Some Thoughts on Teaching: An Interview with James H. Merrell

I first met Jim Merrell in the spring of my sophomore year at Vassar College, when I registered for his Revolutionary America class. Over the next two and a half years I took several more courses with Mr. Merrell (professors at Vassar go by “Mr.” or “Ms.,” rather than “Dr.” or “Professor”), where I received multi-page responses to my essays, and comments on my research papers with words like “Huzza!”

Eventually, I began work on my senior thesis, which he kindly agreed to supervise. During the course of that year he met with me weekly to check on my progress with research and writing. His feedback was thoughtful but tough—after receiving his comments on the first full draft, I recall needing to go to the gym to run, lift, and then swim before being able to read them calmly. His assurance “that the draft gets critical treatment that is closer to graduate school than to first or second year college. (Huzza, sez you!)” should indicate the substance of his remarks [1].

Only after I graduated did I receive an email informing me that “Mr. Merrell” was no longer an acceptable form of address; henceforth, it would be Jim. I reluctantly accepted. While I was at Vassar I never realized the extensiveness of Jim’s contribution to Native American history because he didn’t teach his own books or articles, and at the time I didn’t work on Native American history. Once I got to graduate school, it occurred to me that few scholars probably knew the extent of Jim’s contribution to teaching because outside of the Vassar bubble he is best known for his scholarship.

Such scholarship requires little introduction. The Indians’ New World (1989), won Jim his first Bancroft Prize; Into the American Woods (1999) secured the second, and became a finalist for the Pulitzer along the way. As a “young(ish) fellow” “one score and three years ago,” Jim published a reflection on the state of Native American history in which, in his own words, he set about “chiding his elders and betters for neglecting Natives” [2]. This past summer he updated his thoughts (which Juntoist Matt Karp discussed in greater depth a little while ago). His books and articles have helped to shape the field of Native American and early American history even though he acknowledges (later on in this interview) the challenges of keeping up with the field.

Yet for most of the time I have known him, I have known Jim as a teacher whose exemplary instruction has shaped my own thoughts on pedagogy. At the beginning of the semester he hands out his version of a grammar and footnote guide, “A Few Matters of Form and Style,” so that non-majors get a sense of the intricacies of proper sentence structure and Chicago Manual of Style. He asks students to write “think pieces”—essentially non-graded reflections on the week’s readings that prime the class for discussions, and create a way to engage shy students. He ends every class meeting (and conference panels, as I learned at a conference a few years ago) with the words “thanks everybody,” a phrase which always made me feel good for taking useful lecture notes or for making a contribution to class discussion.

This interview, then, seemed like an opportunity for Jim to elaborate on some of his thoughts on teaching for our readers here at the Junto. I hope you enjoy them.

JUNTO: How did you end up at Vassar, and how do you manage being surrounded by Yankee fans, given your Minnesota roots?

MERRELL: Some years ago John Murrin (a fellow Minnesotan) wrote an overview of early America entitled “Beneficiaries of Catastrophe.” In answering your question, it occurs to me that on a vastly different, smaller scale, I am at Vassar as the beneficiary of a catastrophe. The early Americanist here a generation ago was Jon Clark, a legendary teacher and terrific scholar (see his essay in Saints and Revolutionaries) who died suddenly at a young age. When the college began to search for a successor, I was in my final fellowship year at the Institute of Early American History & Culture (now the Omohundro Institute, as all readers of this doubtless know). Somehow I managed to convince Vassar that a guy doing Native American history fit the job description for “Colonial America.” And speaking of Native American history, there was also the possibility that year of a position in that field at UCLA, and the prospect of being colleagues with giants like Gary Nash, Joyce Appleby, and Daniel Walker Howe—who were very welcoming—was tempting. In the end, though, the appeal of a liberal-arts college (I went to one, Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin) and my sense that I’m not a Southern California kind of guy won out. It’s a long way in many respects from Minnesota to Poughkeepsie, NY, but it’s even farther—in many respects—from St. Paul to L.A.

As for being surrounded by Yankees fans, that has indeed been a trial at times, especially with the Yankees so regularly and soundly beating up on my benighted Minnesota Twins. One way I cope is by escaping to spend summers back in the Twin Cities, where the University of Minnesota graciously lends me a library carrel to camp out in and my wife Linda and I (she’s from Minneapolis) can stay connected with family, friends, and roots. The result, among other things, is that our two sons have grown up as Twins fans, so I no longer have to suffer alone here in the Hudson Valley.

