A White Teacher is Removed from Teaching a Michigan High School Course in African-American History

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Recently an African-American staff writer at the Bridge Magazine in Michigan wrote an opinion piece criticizing an African-American history course at Groves High School in Birmingham, Michigan.  Chastity Pratt Dawsey was not happy that her children, who were enrolled in the course, were required to watch movies such, Boyz in the Hood and Do the Right Thing, view the documentary “Inside Bloods and Crips,” and read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.  Dawsey was especially upset that the course, taught by a white teacher, did not give enough attention to the accomplishments of African Americans.

Dawsey posted the syllabus from Scott Craig‘s African-American history course.  I think she thought that by posting the syllabus it would strengthen her argument.  In my view, the syllabus actually reveals that Craig is a very good history teacher.  The syllabus includes readings from Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Howard Zinn, Martin Luther King Jr., Winthrop Jordan, Ulrich Philips, Kenneth Stamp, and Marcus Garvey.  Craig’s list of movies include Amistad12 Years a Slave, and Glory.

The syllabus also notes:

Students will be exposed to readings and films that have distinct points of view.  One skill we will work on is recognizing and evaluating point of view.  Some of the readings will contradict each other, and students will have to wrestle with differentiating and deciding which POV is most value…

The course covers the following topics: police brutality and African Americans, the success and failure of Affirmative Action, white flight, poverty and racism, the 1967 Detroit riot, the successes of the black middle class, African American political leadership, De Jure v. De Facto racism, segregation and resegregation, gangs and gang culture, and cultural appropriation.

Sounds like a great class.  Can I take it?

But the story does not end here.  The superintendent of Birmingham Public Schools apologized to parents for permitting this course to be taught.  He apologized because the “resources listed in the course pilot syllabus failed to meet the depth and breadth of African American history.”  That is actually the only thing the letter says about the content of the course.  Apparently many in Birmingham’s African-American community believe that an African-American should be teaching the course.

And now Scott Craig, the teacher of this course, has weighed in. Craig has been teaching social studies in Michigan for thirty-two years and appears to be very popular among students.  In 2013, he ran for a spot in the Michigan state house as a Democrat. In August 2017, he was Birmingham’s delegate to a National Association of Education Conference on the subject of equity and integrity in education. In 2018 he marched, on behalf of his students, in a “March for Our Lives” rally against gun violence.  He has an M.A. in African American and Labor History from Wayne State University.   We should also add that he designed the African-American history course in question because he thought African-American history was not getting a fair shake in his school district.

Here is a taste of his piece: “I am the Michigan teacher removed from teaching African-American History.”

While the original article may leave readers with the impression that some random white guy was assigned to teach the African-American course, I created the course out of a deep commitment to civil rights and ending prejudice. I come from a family where both parents were involved in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. I have a master’s degree in African American and Labor History from Wayne State University. And I’ve been a participant in nearly every district initiative around issues of race and diversity. I’m the sponsor of the Diversity Club (25 years) at neighboring Seaholm High that organizes school exchanges and provides a forum for open discussion. I’ve also organized 12 of our past 15 MLK Day assemblies at Seaholm.

I created the course because I saw a need. American history texts hardly mention African Americans from Reconstruction until Rosa Parks. Then, they drop most discussion about African Americans after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. They also gloss over the rich debate and controversies within the African-American community as they faced over 100 years of second-class citizenship after Reconstruction. Most white students in Birmingham have little understanding about the real history and conditions faced by African Americans. Many of our black students are truly interested in learning more about their history.

Both the Bridge column and the superintendent’s letter to the staff and community portrayed the course as shallow, inappropriate and as somehow avoiding proper review. This was not the case.  

In 2015, I researched existing African-American history syllabi, mostly taught in colleges. I examined and selected the best, most challenging readings ‒ such as works by Malcolm X, Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois ‒ and chose films that reflected a variety of points of view.  

The course was reviewed and approved in 2015 by my principal, department head, and our district Education Council that included three or four African-American parents. Approval was unanimous and widely praised, especially by the African-American parents on the Council. The course was reviewed again and I created a longer curriculum guide in the summer of 2018. The administrators who reviewed it also offered praise.

While my name was not used in Bridge or in the letter, within days hundreds of staff and community members figured out I was the teacher. I decided to speak openly in defense at a district board meeting Feb. 26, especially when I learned members of BAAFN, the parent group protesting my class, would be speaking.

At the meeting, I listened as the head of the parent group argued for a revamped curriculum approved by the parents, and a black teacher to teach this course. By the time I spoke, 35 to 40 district teachers had contacted me. All of them offered support, and most of them expressed the fear that they could be next.

As I was leaving, I was stopped individually by five African Americans. One was a district teacher who expressed strong support and said he wanted to speak, but his wife told him he could not risk his job. Others were parents. One said she did not know who I was or my background at the time that I was dismissed from teaching the class. The district had not offered much explanation. Another parent said her son was in my class, liked it, and that about a dozen students talked about staging a sit-in at the principal’s office demanding to know why their teacher had been removed.

Read the entire article here.  What is going on here?

