How to Fix the U.S. History Survey Course: “Reimagine Everything”

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Last month a group of Texas history teachers gathered at Houston Community College to talk about introductory history courses.  The event was sponsored by the American Historical Association and included keynote addresses by Steven Mintz (University of Texas at Austin), Andrew Koch (John Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education), and Nancy Quam-Wickham (California State University, Long Beach).

Jermaine Thibodeaux offers a report on the conference at AHA Today.  Here is a taste:

Steven Mintz (Univ. of Texas at Austin) kicked off the conference by offering a rather dire assessment of today’s US history survey course. Having taught the history survey for decades, Mintz cited historically low enrollments and lack of student interest or engagement in the classroom as reasons for the survey’s demise at four-year institutions. All is not lost, however, assured Mintz. The key to reigniting students’ interest in history courses, which for many begins with the survey, he said, is simply “reimagining everything.” By broadly rethinking pedagogy, assessment, and delivery modes, Mintz argued, the lackluster survey course can be saved, with great benefit to students and teachers.

While the gathered historians had likely heard sweeping diagnoses like Mintz’s before, he was able to offer a wealth of anecdotal evidence, best practices, and examples of engaging and exciting instruction that did not at all compromise higher order thinking. For example, in his own US history survey course, Mintz forgoes the standard midterm and final exam, opting instead for consistent formal assessment and weekly online modules that combine essay writing with content checks in the form of thoughtful multiple choice questions. Mintz encouraged history teachers to shun traditional models of instruction and instead embrace a combination of approaches that would make the introductory course more meaningful for students.

Read the entire post here.  I am not sure the survey course is broken, but I am confident that a lot of good ideas for improving it were bandied about at this conference.

An Undergraduate History Club Goes to the AHA Annual Meeting

Humboldt State

AHA Today has posted a great piece on the Humboldt State University History Club’s experience at this year’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association.

Here is a taste of Blanca Drapeau’s article:

There we were. A small group of Californian undergrads, winter layers piled over our business casual attire, perusing the AHA 2017 annual meeting program over coffee and pastries. We discussed panels that piqued our interests, excitedly pointing out historians we’d read for our courses and asking each other about unfamiliar terms. Last year was my senior year at Humboldt State University and the second year I attended the AHA annual meeting with our History Club. I was president of our club and the only student attending who had gone to another annual meeting. A semester of planning and fundraising efforts all came down to one incredible short week in Denver.

Humboldt State has a well-established tradition of history majors attending AHA annual meetings. The History Club, which organizes the trip, is open to all students, but a vast majority of its members are in the history program. The club meets once a week to discuss historical topics and provide academic support. Our elevator pitch to new members always includes the opportunity to attend the annual meeting. (Last year, it was simply, “we’re taking a trip to Denver this year for a history conference.”) As soon as the fall semester begins, members who wish to attend the annual meeting start fundraising for the trip.

We generally take a multi-pronged approach to fundraising. Last year, for four days a week, we organized a snack table in our department’s building. HSU (Humboldt State University) also stands for Hills, Stairs, & Umbrellas—most days walking to and from Founders Hall to any other snack shop between classes is an undertaking—and the ease of access served our snack table well. In our experience, the table has proved to be a reliable form of funding for our group. We also applied for grants through our school’s clubs office, successfully receiving the maximum amount of funds granted each year. Additionally, we held rummage/book sales—our professors were amazing and donated boxes of books!

Read the rest here.

A High School Student is Asking About Leopold von Ranke.

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Apparently a high school student is sending e-mails to historians asking them about 19th-century German historian Leopold von Ranke.  The student is interested in whether or not these historians believe in “objectivity” in the writing of history.  As some of you know, von Ranke had a lot to say about the subject.

Here is what I wrote about him Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

p.49: One of the most important critics of a usable past was the nineteenth-century German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886).  He introduced the concept of “historicism,” or the idea that historians should seek to understand the past on its own terms.  Historicism has since become a mainstay of the historical profession.  As Ranke put it, “History has had assigned to it the task of judging the past, or instructing the present for the benefit of ages to come.  To such lofty functions this work does not aspire.  Its aim is to know how things happened.”  Ranke wanted historians to study the past for its own sake, not because it has a usable function for guiding our lives in the present.  He rejected the notion that the past is useful in that it teaches moral lessons, inspires those who study it, strengthens civic bonds, or provides individuals and communities with a better sense of identity.  Rather, for him, history is a science, and historians can teach the Enlightenment ideal of objectivity in their work.  The task of the historian is a conservative one–to seek after objective truth and to narrate “what happened” in the past.  No more and no less.

