Nancy Tomes Wins the Bancroft Prize

TomesI can now say that I am a student of a Bancroft Prize winner!

I am very excited to learn that Nancy Tomes, one of my graduate school mentors and one of my favorite people in the profession,  is one of three winners of this prestigious prize in American History.

Here a taste of New York Times reporter Jennifer Schuessler’s article on the winners:

Books on the 1971 Attica prison uprising, the enslavement of Native Americans, and the health care system have won this year’s Bancroft Prize, considered one of the most prestigious honors in the field of American history.

Andrés Reséndez, a professor at the University of California, Davis, won for “The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which argues that it was mass slavery at the hands of Spanish conquistadors, rather than epidemics, that devastated the Native American population.

Heather Ann Thompson, a professor at the University of Michigan, won for “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy” (Pantheon), which drew on extensive documentation, including some that had never been seen before by scholars, to reconstruct the violent retaking of the prison and its decades-long legal aftermath.

Nancy Tomes, a professor at Stony Brook University, won for “Remaking the American Patient: How Madison Avenue and Modern Medicine Turned Patients Into Consumers” (University of North Carolina Press), which examined the origins of the notion that patients should “shop” for health care.

I took two research seminars with Nancy while doing my doctoral work at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.  In the first seminar I wrote a paper that was eventually published as “Wheelock’s World: Letters and the Communication of Revival in Great Awakening New England,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society (1999).  The second seminar paper I wrote for Nancy resulted in a chapter of my doctoral dissertation on religion in eighteenth-century New Jersey.  Later she served as a member of my dissertation committee (which was directed by Ned Landsman).  Her support and encouragement of my work was invaluable to me as a graduate student hoping to make it in the history profession.

Congratulations Nancy Tomes!

In Defense of Faculty Scholarship at Small Christian Colleges

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In the last six months I have had conversations with at least four different professors at four different small Christian colleges in the United States.  These professors were all lamenting the fact that the administrations at their colleges had recently made decisions to cut funding for faculty scholarship.  One school had severely limited the number of sabbaticals offered each year.  Another school had cut internal grant money for faculty working on scholarly projects.  Two professors said that administrators told them that their primary job was teaching and if they wanted to do scholarship they were certainly welcome to pursue such a course, but it would need to be done on their own time.  According to another professor, an administrator told him/her that faculty scholarship is not a bad thing, but in an “age of prioritization” the funding for such scholarship needed to be cut because, in the long run, it doesn’t put students in the seats.

The emotions of these professors ranged from angry to sad.  They all had really interesting research projects, but they did not have the resources or support to pursue them.  One professor had to turn down an external grant because the administration could not afford to have him be away from the classroom for an entire academic year.

I am sympathetic to the idea that faculty books and articles do not attract prospective students. (Although I am sure that if a faculty member at a small Christian college won a Pulitzer Prize the PR department and the administration would not hesitate to bring attention to such an achievement!).

I also understand that many small schools need to make serious budget cuts in order to keep the doors open.  But to cut funds and opportunities for faculty scholarship at small, largely teaching, institutions is a short-sighted approach that ultimately hurts students.

In the past year or so I have had other kinds of conversations with other colleagues in my field.  They have told me stories of students at small colleges who have won entrance to graduate school or landed jobs precisely because faculty at their institutions had published books and articles that gave the school academic and intellectual credibility.

This is especially relevant for small Christian colleges.  Since many prestigious graduate programs–especially in the humanities–are overwhelmingly secular in orientation, many of the faculty in these graduate programs tend to be suspect of Christian college graduates.  This is unfortunate since many students at Christian colleges are more than capable of doing work at the best graduate schools in the country.  But it is also a reality.  Let’s face it, an absolutely outstanding student at a small Christian college with high test scores needs to have a great vita and letters of reference if they are going to compete for a spot in a graduate program with an above-average student who went to college at Harvard or Yale.

Having said that, it doesn’t take much to convince faculty at prestigious graduate schools that Christian college alums are legitimate.  When graduate committees at these schools are familiar with the scholarly work of faculty at these small Christian colleges it legitimizes the academic quality of such colleges and the students who graduate from them.  I can think of many Messiah College history students who were accepted and funded at top schools around the country because someone in the history department at those schools knew about the scholarly work of one our faculty members.

