How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Presentism

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I’m trained as an early American historian, so I never anticipated that one day I’d teach a current-events course. And yet, in Fall 2017, I debuted a course called “Learning from the Past: Early America in the 21st Century.” New to my department, I had to market an early American studies course that would draw enrollments, and the best method I could think of was to convince students that the early American past had relevance to their lives. In graduate school, some of my professors argued that historians should not engage in presentism—that it would make our work seem dated to future generations of scholars. But our own political moment—I started teaching two weeks after far-right protests converged around Confederate monuments in Charlottesville—felt too urgent not to let our own moment into our discussions of the past. Instead of keeping the present in the subtext of my class, I brought it into the text.

Each week in “Learning from the Past,” we considered a topic both in early America (via secondary sources) and in the present (via news coverage and long-form journalism such as the New Yorker or Atlantic). The class roamed through subjects like income inequality (drawing on Gary Nash’s discussion of pre-Revolutionary poverty and politics) and the distrust of media (using Wendy Bellion’s argument that illusions in early Republic art constituted a kind of citizenship test). Reading Thomas Michael Wickman’s work on how New England settlers took a long time to adapt to the indigenous technology of snowshoes in the midst of the Little Ice Age, we discussed the cultural barriers (from fear of refugees to denialism) that stand in the way of today’s humans adapting to a changing climate. Students who were skeptical about the contemporary trans rights movement gained a new understanding of the long arc of LGBTQ+ history when confronted with Kathleen Brown’s account of the gender-bending life of Thomas/Thomasine Hall in early Virginia.

We also learned about how to responsibly draw parallels between the past and the present. The class grappled with a seemingly straightforward example: how Lin-Manuel Miranda packages Alexander Hamilton as the quintessential immigrant story. Miranda has been a voice for immigrants’ rights. The Hamilton Mixtape video for “Immigrants: We Get the Job Done” transforms a line originally spoken by Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette into a meditation on migration, borders, and labor. With these factors in play, the comparison between immigration in early America and the present seems at first glance simple to draw. But, as many commentators have noted, it’s a little more complicated than that. Neither Hamilton himself (originally from the British Caribbean colony of St. Nevis) nor Miranda’s family (originally from the unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico) were technically immigrants. And the rhetoric that “America is a nation of immigrants” elides the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. These complexities, coupled with the fact that we happened to be discussing this topic the week of the DACA repeal, gave rise to a spirited conversation about history, historical memory, and policy.

I also let students try out their own comparisons. Instead of writing conventional academic papers, students honed skills in research, persuasion, and brevity through a series of op-ed essays. One student’s essay connecting scarcity in early America and the present described her own family’s struggles with hunger after her father was deported and her mother had to support the family on her own. Another student drew parallels between Walter Johnson’s descriptions of the antebellum slave market in New Orleans in Soul by Soul, and the dark web’s marketplace for sex trafficking. Another student asked why many commentators lionize the violent protests of the Sons of Liberty, while decrying the actions of protesters today.

Lately it seems like everyone’s talking about history, from Confederate monuments to Pocahontas. My task has shifted from telling my students why they should care about history, to giving them the analytical skills to navigate our own time. I hope that students leave my class knowing the long historical context of explosive headlines, and I hope that they will apply what they’ve learned as we make our own history.

I’m sure I’m not the only academic who has woken up in the morning, checked the headlines, and wondered, “how on earth am I going to teach this today?” I’m interested to hear how you all have approached teaching in these volatile times.

6 responses

  1. This is really great. Congratulations for a wonderfully creative course. I wonder if you would be willing to post the full reading list you used.

  2. As a public historian who fought for the inclusion of recent political events into historical interpretation and memory, and a current academic librarian I appreciate this and wish I could take your class! I’d also be interested in seeing the reading list for this course.

  3. This is a great approach. Last semester I taught a course on the memory of the American Revolution in American history and culture and the final third of the course, which was focused on the present, seems similar to the course your describe, though we had class meetings devoted to topics like Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the Tea Party, the Revolution in popular culture (including Hamilton, Liberty’s Kids, and graphic novels), etc…. Students enjoyed that part of the course especially because of its direct relevance to their own lives and your course sounds like an excellent way of extending that throughout the entire semester!

  4. I wanted to add my two cents as an early modern Europeanist and congratulate you on an impressive and inspiring course. Aside from being constantly struck by how ill-informed many of our students are about current politics and global/national issues, I am also constantly striving to find meaningful ways to engage students to think about how we can draw lessons from historical examples for our present challenges. This seems a very sound and reasonable approach to the challenge of this moment. Thank you.

  5. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of April 15, 2018 | Unwritten Histories

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