Do Objects Tell Us the Truth?

Can they lie?

Yes.

Check out Carla Cevasco‘s and Christopher Allison‘s video:

Learn more in Cevasco’s post at The Junto.  Here is a taste:

Is material culture as inherently untrustworthy? I was once at a conference roundtable where one attendee claimed that “Material culture is so elitist, just rich people’s stuff in museums.” Fortunately, a historical archaeologist in the room begged to differ, arguing that archaeology offered a rich record of people who did not necessarily leave written sources behind. When I recently required my students to analyze both a material and a textual source, they concluded that material sources were inherently more difficult to work with than their written counterparts. “Once I describe the object, there’s nothing left to say about it,” one student complained.

I’ve been hearing variations of this argument my entire academic life. As a scholar who both studies and teaches with material culture, I find this reasoning both fascinating and frustrating. Why do so many people, from scholars to students, consider material culture somehow a lesser form of evidence than the written word? New Materialists—the dominant theorists in material culture studies today—have argued that, in academia, the principle of “semantic ascent” devalues the material in favor of the abstract.[1] They contend, and I agree, that there are real drawbacks to focusing on abstractions. A lot of abstract academic work isn’t very approachable to the general public. Why not start with material things, things that surround everyone every day? When historians make public scholarship, shouldn’t we be looking at stuff?

Read the entire post here.

An 8th Grade History Teacher to His Students on the Last Day of Class: “Never Stop Learning”

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Moses Brown School, Providence, Rhode Island

Jonathan Gold teaches 8th grade history at Moses Brown School, a Quaker school in Providence, Rhode Island. (See his September 2016 piece on teaching history in the age of Trump and his October 2015 piece on teaching historical thinking).

Gold ends every academic year by delivering a formal speech to his students.  Here is a taste of this year’s version:

I’m not ever sure what students actually learn in here. But my hope is that you have come to embody the insight of my favorite educational philosopher, John Dewey, who articulated the goal of education as the ability to acquire more education. In other words, education should teach you how to learn — what questions to ask, how to find answers, and how to make connections — but also give you an insatiable desire to keep learning.

So how do we do that? We start, perhaps ironically, by embracing the limits of our own knowledge. Remember when we studied Israel and Palestine? We didn’t rush to solve the conflict or develop a thesis; we asked ourselves what else we needed to know and sought more information. What we found were irreconcilable narratives that helped us understand why the problem is so difficult to resolve. What we focused on was embracing complexity and tolerating uncertainty. We used this same mindset in our student-led discussions. The goal was to connect to others’ ideas, to bolster each other’s thinking, and to keep probing. It was about the process, not the result.

The human brain craves simplicity and clarity, but the world — with its infinite strangeness — offers only ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity. We can’t change the nature of the world — it will always be complex — so we need to train ourselves to be comfortable with that complexity, to lean into what we don’t know and acknowledge our own small place in the universe.

Part of that means an aspiration towards humility. What I mean by that is starting with the assumption that we don’t know very much and that what we do think we know is incomplete and unrefined and helplessly biased, so much so that we are better off constantly seeking more knowledge and information than declaring something fully known. That doesn’t mean we can’t have opinions, or we can’t develop a worldview, but it does mean we need to see our viewpoints as subject to improvement and refinement. Those who disagree with us having something to teach us, and we can’t possibly know everything. Mostly it means developing an insatiable thirst for new knowledge and information.

It may feel odd to get to the end of the year and hear me arguing that we can’t fully know anything. It can be scary to think that there’s always more to know, more detail, more nuance, more subtlety, more perspective, more work to do to scrub bias from our thinking. But I find that to be perhaps the single greatest thing about being human: there’s always more to learn.

Read the entire text here.

Teaching Liberty

Liberty Appeal

Over at The Junto, Tom Cutterham writes about his course on the “meaning of liberty” from the American Revolution to Civil War.    Here is a taste:

The truth is, I find it hard even to begin thinking collectively about freedom. Our starting point is unfreedom. It was the same for Thomas Jefferson. His Declaration of Independence gives meaning to liberty by listing its violations. When we read David Walker, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs in my class, we try to glimpse freedom by looking deep into its absence. But it’s too easy for students to assume that because slavery has been abolished in America, the problem of liberty has already been solved. Spend too long pondering slavery, and just about anything else starts to look like liberty.