Just this week I was talking to a history professor at a small Christian college who landed one of his students at a high-powered and very competitive graduate program because one of the graduate faculty in that program had read one of his books and cited it in his own scholarly work.

Also this week I met a student who just got accepted to one of the best graduate programs in his field.  When I learned about this I approached the student to offer my congratulations.  (I should add that I did not write a letter for this student.  I have never taught this student.  I had no idea he was even applying to this particular program.  And to the best of my memory this was the first time I had ever actually spoken more than a few words to him). When we chatted he told me that he was very nervous during his campus interview.  He was was worried about how his Messiah College degree would be received at this elite institution.  But during the course of the interview the director of the graduate program told him that he was familiar with my work and followed me on Twitter.  I have no doubt that this student was accepted to this program on his own merits, but the fact that the director knew the academic reputation of Messiah College certainly helped him. I hope he left the conversation thankful that Messiah supports faculty scholarship. I know I did.

Faculty do scholarly work for a number of reasons.  Some feel called to make contributions to knowledge.  Others may do it to pursue personal glory or prestige at their institutions or in their disciplines.  Still other do it as way of climbing the academic ladder, landing a better job, or securing higher speaking fees.  But we rarely frame faculty scholarship in terms of what it might do for our students. When it is framed this way, scholarship becomes less about the career or even professional development of the individual scholar-teacher and more about an act of service to the young men and women we encounter everyday in our classrooms.

How Does and Undergraduate Course in History Differ From a Graduate Course?

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Philip Jenkins, writing at The Anxious Bench, discusses the differences.

A taste:

So how does a graduate course differ from an undergraduate? To some extent, this is a question of degree (pun intended) or proportion. By the time you are dealing with graduate students, you expect them to have a foundation in understanding how history is written and understood, and also to be able to undertake independent work. The role of the professor should fade to that of a coordinator and organizer, who sets goals and directions, while the students undertake the bulk of the enterprise. The professor identifies the broad scope of the course, and within that describes particular topics and topic areas, suggesting readings and sources. Thereafter, the main responsibility passes to the class…

So much is familiar, but there are a couple of matters that have become massively more significant in graduate teaching in recent years, which again need to be in pretty much every course to some degree. One is that of professionalism, of learning to work within the academic world, and preparing for an academic career (which might take various forms). If a student takes a course on Topic X, they should ideally be laying the foundation to teach within that area if and when they find an academic job, at whatever level. One outcome of the course, then, is that a student should leave it knowing the outline of that field, understanding what it entails, what the main issues and debates are, who the main figures are. It is preparing the way to state accurately and honestly in a job interview that Yes, I am qualified to teach Topic X, and all the better if that topic area is one that is not overrun by other applicants. No, one course in itself does not give that expertise, but it should be the foundation.

The harder jobs are to find, the more essential this component of graduate teaching becomes.

Also, a course in humanities must to some degree teach about writing and publishing, even if there is no simple equation between the volume and quality of publication and the likelihood of finding a tenure track job. So much of the course involves reading and discussing books and articles, but these must never be seen as if they dropped from the skies. At every stage, readers have to ask how and why this particular author got a book or article into print, and why in that particular outlet.

Read the entire post here.

David Barton and Christians in Graduate School

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Over at The Pietist Schoolman,  Chris Gehrz, a Ph.D in European history from Yale, responds to David Barton’s “mini-tirade” against my supposedly pagan training in a secular graduate program.

Here is a taste:

…But in the spirit of seeing logs instead of specks… I want to take seriously Barton’s critique of Christian professors like John, Jared, and myself. Are we “just like” the Ivy League-trained scholars who trained us? Have we become Christians who “don’t think right”?

Though only a couple of the historians who trained me had been educated at Harvard and Yale, I’m probably even more guilty in Barton’s eyes: I received my master’s degrees and doctorate from Yale.

It was twenty years ago that I started that phase of my education, so it’s worth reflecting on how that experience shaped me. And I can’t dismiss Barton out of hand, for there is much about graduate schooling that is formative.

Grad schools don’t tend to make the same kinds of promises (“Transformational! Whole-person!”) as the Christian liberal arts colleges where John, Jared, and I work. But they do far more than deepen the knowledge, sharpen the skills, and expand the networks of their students. Graduate programs shape beliefs, values, and virtues (and vices).