Episode 47: Reacting to the Past

PodcastHere on the podcast, we love pedagogy. We’ve dedicated a number of episodes to the ways different historians and instructors are innovating in the classroom. Today we’re turning our attention to one such approach: Reacting to the Past. These large-scale role-playing games allow students to fully appreciate the context and contingency of history by simulating historical events. We are joined by Nicolas Proctor, one of the architects of the Reacting to the Past (@ReactingTTPast) methodology,

Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).

“And don’t forget your flashdrive”

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Do you have an on-campus interview coming up?  Most likely you will be required to teach a class.  History teaching guru Kevin Gannon, aka @thetattooedprof, offers some tips as you prepare your demonstration.

Here is a taste:

Plan to use more than one teaching method in your demonstration, just as you would in your own classroom practice. Straight lecture for 50 minutes might demonstrate your command of the material, but it’s not going to engage the students or search-committee members in the audience. Conversely, devoting the entire session to, say, group work without providing any scaffolding or context for the material might also produce suboptimal results — you might have an engaging, interactive style, but the substance won’t necessarily be there.

If you’re not sure how to navigate this question of balance, talk to the more-experienced practitioners in your department. Their experiences might help you clarify your own thoughts about the task in front of you.

Ideally, the search committee and/or a departmental representative will share enough information and suggestions to make your planning process relatively easy. If not, though, don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions. An email — with wording like “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to teach a sample class for your department. As I plan the session, I was wondering if I could get a little more information about …” — is a perfectly acceptable step to take.

The teaching demo may be a different scenario from what you were prepared to encounter on the job market, but it’s an opportunity to make an extended and thorough case for your potential value to a department. If you’re in the fortunate position to be planning a teaching talk for a campus interview, I wish you the best of luck.

Read the entire piece here.  And check out our interview with Gannon in Episode 26 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Sam Wineburg’s Twitter Thread About Wikipedia

Some great stuff here from Sam Wineburg:

Out of the Zoo: “Finding a Calling in the History Classroom”

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Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she reflects on how she brings together her passion for history and her passion for ministry. Enjoy! –JF

Like many other college freshmen, when I started attending Messiah College last fall I had lots of doubts–concerning my major, my future career path, and my calling in general. For my first semester I was enrolled as a history major with a concentration in public history. I knew history was something I enjoyed, and something I was relatively good at. I pictured myself working at the Smithsonian or a national historic site someday, doing research or designing displays or preserving artifacts.  However, fresh from a year serving as an intern for my youth group and a summer working as a counselor at a Christian day camp, I wondered if perhaps I would be better suited for ministry.

So what did I choose? Well, by the description of this column you can probably infer that I haven’t switched my major to ministry, but it turns out I didn’t stick with the public history track either. I actually turned down a different path entirely and decided to add a teaching certificate into the mix.

Despite the numerous times adults have asked me if I’m planning to teach with my history major, until this year I never once pictured myself going into education. As a high school student, I was ready to get out of grade school and run away as fast as my legs could carry me. I didn’t think I had enough patience to teach. I convinced myself I would never be captivating enough to hold the attention of 20-30 kids for an extended period of time.

Sometime after high school, though, the walls I had built against any aspirations to become an educator began to fall. Working with kids all summer and learning to keep their attention tore down a few bricks. Being told by several peers that I would make a great teacher destroyed a few more. What made them all come tumbling down, though, was my realization that becoming a teacher had the potential to combine both my passions–history and ministry.

If you’ve read the first installment of this column, you know that one of my favorite things about history is its ability to make the past come to life; by choosing history education over public history, I would still be doing that–except I would be bringing the past to life for kids in a classroom, rather than the general public in a museum. Pursuing a career in education will also allow me to practice ministry. No, I won’t be able to read scripture in class or evangelize from behind my desk (especially because I want to work in public schools) but I will be given the opportunity to represent Christ to my students, their parents, and my coworkers as well and as often as I can. I am a firm believer in the idea that ministry isn’t about the title–it’s about God’s love. If your goal is to show God’s accepting, forgiving, never-ending love to the people you work with, anyone can be a minister, no matter what their profession.

Enrollment in History Courses is Holding Steady

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Here is the latest from the American Historical Association:

After years of declines, undergraduate enrollments in history courses held steady in the last academic year. Last summer, the AHA conducted its third annual survey of history departments and joint academic units, and received 120 complete responses for the past four academic years, the most recent of which was 2017–18. The responses suggest that the overall number of undergraduate students enrolled in history courses changed little from 2016–17. Enrollments slipped down less than 0.5 percent at US institutions. When Canadian institutions are included in the total, enrollments were almost identical (up less than 0.01 percent).

Read the rest of Julia Brookins‘s piece at Perspectives on History here.

A Secondary Teacher (with a Ph.D) Reflects on Her Day at #AHA19

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Megan Jones of The Pingry School is back with another post from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.  In this post, Megan reflects on a “potpourri of panels” from Friday’s program.  (Read all of Megan’s posts here).  Enjoy!  –JF

A Potpourri of Panels – A Selection

Ingredient #1/Session #51: Teaching World History Through Cities.