There were critics of abolitionists who tried to raise the same problem. In my class, we read William West’s series of letters to The Liberator, describing “wages slavery” as a system of dependence, abjection, and poverty which West calls “worse” than chattel slavery. It is wage slavery that can most truly claim to be the “sum of all evils,” West writes, because it is only this variety of slavery that hypocritically appropriates “the name of liberty.” We read West critically, of course. But when I ask my students if they ever felt like their boss was a tyrant, that’s when they begin to understand that freedom is a problem of the present, not just of the nineteenth century.

It’s the curse of such a topic—the meaning of freedom in American history!—to be so deeply bound up with progress. Didn’t things just keep on getting better; sometimes faster, perhaps, and sometimes more slowly, but basically, better? We read Judith Sargent Murray in the second week, then Sarah Grimké in the seventh, the Seneca Falls declaration and Lucretia Mott in the tenth. One of my students noted how depressing it is to see the same good arguments repeated, periodically, over sixty years of alleged progress. The way we raise and teach our children, the way they imbibe the ideology infused in their surroundings—as those women powerfully described—is an unfreedom none too easily abolished.

Read the entire post here.  I love the way Cutterham challenges his students to think historically about the “meaning of liberty.”  History teachers take note.

Is the Hourglass Effect Necessarily a Bad Thing?

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I really enjoyed thinking through Nathan Perl-Rosenthal‘s post at Panorama titled “The Hourglass Effect in Teaching the American Revolution.”  Here is Perl-Rosenthal’s description of the so-called “hourglass effect”:

Many of us who teach the American Revolution in an Atlantic and global context have run into the “hourglass problem:” A course that is geographically capacious at the beginning and the end but narrows in the middle to eastern North America. This post analyzes that problem and examines some solutions, one of which draws on my essay, “Atlantic Cultures and the Age of Revolution,” published in last year’s WMQ-JER joint issue (William and Mary Quarterly 74, no. 4,  667–696).

The hourglass problem arises from trying to synthesize old and new ways of seeing the American Revolution in a single course. You probably start your class with a wide-angle early modern frame: Big, oceanic topics like global empire, Atlantic slavery, and the consumer revolution are good for framing and explaining the coming imperial crisis. But before long, the course’s terrain contracts as you turn to the traditional chronology of the Revolution. One feels the squeeze already with the Sugar, Stamp, and Townshend Acts. After early 1770, it gets hard to leave eastern North America. First one is in Boston for the Massacre, then explaining the local politics of the Coercive Acts, followed by Lexington and Concord, and the debate over independence. The same goes for the war years and the critical period. A reopening outward typically only gets underway in the 1790s….

The geographic cinching-up of the 1760s and 1770s, by temporarily shutting out events anywhere but North America, paradoxically ends up reinforcing the very exceptionalist narrative of the Revolution that a wider lens is supposed to help us avoid. The wider world may play its part in the revolutionary era, this approach implies, but during the crucial period of the 1770s and 1780s there is a particular and special North American story that must be told. 

Perl-Rosenthal offers some interesting suggestions for avoiding this hourglass problem, which he believes “reinforces the very exceptionalist narrative of the Revolution that a wider lens is supported to help us avoid.”  I encourage you to read the entire piece.

As I read Perl-Rosenthal’s post I was struck by the presuppositions that guided the piece.  It is assumed that any discussion of local narratives is bad or somehow contributing to American exceptionalism.  He uses terms like “traditional chronology” as if that is a bad thing.  Those who get too caught-up in this narrative “feel the squeeze.”  And, of course, the word “exceptionalism” is a very loaded term with negative connotations in the academy.  (In some ways, I would argue, the American Revolution was an exceptional event, even as it was shaped by global forces).

Maybe I am just too old and traditionalist, but I do think that a course in the American Revolution still has a civic function to play in the development of our students and this can be done without falling into unhealthy forms of nationalism.

Another Conservative Misses the Point of History Education

FraserOver at The National Review, Stanley Kurz claims that U.S. history textbooks are anti-conservative.  Here is a taste:

The most underappreciated political story of our time is the changing content of K-12 textbooks in history, civics, social studies, and related subjects. Yes, I said political story. Why are Millennials so receptive to socialism? Why are today’s Democrats dominated by identity politics? Why have movements on the political right shifted from a constitutional conservatism symbolized by the Boston Tea Party to a populist nationalism? All these changes, and more, are connected to what today’s history textbooks are, and are not, teaching. Yet we’ve barely noticed the link.