How could it be otherwise? I started grad school two months before my 21st birthday, at a stage of life when I had considerable intellectual, emotional, and relational development left to complete. It was intimidating and intoxicating, as I found myself surrounded by people smarter than me, conducting cutting-edge research at a world-class institution. Far more than happens in most of those colleges that promised “low student-to-faculty ratios,” my peers and I were thrown into intimate pedagogical settings — tiny seminars held over meals in professors’ houses, one-on-one mentoring by dissertation directors. And because this stage of schooling is less about general education than professional preparation, we were seeking models of what it looks like to do what we so badly wanted to do with our lives.

Not that anyone actually emerges from that experience “fully trained,” but it’s not unreasonable to expect that we’ll look something like our teachers. In some ways I do, and am largely grateful for it — John Gaddis, Paul Kennedy, and my other professors are brilliant historians and conscientious teachers who taught me to seek truth as part of a community that spans borders and eras.

But here’s where Barton clearly doesn’t understand the graduate education of Christian history professors, perhaps because his own seems to have been quite different. In terms of my formation as a Christian scholar, graduate school did shape me — but not in the way Barton thinks.

Read the rest here.

Applying to Graduate School in History: A Guide and Timeline

scribesYesterday we did a post on choosing a public history graduate program.  Today I want to call your attention to Michael Hattem‘s excellent “Applying to Graduate School: A Guide and Timeline.” Hattem is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Yale writing a dissertation titled “Past and Prologue: History Culture and the American Revolution, 1730-1800.”

Needless to say, I will be sharing this with my students who are interested in graduate studies.  Thanks, Michael!

How to Choose and Thrive in a Graduate Public History Program

NavigatorOver the years the Messiah College History Department has sent several students into public history graduate programs.  I can think of a few that are actually starting their programs in a few weeks.

For those thinking about a career in public history or for those who are currently enrolled in such a program and want to make the best of it, the National Council on Public History has a published The Public History Navigator: How to Choose and Thrive in a Graduate Public History Program. You can access it here.

Do Graduate Admission Committees Discriminate Against Candidates From Religious Colleges?

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I have always believed that the  members of department admissions committees at elite graduate schools who choose potential students for history Ph.D programs honor good work and intelligence.  I tell my students who want to pursue graduate school that they will be judged on their test scores, college work, and letters of recommendation, and not on the fact that they attended a religious-oriented institution.

When my top students get  rejected from a graduate program I often wonder–I will admit it–if they were turned down because they attended Messiah College, a Christian college in the Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan tradition.  I have never been able to prove this and have never really had any interest in doing so.  I continue with my idealistic belief that Ph.D programs choose students based on test scores, college work, and letters of recommendation.  Such idealism is also based on the fact that I have had many students get accepted to first-rate graduate programs.

But very few, if any, of my students get accepted to the kinds of schools that Julie Posselt writes about in her new book Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Faculty Gatekeeping (Harvard University Press, 2016).  In my idealism I have always just assumed that entrance into these schools was extremely competitive.  And I continue to believe that the competitive nature of these universities is the best explanation for why my students have not been accepted over the years.

But Posselt also suggests that some of my hunches may be  correct. Here is a taste of Scott Jaschik’s Inside Higher Ed article on Posselt’s book:

In most cases Posselt observed, the committee members used banter and “friendly debate” when they disagreed with one another. They didn’t attack one another or get too pointed in criticizing colleagues. She describes one discussion she observed — in which committee members kept to this approach — that left her wondering about issues of fairness.

The applicant, to a linguistics Ph.D. program, was a student at a small religious college unknown to some committee members but whose values were questioned by others.

“Right-wing religious fundamentalists,” one committee member said of the college, while another said, to much laughter, that the college was “supported by the Koch brothers.”

The committee then spent more time discussing details of the applicant’s GRE scores and background — high GRE scores, homeschooled — than it did with some other candidates. The chair of the committee said, “I would like to beat that college out of her,” and, to laughter from committee members asked, “You don’t think she’s a nutcase?”

Other committee members defended her, but didn’t challenge the assumptions made by skeptics. One noted that the college had a good reputation in the humanities. And another said that her personal statement indicated intellectual independence from her college and good critical thinking.

