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.
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.
One day in my small undergraduate historiography seminar a few years ago, one student said something really offensive to another student. I can’t really repeat the offending sentence, but it involved a racist aspersion toward a student of color and the offender invoked the name of then-candidate Trump as he spat out the shocking utterance. I remember being so shocked at what I had heard, and the condescending way in which it was said, that I shrank from the occasion. Luckily, the student at whom the comment was directed was more than capable of standing up for herself and others. No matter, I went home that day feeling like I had failed my students. The feeling did not go away for a long time.
I teach at a small liberal arts college in Kentucky. Like many academics, I spend most of my time teaching, thinking about teaching, and mentoring. I genuinely enjoy my students; they are smart, thoughtful, engaged, and generally eager to learn new things. And while the past year has been an interesting one to spend on a college campus, my students haven’t seemed remotely surprised about the political, racial, and class tensions that have occasionally swept across campus.
For many teachers in both primary and secondary education, the classroom feels like a far more tense place as we head back for the 2017-2018 academic year than it did just a year ago, thanks to what seem like tectonic shifts in America’s political and social landscape. American history has become ever more politicized as metaphors and analogies abound between contemporary politics and earlier eras and figures―the founding and Andrew Jackson among the most prominent.
This summer, I’m teaching a small section of United States History to 1877. Meeting four days each week for an hour and fifteen minutes, we cover over the course of seven weeks what is typically covered in shorter meetings three days/week over a normal fifteen week semester. This is my first time doing so, and it’s forced me to rewrite and combine some plans for each day’s meeting, and in some cases, to scrap lecture material normally used. Continue reading →
Today, we continue “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution at 50,” our joint roundtable with the S-USIH blog with a post by Kenneth Owen, an Assistant Professor of Early American History at the University of Illinois Springfield, whose research interests focus on political mobilization and organization in the revolutionary and early national eras.
It took me a long time to warm to The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. I don’t think this is an uncommon experience for an early Americanist. Fifty years after its publication, Bailyn’s seminal work still features prominently on graduate and undergraduate reading lists. Yet it is hard to say that the book is beloved. Often, simply mentioning Bailyn’s name can be a pejorative shorthand—an outmoded view of the past that celebrates elites at the expense of the darker underbelly of the Revolution. As an undergraduate, I too railed against the book. How far, I asked with youthful bluster, were minutemen really inspired by the cautionary tale of seventeenth-century Denmark? And yet, like the profession itself, I have found it hard to shake Bailyn’s shadow. How is it that a book that is often only grudgingly admired still occupies such a large part of the field’s mental imagination? Continue reading →