Several historians have wondered whether the girl asking about von Ranke is a conservative activist of some kind. Here is a taste of Nick Roll’s piece at Inside Higher Ed:

Professors and graduate students at at least six institutions received correspondence from the same email address. Some professors and historians even think the student might be a fictitious character made up as part of a right-wing trolling scheme, or part of an effort to catch “liberal professors” in an embarrassing trap. Even if the student in question — who did not respond to multiple requests for comment at the Gmail address used to contact the professors — is just an kid doing research, in an age of “fake news” and partisan tension, historians are treading carefully.

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said that his organization had become aware of the emails over the holiday weekend, and was planning a review of the situation — and what to do when members are approached by unverified students and members of the public — when staff returned Tuesday.

“This is one more reminder of the caution with which everyone should approach email and social media,” he said in an email. “When I receive a query from someone claiming to be a student but without an institutional address, I ask the name of their school and teacher. If I do not receive a satisfactory response I end the conversation.”

It was on Facebook that Greenberg noticed his peers had received similar emails. In one instance, the student had even sent graduate students at Harvard a link (which, as of Monday evening, was available here) to a survey asking for more detailed responses.

“At first one of my [Facebook] friends who is also [University of Texas, Dallas] faculty and I were wondering if this email might have originally come from someone at UTD, since we both got the email, but then when I learned of all the other schools getting it, it seemed to me that someone elsewhere must be casting a wider net,” Lora Burnett, a teaching fellow in history, said in an email to Inside Higher Ed.

What’s even more curious, Burnett pointed out on her blog, where she wrote about the incident, is that the University of Texas, Dallas, doesn’t have a formal history major, instead offering “historical studies.” So why would Burnett be of interest to a prospective history major, which the student claimed to be, Burnett thought. Unless, of course, the email is “fishing/trolling by a [right-wing] outlet looking to create a fake-scandal headline: ‘Liberal Professors Don’t Believe in Objective Truth About Past’ or some such nonsense.”

Forgive me if I am not yet ready to believe that this is a conspiracy theory.  If this is indeed a high school student working on a paper, the historical profession is going to look awfully silly. (Does this really merit an AHA investigation?).  This kind of stuff is the reason academic historians have such a hard time engaging the public effectively.  I hope we don’t have to explain all of this to the hard-working teacher who encouraged his or her student to e-mail professors for help.

Of course I could be wrong.  But when it comes to high school students and history teachers I always want to err on the side of caution.

Let’s for a moment give the conspiracy theorists the benefit of the doubt and say that this e-mailer is indeed a “right-wing” troll looking for a “fake-scandal headline.”  This wouldn’t be the first time academic historians have been accused of something sinister by the political Right.  If such a scandalous headline did appear, I would post the piece at my blog and use it as yet another opportunity to educate the public about what historians do and how they work.

American Historical Association Announces 2017 Prize Winners

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You can see the list of winners here.

Here are some of the winners that might be of interest to the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

The Albert J. Beveridge Award on the history of the United States, Latin America, or Canada, from 1492 to the present: David A. Chang (Univ. of Minnesota) for The World and All the Things upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of Exploration (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2016)

The John H. Dunning Prize for an author’s first or second book on any subject relating to United States history: Matthew Karp (Princeton Univ.) for This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Harvard Univ. Press, 2016)

The William and Edwyna Gilbert Award for the best article in a journal, magazine, or other serial on teaching history: Laura K. Muñoz (Texas A&M Univ.-Corpus Christi) for “Civil Rights, Educational Inequality, and Transnational Takes on the US History Survey,” History of Education Quarterly 56, no. 1 (February 2016)

The Joan Kelly Memorial Prize for women’s history and/or feminist theory: Sarah Haley (UCLA) for No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2016)

The Littleton-Griswold Prize in US law and society, broadly defined: Risa Goluboff (Univ. of Virginia Sch. of Law) for Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s (Oxford Univ. Press, 2016)

The George L. Mosse Prize in the intellectual and cultural history of Europe since 1500: James T. Kloppenberg (Harvard Univ.) for Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (Oxford Univ. Press, 2016)

The James A. Rawley Prize for the integration of Atlantic worlds before the 20th century: David Wheat (Michigan State Univ.) for Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean, 1570–1640 (Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2016)

The Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History to a freely available new media project: Keisha N. Blain (Univ. of Pittsburgh) and Ibram X. Kendi (American Univ.) for Black Perspectives (African American Intellectual History Society)

The Wesley-Logan Prize in African diaspora history: Sowande’ M. Mustakeem (Washington Univ. in St. Louis) for Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage (Univ. of Illinois Press, 2016)

The Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award for outstanding postsecondary history teaching;; Laura M. Westhoff (Univ. of Missouri, St. Louis)

The Beveridge Family Teaching Prize for distinguished K–12 history teaching: Gustavo Carrera (Buckingham Browne and Nichols Sch.)