At the end of this discussion, the committee moved the applicant ahead to the next round but rejected her there.

Posselt portrays the members of graduate admission committees at the universities where she drew her samples as insecure, concerned with ratings (does this mean U.S. News and World Report-style ratings?), obsessed with prestige, lacking diversity (both in terms of gender, race, and ideology), engaged in the worst forms of elitism, and discriminatory (in a bad way).

I imagine that Posselt’s book will receive some strong push back from elite universities.  Those who have served on graduate admissions committees will say that what Posselt describes in her book looks nothing like the way these committees are actually run.  Fair enough.  It does seem like Posselt has a small sampling.

But there seems to be enough here–at least from Jaschik’s summary (I have not read the book)–to confirm some of those unproven hunches.

Andrew Henry on Blogging and Graduate Students

Andrew Henry is a Ph.D candidate in Religious Studies at Boston University.  He is a scholar of Late Antiquity and the host and creator of Religion for Breakfast. Follow him @andrewmarkhenry Andrew is covering the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Atlanta for us this weekend.  Here is his first dispatch: “Religious Studies Blogging Comes of Age, but Grad Students Need Not Partake?”  –JF


Even a few years ago, academic bloggers of religion needed to defend their online endeavors to their colleagues. In a market where ideas are currency, why would you share these ideas publicly for free and especially without the careful vetting process of peer review?

It seems, though, that academic blogs of religion have come of age, or at least, that is what James McGrath announced at the start of the AAR/SBL panel on Blogging and Online Publishing. Formerly dominated by personal blogs, the religious studies blogosphere now features slickly designed sites ranging from non-profit web journals such as Ancient Jew Review to inter-disciplinary platforms like The Religious Studies Project which produces regular podcasts, interviews, and articles from leading scholars in the field.

The AAR/SBL panel featured several heavy-hitters to showcase this newly triumphant religion blogosphere—Bart Ehrman, Wil Gafney, and Lawrence Schiffman.

All three panelists shared a deep commitment to public engagement. An academic blog, they argued, can be a vital aspect to your teaching and research as you share complex ideas with a broader audience. Moreover, academic blogs offer an opportunity for academics to collaborate on projects, providing instant feedback to half-formed ideas that can eventually grow into a larger project such as an article or monograph.

Despite these benefits, all three panelists strongly cautioned graduate students away from blogging. Graduate students, according to Bart Ehrman, should be focused on their research. Blogging is a huge “time suck” that can slow down their progress toward finishing their dissertation. The other panelists warned that graduate students might inadvertently torpedo their careers by writing something that will be held against them in a hypothetical interview for a tenure-track job.  Of the three panelists, only Wil Gafney saw some benefit in graduate students blogging, though she did note the possible negative effects blogging could have on job searches outweighed the benefits. 

It seems that academic blogging is great, but, according to this panel, the risks outweigh the benefits.

After tweeting this unanimous opinion, something of a firestorm erupted on Twitter. Several newly-minted tenured professors cited their blog as a critical factor that secured their job. Others stridently defended graduate student blogging, saying blogs can help hone writing ability, develop ideas, and forge professional relationships between academics.

In a battle of anecdotal evidence, though, what advice should graduate students follow? The blogosphere of religious studies has clearly justified its existence, but where the graduate student fits into this community still remains tenuous.

Historians Are Teachers

Jim Grossman, the Executive Director of the American Historical Association, believes that teaching is at the heart of what it means to be a historian.  He is right.  Ph.D programs must recognize this.


Here is a taste of his recent column in Perspectives on History:

Most of our largest PhD programs train students for positions that only a small minority will attain: tenurable appointments in “high research activity” institutions. Among history PhDs graduated between 1998 and 2009 who currently teach in higher education, approximately 75 percent are either outside “high research activity” institutions or off the tenure track. This means that the process and products embodied in much of graduate education—writing books and scholarly articles, teaching lecture courses and highly specialized seminars, and perhaps even preparing grant proposals for major fellowships—leave aside the principal issues and tasks that faculty at teaching-oriented institutions must engage. And those that faculty even at high-level research universities ought to engage.

