Right now I am putting the finishing touches on Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.   Work on this book is taking nearly every waking hour as I try to meet my January 1, 2018 deadline.

Stay tuned.