For those who might care about such musings, I’ll add that I do exact a paltry sort of revenge on Yankees fans every autumn in my class on the colonial era when examining tensions between the English and the Dutch in the 17th century. Talking about the name-calling that went on (“Dutch Reptiles,” “Dutch Courage”), I venture into the lexical roots of Yankees. After going through various possibilities I’ve come across over the years—Jan Kees was a Dutch pirate; it’s from a Cherokee word eankke—I then claim, with a straight face, that linguists have recently decoded it as follows: jan means “expensive” or “overpriced,” while kees is “rogues” or “wretches,” or (in modern parlance) “jerks.” With a flourish I then write on the board Yankees = “overpaid jerks” — and then turn to study the looks on students’ faces.

JUNTO: What are your top three favorite primary sources to teach, and why? Secondary sources? What have you taught recently for the first time, and how did it go over?

MERRELL: It’s tough to pick favorites, because I like all of them—that’s one reason I choose them. But let me say that one of my aims in teaching is to sow in students what I call “creative” or “constructive” confusion. I want to shake up, even overturn, the assumptions and preconceptions about America’s past that they bring into the classroom. Many of my primary and secondary sources help do that. For example, the Englishman William Moraley’s hilarious account of his brief sojourn in the colonies challenges notions about early American life in all sorts of ways, especially when paired with the work by his contemporary (and fellow runaway servant) Ben Franklin. I’m also drawn to Dr. Alexander Hamilton’s 1744 travel journal. Colorful, opinionated depictions of both genders, all races, many colonies, and various sects; the way hierarchy and performance play out on the page; the fact that he crossed paths with Native peoples not just on the frontier but in a Boston church and a Princeton street: it’s an incredibly rich source.

Scholarship can do the same sort of work. I still assign the classic by T. H. Breen and Stephen Innes, “Myne Owne Ground”: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Thirty years old now, refreshed by a new preface, the book gets students away from thinking that “race” and “slavery” arrived on American shores in some fixed fashion, full-blown. A few years ago in the middle of our discussion of the work one student, peeved if not outraged, demanded: “How come we never learned about this in high school?” A similar reaction comes out of articles such as Cornelia Hughes Dayton’s “Taking the Trade,” about a botched abortion in colonial Connecticut (“Pious colonists allowed abortion??”).

Among books I’ve tried recently with success are Rosemarie Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash, Richard Godbeer’s Escaping Salem, and Serena Zabin’s edition of the 1741 New York City conspiracy. All of these perform the same jobs of creatively confusing Vassar’s apprentice historians about core issues—gender and race, puritans and witches—while also bringing students closer to that foreign country called early America and getting them to appreciate just how foreign it is.

JUNTO: You were the first professor I encountered who used the idea of “grace days.” As I begin to plan my own syllabi, I’ve shamelessly stolen the idea. Can you explain to our readers what a grace day is, how you came up the concept, and why you give grace days to students?

MERRELL: “Grace Days” are extensions students can give themselves on the due date for papers. Everyone in the class gets three Grace Days per semester. They can use these whenever the press of other things—a paper in another course; a concert, play, or game they’re in; a late start on the assignment—makes it hard for them to meet the deadline. (Grace Days are not for emergencies or illness; that’s what extensions are for.) Hence for a paper due, say, on a Thursday, they can turn theirs in on Friday without penalty, at the “cost” of one Grace Day. (I have the weekend count as one day, so if that paper due Thursday came in on Monday, it would count as having used two Grace Days. Students love this feature, needless to say.) After the allotted three Grace Days are gone, there is a late penalty of 1/3 of a grade for each day late, with the weekend again counting as one day.

The idea came from a Vassar student long ago. When I first arrived here, I found myself spending too much of my time in office hours not talking with people about paper topics or sources or drafts but rather listening to appeals for an extension, appeals that seemed to favor those who were pre-law or in the Drama Department. When the grounds for appeal were “I have another paper due the same day” and I asked if they’d approached the other professor for an extension, the response was usually a shocked “Oh, no, Professor X would never grant that!” I decided that I wanted to be one of those profs, so I instituted a “no extensions” policy. That turned out to have problems of its own; too draconian. Then along came a superb student, Cyrus Vakil, who showed me a way out. Cyrus sometimes needed more time on papers not for the usual reasons but because he just wanted to do the best job he possibly could. He was willing to take the late penalty, but he also suggested that in future I could build a bit more flexibility into the system. I don’t know who came up with the term “Grace Days,” but Cyrus was the inspiration for the policy. It has worked well. Office hours can now be devoted to history rather than plea bargains.