We do not train our PhD students to see their profession as “teacher.” This might be inevitable, even appropriate. The PhD is, after all, a research degree. The craft of publication through books and articles stands at the center of graduate education in history, as it does in many other disciplines. At the same time, a historian is a scholar who not only creates new knowledge, but also disseminates insights across a variety of platforms, many of them in the classroom. The ways that digital tools now dissolve the boundaries between scholarship and teaching make this an opportune time to address these long-standing issues. The AHA has already resolved to put its imprimatur on and resources into elevating digital dissemination of knowledge onto the same plane as print. If we believe in putting teaching on that plane as well, too few of us have communicated that belief to graduate students. We have failed to integrate the teaching of history into the profession of being a historian—other than by example, or perhaps by sending our students across campus to teaching and learning centers generally considered marginal to the main pathway.

These centers have made great strides in improving the quality of teaching on their campuses, offering graduate students and junior faculty the resources that their home departments have not. Academic job candidates now brandish teaching portfolios and have benefited from videotaping and coaching unavailable a generation ago. Still, department chairs tell us that few job candidates are able to establish a dialogue between these portfolios and the curriculum at the institution to which they are applying. Worse, conversations about teaching that occur outside the context of disciplinary learning and practice remain marginal to the pursuit of a PhD in most disciplines. History faculty generally consider such training a valuable supplement, rather than seeing it as part of “becoming a historian.”

But it should be. Teaching is an essential skill for every historian, whether in a secondary school, college classroom, museum, archive, historical site, or even the public square, presenting evidence persuasively to legislators and fellow citizens. Historians teach. Learning how to teach should be equal to and intertwined with learning to become a research scholar.

If teaching history—including content not directly related to a scholar’s ongoing research agenda—is integral to being a professional historian, then it is essential to becoming one. It’s one thing to have the ability to plan a course and choose readings carefully and knowledgeably, something that many of our graduate students have already begun integrating into their portfolios. It’s another to shift our vocabulary of teaching to a discourse on learning, an approach to undergraduate education now largely relegated to the centers for teaching and learning, with inadequate integration into discipline-centered training.

Read the rest here.

Connecting Your Past and Future: Charting a Career in History

Today I have been following the Twitter feed–#PhDCareer–of a one-day conference in Washington D.C. on careers in history.  This looks like a great event.  It is sponsored by the National Council for Public History, the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the Smithsonian Institution.

While many of the tweeters have Ph.Ds in history, a lot of the advice also applies to undergraduates and masters-level students who want to use their history majors and degrees in work outside of the academy. Unfortunately, the link to the program and speakers seems to be broken.

Here are just a few of my retweets so far:

Historiann "Brings the Fire"


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Earlier today I published a post on Robert Zaretsky’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which the University of Houston professor laments, among other things, the failure of historians to tell stories in their work.  He also points to an earlier generation of historians who seemed to have a larger audience and more cultural influence because they wrote for the public.  Finally, he offers a pretty depressing account of life in graduate school.


Historiann, aka Anne Little, the prolific blogger and Colorado State University history professor, is having none of it.  Here is a taste of her post:

Seriously?  The “we’ve forgotten how to tell stories” line again?… Whenever I see that old line trotted out about “dying a death by a thousand monographs,” I see someone getting ready to push someone else out of the lifeboat, or at least hear him tell some kids to get off his lawn.

Enough of the “golden age” fantasies about the awesome, well-paid, and always well-respected scholars of yore.  When is your imagined “golden age” for history in these United States–the early and mid-nineteenth century, when only Gentlemen Scholars wrote history and bent it to their Protestant, white, male, triumphalist ends?  Just how many of those historians were actually making a living at it?  Just about none?  Alrighty then.