I have taught modern World History before and have never been happy with my grasp of the material or the framework I’ve used. My school is revamping our World curriculum for the 9th grade and I’m interested in what higher-ed professors do to frame their courses. Using cities as a device is interesting, but as a person who grew up in a rural area I always find that urban focus a bit eye-roll-inducing. You cannot entirely represent the world in urban spaces, ESPECIALLY during the premodern era. But yeah, I get that cities are interesting and useful and the source material is more readily available. Maribel Dietz at LSU gave a really interesting presentation about her course on sport and spectacle in premodern cities, and the ways she uses her own campus to illustrate the role of sport in culture. (From the literal tigers in the Roman Coliseum to the figurative Tigers of LSU, so to speak.) Experiential education is all the rage in the secondary independent school world, and I’ve done a bit of such teaching for faculty and students. Dietz’s assertion that the best teaching is done on site when you can point to the actual physical space under consideration resonated with me; of course, not everyone has access to the resources one needs to physically transport students to a space in which students can interrogate the place and its built environment.

Ingredient #2/Session 72: Loyalists in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions.

Kaci Tillman’s work on women Loyalists in the Delaware valley during the American Revolution sounds fascinating, particularly in that her work reveals how some women (mostly Quakers) operated as autonomous agents – to the extent they could – within the legal and political context of the late 18th century. Tillman highlighted one subject who identified as a “neutralist” and entirely rejected the Patriot/Loyalist dichotomy. Another woman purposely confused Patriot soldiers as Hessians and performed the part of an ignorant woman, throwing the Patriots off the scent of a Loyalist man whom she was harboring in her attic. These are the perfect examples of anecdotes to use when presenting a paper at an academic conference – I cannot take it when historians do not reference actual individuals in their work. Additionally, the women’s historian part of me had a thrill when Mary Beth Norton stood up during the Q&A to encourage Tillman and another panelist to dialogue about the notions of masculinity and femininity present during this time, and how that informed our understanding of the Revolution as a whole. When is Tillman’s book coming out? And, I really need to read Norton’s book on Salem.

Ingredient #3/CCWH Session 10: The Coordinating Council for Women in History

The CCWH hosted a roundtable discussion covering new directions in the field, this one focused on sexuality and reproduction. The first discussant, Sanjam Ahluwalia, referenced a recent article by two white male historians lamenting the “suicide” of the discipline, in which they partly blame the decline of the discipline on historians who’ve turned to topics (namely, social and cultural history) that have little direct relevance (they argue) to the larger political and diplomatic context of the world. I don’t quite agree with the article and its assertion that the social and cultural turn has led to the decline in history majors, nor do I agree with the apparent categorical dismissal of the article by the roundtable audience. However, I do agree with what Deirdre Cooper Owens said in her analysis of why gender studies is so critiqued nowadays – because academic history is now being written by people who are not white, not male, not cisgendered, etc. And it is not only focused on white men; Owens said she focused her work on the [black female] patient – and that this was not rocket science. As a number of panelists mentioned, the importance of women’s history (which is often paired with gender history) is that women are centered and that centering changes the story entirely. Gender history challenges the binary nature of culture and society, and that is disconcerting for many.

Thanks, Megan!

Historians on Assessment

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In his recent book Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone), Stanford University professor Sam Wineburg challenges history teachers to develop new assessments of student learning to see if the study of history really does teach the skills we claim it teaches. (Wineburg is scheduled to visit The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast in the next few weeks to talk about the book). The chapter in Why Learn History is based on research conducted by Wineburg’s the Stanford History Education Group.  You can read more about that work here.

Yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, a group of history educators explored some of Wineburg’s findings in a session titled “What Are We Learning?”: Innovative Assessments and Student Learning in College-Level History Classes.”  Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed reported on the session.   Here is a taste:

CHICAGO — A 2018 paper by members of the Stanford History Education Group called out historians for failing to value evidence of student learning as much as they value evidence in their historical analyses.

The authors’ occasion for rebuke? Their recent finding that many students don’t learn critical thinking in undergraduate history courses — a challenge to history’s sales pitch that its graduates are finely tuned critical thinkers.

Even among juniors and seniors in a sample of public university students in California, just two out of 49 explained that it was problematic to use a 20th-century painting of “The First Thanksgiving” to understand the actual 1621 event, wrote lead author Sam Wineburg, Margaret Jacks Professor of Education and professor of history at Stanford University, and his colleagues.

The paper, which included other similar examples, was distressing. But it wasn’t meant to damning — just a wake-up call, or, more gently, a conversation starter. And that conversation continued Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. A panel of professors here urged a sizable crowd of colleagues to embrace not just grades but formative, ongoing assessment to gauge student learning or lack thereof in real(er) time.

Suggested formative assessments include asking students to engage with primary-source documents such as maps, paintings, eyewitness event accounts, newspaper ads and unconventional historical artifacts via specific prompts. Others include asking students to examine a symbol of American nationhood, a local historical site or how pundits use history to advance arguments.

Panelist Lendol Calder, professor of history at Augustana College in Illinois, ran a study very similar to Wineburg’s on his own campus, and said the disappointing results held up. In general, he said, students either take any historical source at face value or — when they discover it was created by a human being — dismiss it outright as “biased,” he said, to chuckles.

