“Trans-American Crossings” Conference Recap

Over the weekend, an international group of scholars met on the campus of Brown University to participate in a conference focused on various forms of enslaved migrations throughout the Americas from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. Sponsored by the Omohundro Institute and the John Carter Brown Library, the meeting represented the fifth in a series of conferences about the transatlantic slave trade that have been organized by the OI.

For anyone who couldn’t make it to Providence[1], the panels were live-tweeted and can be found #TransAmCrossings. While the tweets of my colleagues give a great sense of the flow of the conversations over the weekend, what follows here are some of my reflections on the broader questions and themes that drove intellectual exchanges during and after the panels. Continue reading

A Survey of Assumptions

With spring well underway, many of us are experiencing the satisfaction of marking the Screen Shot 2018-05-19 at 5.36.17 PMlast grade on the final blue book of the semester, with an eye toward the approaching summer months and the freedom to work on our own research projects.[1] This makes it a foolhardy moment to entice Junto readers into thinking about teaching the survey, but it also presents an opportunity to reflect on our students and how their backgrounds should shape our approach in the classroom.

Several months ago, NPR ran a story about the declining enrollment of international students in colleges and universities in the United States. Between the current administration’s immigration policies and increasing anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the country, talented international students are opting out of an American education.

Even with declining enrollments, however, the percentage of international students in American universities is higher than I realized. According to a study by U.S. News, in the 2016-17 school year, 65 of the national universities surveyed reported at least 10% international student enrollment. On the higher end, 32% of enrolled students at the New School in New York City are international students while 24% of students at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma come from abroad.

I listened to that NPR story about international student enrollment right after finishing Andrés Reséndez’s The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America and the juxtaposition got me thinking. Reséndez clearly wrote The Other Slavery for a popular audience. He also supplies the kind of archival research and historiographical arguments that make it an important book for scholars of early America. It’s a rare achievement of both scholarly vigor and ease of reading that makes me excited to assign it to undergraduate students in a comparative slavery course. This is not a review of Reséndez’s book, but it does offer an example of why it might be time to rethink the “standard narrative” that historians often assume our students and the general public bring to our classrooms and scholarship.[2]

Throughout his analysis of the enslavement of Native people throughout Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Southwest, Reséndez uses comparative language to help the reader understand the nuance and various forms that bound labor could take in the Americas. It’s his sensitivity to being understood that makes the book so readable. But, his choice of comparisons reveals what he assumes to be the stereotype of slavery in the minds of his readers – the nineteenth-century enslavement of people of African descent in the United States. So, for example, while he discusses sixteenth-century legal disputes in Spain and Spanish America surrounding whether Indians could be enslaved and their ability to access courts, he presents the example of the inability of slaves in the antebellum U.S. to do the same. As he explains, “The notion that a slave could sue his or her master to attain freedom would have been laughable to most southerners during the first half of the nineteenth century” (47-8). There’s nothing wrong with that statement; white southerners would have found sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish legal traditions antithetical to the kind of legal authority they created for slaveholders.

While the constant comparison to nineteenth-century U.S. slaveholding is not technically wrong, is it the most effective way to explain an early modern Spanish world? I ask this question, in part, because I often rely on overturning stereotypes in my teaching. There’s a certain pleasure that comes with opening students’ eyes to the ways in which what they learned before college was impartial or incorrect. But do I really know what kinds of assumptions my students bring into the classroom? Especially when roughly 11% of the students at William and Mary are international students? With those demographics, assuming that my students enter the classroom with the kind of moonlight-and-magnolias stereotypes of the nineteenth century serves little actual purpose.

And, while blowing away stereotypes can be cathartic in the classroom, are we actually teaching undergraduates how the discipline of history functions? If part of the goal in university education is the teach students how historians think – our approach to evidence, argument, and historiography – than comparing apples to oranges to make a point does the opposite. I want my students to leave the classroom with the ability to think like historians. Teaching those skills also translates across the varied educational experiences that my students bring from around the world.

I will still assign Reséndez and I would love to hear from Junto readers who have already used it in their classrooms. When I do teach it, I hope that part of the conversation with my students can also be about the assumptions that Reséndez brought to his writing about them, his readers.

 

[1] My apologies to everyone on the quarter system, of course.

[2] David Treuer has a great review of the book in the LA Times from May 13th, 2016.

Geographies of Power on Land and Water: Space, People, and Borders

I recently spoke at an event for Early Career Researchers hosted jointly by the British Group in Early American History, the British American Nineteenth Century Historians, and the Institute of Historical Research about funding initiatives for Americanists based in the UK.[1] I was there to talk about applying for and winning a networking grant (in the UK, it’s called a “networking scheme grant,” which I LOVE because it makes me feel extra sneaky) with my co-investigator, Jessica Roney. On the assumption that some of the advice I offered there might be helpful to our readers, I wanted to rehash some of those ideas in a blog post here today.

But first, I must rant a little bit about the state of immigration in the United Kingdom—a problem not unique here, by any means, but one of relevance to non-British Americanists working in the UK. Continue reading

Survey on American History in the UK

Online_Survey_Icon.svgBGEAH (British Group of Early American Historians), BrANCH (British American Nineteenth Century Historians) and HOTCUS (Historians of the Twentieth Century United States) are pleased to invite participation in a new survey exploring the conditions of study, recruitment and employment within the field of American history as practiced in the UK. Continue reading

About that AHA Jobs Chart

"Advertised Job Openings Compared to Number of New History PhDs," American Historical AssociationThis week, the American Historical Association previewed a forthcoming report on the number of full-time history jobs. The post is entitled “Another Tough Year for the Academic Job Market in History”—which is a bit misleading, since it documents the continuation of a decade-long collapse. In the last hiring year (2016-2017), employers advertised only 289 tenure-track faculty positions and 212 other full-time jobs in the AHA Career Center. During that same year, to judge by the recent past, American universities probably granted more than 1,000 new doctorates in history.

Continue reading

Should You Write your Dissertation as a Book?

Impostor syndrome comes in many forms in academia, and this is how it comes for me: I shouldn’t be a doctor, because I never wrote a dissertation. I just wrote a book. It’s not that I regret the choice. But since that book came out, I’ve had the chance to think about what can be gained, and what lost, by writing your dissertation as a book. This is not a pro-con list. It is a pro-pro list. The hitch is, you can only pick one. Continue reading

Guest Post: Why and How You Should Build a Web Presence

Today’s guest post is by Lindsay M. Chervinsky. She is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis and is completing her manuscript, “The President’s Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.”

As the new school year starts, many departments are offering seminars for their graduate students on skills and approaches to find a job in this difficult market. Editorials on ChronicleVitae and the American Historical Association mission to document where historians work demonstrate that the history community is beginning to welcome “non-traditional” employment opportunities. While these efforts represent a great first step to introducing students to jobs in editing, public history, and teaching, I would argue that there should be a broader conversation about learning to create a public voice and building a web presence.

Continue reading