JUNTO: I think the most entertaining exam I ever encountered was the exam I took for your Colonial America class, in which you asked students to create dialogues between two people off of a list you drew up based on the primary sources we’d read that semester. How did you come up with that idea? Could you write a little more about your attitude about exams? 

MERRELL: I can’t remember where I got the idea for that conversation, but I do like to mix things up some by having students stretch themselves and their brains a bit. Inviting them to imagine writing as Franklin meeting Moraley (or vice versa) injects a bit of fun into what is actually a serious comparative exercise.

As for exams in general, as with so much of my teaching, my views can be traced back to Doug Greenberg, who taught me early American history at Lawrence a lifetime ago. The aim is to make an exam something other than regurgitation of whatever a student has memorized. Rather, it should be a creative intellectual exercise in which students take what they’ve learned and use that knowledge to write about a subject that we might never have even discussed directly. The example Doug cited, which if memory serves came from his mentor, Michael Kammen, was something like: “Discuss early American notions of time.” Even if this was not a topic the class had addressed, it was one that, from the course materials, could be tackled. In my own courses I’ll use all sorts of quotations (Kammen’s own People of Paradox is a favorite place to turn, as a matter of fact) to get them thinking anew. One that works with various classes I teach—Native American history, Revolutionary America—is from Erik Seeman’s Pious Persuasions: “Although historians have seen rituals as preserving social order, ritual could result in disorder as well.” I’ll then add a sentence or two of further guidance and see what they do with it. Whatever the question and the course, I tell students beforehand that their first reaction to getting the exam is likely to be shock, dismay, even panic, followed by a muttered “What the #@!%* am I supposed to do with this question?” But if I’ve done my job properly their second reaction, on thinking it over for a bit, will be: “Hmm, let’s see what I can do with this question.”

JUNTO: What parts of teaching do you still find difficult?

MERRELL: Difficult? That’s easy (as it were): leading discussions. It’s curious, because most of my courses are all discussion, all the time (the others are divided evenly between lecture and discussion), so you’d think I’d have figured it out by now. That said, not having it figured out, still finding it a challenge, is among the things that still make teaching so rewarding.

The reasons running a discussion is hard are many, but a lot of it has to do with the different character of each class, each semester. The personalities, the chemistry, the mix of majors, the number of people in their first History class vs. those in their tenth—it all adds up to a damnably, wonderfully unpredictable (mis)adventure. A reading that soared one year will fall with a resounding thud the next. A question about a reading that sparked a conversational conflagration the last time I used it gutters out this time. Who knows why? But, as I say, it keeps things interesting.

P.S. Some years ago a Vassar colleague gave me a great guide to this dimension of teaching called “The Dreaded Discussion: Ten Ways to Start.” I review it before every semester, and often during the term as well.

JUNTO: What do you like the most about your Vassar students?

MERRELL: A few years back in my Revolutionary America class I was spouting off about some text we were reading and discussing. I don’t recall the details, but I do remember offering what I thought was a pretty ingenious and original take on said text, one that I’d just come up with on the spot. Having finished this peroration, I looked expectantly and triumphantly around the room. A hand went up. Given the floor (I figured she would second my remarkable insight), the student announced, politely but firmly: “I completely disagree with everything you just said.” Then she went on to dismantle my interpretive edifice, piece by piece. I (literally) broke into applause, then watched as her remarks launched a freewheeling discussion that day—and raised the caliber of the class conversation for the rest of the semester.

That is the sort of thing I like most about Vassar students. While unfortunately they are not always as direct as that student was, they are willing to question authority—whether mine or a book’s—to read and to think against the grain. Combine that with an impressive work ethic, a healthy dose of curiosity, and a genuine desire to improve their prose (without being fixated on chasing better grades), and you have the ingredients for great classes, year after year. It’s a cliché that the teacher learns from his students, but it also happens to be true. Many’s the time that I’ve come back to my office from teaching a class on a book I know well, plopped down at my desk, and jotted down notes for future reference because one student or another had an insight that had never before occurred to me.

JUNTO: How have you balanced teaching with research, and is this balancing act something that’s changed over time? How do you keep up with the literature in Native American history and early America?

MERRELL: “Balancing act” is indeed apt. It is something of an act, and the prospect of losing one’s balance is always there. While that act and that balance have certainly changed over time—my daily and seasonal rounds when my kids were small bear little resemblance to those rounds B.C. (Before Children) or now that my wife and I occupy an empty nest—I can’t say that it’s gotten easier to find the right balance. Class preparation, grading papers, and other duties still take up lots of time and energy, and though I no longer spend hours chauffeuring kids to flute lessons or standing on the sidelines at a soccer field, there are also more requests to do this or that, both on campus and beyond, than there were fifteen or twenty years ago. I’m lucky that Vassar has a generous leave policy; that, along with summer and winter breaks, allows unbroken blocks of time for research and writing. Learning from younger colleagues here, I am also more consciously trying to find space, however small, in each day during the semester to keep momentum going on whatever project I’m pursuing.