The Herbert Feis Award for distinguished contributions to public history: Lonnie G. Bunch III (Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture)

The Award for Scholarly Distinction to senior historians for lifetime achievement: Richard S. Dunn (Univ. of Pennsylvania) and John Merriman (Yale Univ.)

American Historical Association Issues Statement on Confederate Monuments

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Here it is:

The American Historical Association welcomes the emerging national debate about Confederate monuments. Much of this public statuary was erected without such conversations, and without any public decision-making process. Across the country, communities face decisions about the disposition of monuments and memorials, and commemoration through naming of public spaces and buildings. These decisions require not only attention to historical facts, including the circumstances under which monuments were built and spaces named, but also an understanding of what history is and why it matters to public culture.

President Donald Trump was correct in his tweet of August 16: “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.” That is a good beginning, because to learn from history, one must first learn what actually happened in the past. Debates over removal of monuments should consider chronology and other evidence that provide context for why an individual or event has been commemorated. Knowledge of such facts enables debate that learns “from history.”

Equally important is awareness of what we mean by “history.” History comprises both facts and interpretations of those facts. To remove a monument, or to change the name of a school or street, is not to erase history, but rather to alter or call attention to a previous interpretation of history. A monument is not history itself; a monument commemorates an aspect of history, representing a moment in the past when a public or private decision defined who would be honored in a community’s public spaces.

Understanding the specific historical context of Confederate monuments in America is imperative to informed public debate. Historians who specialize in this period have done careful and nuanced research to understand and explain this context. Drawing on their expertise enables us to assess the original intentions of those who erected the monuments, and how the monuments have functioned as symbols over time. The bulk of the monument building took place not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War but from the close of the 19th century into the second decade of the 20th. Commemorating not just the Confederacy but also the “Redemption” of the South after Reconstruction, this enterprise was part and parcel of the initiation of legally mandated segregation and widespread disenfranchisement across the South. Memorials to the Confederacy were intended, in part, to obscure the terrorism required to overthrow Reconstruction, and to intimidate African Americans politically and isolate them from the mainstream of public life. A reprise of commemoration during the mid-20th century coincided with the Civil Rights Movement and included a wave of renaming and the popularization of the Confederate flag as a political symbol. Events in Charlottesville and elsewhere indicate that these symbols of white supremacy are still being invoked for similar purposes.

To remove such monuments is neither to “change” history nor “erase” it. What changes with such removals is what American communities decide is worthy of civic honor. Historians and others will continue to disagree about the meanings and implications of events and the appropriate commemoration of those events. The AHA encourages such discussions in publications, in other venues of scholarship and teaching, and more broadly in public culture; historical scholarship itself is a conversation rooted in evidence and disciplinary standards. We urge communities faced with decisions about monuments to draw on the expertise of historians both for understanding the facts and chronology underlying such monuments and for deriving interpretive conclusions based on evidence. Indeed, any governmental unit, at any level, may request from the AHA a historian to provide consultation. We expect to be able to fill any such request.

We also encourage communities to remember that all memorials remain artifacts of their time and place. They should be preserved, just like any other historical document, whether in a museum or some other appropriate venue. Prior to removal they should be photographed and measured in their original contexts. These documents should accompany the memorials as part of the historical record. Americans can also learn from other countries’ approaches to these difficult issues, such as Coronation Park in Delhi, India, and Memento Park in Budapest, Hungary.

Decisions to remove memorials to Confederate generals and officials who have no other major historical accomplishment does not necessarily create a slippery slope towards removing the nation’s founders, former presidents, or other historical figures whose flaws have received substantial publicity in recent years. George Washington owned enslaved people, but the Washington Monument exists because of his contributions to the building of a nation. There is no logical equivalence between the builders and protectors of a nation—however imperfect—and the men who sought to sunder that nation in the name of slavery. There will be, and should be, debate about other people and events honored in our civic spaces. And precedents do matter. But so does historical specificity, and in this case the invocation of flawed analogies should not derail legitimate policy conversation.

Nearly all monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders were erected without anything resembling a democratic process. Regardless of their representation in the actual population in any given constituency, African Americans had no voice and no opportunity to raise questions about the purposes or likely impact of the honor accorded to the builders of the Confederate States of America. The American Historical Association recommends that it’s time to reconsider these decisions.

This is a very useful statement.  I endorse it.  Thanks to the folks at the AHA for writing it.

What Might a Ph.D in History Look Like in 2022?

