We hear a lot about the “canon wars” of the 1980s and 1990s, when conservative (and neoconservative, and Straussian anti-anti-liberal, and pre-New-Left liberal) critics raised the hue and cry against relativizing multiculturalism, which was replacing War and Peace and The Scarlet Letter on college reading lists with just any random thing that wasn’t written by a wealthy straight white man. Or, if you prefer, when left-wing critics advanced the radical notion that women, homosexuals, minorities, and the poor are conscious human beings too. Or when cynical politicians and self-important idealists conspired together to undermine public confidence in higher education and the humanities. Or whatever.
This past Monday I turned in my final paper in a graduate seminar given by John Demos entitled, “Narrative and Other Histories.” I initially registered for the class not long after watching Bill Cronon’s Presidential Address at this year’s AHA Annual Meeting and engaging in conversation about it on Twitter as well as in a piece for The Junto. With all the focus on “storytelling” and narrative as a means for carving out a twenty-first-century model of the historical profession, the course offering appeared quite timely. Continue reading
Before reading this post, take a moment to read this genuine, recent ad from Craigslist (click picture for full size). It is from a student in New York and the assignment(s) are due today, one of which is an early American history paper.
As I wrote last week, I am currently finishing up my coursework and in the fall will begin my first teaching assistantship. Because teaching has been on my mind anyway, the ad above struck me a bit harder than I imagine it would have done before. I’ve heard stories of cheating and plagiarism from my professors and my peers in my own program now in their teaching years, but the ad above really “takes the cake” for me. Continue reading
Last week when the Junto hosted the History Carnival we noted the creation of the “Just Teach One” project, co-sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and Common-place. Today we’d like to take a closer look at what promises to be an exciting addition to thinking about how to teach early American studies (for both literary scholars and historians).
One of the key difficulties of teaching the American Revolution is the seeming inevitability of it all. Why did Britain even bother pursuing its bothersome colonists? After all, the patriot cause was so noble and glorious that there was surely no way that such perfidious villains as the redcoats could possibly have triumphed. And yet within that myth, there is a persistent paradox: the patriot cause is often “proven” by the victory of such an inferior force against the strongest military power in the world in the late 18th century. But for this narrative to make any sense at all, there must have been a real risk of defeat; unless Britain could realistically have defeated their colonists, why would the morality of the patriots be of any consequence whatsoever? Continue reading
Teaching the survey, I have found, can be a blur. Events, people, and places zip by—on Monday, you’re at Jamestown in 1607, on Wednesday, Plymouth in 1620, and by Friday Cotton and Increase Mather are angling for a new charter for Massachusetts. (Okay, I don’t move quite that fast, but it’s still quick.) And in the meantime students deal mostly with brief snippets of texts in a document reader. Someday I may ditch it, but for now, it does the job.
One of my favorite parts of the course, therefore, is working with students a little more deeply on select texts, and getting to practice the craft of the historian more fully. So today I’ll share one or two of my favorites with you, offering no claims to originality.
I’ll start with my absolute favorite, which will come as no surprise to my friends: Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Continue reading
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 . Continue reading
This is my first “real” blog post for The Junto, though I’ve been a spectral presence each Sunday with a gathering of links on early American history (which the past month or so has revolved a great deal around Lincoln and Django Unchained). One of my aspirations in agreeing to contribute, and one of my hopes for a developing conversation, centered on the opportunity to discuss teaching early American history, from the 100-level survey to upper-level courses. So I offered for this post to write something about teaching primary sources, without at the time knowing quite what I would say.
Then, last week, the National Association of Scholars released a report assailing colleges in Texas (the flagships – UT-Austin and A&M) for teaching too much “race, class, and gender,” and not enough political, diplomatic, and economic history. I wrote about a few of the report’s shortcomings at Publick Occurrences 2.0 on Friday. You can read the substance over there, but as I was writing I realized that I want to extend my thoughts to think more deeply about what we do in the classroom. Continue reading
I’m working on my syllabus for next semester. This is a new class at a relatively new job, and I have spent approximately 1,000 hours agonizing over the structure of the class and the difficulty of the readings, tweaking the language of the course description, and trying to find the most fair and opportune balance for the assignments. But mostly, making this syllabus has made me reconsider the role of listening in the classroom. Listening to music, that is.
Since I teach at an elite conservatory where all of the students are training to be (or already are) professional performers, we listen to music in every class meeting. This particular course, on representations of the “exotic” in western music from c. 1600 to today, features approximately 30 pieces of music. I treat these pieces like primary sources. The students are expected to listen to the assigned piece in advance, and in class we listen to excerpts in order to ground our discussion. I introduce other musical examples to illustrate points or guide the discussion in new directions. Sometimes the students draw on their own experiences as performers, making connections between the course materials and music they’ve encountered elsewhere. Continue reading
At this time of the semester, amid my ever-increasing piles of grading, my thoughts naturally turn to the syllabi for next semester’s courses. One of my guiding principles in preparing syllabi is the importance of introducing students to the breadth of historical writing; to demonstrate the ways in which diverse groups of people reacted to the same event in very different ways. When teaching early American history, this often casts me in the position of “debunking” various myths about the past—or, at least, forcing my students to think more clearly and carefully when making statements about the foundations of America. This, I like to think, serves the useful purpose of demonstrating how ordinary citizens—those outside the pantheon of “Founding Fathers”—imagined the development of their society, and to show how their vision of political participation was often very different from that claimed today as ‘what the Revolution was all about’.
In many ways, though, my take on the Revolution relies less on “debunking” myths than in widening the participants in the historical story. I suppose “problematizing” or “complicating” the myths is a more accurate description—after all, it’s impossible to escape the fact that the historical significance of the American Revolution rests on the creation of a new nation-state and several new political polities. More recently, though, I’ve come to wonder exactly what I’m hoping to achieve with the broadening of the understanding of the past. No matter how far we widen “founding myths” to encompass a variety of explanations for the promise of America, reliance on these myths can never help us explain the present—they can be a guide only. At my most cynical, I wonder even what sort of guide they can be. Continue reading