One of those projects pursued, of course, is keeping up with the literature. How do I keep up? One answer is: I don’t. (Does anyone, truly?) The shelves in my office and in the library groan with books I really must read, to say nothing of the ever-rising tide of articles awaiting me online. With the fields of Native American history and early American history growing at such a clip, I sometimes feel that I fall farther and farther behind by the day. Another answer to the question is: define “keep up.” I constantly peruse journals’ tables of contents and book reviews to see what’s out there, and read as much as I can of that, particularly when it ties into what I’m teaching or what I’m writing about, but also ranging farther afield when I can. And a third answer comes from my undergraduate professor Doug Greenberg, when we were talking about this very issue some 35 years ago: You do your best, but in the end you just have to learn how to make your peace with all those unread books and articles.

JUNTO: And finally, although this is an interview about teaching, I’m sure readers would like to hear a bit about what you’re working on now. Would you care to share some preliminary thoughts?

MERRELL: Last year I finished two projects that had occupied and preoccupied me for a while, an article in the July 2012 William & Mary Quarterly on the vocabulary we use to discuss Natives in early America and an anthology of primary sources, American Conversations, for use in U.S. History survey courses. With these out of the way, I’ve been strangely drawn to the colonial history of this neck of the woods, the Mid-Hudson Valley. My particular interest is the juxtaposition of tenant disputes with their landlords and the local Indians’ campaign to defend those same acres from those same landlords—sometimes by joining forces with those same disgruntled tenants. The juxtaposition that first caught my eye was events in August 1766: at the very time the putative leader of the tenant revolt, William Prendergast, was on trial for high treason in Poughkeepsie, the Wappingers Indian leader Daniel Nimham was in London lobbying for a fair hearing on his people’s land rights. Of course, I’m hardly the first to notice this: over the past 75 years many distinguished scholars—from Irving Mark and Oscar Handlin through Staughton Lynd and Sung Bok Kim to Edward Countryman and Thomas Humphrey—have already looked into this episode. So it’s too early to tell whether I’ll find anything new to say. In the meantime, though, I’m enjoying myself enough to have written a piece on the Poughkeepsie show trial’s record that is forthcoming in Early American Studies.

[1] James H. Merrell, Reader’s Report, Senior Thesis Draft, “American Culinary Nationalism, 1796-1846,” by Rachel Herrmann, Department of History, Vassar College, March 2007, in author’s possession.

[2] James H. Merrell, “Second Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 69, no. 3 (July 2012), 452; James H. Merrell, “Some Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 60, no. 1 (January 1989): 94-119.

10 comments on “Some Thoughts on Teaching: An Interview with James H. Merrell

  1. DN says:

    Great interview! In case it might be of use to others, the “Dreaded Discussion” article Merrell mentions seems to be widely available: http://goo.gl/V1m4c

  2. DN says:

    Full citation: Peter Frederick, “The Dreaded Discussion: Ten Ways to Start,” Improving College and University Teaching 29, no. 3 (July 1, 1981): 109–114, doi:10.2307/27565439.

  3. Benjamin Park says:

    Fantastic. Thanks, Rachel, for asking the questions, and thanks, Mr. Merrell, for giving great answers.

  4. Love the interview and lead up!

  5. vanbraman says:

    Nice insights into teaching. Thanks for sharing this interview.

  6. raherrmann says:

    Glad everyone enjoyed it!

  7. Heath Bowen says:

    What a nice and informative read! Thank you, Rachel and Mr. Merrell.

  8. This is just a wonderful gift! Thanks from a new professor!

  9. Jane Merritt says:

    Glad to see that students in Vassar’s History Department remain engaged as ever. As a past student of Jonathan Clark’s and current colleague of Jim Merrell’s, thanks. Think I’ll take a look at that “dreaded discussion” piece for future reference….

  10. Emily S says:

    Mr. Merrell is one of the Vassar professors I remember. He was and is a great teacher. Even twenty-something years later I remember enjoying his class (and he lived in our dormitory). I’m glad so many others benefit from his teaching. In addition, I don’t think it’s easy to participate in any discussion when you get to college and might enjoy studying, or learning but don’t feel like an authority.

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