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Jim Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, has a vision.  In his recent piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education, he imagines what an orientation for new doctoral students might look like in 2022.

Here is a taste:

As academe moves (slowly but surely) to rethink doctoral training, I’ve been mulling the direction and implications of change.

Today, a new vocabulary has emerged in Ph.D. humanities education. Doctoral degrees are “malleable.” Their recipients are “versatile.” A discourse of “career diversity” will enable new cultures of “connected academics.”

Most graduate students today encounter that wider perspective of doctoral training as they near the finish line, yet they also inhabit an academic culture steeped in traditional norms of success and failure. Even graduate-program directors committed to a broad view of Ph.D. career options might include in their welcome messages the 40-year-old jeremiad about the narrowed academic job market — implying therein a standard of success. In a well-meaning attempt at transparency, they might include a reference to “placement rates” — underscoring the tenure track as the normative pathway even amid the rhetoric of “alternative” careers.

With resources from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation, new projects aimed at changing graduate-school training and culture are emerging — some initiated by scholarly societies like the American Historical Association (the organization I direct) and the Modern Language Association, and others led by humanities centers, graduate deans, and even individual departments.

With these expanded visions gaining traction, I am ready to indulge in fantasy: What might a graduate orientation for entering students in my discipline — history — look like in five years? Let’s pick up where we left off with our hypothetical director of graduate students in 2022 …

Read the entire piece here.

Collaborative History Blogging

Blog_(1)There are a lot of good history blogs out there and many of them are collaborative efforts.  Think Nursing Clio, Black Perspectives, U.S. Intellectual History, and The Junto. I am glad to see that the American Historical Association has taken notice of these blogs.

Here is a taste of Sadie Bergen’s piece at AHA Today, “From Personal to Professional: Collaborative History Blogs Go Mainstream.”

In 2012, when Jacqueline Antonovich, then a first-year graduate student at the University of Michigan, founded the blog Nursing Clio, maintaining it was as simple as “throwing stuff up online.” Five years later, Antonovich is finishing up her dissertation and overseeing an editorial team of seven as Nursing Clio’s executive editor. As she puts it, the blog, which connects historical scholarship on gender and medicine to current events, has become a “fine-tuned machine.”

This process of professionalization—the shift from blogging as a hobby to a line on your CV—is not unique to Nursing Clio. Over the past several years, collaboratively produced history blogs have blossomed into popular venues that give current historical scholarship an accessible public face. They have grown rapidly, formalized their editorial procedures into those of small publications, and recruited new historians to join their ranks of writers and editors.

Written and edited almost entirely by graduate students and early career historians without tenure-track positions, collaborative blogs have emerged as platforms to share and engage with scholarship in a discipline with high bars for professional advancement. No longer mostly within the realm of the personal, blogging now provides valuable writing and editing opportunities that enable early career historians to cultivate a wide range of skills, promote their work, and make valuable connections, all on the front lines of an emerging form of public history writing.

Read the entire article here.

I envy these collaborative blogs.  With multiple authors it alleviates a lot of the work of posting regularly.  There have been times throughout the eight-year run of The Way of Improvement Leads Home that I have thought about bringing-on other regular bloggers. This piece has made me think about it again.

But perhaps unlike the blogs mentioned in Bergen’s piece, The Way of Improvement Leads Home has really developed around my own interests, personality, and quirks.  I am not sure what a collaborative blog would look like here.

Recently my former student Drew Dyrli Hermeling (you may know him as the producer and co-host of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast) pushed me to have bigger dreams about the future of this blog.  He suggested a larger online presence that would include other writers and podcasters.  I am open to this idea and would love to hear what you, our faithful readers, think about it.  How would you feel if The Way of Improvement Leads Home became more collaborative?

The American Historical Association is Looking for Summer Bloggers

Blogging

Here’s the skinny:

The AHA is seeking two aspiring graduate-student bloggers, each to write a series of posts on historical documents from their research projects. If you are looking to hone your blogging skills and share the process of doing history with a wide audience, consider applying to be a summer blogger on AHA Today, and show readers how historians’ habits of mind shape the way they see the world.

This year, we’re challenging our summer bloggers to select a historical document and write about its significance to their research. (Think of “document” expansively—it could be a letter, a memo, an article in a community newsletter, a photograph, a map, an oral-history interview, a sound recording, or a nontraditional primary source.) We especially want to hear about how engaging with this particular document led you ask different questions and how it took your research in exciting new directions. You might also consider these questions:

Read the entire call at AHA Today.