Partly in response to that finding, Calder and his colleagues have doubled down on their ongoing campaign to discuss historical “sourcing” in every single class. That is part of a larger, existing departmental motto: LASER, an acronym for Love history, Acquire and analyze information, Solve difficult problems, Envision new explanations, and Reveal what you know. Sourcing work, which Calder called a “threshold concept” in history, means asking students to evaluate the reliability of various historical texts. Who made it? When? Why? What value does it hold for historians, if any?

Read the rest here.

The Relevance of the Enlightenment (#AHA19)

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John Locke

We are thrilled to have Megan Jones, a history teacher at The Pingry School in Martinsville, New Jersey, writing for us this weekend from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.  Here is her first dispatch.  –JF

I’ve been to a number of academic or educational conferences at this point, although not too many AHA conferences. The AHA was always something to be dreaded as a grad student, because attendance meant you were probably on the job market and had to contend with the “cattle call” of the job fair. I’m fortunate to be past that phase now, with a job as a history teacher at an independent secondary school. So now I feel more comfortable attending the AHA and truly taking advantage of the fact that one can hear about the state of a plethora of fields at this national conference. Also, as a high school teacher who currently only teaches surveys, I’m hoping that I can actually learn something about fields with which I have no/little knowledge. It’s with that spirit that I came to Chicago and chose the panels I did and will attend.

This afternoon, I attended a roundtable entitled “Continuing Relevance of the Enlightenment,” with Jennifer Pitts (Chicago), Holly Brewer (Maryland), Pamela Edwards (Yale), Jonathan Israel (Princeton), and James T. Kloppenberg (Harvard). Glad I did, because not only do I teach about the Enlightenment in some fashion in all of my American, European, or World history survey courses but I also have absolutely no knowledge about the historiography of the Enlightenment. The conversation that emerged from this roundtable was a good primer for me, who has not had the time to absorb the literature about the Enlightenment. One of the important through-lines that cropped up was the focus on religious beliefs and religious conflict as important context for the Enlightenment and for today.

Holly Brewer opened her remarks by stating that she is sympathetic to a number of criticisms that many currently have about the Enlightenment and its thinkers (namely about race and slavery), but that we should not “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” to use the same cliché she did. [Note: Jamelle Bouie wrote a very good piece about the “dark side” of the Enlightenment for Slate in June, which I recommended to my colleagues in the summer and which Jonathan Israel also mentioned today as a good example of such criticism.] Brewer encouraged “subtlety and not simplicity” when it comes to discussions about the Enlightenment, and that we need to recognize that the past is complex and imperfect (as is the present, obviously). She discussed her research on John Locke and his analysis of St. Paul’s letters, which garnered significant attention upon its publication. In Brewer’s talk, she pointed out that Locke’s analysis of St. Paul’s commentary on governmental authority in Romans 13 and slavery in Ephesians 6 illustrated many of the major debates of the Enlightenment period. She connected this focus on religious criticism in the Enlightenment to the modern day by mentioning that the White House hosts Bible study sessions, and that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 at one of these gatherings. Apparently, President Donald J. Trump sees himself in Isaiah 45, with its focus on God’s pledge to “subdue nations before him.” [this is my chosen quote, I don’t actually know what segment of Isaiah 45 Trump supposedly referenced]. Brewer’s comments implied that historians today need to focus more on the religious aspects of the Enlightenment critique of society, given the effect of religious conflict and religious belief on society today (both in the United States and at the global level). In her view, the role of religion in shaping the Enlightenment epoch has been forgotten, but that facet is in fact very relevant to this particular contemporary context.

I wish Prof. Brewer had a chance to talk more so I could hear her expand upon her comments regarding religious context, in part because I’d like to hear her discuss the place of other religious beliefs in today’s world versus that of the Enlightenment (in which writers critiqued Christianity, not other religions – that I know of). How does the struggle within Islam today affect our world differently than did the struggle within Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries? Where does Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Confucianism in general fit into this picture? Is the Enlightenment relevant to adherents of these faiths, if it is a product of a majority Christian culture? I think yes, obviously, because the Enlightenment focus on reason and empiricism can be applied to anything – although we must remember that the movement itself was a product of its time and place. A product of a largely Christian Europe torn apart. So, perhaps, a movement that was a product of a particular time and place cannot have direct relevance to another time and place with an vastly different constituency….maybe it is not the context that is really relevant, but in fact the habits of mind that the Enlightenment encouraged.

I’ll end with a comment that Prof. Israel made in response to an audience member’s question about periodization of the Enlightenment. He pointed out that it was first an era, and then a process. We are still engaged with the process of implementing the ideals of the Enlightenment, namely equality. I’m all for that. And now, I have a better understanding of the Enlightenment and what many of the heavyweights have to say about it.

Thanks, Megan!