Or is your “golden age” the so-called “progressive” era, when loads of German-speakers had university jobs but lost them in World War I, because it would be a bad thing to be able to read and write an enemy language?  Was it the post-World War II era, when the G.I. Bill permitted universities like mine (formerly “Colorado A&M–for eighth-grade graduates!”) to expand, but at the same time Cold War politics meant firing a lot of faculty for their current or past Communist ties (or for the mere suspicion of Communism?)  Was it the fat and happy 1960s, when faculty were hired in great numbers but also fired for supporting students in the antiwar movement?  (It happened in my department back in the day.)
And in all of these previous eras, someone like me would have been as unwelcome as a fly at a picnic, because university faculties were overwhelmingly white and male.  I’m white, but as they say:  close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades!  
Guess what, friends?  I hate to break it to you, but being an intellectual has never been a very good career move in the United States.  So as I see it, our options are 1) don’t become a historian, 2) become a historian and try not to offend anyone with your informed opinions, or 3) (my choice) enjoy your outlaw status, whether or not you collect a paycheck.  Piss some people off!  Write a few books because no one else will!  Start a blog!  Start a podcast!  Make friends, influence people!  If you have tenure, use it.  Enjoy fame, if not fortune, on social media.
Two thoughts:
First, I love the last paragraph above.  Thanks, Ann!
Second, Historiann may not be white or male, but she does have tenure (I assume) and thus has the security to let it rip in posts like this. I am guessing that most graduate students and pre-tenure professors, whether they like it or not, relate more to Zaretsky’s description of academic life. 

Why the Ph.D is Killing History

Robert Zaretsky, a history professor at the University of Houston, joins the chorus of historians lamenting the way Ph.D students are trained.  Here is a taste of his essay at The Chronicle of Higher Education: “The Future of History.”

…Consider the tempo of life in graduate school: It moves at the same glacial pace as did life during the age of Phillip. Still governed by guildlike regulations and socio-professional traditions that our early-modern ancestors would recognize, the careers of grad students advance as languidly as trade caravans once did across North Africa.

Trudging slowly across the desert of coursework and dissertation research, grad students pass the many skeletons of peers who had, without success, launched themselves along the same route. As they pass the oases of independent cafes and bookstores, a good number of these exhausted explorers will quit their trek and join the tribe Aibeedee. Their professional lives will come to resemble what one of Braudel’s students, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, called l’histoire immobile, when history seems to idle, if not stall and stop altogether.

For those who survive the desert passage, and reach the port of a tenure-track position, time shudders back into movement. Just barely, though. The seven-year span of time during which your worth will be weighed and fate determined will move as sluggishly as a ship across the Sargasso Sea. The seaweed of service committees will cling to your hull as you wallow in the becalmed waters of academic presses. The process of revise and resubmit for articles you had already chiseled to perfection, the sending out of book proposals to editors who mix short bouts of interest with long periods of silence, the larding of dozens of obscure footnotes demanded by anonymous manuscript readers will make Philip’s Mediterranean seem like the floor of the NYSE in comparison to the static sense of tenure-line life.
The pace of life does not change dramatically for most of those who reach the El Dorado of tenure. Committee servitude deepens as post-publication lassitude descends; now that your dissertation has (finally) become a book, your life has (suddenly) lost its compass. Often, of course, another monograph will take root and slowly flower during la longue tenurée,accompanied by the annual harvest of a lone scholarly article. But academic time, at least when measured against the professional world beyond academe, continues to move with Braudelian languor.
It is hardly surprising, then, that we are unprepared for the tempo and temper of the times. We have handicapped ourselves, in addition, by a process of professional fission, fracturing into a growing number of subdisciplines. As our profession continued to sprawl, we fastened on ever smaller matters, and phrased our work in ever more arcane jargon. Mostly indifferent to the art of storytelling, we have been dying a death by a thousand monographs.

The Human Side of the Liberal Arts

Franklin’s Junto

For many college students, liberal arts courses are the courses that they need to “get out of the way” in order to get on to the important courses in their professional-oriented major–business, education, engineering, nursing, etc…  For administrators and the gurus of higher education who write for the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed, the liberal arts are just another piece of the curriculum–something that needs to be delivered as part of a complete college education.


But in the past few weeks–really in the past few days–I have been reminded that the liberal arts, and especially the humanities, are about people engaging ideas in community.  The questions about the meaning of life raised by the study of the liberal arts are often asked in the context of friendship, sociability, and conversation.  The liberal arts are about human beings.  And they are best cultivated by human beings in relationship with other human beings. 

Here are three real-life examples:

1,  This semester I am teaching a course on Pennsylvania history.  A couple of weeks ago I introduced my students to Benjamin Franklin’s Junto–a society of artisans and tradesmen who gathered together in Philadelphia for the mutual improvement of its members.  The Junto members sharpened their intellect and sense of civic responsibility through discussions of the major issues facing Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and British provincial society.  