 

Winter Meeting of the American Society of Church History Changes Its Relationship with the American Historical Association Annual Meeting

aschToday I received this form letter from Candy Gunther Brown, the incoming President of the American Society of Church History (ASCH).  In 2018 the ASCH will hold its Winter meeting alongside the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) in Washington D.C. but not as part of the AHA. This is a one year experiment.  Gunther explains:
Greetings from Bloomington, Indiana! Many of us have just returned from the 2017 Annual Meeting of the ASCH in Denver, which was a great success. We had nearly 250 registered participants, including a number of international scholars and many graduate-student presenters. The quality of the panels seemed especially strong. Highlights of the conference include a wealth of Reformation-themed sessions – commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Age of Reform – culminating in an engaging Presidential Address by Professor Ronald Rittgers. The well-attended, abundantly provisioned, reception didn’t draw to a close until nearly 11 p.m.!
 
Following his address, Ron Rittgers passed the presidential baton onto me, and so I want to take this opportunity to update you on two significant announcements made by ASCH leadership during the conference, regarding:
1) the relationship between the ASCH and the AHA, and, 
2) the new Executive Secretary positions.
 
Please read what follows, as it contains important information that has bearing on the future of the ASCH.
 
1. ASCH/AHA Relationship
With the approval of the membership at an Extraordinary Business Meeting, the ASCH Council voted unanimously to approve the following motion:
 
“Assuming the ASCH is able to secure adequate hotel space, the Society will hold its own meeting alongside but not as part of the AHA in 2018.”
The presenting reason for this motion — discussed at length by the membership in Atlanta last year — is that rising costs of mandatory registration for the “one-meeting” of the American Historical Association have made the ASCH meeting very expensive to attend. In turn, this has required the ASCH to cut its own registration fees, causing the Society to lose thousands of dollars each year on its annual conference. This is not, however, merely a financial decision. The ASCH is an independent scholarly organization with a distinctive academic mission, and running our own meetings (as we did before 2015) allows us much more flexibility.

Thus, the ASCH Council has decided to experiment in 2018 with an alternative arrangement for one year: meeting alongside the AHA, in a nearby hotel, but not officially as part of the AHA meeting. We are NOT disaffiliating from the AHA. In fact, we hope to encourage submission of more co-sponsored ASCH-AHA sessions, which is why we are moving up our CFP deadline to February 15, to match the AHA deadline. It is important to note that this is a one-year experiment: the ASCH Council will evaluate its effectiveness in 2018. It is also important that there is a contingency built into the decision: we will only do this if we can secure adequately priced hotel space in reasonable proximity to the AHA meeting.

We will be communicating further about the arrangements in the coming months, but we think this is an important step for the ongoing financial wellbeing, and identity of the Society.

A Middle School History Teacher Reflects on Martin Luther and the Usable Past

lutherThe Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association ended yesterday afternoon, but reports from The Way of Improvement Leads Home correspondents who covered conference continue to roll in.  We were pleased to have Zachary Cote write for us this weekend.  As a middle-school history teacher he has brought a unique perspective to this annual gathering of historians.  In his final post, Zach reports on a couple of sessions he attended on Martin Luther.  Read all of Zach’s AHA 2017 posts here.–JF

One of the perks of attending the 2017 AHA annual meeting was being able to sit-in on a couple panels that were created with the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in mind. As a Protestant, I have always been interested in Luther.  So I was eager to see how historians were going to commemorate the quincentenary of his 95 Theses. I attended two sessions, the first entitled “Memories of Reform: German Commemorations of the Reformation” and the second, “Luther and the ‘Second Reformation’. A common thread in both of these panels was how generations after Luther interpreted his work, impact, and theology.

In the 1617 celebration of the 95 Theses Luther was used to either remind a town of the perceived horrors of Catholicism or to promote local exceptionalism, as was the case in Ulm, Germany. The tercentennial celebration looked at the German monk as a “Luther for Everyone.” For Luther’s 400th birthday, in 1883, the new nation-state of Germany used the anniversary to promote German unity; after all, even “German Catholics were better than the others.” In 1967, on the 45oth anniversary of the Reformation, communist East Germany had to come to grips with the fact that so much of the Reformation originated in that region.  East Germany interpreted the Reformation to fit its own agenda, and therefore made it a secular event heavily attached to the Early Bourgeois Revolution of the Peasants’ War. Luther took on a new identity for each of these commemorations.  He became the Luther that the people of each specific time and place needed.

Luther’s impact on others in the “Second Reformation” revealed similar insights. For example, Luther informed John Wesley’s doctrine of sola fide. While Wesley’s theology often looked much different than Luther’s, his scant references to the German reformer point to an implicit influence on his theology of justification.  Seventeenth-century Puritans, too, found encouragement from Luther when it came to the importance of temptation in the lives of Christians. To these Puritans, Luther “was clearly recognized as a symbol of piety” despite his stronger emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Lastly, in mid-eighteenth-century Denmark, Luther’s historical reading of the Old Testament would eventually lead Danish theologians to end their traditional evaluations of civil law in Amsterdam. This, in turn, actually led to a secularization of Amsterdam’s government.