Almost any Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. history textbook has more influence on American politics than 90 percent of the books reviewed in our leading newspapers and political magazines. Yet when was the last time you read a review of a high school history textbook? Never, I’ll bet. That’s partly because these thousand-page monstrosities are tough to read, and even tougher to judge for anyone but professional historians. And with growing academic specialization, even historians find it difficult to assess an entire text.

Liberals needn’t bother keeping track of history textbooks because they’re the ones who write them. But conservatives have dropped the ball on this issue so essential to their survival. Conservative politicians, institutions, and donors focus far more on short-term electoral politics and policy than culture. History textbooks don’t even register. Over the long haul, that’s a recipe for political exile and social ostracism.

Conservatives saw the tip of the enormous textbook iceberg earlier this April when a radio host tweeted out pictures a Minnesota student had sent her of an AP U.S. history (APUSH) textbook. The student had photographed pages of the not yet formally released update of James W. Fraser’s By the People, an APUSH textbook published by the international education giant Pearson. Those pages covered the 2016 election and the Black Lives Matter movement. Their blatantly partisan bias set off a conservative media firestorm. (I commented here, and Joy Pullman’s important take is here.)

Read the entire piece here.

I don’t know if Kurtz is correct about Fraser’s textbook because I have not read it.  But it does seem clear to me that Kurtz has no clue about how history is actually taught–or should be taught–in schools.

First, Kurtz’s entire argument rests on the fact that students actually read the textbook.

Second, and more importantly, most students learn history from their teachers.  In other words, Kurtz assumes that American history textbooks are the only way students learn history.  The best teachers know that all textbooks, like all history, are subjective.  They thus use the textbook to teach bias or to show how the textbook matches-up with their students’ work in the primary sources.  Show me a teacher who believes that his or her textbook represents received wisdom from on high and I will show you a bad history teacher.

Rethinking the History Survey Course

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Steven Mintz of the University of Texas has some good ideas to get more students engaged in the study of the history through the required survey course.  Here are some of them:

  • Thematically Organized Surveys: One striking example at the University of Kentucky focuses on citizenship: historical controversies over the rights of immigrants, voting rights, marriage rights, and other rights.
  • Interdisciplinary Clusters: Georgetown, UCLA, and the University of California, Berkeley are experimenting with paired and team-taught courses that combine the insights of a variety of disciplines on a topic (the 1960s, for example) or problem (climate change).
  • Career-Aligned Pathways: The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley redesigned the pathway through the biomedical sciences to emphasize professional identity formation, with students taking a history course in the history of disease and public health, a literature class on the literature of pain and illness, a philosophy course on medical ethics, and an art history class on representations of the body. The University of Texas at Austin has an introductory-level course on the history of engineering.
  • Inquiry-Driven Approaches: The University of Michigan’s History 101, which focuses on the question “What is history?,” offers an overview of the approaches historians have taken to studying the past and how they analyze and interpret historical sources and uncover the meaning of history for life today. My own inquiry-driven US history survey course focuses on solving historical mysteries, wrestling with troubling moral dilemmas rooted in history, interpreting a wide range of historical sources (artifacts, architecture, fashion, film, hairstyles, maps, naming patterns, paintings, photographs, and political cartoons, among others), and responding to such questions as “What if?” and “How do we know?”

Read the entire piece at AHA Today .  Of course no discussion of innovative approaches to the history survey course is complete without considering the work of Lendol Calder.  Lendol has been talking and writing about these matters for years.

Teaching “Remember the Ladies”

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Abigail Adams

Over at The Panorama, Texas State University history professor Sara T. Damiano reflects on teaching women’s history in the era of the American Revolution. She gives particular attention to Abigail Adams’s famous “Remember the Ladies” letter.