As I often do when talking about the Junto, I got on my soapbox for a few minutes and challenged my students to form their own Juntos–to gather together in their dorms or over a meal together in the college dining hall, to discuss the things that matter, the so-called “first things.” These kinds of regular conversations, coupled with formal college coursework, just might result in an education.

2.  This week I had the honor of serving as an outside reader on a doctoral dissertation defense in early American history.  I was not able to be present for the defense, so I spent most of the two-hour session with the phone on my ear until I was given my fifteen-minute opportunity to grill the candidate.  The next-to-last person to question the candidate was the professor who served as the candidate’s doctoral adviser. She began her comments by saying that it was a privilege  to work with this young historian. After spending so many years working closely with this doctoral student, conversing about history and other things that matter, and developing a friendship with the student, the adviser seemed sad to see it all come to an end.  She described her work with this student as one of the highlights of her life. As I sat quietly on the end of the phone, I found myself deeply moved by these remarks.  It was clear to me that the adviser’s relationship with the student–a friendship forged over the ideas that stemmed from their high-level engagement together with the past–should serve as a model for the transformative power of the liberal arts when practiced in community with others.

3.  This morning I read an op-ed in my local newspaper by my friend Eric Miller, a history professor at Geneva College.  The piece is a moving reflection on the life of Eric’s friend and Geneva colleague Howard Mattson-Boze, who recently passed a way.  Here is a taste of that piece:

In the liberal arts Howard was a master.  He knew the lineage that had formed him so finely, and delighted in it. 

A conversation with Howard took one from ancient Athens through medieval Paris to nineteenth century London in ten minutes flat. He dipped into Kierkegaard in the spirit of a boy playing baseball in spring. 

As he spoke, whether across the table or behind a lectern, his eyes gleamed with contagious purpose.

When he died this past January many former students remembered the discussions he and his wife hosted through the years, evenings spent on “the deep questions of life,” as one, now himself a professor, put it. 

Howard taught, in the words of another, “the classical liberal ideas that we live by today.”

This was simply what college was for, to Howard. More particularly, it was what he thought our college was for, despite countervailing winds. The ideals that spark our way do not live by books alone, he knew, but through people–people living in places structured for their preservation and advance. 

Howard believed that without generosity of mind and depth of spirit this world is a harsher place. About the ideas themselves, about their truth, we might–we will–disagree. 

But apart from a foundation of respect for ideas and their centrality in our lives, all debates about their worth, and about the world itself, move from incivility to hostility to worse. And the great hope of liberal society, of a place where we live together in honor of the dignity of life, fades like fall. 

The liberal arts aren’t the only pathway toward our highest ends, to be sure.  But they have aided decisively all pathways we’ve ever known, keeping them clear, straight, and manifest. 

The darkness many of us feel today, in an age marked by so vicious and spurious a form of “realism,” may in part be the fruit of the liberal arts fading among us, leaving us, inevitably, less free.

I know what counsel Howard would offer.  He would urge deep, costly institutional commitments to preserve and prosper liberal learning. 

Do we have the will to heed it?  

The liberal arts are about people.

I Will Be Teaching an Online Course On Colonial North America with Gilder-Lehrman in Fall 2015

I am happy to report that I will be doing an online graduate course for the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History this coming Fall.  Learn more about it here.  

A taste:

COLONIAL NORTH AMERICA

Too often the history of the “American colonies” focuses on the thirteen British provinces that rebelled against the mother country in 1776 and formed what became known as the United States. While such an approach allows us to understand the British roots of our current national identity, it fails to do justice to those regions of North America (many of which eventually became part of the United States) and those people and groups that did not participate in the grand experiment of American independence.
This course will examine North American history during the period of European colonization. Rather than thinking about colonial America as a necessary forerunner to the American Revolution or the birth of the United States, we will make an effort to understand colonial life on its own terms. Though we will not ignore the British colonies on the eastern seaboard, we will also examine the colonial experiences of the French, Spanish, Dutch, and other European nations. In the process, we will critique the so-called “Whig” interpretation of the colonies and think together about how this particular period in the American past provides a laboratory for teaching historical-thinking skills in the K–12 classroom.

