“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.

A President, a Cardinal, and a Soldier walk into a bar…

The Council, Episode One: The Mad Ones by Big Bad Wolf [PC, PS4, XBOX One]

[NB:  This article contains significant story spoilers for the first episode of the video game The Council by Big Bad Wolf]

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What if John Adams had a secret, occult daughter with a period inappropriate haircut?

This is one of the central plot points of the first episode Big Bad Wolf’s historical episodic video game The Council. Set in 1793 the player takes control of a twenty-something blank slate with a cool jacket, named Louis de Richet. Louis is seeking to uncover a mystery relating to Sarah, his ice queen secret agent mother. Invited to a “private island” off the English coast by Lord Mortimer, a British aristo whose aesthetic is a Regency Bond villain mixed with Eyes Wide Shut, Louis is works to uncover why Sarah vanished from one of Mortimer’s smashing shindigs. Mortimer’s shtick, you see, is hosting gatherings of the best and brightest of the late eighteenth century Euro-American world. Once Louis arrives at Mortimer’s latest fete that you discover just how vast The Council’s world is, for guess who is waiting for you by the fire?

None other than George Washington, a historical figure who our readers are likely quite familiar with. Continue reading

Portrait of a Juntoist in Motion

I’ve had a blog, in one place or another, since 2002, and thus the distinction between “a blog” and “a blog post” is a hill on which I am willing to die. But before Ben Park approached me to be one of The Junto’s founding members, I hadn’t blogged extensively about history. Five years later, I still want to write about other topics in addition to history, but I firmly believe that my history teaching and history scholarship have benefitted from my membership here. That said, I think my role as a blogger for The Junto has changed since 2012, and will continue to transform in the future. Today, I want to reflect on some of these changes. 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

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

Every Historian Her Own Adventurer

This spring, early Americanists were abuzz about “a bit of real-life archival drama,” as Harvard scholars Danielle Allen and Emily Sneff announced that they had discovered something pretty amazing: an unknown, manuscript, parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence. As friend-of-the-field Jennifer Schuessler playfully reported in the New York Times, it was all a little National Treasure. The apparently random order of the signatures on this manuscript, compared to other versions, points towards some interesting implications, involving Philadelphia Federalist James Wilson and attempts to build a unified American nationhood in the new republic. But reactions to Allen and Sneff’s announcement also, I think, tell us something about how knowledge of the past is structured, presented, and consumed. Continue reading