Here is a taste:

The well-known exchange between Abigail and John Adams offers a pithy example of opportunities foreclosed for women during the revolutionary era. On March 31, 1776, Abigail urged John to “Remember the Ladies” and to “not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands” because “all men would be tyrants if they could.” Two weeks later, John brushed off Abigail’s “saucy” admonition, stating, “I cannot but laugh.” He maintained that men “have only the Name of Masters” and that surrendering this “would completely subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat.”[ii]

As a teacher, I am tempted to play up this exchange between Abigail and John. It seemingly stands in for the revolution writ large: Despite some women’s urging, the Founders failed to “Remember the Ladies.” And, it captures undergraduate interest. Particularly in my upper-level women’s history courses, students admire the spunk and assertiveness of Abigail Adams, whom they see as articulating an early version of modern feminism.

Yet, especially in light of my contribution to the October joint issue of the William and Mary Quarterly and the Journal of the Early Republic on “Writing to and from the American Revolution,” I worry about my role in facilitating such views of the American Revolution and Abigail Adams. If we aim to teach students to analyze the foreignness of the past, then we undercut our work by focusing only on the quest for “rights.” Doing so arguably flattens other aspects of historical actors’ lives and even marginalizes those individuals who were not necessarily thinking in terms of “rights.”

Read the entire piece here.

 

Who is Teaching Your Introductory History Courses?

College-classroom

I have a month or two left as chair of the Messiah College History Department. At the end of the 2017-2018 academic year I will have completed 2 four-year terms.  I am sure I will reflect more fully on this experience as my tenure winds down in May and June.  But right now I have been giving some thought to where my teaching duties will lie over the course of the next decade now that I am giving up administrative responsibilities in the department.

Lately I have been seeing a lot of articles about senior professors teaching introductory courses.  I have always believed this to be a good thing.  In fact, the 100-level U.S. survey class (to 1865) has always been my favorite course to teach.  While I was chair I taught it once a year.  In my post-chair life it looks like I may be teaching it in both semesters.

I thought about all of this when I saw Becky Supiano’s piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education: It Matters a Lot Who Teaches Introductory Courses.  Here’s Why.”

A taste:

Introductory courses can open doors for students, helping them not only discover a love for a subject area that can blossom into their major but also feel more connected to their campus.

But on many campuses, teaching introductory courses typically falls to less-experienced instructors. Sometimes the task is assigned to instructors whose very connection to the college is tenuous. A growing body of evidence suggests that this tension could have negative consequences for students.

Two papers presented at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting in New York on Sunday support this idea.

The first finds that community-college students who take a remedial or introductory course with an adjunct instructor are less likely to take the next course in the sequence.

The second finds negative associations between the proportion of a four-year college’s faculty members who are part-time or off the tenure track and outcomes for STEM majors.

The community-college paper, “Role of Adjunct Faculty in Realizing the Postsecondary Dreams of Historically Marginalized Student Populations,” is not the first to examine the link between part-time instructors and student outcomes, said Florence Xiaotao Ran, its lead author. Several previous papers have found a negative relationship between contingent faculty members and student outcomes.

 

Read the entire piece here.

OAH Dispatch: Sometimes “I just need to listen”

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Mary R.S. Bracy teaches history at Warner College in Lake Wales, Florida

Here is Mary R.S. Bracy‘s latest post from the Organization of American Historians meeting in Sacramento. Click here for Mary’s previous OAH post: “She Persisted: A New Assistant Professor Tells Her Story.”  Enjoy!

As is usually the case when I go to conferences, I have about five million things rattling around in my head at once. Yesterday was a full day. Today I’m headed back home, so I feel like this  has just been too quick!

I sat down to write this dispatch last night, but I was simply too tired to type any words on the screen. Our panel started off the day at 8:00 am. I was excited to get going, but was a bit disappointed when we only had three audience members.  I guess this is what happens when you’re up against a panel on “Hamilton!” I have participated in a lot of conference panels, but this was one of my favorite.  It was first panel I’ve been on where I’m the one with the most experience!  I would have never been brave enough as an MA student to even think about presenting a paper at a big conference like the OAH…so I was really happy to see my fellow panelists doing that.

I like to get out of my comfort zone when I go to conferences, so the other panel I attended yesterday was “When All That Is Left Is Words: The Writing Sensibilities of Civil War Soldiers.” Sarah Gardner (Mercer University), Peter Carmichael (Gettysburg College), and Timothy Williams (University of Oregon) each presented papers. I was especially intrigued by Professor Williams’s paper “Prison Pens: The Culture of Writing in Civil War Prisons,” which focused on prisons as intellectual spaces.