SCHEDULE

  • The course will meet for live sessions on ten evenings in the fall from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Specific dates will be announced soon.
  • The course will present two types of sessions:
    • Six seminar lecture and discussion sessions led by Professor John Fea
    • Four pedagogy sessions that demonstrate how to bring the content into middle and high school classrooms
  • All sessions will be recorded and available to watch on-demand.
  • Regular attendance is strongly encouraged, but not mandatory.

READINGS & ASSIGNMENTS

These details will be announced when we launch registration on July 6, 2015.

COSTS

  • Graduate participants may join live sessions and complete assignments in pursuit of 3.0 graduate credits from Adams State University for $600.
  • Auditors may watch session recordings and pursue a Continuing Education Certificate of Completion for $25. Teachers from Gilder Lehrman Affiliate Schools may audit for just $15. Please note that auditors are not permitted to take part in the live sessions.

REGISTRATION

Registration begins July 6 and concludes August 24, 2015, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time. Please note that the credit-bearing graduate section of the course is limited to 100 participants and may fill before the registration period ends.

LEAD SCHOLAR


John Fea

John Fea is professor of history and chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, where he has taught early American history for thirteen years. He is the author or editor of four books, including the award-winning Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction and The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America. Fea writes and speaks widely to both academic and popular audiences. He is an Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer and has been awarded fellowships by the American Philosophical Society, Mount Vernon, the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, and the New Jersey Historical Commission, among others. He blogs daily atwww.philipvickersfithian.com.

Christian Historians and Social Media: Part 4

Paul Putz (tall guy in the back row wearing a jacket, blue shirt, and dark tie) was part of a very distinguished group of faculty and graduate students from Baylor University who attended the CFH meeting in Malibu

Today is Paul Putz‘s turn to post the presentation he gave at the Christian Historians and Social Media panel at the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  Paul is a graduate student in history at Baylor University. I thought his presentation added a much-needed perspective on how we historians can and should use social media. Paul was MUCH more prepared for this session than I was.  While I tried to string together some random thoughts scribbled on a small piece of paper, Paul read a stirring paper that did a wonderful job of linking the practice of blogging with Christian virtues.  Somebody hire this guy!

For an introduction to the session and the series of posts that have appeared this week, see Jonathan Den Hartog’s post at Historical Conversations.  I also live-tweeted the session from the platform. You can read those tweets @johnfea1 or #cfh2014.  You can also read my contribution to the roundtable here.  Chris Gehrz’s contribution to the roundtable can be found at his blog, The Pietist Schoolman.

Here is a taste of Paul’s post:


I’ll begin with a potential drawback to online engagement: the issue of time management. Blogging and tweeting does not a historian make. I cannot put on my CV, “Had link to a blog post retweeted by Paul Harvey.” As a graduate student, I need to be learning how to understand and engage with the scholarship of historians who have come before me. I need to be digging into archives, writing and reading as much as possible, and learning how to effectively teach undergraduates. There is no doubt that blogging, tweeting, and facebooking can take up time that should be going towards developing the skills needed to be a historian.

With that said, thinking of online activity as merely superfluous to the serious work of the graduate student misses its potential to help one develop the skills needed to be a historian. After all, I do have the option to choose what I blog about. Most of my blog posts are either condensed versions of research I have done for a paper or for a class, or they are reviews of books that I would likely read even if I wasn’t going to blog about them. The blogging, then, becomes a public expression and extension of the activities that I am already doing (or should be doing) as a graduate student. With book reviews in particular, it forces me to carefully read and assess a book and think about how it fits in with relevant historiography. Since my words will be public for all to see, and since the author himself or herself might read my review, there is an added pressure for me to fairly describe the shape and argument of the book.

Of course, this awareness that anyone – and particularly, that established historians – could read what I write leads to another potential problem: the desire for affirmation. As a graduate student, I should be developing my own voice and beginning the process of stepping out with confidence in my own assessments. The unseen pressure of an imagined audience of historians waiting to pick apart a misstated phrase can hinder that process. This problem is not unique to online writing, however. Graduate students experience the same anxiety, perhaps on a smaller scale, when writing papers for their professors. Online writing, then, can become another arena in which to fight a tendency already present in the offline classroom. As for other measures of affirmation that are unique to the online experience – page views, favorites, likes, and retweets – I will have more to say later in this paper.