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.

Black Patriotic Masculinity in the Letters of Impressed Sailor Jacob Israel Potter

Black men in early America strived for masculine recognition in their society which did not provide many opportunities for Black men to publicly present themselves as men. In 2007, through The William and Mary Quarterly, maritime historian W. Jeffrey Bolster published “Letters by African American Sailors, 1799-1814,” which is useful in examining how Black men performed masculinity to not only provide for themselves and their families, but also to provide opportunities to be recognized as men. In my first post for The Junto, I decided to focus on the life of one of the Black sailors involved in the letters named Jacob Israel Potter. As an early nineteenth century impressed, or captured, Black sailor from Lewes, Delaware by the British Royal Navy, conceptually speaking, the parameters of freedom were far different for him as a person of African descent than someone white. Generally, Black freedom was always in tension with Black mobility. Scholars like Elizabeth Pryor examine this tension in the lives of Black antebellum activists from the late 1820s until just before the Civil War, but this post, in part, examines this tension with the added caveats of how Black masculinity and Black patriotism coincided with this tension as well.[1] Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Why We Doubt Capable Children: Constructing Childhood in the Revolutionary Era

Mann_Page_Elizabeth_Page_John_Wollaston“My friends and I might still be 11, and we might still be in elementary school, but we know . . . that we have seven short years until we too have the right to vote.”[1] Speaking at the March for Our Lives event, 11-year old Naomi Wadler eloquently reminded us that childhood is ephemeral. Since they are future voters, she warned Capitol Hill to take the words, emotions, and pleas of children seriously. In many ways, she was also speaking to Florida State Representative Elizabeth Porter who recently exclaimed, “The adults make the law because we have the age, we has [sic] the wisdom, and we have the experience.”[2] For many like Rep. Porter, there has been something disturbing in this moment of youth activism. It cuts to the core of social stability based on the patriarchal family order—that children are subordinate, passive members of society. We inherited this idea from the eighteenth-century revolutionary era, a point in time when age became a main determinant in who could be considered a citizen and an adult. Continue reading

Guest Post: George Washington’s Mausoleum: Congressional Debates Over the Work of Monuments

Jamie L. Brummitt is a Ph.D. Candidate in American Religion at Duke University and an online instructor for the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW). Her dissertation “Protestant Relics: The Politics of Religion & the Art of Mourning” examines the lively relic culture that thrived in political and religious life of the United States from the 1770s to 1870s. 

Benjamin H. Latrobe, Watercolor, ink, and pencil of the proposed Washington mausoleum, c. 1800, Library of Congress.

If the recent acts of iconoclasm in Durham and Charlottesville have taught us anything, it may be this: monuments matter. They matter not just in an ideological sense, but in a material sense. Monuments work as material objects because they embody people, memory, and ideas for better or worse. This post examines the proposed construction of a mausoleum for George Washington’s remains by Congress. The proposed mausoleum was entangled in debates about politics, finances, and the material nature of monuments. Many congressmen argued that a monument to Washington should work with his remains to transfer his virtues to Americans. Continue reading

Guest Post: Patriotism, Partisanship, and “The Star-Spangled Banner”: A View from the Early Republic

Billy Coleman is a Postdoctoral Fellow in History at the Kinder Institute for Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri. He received his PhD from University College London (UCL), and is currently completing a book manuscript called, “Harnessing Harmony: Music, Power, and Politics in the United States, 1788-1865.”  He is also the US-based book review editor for American Nineteenth Century History and the author of “‘The Music of a well tun’d State’: ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and the Development of a Federalist Musical Tradition” (Journal of the Early Republic 35, no. 4).

As I type, President Donald Trump is tweeting: “#StandForOurAnthem.” The presidential hashtag was created in response to over two hundred NFL players who this weekend chose to protest racial injustice and police brutality by kneeling, sitting, raising fists, or linking arms in solidarity during the national anthem. Their actions add to what is now a year-long protest movement surrounding “The Star-Spangled Banner,” started initially by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Now, the controversy has expanded significantly in defiance of President Trump’s suggestion that NFL team owners should “fire or suspend” players who “disrespect” their country by refusing to stand for the anthem. Continue reading

Research at the Bodleian: A Guide

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A few summers ago, I wrote a guide to navigating London-area archives, as part of a roundtable The Junto published about research. I have updated that piece, but today, I wanted to share some thoughts on doing research at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford. Continue reading

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