Listening to these panels enlightened me on the role of Luther over the centuries and left me questioning what Luther will look like in this year’s festivities. But perhaps even more importantly, the research presented by the historians at each panel illuminated a larger theme within history.

Something that we emphasize in our classes is that history is the study of change (and yes, continuity) over time. But the study of Luther demonstrates that history itself changes over time. Not simply in the academic historiography of any given subject, but also in the public’s use of the past.  Luther was perceived very differently by people over time, and perhaps may not even recognize himself in those perceptions; nonetheless, it is through perceptions like those that most understand history. I am reminded of what George Orwell wrote in 1984: “The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon.” How true that is for American society today.

With this in mind, may we, as those who study and teach the past, recognize that history itself is changing, and continue to pursue the goal to teach our students how to navigate those changes in order to paint the most accurate picture of the past available.

Catholic History at the AHA

acsI hope you have enjoyed William Cossen‘s posts from the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Denver this weekend.  You can read them all here.  

Below is his final post.  He reflects on two sessions on American Catholic History.–JF

On AHA’s third day, I attended a presidential roundtable hosted by the American Catholic Historical Association, of which I am a member, titled “The Future of Catholic History: What Do Graduate Students Want to Know?”

The first presenter, Boston College’s Peter Cajka, who serves as the Graduate Student Representative to the ACHA’s Executive Council, posed five timely questions dealing with the job market and with the field of Catholic history:

1) Why are there not more positions being created at Catholic schools for junior scholars who specialize in Catholic history, and if there is only one Catholic history position open this year, what else is available for job seekers?

2) How can a scholar make a case for Catholic history when applying to general history positions?

3) Can religious historians apply for theology or religious studies positions?  Furthermore, what is really meant by “Catholic studies,” and how can historians make themselves competitive for positions in this field?

4) How can historians of Catholicism demonstrate the relevance of their research for postdoctoral positions that focus on broader issues dealing with religion?

5) How can Catholic historians articulate what it means to be Catholic and connect this to their research and teaching when applying to religious schools?

The second presenter, Shannen Dee Williams of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, spoke about her important research on black Catholic sisters.  Williams described the difficulties involved in locating sources on religious sisterhoods and then gaining access to archives holding these materials.  Looking toward future trends in the field, Williams recommended investigating the transatlantic history of Catholics of color, urging scholars to “look at those who have remained on the margins of the church.”  I have been thinking since the roundtable about a provocative question Williams posed during her presentation that historians of all fields, especially those researching figures who have been traditionally left out of historical narratives, should consider seriously: how can we reconstruct histories that were never meant to be told?

The third presenter, Kyle Roberts of Loyola University Chicago, who serves as Director of Loyola’s Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities and Project Director of the Jesuit Libraries Project, described exciting advances and possibilities in the field of Catholic digital humanities.  Roberts explained that the main activity in Catholic digital humanities has emanated from Catholic archives, which have a done a fine job making more widely available to the public important sources in Catholic history.  My own research has benefited immensely from digitized U.S. Catholic sources, and it is important to note that such popular databases as America’s Historical Newspapers also contain Catholic periodicals.  I was left with one question that I discussed with other audience members following the roundtable.  While many digital humanities projects are freely available, many others (for example, several newspaper and academic journal databases) are not, often requiring an institutional affiliation with access to a research library to utilize the sources they contain.  What can the AHA and other historical societies do to help scholars without access to such institutional subscriptions to make use of important digitized sources and to maintain active, productive research agendas?

The final presenter, Thomas Rzeznik of Seton Hall University, who serves as editor of the journal American Catholic Studies, asked the audience to consider how we can make articles in Catholic historical journals and the journals themselves more relevant to a wider audience.  Rzeznik also encouraged scholars of Catholicism to think more about what the “Catholic” in American Catholic studies means.  Rzeznik argued that too frequently, historians of Catholicism focus only on the so-called “good” Catholics, an approach which I think not only renders Catholic identity monolithically but frankly makes it much less interesting.  Rzeznik is right to call for scholars to more seriously consider in their research those who he terms “misfit Catholics” as well as those married to Catholics and those who worked or studied in Catholic institutions but were not themselves members of the faith.  This, Rzeznik argues, will “broaden our lens of who is considered Catholic.”  As far as the wider relevance of Catholic history in the historical profession goes, Rzeznik points out correctly that the “field already reflects the diversity the job market wants” due to Catholicism’s transnational, cross-cultural dimensions.  Ultimately, Rzeznik explains, scholars of Catholicism need to remain mindful of the many audiences they serve: the academy; interested lay non-scholars; and the institutional church.