Teaching History With Podcasts (#AHA19)

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I am happy to have Matt Lakemacher writing for us this weekend from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.  Matt is one of the most engaged middle school teachers I know.  He teaches at Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, Illinois and is a veteran of numerous summer history seminars and institutes.  Here is his first dispatch:

Can podcasting help to stem the tide of declining enrollment in history departments?  For the panelists and audience members in an opening American Historical Association roundtable today on “History Podcasting as Graduate Students,” the answer was a resounding, if qualified, yes.  Producers and hosts from two historical podcasts, Sexing History and The Way of Improvement Leads Home, gave brief remarks on their experiences with history podcasting and then opened it up for audience members to share the ways that they’ve used podcasts in the classroom and with students.  In the end, it became clear that while podcasting (as well as blogging) might not be the silver bullet that saves history education, it can be another tool in the history teacher’s arsenal to make the subject relevant, keep students’ interest, and in jargon that all K-12 educators know their administrators want to hear: promote 21st century skills.

Two dual themes emerged from the panel: podcasting is good for history and history is good for podcasting.  Each panelist related in one way or another how working on a podcast actually improved their work as grad students and as historians.  According to Saniya Lee Ghanoui, podcasting with Sexing History taught her the importance of story-telling and has greatly improved her dissertation writing.  In a similar vein, Devin McGeehan Muchmore shared how blogging for Notches and working on Sexing History got him to think about ways of narrating the past outside of the traditional historical monograph or journal article.  And Drew Dyrli Hermeling credited his work on The Way of Improvement Leads Home with getting a job at the Digital Harrisburg Project. As a whole, the panel embraced the role that podcasting can play in public history – bringing the past to those outside of the academy (although it was conceded that podcasting is still very much a niche medium and can be somewhat of an echo chamber).  Ghanoui offered some advice to her fellow grad students: “It does take away time from your dissertation . . . but it’s a welcome distraction.”  She added, “I love how collaborative it is . . . it is worth it.”

Hermeling set the table for the audience discussion that followed and the pivot to history being good for podcasting, by sharing how he had students in his J-Term class on indigenous culture at Messiah College create a podcast as one option for a project assignment.  He, as well as the audience, made clear that audio quality and production values should not be heavily weighted on any rubric used for grading such an assignment.  But Hermeling was surprised by the quality of the research and sources that students used in their podcast.  “It’s a good way of tricking them into using a lot of citations.”  One audience member admitted that compared to other assignments, grading student podcasts was a pleasure.  Another said that Wisconsin Public Radio was looking to possibly use some of his students’ short pieces on the air.  And everyone who shared during the session had positive experiences doing a podcasting assignment in class, thought the students were engaged, and plan on doing them again.

So, can podcasting turn around sagging interest in history as a K-12 subject and as a major?  Perhaps the jury is still out.  But if it provides another way of getting students to apply historical thinking skills to a (relatively) new technology and opens another venue for bringing historical literacy to the public at large, then it’s an effort well worth pursuing.  As the roundtable’s chair and host of Sexing History Lauren Gutterman stated, “graduate students are at the forefront of history podcasting,” and for that this history teacher and fellow grad student is grateful.  Of course, as Hermeling put it in one final word of advice for potential history podcasters, “At the risk of being flippant, I’d go the Sexing History route.”

Anxious Benchers Weigh-In on the Kidd-Merritt Dust-Up

Death of ExpertiseHere is a taste of historian John Turner‘s post at The Anxious Bench:

To what extent should non-academics defer to academic historians on matters of history? John Fea faulted Merritt for being snarky and dismissive (“maybe you should think some more”) to a historian who has written books about precisely the subject matter at hand. Rather attempt to define the word “evangelical” on Twitter, Kidd recommended that Merritt “check out my books on the topic, including my definition of evangelicalism.” Good idea!

I’ve of two minds here. If someone told me that I should think more about whether Mormons are Christians, I might point him or her to my book on the subject. On the other hand, the recommendation of one’s books as an answer to a question rarely goes over well.

Read the entire piece here.

And at his personal blog The Pietist Schoolman, Chris Gehrz (editor-in-chief at The Anxious Bench), reflects on the dust-up in the context of his own work as a historian and generalist.

A taste:

I’ve only half-followed the recent Twitter dust-up between historians Thomas Kidd and John Fea and journalist Jonathan Merritt. You can get caught up to speed with this morning’s Anxious Benchpost from John Turner. Throw in editor John Wilson (who rose to the historians’ defense), and you’ve got several of my favorite Johns/Jonathans sparring over what it meant to be evangelical in the 18th century — especially if you were an enslaved African American like poet Phillis Wheatley.

All of that is interesting, and pointing at some philosophical questions about doing the history of evangelicalism (as Fea explained this morning in part two of a new series on the topic). But I was actually more struck by a larger issue: the place of expertise in an age of Twitter.

Read the rest here.

Teaching the Civil War in the South

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Check out Kristina Rizga‘s fascinating piece at The Atlantic: How to Teach the Civil War in the Deep South.”  Here is a taste:

The question of what students should learn about the Civil War, the role that slavery played in it, and the history of Reconstruction—the period from 1865 to 1876 when African Americans claimed their rights to freedom and voting, followed by a violent backlash by white Southerners—causes contentious disputes among educators, historians, and the American public. One outcome of these disputes is that ideologies often masquerade as historic facts. Texas’s 2010 standards, for instance, listed states’ rights and tariffs, alongside slavery, as the main causes of the Civil War—even though historians overwhelminglyagree that slavery was the central issue.

