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.

Teaching the Meaning of Liberty

Baltimore Sanitary Fair“We all declare for liberty,” Abraham Lincoln remarked in 1864, “but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.” That word gets thrown around a lot when we talk about, and especially when we commemorate, the early American republic. Since I started my job two years ago, I’ve been teaching a course on “the meaning of liberty” from Revolution to Civil War. In this post I want to reflect on the process of designing, teaching, and redesigning that course—a process of thinking through American “liberty” with my twenty-first century British students in mind. Continue reading

Of Course Death Discriminates

The following post contains a discussion of a student death and trans lives. It may be upsetting to readers, so please practice self-care in deciding when and how to read it.

Puck

I’ve wept three times in front of my students this semester, and I am not a public weeper. 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

Module Conveners and the British Job Market

As an undergraduate, I didn’t take many large survey classes, and apart from one class, even the surveys that I took were taught by one faculty member. Larger U.S. universities do have more survey classes (I know, because I was a TA for several of them), but most that I taught on were also taught by one person. That model seems to be less usual in the United Kingdom, so I thought I’d talk about monster team-taught classes, the role of convener in bringing (and then holding) these classes together, and what you need to know about them if you’re considering  the British job market.[1] Continue reading

Roundtable: Democratize the Classroom!

This is the final post in our series on Teaching Amid Political Tension (read Part I, Part II, Part III). Today’s post is by Sean Trainor, who teaches history, writing, and professional communication at the University of Florida. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, TIME, Salon, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Junto, Early American Studies, and elsewhere. He co-hosts the weekly podcast Impolitic.

To be perfectly honest, the current age of turmoil has had a minimal impact on the content of my courses. Long before Donald Trump emerged as a presidential contender or Pepe the Frog became an absurd, menacing presence in Americans’ collective consciousness, I had been teaching a politically engaged curriculum that focused on the intersection of racism, sexism, inequality, imperialism, and jingoistic excess in American history. I had designed these courses as a kind of rebuttal to what I saw as the defining sins of American life, and insofar as Donald Trump gleefully embodies these sins, my courses have aged well in the era of his presidency.

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Roundtable: Historical Memory and Contemporary Politics

This is the third post in our series on Teaching Amid Political Tension (read Part I, Part II). Today’s post comes from Jennifer M. Black, an Assistant Professor of History and Government at Misericordia University in Dallas, PA, and Network Editor-in-Chief at H-Material Culture. She tweets at @blackjen1.

When asked to contribute to this roundtable, my mind immediately turned to a 100-level course I taught this past spring, “Turning Points in American History.” Though the course had been designed as a “greatest hits” of the US history survey, I decided that I wanted to interrogate the concept of memory as it relates to the Revolution, the Civil War, and more centrally, the shifting understandings of Freedom and Rights in the US. I intentionally chose materials that would trace these changing ideas over time and highlight the legacy of the Revolution in the Civil War, the 1960s, and our own moment today. Ultimately, I wanted to get my students to talk about the 2015 controversy that arose around the Confederate flag after Dylann Roof entered the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC and brutally murdered parishioners as they prayed. This, I hoped, would push them to consider the continued relevance of these moments—of history—for today. In forcing them to confront the ways the past still shapes our society and culture, I hoped they would be motivated to work towards a better future.

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