I also delivered a paper Friday afternoon titled “Isaac Hecker’s American Odyssey: Rewriting the Catholic Nation in The Church and the Age.”  I argued two main points in the paper: first, the thought of Catholic convert Isaac Hecker was representative of an emerging movement in late-nineteenth-century U.S. Catholicism that espoused Anglo-Saxon racial superiority in an effort to challenge Protestant hegemony; and second, scholars have paid little attention to Hecker’s and the larger Catholic Americanist movement’s affinity for popular racial theories of the day.  This is part of the larger effort of my dissertation to revise historical interpretations of Americanism in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century U.S. Catholicism.  I argued in the paper and the dissertation that the Americanists, far from being the benign democratizers of historiography, were comfortable putting a Catholic spin on American colonization of the U.S. West and the Philippines, scientific racial theories, immigration regulation, and exclusionary formulations of the national community, which lends a darker cast to the Americanists than has been previously acknowledged by scholars.  My paper was joined by Erin Bartram’s (University of Hartford) “The ‘Use and Abuse of Reading’: American Catholics and the Debate over Reading, 1860-90” (which also examined Hecker but in an earlier period) and Luke Ritter’s (Troy University) “Where Bigotry Thrives: Know-Nothingism and the Origins of an Inclusive Civil Religion.”  Following our presentation, the panelists and members of the audience had a productive conversation on Catholicism, Americanism, historiography, and the state of the field that extended well into the evening.

This has been another fantastic AHA.  Between sessions, exhibits, and the opportunity to catch up with colleagues and friends and to make new connections with other scholars, the AHA and its affiliate organizations certainly fulfilled their goal of exploring cutting edge scholarship and building collegiality across our profession.  Safe travels, fellow historians, and see you next year in Washington, DC!

More Trump Analogies

Who is Donald Trump most like?

Rick Shenkman of History News Network has asked a few historians at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association to weigh in:

What should we make of these historical analogies?  Here is what we have written about this approach to history and the election at The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

Historians on the Usefulness of Historical Analogies in This Election Cycle

On the Danger of Historical Analogies

From the Archives: Our historical narcissism indicts us”

History Does Not Provide Easy Answers

Trump and the Know-Nothing Platform of 1856

The 2016 Presidential Election and Historical Comparisons

Should Historians Oppose Trump?

Stanley Fish, who is not a historian, came to Denver and told historians to stop engaging with politics.  Watch the video from History News Network:

I’ve written a lot about this over the last year.  Anything I write here would just be repetitive.  I also hesitate to write more because I did not attend the session.  Here is Fish’s essay for some context.

Here is what I have written about this topic over the last year or so:

Why I Signed “Historians Against Trump”

Why the “Pietist Schoolman” Signed the “Historians Against Trump” Letter

Yet Another Opinion on “Historians Against Trump”

Why Jonathan Zimmerman is Not Signing the “Historians Against Trump” Letter

More Historians on “Historians Against Trump”

Historical Thinking and Political Candidates

Historians Must Counter the Jedi Mind Tricks

No Empathy for Trump?

More Jedi Mind-Tricks

A Middle School History Teacher Visits “Intellectual Disneyland”

history-teacherZachary Cote teaches middle school (8th grade) history at Stella Middle Charter Academy in Los Angeles.  This weekend he will be writing for The Way of Improvement Leads Home from Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Denver. –JF

As a middle school teacher in urban Los Angeles, I am inundated with education strategies and research and am often surrounded by the urban education culture. Now, to be clear, I chose this. However, when not specifically preparing for lessons or classroom management strategies, I find a home in the historian’s realm. Recently a colleague of mine said to me, “I could teach anything. I’m a teacher who just happens to teach history.” I responded, “Well, I am a historian who teaches.” I cannot see myself teaching anything else. I thus often miss the academic days of my college years and try to keep up with my field by reading historical journals, blogs and books. The Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, to say the least, has been sort of a homecoming.

When I sit in panels and listen to historian’s dialogue and debate I think to myself, “I am at Intellectual Disneyland.” I feel almost as if like I have left the city for the day and traveled to the rural areas of California about an hour north from Los Angeles where I am rejuvenated through a deep breath of that fresh air.  The AHA conference is that breath of fresh air. My lungs and head are clearing, and I am reminded of the joys of the discipline of history.  For those like me, historians at heart who feel called to the classroom, I want to encourage you: Do whatever you can to attend an AHA annual meeting.  It replenishes your intellectual cup, it refreshes your historical mind, and it fuels your educator’s heart to use the past to inspire our future.