Another common problem is omissions: A 2017 survey of 10 commonly used textbooks and 15 sets of state standards found that textbooks treated slavery in superficial ways, and state standards focused more on the “feel-good” stories of abolitionists than on the brutal realities of slavery. When the same study surveyed 1,000 high-school seniors across the country, it found that among 12th graders, only 8 percent could identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War, and fewer than four in 10 students surveyed understood how slavery “shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness.”

Of course, students aren’t students forever, and the views of American adults are influenced by what they learn as children. When one 2015 poll asked American adults whether slavery was the main reason for the Civil War, 52 percent said that it was, while 41 percent said that it was not. In the same survey, 38 percent of adults insisted that slavery should not be taught as the main cause of the Civil War. That the country is divided on how to deal with Confederate statues and the Confederate flag follows in lockstep.

Read the entire piece here.

My Colonial America Course Hits Philadelphia

On Saturday I took some of the students in my Colonial America course at Messiah College on a field trip to colonial Philadelphia.  (I am taking the rest of the class this coming Saturday).

Here are some pics:

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Starting the day off at Welcome Park.  A great place to get students oriented to the colonial city.

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Group picture outside of Christ Church

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After we learned about Christ Church from a docent, I tried to say something intelligent about the Georgian architecture and its connection to Philadelphia’s 18th-century provincial identity

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Not a very “colonial” stop, but how could I not take the students to see the First Bank of the United States?  (And the Museum of the American Revolution across the street!)

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Carpenter’s Hall!

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And kudos to Joy Fea, our photographer on the trip!

“Age of Hamilton” Course

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My department chair has assigned me an upper-level “topics” course for the Fall 2019 semester.  I am seriously considering taking advantage of the popularity of the Lin Manuel-Miranda musical by offering a class titled “The Age of Hamilton.”

If you have taught a similar class that draws upon the musical or the soundtrack, I would love to hear from you!

Become a John Winthrop Student Fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society

MHS

I just learned about this great opportunity for high school students and their teachers at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston:

The John and Elizabeth Winthrop Endowed Fellowship encourages high school students to make use of the nationally significant documents of the MHS in a research project of their choosing. Selected students will be referred to as “Winthrop Fellows”.  Winthrop Fellows and their supervising teacher will each receive a $350 stipend. This fellowship gives students the chance to learn how to navigate an archive, work directly with primary sources, and experience what it is like to be a historian.

Although students are welcome to work at the MHS Reading Room in Boston, online access to hundreds of recently-digitized documents from our collections now makes it possible for students from across the country to identify, incorporate, investigate, and interpret these primary sources in their work. Together with their teacher advisor (a current or past History or English teacher, member of Library/Media staff, etc), students decide on a research project proposal that uses sources from the MHS collections.  This can be a project already assigned in class.  With the support of MHS library and education staff, students then perform research using MHS materials during the spring and must complete their research project to the teacher advisor’s satisfaction by 1 June, and finally write a blog post about their experience.

The John Winthrop Fellowship empowers students to explore a topic of their interest and helps them to access the often intimidating world of historical research. One of the most valuable aspects of this fellowship is the opportunity for students to directly interact with materials from the MHS archives.  In reflecting on their experiences, many students were struck by the immediacy of the artifacts:

“I never expected to be staring at a three hundred year old letter in which Hugh Hall, one of Boston’s prominent slave traders, complains rather vehemently of seasickness. The letter was written in big, loopy handwriting, the polar opposite of Hugh’s brother Richard’s cramped impossibility, on yellowed old paper that felt somewhat slimy. For a moment, I was overcome by the idea that I was touching Hall’s DNA.” (2015 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

“It was incredible to see old newspapers that were transported along the Post Road to relay the world’s current events in the early 1700s, transformed into a computer document and displayed right in front of us.  The only thing that could top it was being able to hold the physical letter that essentially started the Boston Post Road. Oh yeah, we did that too!” (2016 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

Many students appreciated the chance to draw their own impressions of history directly from primary sources rather than interpreted through a textbook:

“At points in the letters, Nora [Saltonstall]’s sense of humor and wittiness were evident which reminded me that she was indeed human and brought to life the events that transpired, in a way that textbooks are unable to.” (2013 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

“I suppose what I liked most was the ability to interpret the original documents on my own and draw my own conclusions around the actual evidence, rather than directly being told a conclusion by a third party.” (2013 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

Students also valued the opportunity to work with MHS staff and librarians, who welcomed them to the archive and made the work of historical research more accessible:

“The staff always took me seriously, and was always ready to help if I had a question. Until now I had never used microfiche, but within two minutes the reference librarian had me set up and I knew all I needed to know to use it. I could even take pictures of the old documents and email them to myself so I could do work at home.” (2014 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

“Although we were entirely new to the MHS, the staff treated us as if we were any other historians. Along with finding great sources, the respect we received from the staff boosted our confidence in our historical research skills.” (2016 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

Most importantly, students walked away from their fellowship opportunity empowered by their experience at the MHS:  

“I have always wanted to be a historian. My time at the Massachusetts Historical Society obliterated any lingering doubts in that ambition. Words cannot describe the joy of these encounters with the past, an opportunity I will never forget.” (2015 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

Applications for 2019 John Winthrop Fellowships should be mailed no later 18 February 2019. Check out our website for more information on the Swensrud Fellowship and how to apply!