I only made it to two panels overall, which is about what I expected.  I gave up trying to do everything at conferences a few years ago.  If there are papers I really want to see, or colleagues I want to support, I do that, but otherwise I simply try to absorb the intellectual atmosphere.  Sometimes this is exhausting; other times it’s completely inspiring.

This time, I’m taking away a deep sense of inspiration from my fellow panelists, who are all young and excited and passionate about what they’re doing.  I am in no way old, but I am disillusioned.  The academy has hurt people I care about.  It hurts to see my friends leave the profession.  It’s been frustrating to talk with them as they fill out hundreds of job applications, only to have nothing.

But I’m an optimist at heart, and being on a panel with graduate students fed that optimism.  They know that this job market is terrible. But they love the job so much that (at least for right now) the problems seem like a distant future.  I tried to offer a dose of reality.  I mentioned that the job market is terrible and graduate students need to be thoughtful about the future.  But when they started talking excitedly about passing comps, planning dissertations, and writing grants, I just shut up.  Because in my disillusioned world, I just needed to listen.

Teaching the American Revolution

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Over at The Panorama, historians Andrew Shankman and Eliga Gould write about how they teach the American Revolution.

Here is a taste of Shankman’s piece:

I try to show them that the revolution was part of a conversation that began in the early modern period about how to better the conditions of each of us and strengthen the obligations we owe to one another, the duties and responsibilities we have for each other. By showing how the revolution fits within that conversation it retains its grandeur while, hopefully, not imparting a sense of the exceptional and the particular: I hope my students will see the residents of British North America engaged in a charged often acrimonious and crucial series of conversations that were larger than any one group and more significant than the creation of any single nation.

And here is Gould:

Another area where my teaching and scholarship overlap is the message that I hope students in the course will take away. As every teacher knows, one of the central challenges with any survey is negotiating the gap between how professional historians understand historical events and how those events are perceived in the media and popular press. In courses on the American Revolution, as Serena Zabin writes in last October’s joint issue, that gap has often manifested itself as a tension between “the popular narrative of democracy’s heroic birth and the scholarly account of an imperialist and racist nation’s origins” (WMQ, 755). Of late, though, I worry that even stories of democracy’s heroic birth are not as popular or familiar as we might like to think. Three years ago, in a YouTube video that has scored more than 2 million views, PoliTech, a student-run group at Texas Tech, quizzed fellow students on the basic facts of American history: Who won the Civil War?  Who did we gain our independence from? And when? With one or two exceptions, the answers were variations of “I have no idea” or “I couldn’t tell you.”

How Do We Assess Student Learning in History?

 

Gilbert_Historical_Museum_Classroom_Exhibit

Historians make a lot of claims.  We claim that the study of history produces a set of transferable skills that students can use in the marketplace.  We claim that history teaches principles necessary for a democratic society.  We claim that history teaches critical thinking and might even be an antidote to fake news.

But can we prove it?

This is the question that Sam Wineburg and his team are asking today at Inside Higher Ed.  A taste:

“What are you going to do with that — teach?” Uttered with disdain, it’s a question history majors have been asked many times. Clio’s defenders have a response. The head of the American Historical Association says that the study of history creates critical thinkers who can “sift through substantial amounts of information, organize it, and make sense of it.” A university president asserts that the liberal arts endow students with the “features of the enlightened citizen” who possesses “informed convictions … and the capacity for courageous debate on the real issues.” Historians pride themselves on the evidence for their claims.

So, what’s the evidence?

Not much, actually. Historians aren’t great at tracking what students learn. Sometimes they even resent being asked. Recently, however, the winner of the Bancroft Prize, one of history’s most distinguished awards, washed the profession’s dirty laundry in public. The article’s title: “Five Reasons History Professors Suck at Assessment.”

Anne Hyde described what happened when accreditors asked her colleagues to document what students learned. They paid little heed to the requests — that is, until Colorado College’s history department flunked its review. Committed teachers all, her colleagues “had never conducted assessment in any conscious way beyond reporting departmental enrollment numbers and student grade point averages.”