The Paul Harvey Fan Club

A strange new movement has formed at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Denver this weekend.  It seems that something called “The Paul Harvey Fan Club” is taking the conference by storm.

No, not that Paul Harvey.

This is a fan club devoted to the noted historian of American religion and race.  Harvey is a Professor of History at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. (See our Author’s Corner interview with him here).  I know from reading his books that he is a gifted scholar. I hear that he a gifted teacher.  I also hear that he has a weak jump shot.  Oh yes, and did I mention that he founded one of the most influential blogs in the American history blogosphere?

Evidence of this movement is cropping up all over the place:

harvey-1

Harvey seems to be embracing the movement

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Harvey mixes among the fan club’s most committed members (his grad students)

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Even historians of American religion have embraced the movement

The AHA: An Editor’s Perspective

book-exhibit

I am sure some of you who attend the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association or some other major academic conference have witnessed a newly minted Ph.D pitching a book idea, based on her or his dissertation, to an editor in the exhibit hall. The editor listens and nods as the post-doc or assistant professor verbally walks through the proposal. This kind of conversation has become a rite of passage for any first-time academic author.

I have done this a few times and have always felt very awkward and uncomfortable. Perhaps it is just me, but I always assumed that the editor was bored and really did not want to hear from yet another dissertation writer trying to land a book contract. If the editor’s eyes were flashing around the room looking at the name badges of people coming into the booth I knew I was in trouble.  I knew I was in even more trouble if the editor interrupted me (always politely) multiple times to talk to someone who he or she deemed to be more important. Who wants to try to make a book pitch in such a public setting?  I was always self-conscious of the people milling around in the booth who were no doubt listening to me explain my proposal.

After I published my first book I decided that I would not use the exhibit hall to pitch proposals to editors. (Part of this decision was based on experience. My interaction with editors at the AHA and other conferences played a very, very small role in getting that book into print).  It was too much work.  As an introvert I hate such spontaneous meetings.

Don’t get me wrong, I still meet with publishers at the AHA.  But most of my meetings are scheduled well in advance so that the editors are prepared for the conversation. I try to make sure that these meetings take place away from the booth and preferably outside the exhibit hall.

The book exhibit continues to be my favorite part of any big conference.  When I enter the exhibit hall for the time my heart (and mind) still races. When I am at the AHA I try to make two or three visits.  I usually just browse titles and try to say hello to the editors I have worked with over the years.  I take pictures of the books I want to read or write about. I run into friends, acquaintances, colleagues and blog readers.

I tend to see my discussions with editors about book ideas as something separate from the exhibit itself.

With all this in mind, I thoroughly enjoyed Nancy Toff’s recent post at AHA Today about what it is like to be a book editor at the conference.  Toff is vice president and executive editor at Oxford University Press.

Here is a small taste of her post:

As talent scouts, we judge work that has already been done. Editors thus spend some of their time listening to papers and scoping out new talent. The “yield” is fairly low, but it’s a good way to check out potential authors. It tells us not only whether a particular historian has a good argument, but whether s/he is a decent human being. Public behavior is telling! Does s/he get to the point? How does the scholar react to questions and criticism? I also meet with potential authors who have written to me in advance and sent me proposals or sample materials. The conference is a chance for me to hear more about the project, to ask questions about what I’ve read, and often to guide the author in a slightly different direction. I’ll ask about competing titles, about sources, and, as at sessions, I’ll get a feel for the style of the person I’m dealing with.

Unfortunately, time is always short. So when meeting with an editor, authors should get to the point. The proverbial “elevator pitch” is no joke—we need a quick overview of the subject matter, the status of the book, and the archival work you’ve done. If the book has grown out of a dissertation, who was your adviser? That information often orients us intellectually. Think of the meeting as speed dating for scholars and editors—make a good first impression. Many university press editors are also commissioning books, especially for existing series. After consulting with series editors and doing some research, I will have identified potential authors for particular titles and set up meetings to discuss the possibilities. That’s where I wear my snake-charmer hat.

Editors always make time to chat informally with potential authors to see if we can find the perfect new project based both on the scholar’s interests and our needs as publishers. It’s kismet when those two objectives align. For example, I had worked with Frans Coetzee and Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee on a World War I primary source anthology; I hoped to do another book with them. When we met at the AHA’s annual meeting several years ago, they told me that they had many more diaries they’d come across but had not had space to include. The result of that conversation was Commitment and Sacrifice: Personal Diaries from the Great War (2015), a collection of six rare and diverse war journals.

Read the entire post here.