In Defense of Empathy

Why Study History CoverIn a recent post at The Anxious Bench, Elesha Coffman of Baylor University asks, “Why was [Robert] Orsi, whose scholarly home is the American Academy of Religion, giving a plenary at the C[onference on] F[aith and H[istory]?”

As the person who invited Orsi to deliver a plenary at the CFH, I am the one responsible for his appearance. Due to other CFH commitments, I only heard half of Orsi’s address on “disgust,” but what I heard was a real barn-burner.   You can get a sense of what he said in Coffman’s post.

I had originally asked Orsi to talk about his most recent book History and Presence.   I thought his reflections on “real presence” in the American Catholic experience would resonate with CFH members.  I was just as surprised as anyone by the talk, although I also realize that this often happens in academia.  Nevertheless, my role as program chair is to invite plenary speakers who will provoke conversation and discussion.  Mission accomplished!  🙂

Coffman writes:

For many of us who attended the recent meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, the heaviest moments in a consistently weighty gathering came during Bob Orsi’s concluding plenary, “The Study of Religion on the Other Side of Disgust.” The address was rooted in his current research on clergy sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, and he spent at least 20 minutes recounting in excruciating detail the exploits of Father Paul Shanley, a predator whose superiors allowed him to abuse young people with impunity for decades. Not just allowed—empowered and paid by the church to run what one lawyer called a “pedophile paradise.” Why was Orsi, whose scholarly home is the American Academy of Religion, giving a plenary at CFH? Why was he telling us this appalling narrative? And what were we supposed to do with it?

I can only speak of my own reaction. For me, this was a painful but necessary step in moving away from my own scholarly formation toward something that feels more true in our historical moment.

I was trained to see the historian’s foremost ethical task as the cultivation of empathy. For years, I talked about this virtue on the first day of class. We historians, I used to say, “resurrect the dead and let them speak.” We listen to voices from the past humbly. We refrain from pronouncing anachronistic sentences on our fellow human beings who could not know what was coming next, and who did not have the benefit of whatever enlightenment we have gleaned since their passing. My white, male, Southern doctoral adviser used to say, “If I had been born in the early 19th century, I would have been a racist slaveholder, too.” Generations hence, our descendants will marvel at our blindness. Judge not, lest ye be judged.

Read the rest here.

Actually, Coffman was not the only one who criticized the idea of “empathy” in Grand Rapids last week.  Margaret Bendroth, the conference’s first plenary speaker, also criticized the pursuit of empathy in historical inquiry.

Count me as one who is not convinced by this call to move away from or beyond empathy in the practice of history.  Don’t get me wrong, I hope the Catholic sex abuse scandal will trigger “disgust” in all of my students, but a case like this is not the best test case for whether or not empathy is still useful in historical inquiry.  (Who wouldn’t be disgusted by sexual abuse of children?).

There might be subjects we discuss in history class that might trigger disgust in only some of my students or only a few of them.  If we are studying the history of the culture wars, for example, some students might be disgusted that abortion ends the life of babies in the womb.  Others may be disgusted by the fact that pro-lifers do not respect the rights of women to control their own bodies.  When we let something like “disgust” drive our study of history, the history classroom turns into an ethics or moral philosophy classroom.  At my institution, students take a course in ethics with another professor who is trained in the field.  My responsibility is to teach them how to think historically–to walk in others shoes and try to understand the “foreign country” that is the past.  Of course ethicists and moral philosophers can talk about the past as well, but they don’t talk about the past in the same way historians do.  (I should also add that my views here were born out of more than a decade–and eight years as a department chair–defending the place of history in the college curriculum and the larger society.  I have tried to argue that history as a discipline offers a way of thinking about the world that other disciplines do not).

The best historical works, and the best historical classes, are those that tell the story of the past in all its fullness–good and bad–and let the readers/students develop their ethical capacities through their engagement with it. See my colleague Jim LaGrand’s excellent essay, “The Problems of Preaching Through History.”

Of course some folks will now say something like, “Hey Fea, you just wrote a book criticizing Donald Trump!  How is that not preaching or moral criticism?”  It’s a fair question and it is one I have been wrestling with ever since I agreed to write Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  I think Believe Me draws heavily upon my work as a historian, but I am not sure I would call it a work of history.  It is instead a work of social criticism targeted at my fellow white evangelicals.  This, I should add, is the primary reason I decided to publish it with Eerdmans, a Christian publisher with connections to the evangelical world.  Wherever I go on my book tour I talk about this.  There are times in Believe Me when I write as a historian and there are times when I do not.

I should also add that I do not bring my approach and tone in Believe Me to the history classroom.  My direct criticism of white evangelicalism and Donald Trump have no place there.  In the classroom we are in the business of understanding and empathy.  If we want to move past empathy and understanding in our classroom, as Coffman suggests we do, them we are doing something other than history.