Among many college history departments, this is routine. To address the issue of assessment, the American Historical Association in 2011 set out on a multiyear initiative to define what students should “be able to do at the end of the major.” Eight years, dozens of meetings and hundreds of disposable cups later, the Tuning Project produced a set of ambitious targets for student learning. But when it came to assessing these goals, they left a big question mark.

Read the rest here.

The Secondary Teacher Initiative at the 2018 Conference on Faith and History

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As you may know, I am chairing the program for the 2018 meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  We will be meeting October 4-6 at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  You can see the Call for Papers here and here.

Under the leadership of CFH president Jay Green and Woodberry Forest School (VA) history teacher and department chair Fred Jordan, we are hoping to attract secondary teachers to the 2018 meeting.  There will be a special session devoted to teachers tentatively titled “How Can the CFH Better Serve Secondary School Teachers?”  If you are a teacher with an interest in the CFH I hope you might consider coming to Grand Rapids and participate in the conversation.

Another way that teachers can get involved in the conference is through the presentation of papers.  If you are a CFH member, would like to be a CFH member, or are a fellow-traveler with the CFH, I would love to entertain a proposal from you.  We have already had a few teachers submit proposals, and are expecting a few more.  If you have any questions or concerns on this front, don’t hesitate to contact me.

We want the Conference on Faith and History to be a place where secondary teachers of Christian faith might find a home.

jfea(at)messiah(dot)edu

Bacon’s Rebellion in the Age of Trump

Bacon's

We covered Bacon’s Rebellion yesterday in my U.S. survey class.  Like last year, the subject seems more relevant than ever.  I wrote this piece a few months ago at The Panorama:

In Spring 2017, I gave a lecture to my history students about a man of privilege, wealth, and power who took up the cause of a growing band of disgruntled, poor, fearful, white Americans. These Americans believed that the government was not listening to their concerns. They were angry about their lack of opportunity and political representation. They felt threatened by their encounters with people from another race and culture. The man of privilege heard their cry and led them in a rebellion that temporarily drove the ruling class from power. To the extent that some of the ruling class owned land near major rivers, it might even be fair to say that this rebellion was an attempt to “drain the swamp.”

Read the rest here

A “Lineage of Sojourners”

 

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Last week I wondered why so many students at the school where I teach seem to lack interest in the history of American evangelicalism.  Read that post here.   Over at The Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz appears to agree with me.

Gehrz writes:

As someone who has taught history in a CCCU school for fifteen years, I’m going to join John in being skeptical of the desire of my students to better understand the history of American evangelicalism. Not only for the reasons that John shared at his blog, but because so few of my students identify with evangelicalism. We draw a lot of conservative Lutherans and a few Catholics, Methodists, and Presbyterians, plus megachurch kids who don’t even realize that they’re associated with the Baptist denomination that sponsors Bethel — let alone some larger movement called “evangelicalism.”

This is a great point.  Like Bethel University, Messiah College also has many non-evangelical students.  But the majority of our students, I would argue, come from evangelical backgrounds.

Gerhz then adds some words of optimism:

Now, if you asked my incoming students what “think they seek more than anything” from their Christian college experience, most would answer, “a job.” (Or maybe, “a spouse.”) But that’s because that’s what they’ve been trained to say — by our own marketing and recruitment folks as much as by their parents and the media.

But if you peel back such anxieties, I’ve often found a deeper longing, much more like what Worthen describes. And church history can help to satisfy that desire.

I won’t pretend that most Bethel students are thrilled that they’re required to take the multidisciplinary church history course that I coordinate and help teach: Christianity and Western Culture. I’m sure most are happy just to be done with a course as demanding as CWC.

But at some point in every semester it’s taught, I’m sure every CWC student experiences the sensation of glimpsing herself in the distant mirror of church history. She hears a lecture or reads a primary source and recognizes that the way she thinks about God, about herself, about America and the world, and about justice, beauty, and the good life is rooted in history. That her Christian story is bound up with earlier Christian stories.

That, for better and worse, who she is as a follower of Christ has been shaped by the past. For she comes to see that she is not alone in time, but a part of a centuries-old community of faith that is composed of a great cloud of witnesses, living and dead. She finds kinship with what one of my colleagues yesterday called a “lineage of sojourners” (in an opening reflection on Psalm 39:12).

Read the entire piece here.  “Lineage of sojourners.”  I like that.