Of course I have been arguing for this for a long time and still stand by my central thesis in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  In this polarized society we need more empathy for people with whom we disagree.  I still think history is the best way of cultivating this virtue.

The American Revolution in Texas Schools

Texas

The Texas State Board of Education has “streamlined” the state’s social studies standards in a way that limits what students will learn about the American Revolution.  Michael Oberg, Distinguished Professor of History at SUNY-Geneseo, describes the changes:

One of my favorite undergraduate professors, John Walzer, taught the course I took on the American Revolution a long time ago at Cal State Long Beach. One of his students once made a movie reenacting the Boston Tea Party. The local marina stood in for Boston Harbor, somebody’s fishing boat for The Dartmouth, and cardboard boxes for chests of tea. After the “Sons of Liberty” committed their act of defiance, the cameras followed them home. When they attempted to wash off their “Mohawk” disguises, no matter how hard they scrubbed, they would not come off.They were revolutionaries now, and there was no turning back.

I have always loved that story. It gets at the dramatic urgency of the colonists’ protest movement, and depicts that moment when defiant opponents of parliamentary taxation realized that their relationship to Great Britain as subject and citizen was broken beyond repair. The story of this film helps students see the excitement of the Revolution, but also its danger. It is a powerful and important thing for students to experience.

So I worry that if states like Texas have their way, we will lose the drama and the excitement of the Age of Revolution. In a set of revised learning standards, the Texas State Board of Education reduces the revolution to little more than a constitutional dispute with Great Britain, of value only because it produces the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and a new nation at its end. Nothing is at stake. Little will be lost. The revolution seems inevitable, and no more disorderly than a game of Canasta.

And here is another taste of Oberg’s piece at “Age of Revolutions”:

Given its history of social studies education and its highly politicized methods for revising curricula, it is easy to beat up on Texas. But here’s the thing. Too many of my students think of the Revolution primarily as a creature of the “Founding Fathers.” They associate it, barely, with the Revolutionary War, and know little of the protest movements that preceded it. They know little of the consequences of the Revolution, save for the fact that the United States emerged as a new nation at its end.

Texas offers its schoolchildren a highly truncated presentation of the Revolution, and that is both disappointing and a cause for concern. The state’s approach robs students of the opportunity to explore the contingencies, the rending compromises, and the internal conflict that characterized these years. It deprives students of the human drama, as ordinary Americans—Anglo-Americans divided by class and region, immigrants from Europe from a host of religious traditions, Africans and Native Americans in all their diversity—found themselves forced to choose sides. Revolutions never tolerate neutrality, and the American Revolution was no different. Our students are seldom asked to consider that the gains brought about by the Revolution often came at the expense of others. 

Read the entire piece here.

When You’re Teaching Edmund Morgan’s *American Slavery, American Freedom* and a Student Brings Some Tobacco Leaves to Class…

Tobacco was life in seventeenth-century Virginia.  It defined everything about Chesapeake society–race, class, gender, labor patterns, family life, marriage, religion, economy, and politics.  So far I am having a great time teaching Edmund Morgan’s classic American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. (I hope my Colonial America students are enjoying it as well).

Today one of my more inspired students showed-up with some tobacco leaves.  He got them from an Amish tobacco grower here in south-central Pennsylvania.

Morgan Tobacco

Rebecca Onion Interviews Sam Wineburg on Teaching History

WineburgI love this interview at Slate.  It is not only a subject–historical thinking in schools–that I interests me, but both participants in the interview are former guests on The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Sam Wineburg was a guest on Episode 3.  Rebecca Onion was our guest on Episode 12.  (We hope to have Wineburg back this season–stay tuned).

Onion talks to Wineburg about his new book, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone).  Here is a taste:

I loved the note you made about the difference between “sounding critical” and thinking critically. President Trump recently said that Google is biased against conservatives. There have been a number of instances of this, where Trump or someone Trump-ish will say something that sounds critical or wise but isn’t. It’s hard because it almost feels like there is an appropriation of the language of critical thinking on the right that makes it hard to explain what the difference might be between that and what we are talking about.

It’s not “almost an appropriation,” it is an appropriation. And in this respect, the work that has influenced me the most is the work by Kate Starbird, an absolutely brilliant internet researcher who studies crisis communication at the University of Washington’s College of Engineering.* And she has a paper that shows that the alt-right has, right there with Alex Jones, has appropriated the language of “Do you have an open mind? Are you an independent thinker? Are you willing to trust your own intelligence to make up your own mind when you review the evidence?”

And so absolutely, this is the language that has been appropriated by the alt-right in particular, these neo-Nazi sites and conspiracy sites that basically say, “The wool is being pulled over your eyes! But you have the power to [pose] thoughtful questions through your own powers of discernment if you have an open mind.” This is the stock-in-trade of propagandists—you can go back and see the same kind of thing in work by Lenin and Goebbels: “You should trust yourself. We’re not going to tell you what to believe, you evaluate the evidence—here is the evidence.”

Read the entire interview here.