Slavery, a Carrot Clarinet, Paris Hilton, and George Washington

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This is how the Louisiana State University student newspaper described some of the things undergraduates might encounter in historian Andrew Burstein‘s classes.  Here is a taste of Aurianna Cordero’s piece:

Imagine walking into the first day of class and, on the projector, is a photo of a man making an instrument out of a carrot. Followed by that image is one of the most intellectually inspiring lectures a student may ever encounter. In only an hour and a half class, students learned how Christopher Columbus rationalized slavery, and how to make a carrot clarinet. This class is History 2055 with University professor Andrew Burstein.

In a world filled with stereotypes and common misconceptions, Burstein keeps his lectures informative and open to discussion. It isn’t uncommon to find a picture of Paris Hilton next to one of George Washington in Burstein’s class, especially when he’s discussing how important understanding the perspectives of people throughout history.

“We recognize the positive contributions of traditional historical actors that we admire,” Burstein said. “People tend to remember feel-good history and rationalize the less admirable aspects of the past, which is why I like history. It enables me to reintroduce a lost life.”

Read the rest here.  By the way, my favorite Burstein book is The Inner Jefferson.

A British Teacher Wins a Teaching Award from the Daughters of the American Revolution

OwenHis name is James Owen and he teaches American history at Westlake Academy in Westlake, Texas.  He sees the irony in it all.

The Daughters of the American Revolution have chosen Owen as its 2018 Outstanding American History Teacher for the state of Texas.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has the story.  A taste:

After receiving a doctorate in modern British history from Cambridge University in England, Owen came to the United States several years ago to teach history at a liberal arts college in North Carolina.

His interactions with American students and culture stoked his fascination in American history, he said.

When he compared the slow evolution of British history with the sudden establishment of the United States, he marveled at the founding fathers.

“They were building a country from the ground up,” he said. “The founding fathers were starting from scratch.”

Now he helps his students learn critical thinking strategies about American history, which sparks their interest in the subject.

Read the rest here.

Historical Thinking and the Nunes Memo

Image: House memo

How might a historian interpret the now-famous Nunes memo?

Mark Byrnes, chair of the Department of History at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, breaks it down for us.  Here is a taste of his History News Network piece: “The Nunes Memo: ‘Bias,’ and the Skills of the Historian“:

The entire “argument” (such as it is) depends on the idea that a FISA warrant based—to any extent—on the so-called Steele dossier is inherently tainted, because the research done by the author, former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, was paid for at some point by Democrats. Since the warrant targeted Carter Page, who had been part of the Trump campaign, the motive of the funders (not the researcher, it bears noting) to get “dirt” on Trump somehow discredits everything Steele found.

The memo contains not a single argument that the evidence used to obtain the warrant against Carter Page was actually false—only that it is somehow untrustworthy due to the alleged motive behind the research that produced the evidence.

In history, we deal with this problem all the time. We uncover evidence in primary sources, and must judge its credibility. Do we have reason to believe that the person who produced the evidence might have an agenda that should cause us to doubt the veracity of the evidence? What do we do if the answer to that question is “yes,” or even “maybe”?

I do a primary source exercise in my methods class that does just this: presents the students with conflicting primary source accounts of an event. I then explain why the people who produced the evidence might have self-serving reasons for portraying the event in a particular light.

Most students, when first faced with this dilemma, immediately say “bias!” and dismiss the evidence as worthless. That is the reaction the Nunes memo seems intended to produce among the general public.

But that is not how the historian reacts. Yes, the source of the evidence may have some bias. That does not, however, by itself mean that the information is false. It does mean that when weighing its validity, the historian must look for other, independent, corroborating evidence before trusting it.

It seems likely that is what the officials who used the Steele dossier to obtain the FISA warrant did: they compared what Steele wrote to other information they had about Carter Page to see if it lined up.

Read the rest here.  Thanks to TWOILH reader John Shaw for bringing this piece to my attention.

Episode 31 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast is Almost Here!

BTA students

I am really excited about Episode 31!  We talked with Boston Trinity Academy (BTA) history teacher Mike Milway and three of his senior students about studying history at the secondary-school level.  Some of you may recall my recent visit to BTA.  The episode drops on Sunday.  In the meantime, get caught up on previous episodes here.

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