Guest Post: Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation (2016) in the Classroom

Today’s guest poster, Stephanie J. Richmond, is an Assistant Professor and coordinator of history programs at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, VA. She is a historian of gender and race in the Atlantic World. The following review contains spoilers and discussion of sexual assault.

the_birth_of_a_nation_2016_filmMany historians of race and slavery in early America were very excited when the wide release of Nate Parker’s new film on the Nat Turner rebellion was announced following its rave reviews at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. With the recent surge in Hollywood depictions of slavery (12 Years a Slave, WGN’s series Underground, and even Django Unchained), films have become an important part of teaching African American history. The best of these films and tv series give students an understanding of the psychological impact of slavery on both enslaved and free African Americans, illustrating many of the tactics of control and exploitation discussed in textbooks and classrooms. I had the opportunity to see the pre-release version of the film in April 2016 when Parker’s production company held screenings for HBCU faculty in several cities around the country. Several colleagues and I attended the screening and got our first glimpse at Parker’s version of a history that is both local and national. After the screening, production assistants recorded our reactions to the film, and took detailed notes on our critiques of the film both as a work of popular entertainment and its historical inaccuracies and misrepresentations, of which there were many. My own feelings on the film and its usefulness in the classroom are complicated and have changed significantly since my first viewing of the film in April. (In full disclosure, I have seen the film twice, both times at events put on by Parker’s production company).

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Making Students Lead Discussion: Three Methods

I wrote lots of recommendation letters for students this summer, probably because last year was the first year that I taught students in their final undergraduate year, and many of them are looking for or have recently found jobs. I always die a little inside when I read or hear the word “employability,” because I think it’s a jargony term that seems to reiterate the point that a university sells a degree to its customers, the students. I do not think that education should be viewed as such a service, but neither do I think that it’s responsible to entirely eschew discussions of marketable skills that students can mention in their pre- and post-graduate job searches. Not all of them will become professional historians, and given the state of the academic job market, that’s okay! I spend time at the start of each term, in class and in my syllabi, explaining why I think it’s important for students to participate in class discussion. One of my key points is that a student’s class contributions are something that I can and do mention in my recommendation letters. Having spent the summer writing letters for recent graduates I know that I’ve mentioned their contributions in every single letter I’ve written. Lately, my feelings have gone beyond believing that students should participate: I think students should lead discussion. Continue reading

Making Utopia a Theme in Early American History

Utopia, 1516, frontispieceThis year I’m overhauling my early American survey course. Not only do I need to make it fit the schedule at my new institution, but because I’m planning to be teaching here for quite a while, I also want to build a course that carries my own signature, and where I can work out some of my own questions and ideas. Survey courses that I’ve taught before—like the one designed by Sarah Pearsall for Oxford Brookes University—have been themed around the violence of empire and slavery. Obviously, those continue to be both central concerns in teaching and the foci of cutting-edge scholarship. But in my search for something different, and for something that might capture the imaginations of my first-year students, I’ve chosen a different path: utopia. Continue reading

What Happened to the “Democratic” in the “Age of Democratic Revolutions”?

PalmerThis past semester I taught a course on “18th Century Atlantic Revolutions: America, France, and Haiti,” which included both undergraduate and graduate students. (I wrote about the assigned readings at my personal blog.) I’d like to highlight a central theme that I emphasized throughout the course as a way to discuss historiographical and pedagogical questions.

To give my grad students a sense of the field’s starting point, I had them read R. R. Palmer’s classic 2-volume The Age of Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800 (1959, 1964; 2014), recently combined and re-published by Princeton University Press. Advancing through the semester and reading much more recent books, the dated nature of Palmer’s book is readily apparent. Most obvious is its avoidance of Haiti. (At an AHA panel on the Age of Revolutions last January, Nathaniel Perl-Rosenthal mention that it’s basically an academic ritual to mention this whenever discussing Age of Democratic Revolution.) Palmer also focuses on high-end (and male-centric) intellectual history, ignores economic interests and intersections, and only engages the nations whose revolutions “succeeded.” This last point is obviously problematic, of course, given what happens in France after their Revolution. But as Janet Polasky’s recent book shows, a more comprehensive view can be gleaned through looking at revolutionary moments that did not have successful outcomes. Like any book published over a half-century ago, even a classic book like Palmer’s, there are plenty of holes to acknowledge. Continue reading

Guest Post: Michelle Orihel, “A Pamphlet War In Song: Teaching Revolutionary Print Culture with the Musical, Hamilton

We are pleased to share this guest post from Michelle Orihel, an Assistant Professor of History at Southern Utah University. Dr. Orihel received her doctorate from Syracuse University and is currently working on a book manuscript about Democratic-Republican Societies in the post-revolutionary period.

HamiltonWhen I first listened to the Hamilton soundtrack last fall, the song “Farmer Refuted” caught my attention. The song stages a pamphlet war that began in November 1774 between Samuel Seabury, an Anglican minister in Westchester County, New York, and Alexander Hamilton, then an upstart New York college student. Their war of words over the First Continental Congress carried on for nearly four months and encompassed several tracts.[1] Continue reading

Teaching with Databases: An Early American Atlanticist’s Conundrum

SourcesDuring my three years of teaching in England, it’s become apparent that students in my American history classes spend a lot of time worrying about access to primary sources. As an undergraduate myself, I knew that upper-level assessment turns on the ability to find and analyze primary sources—that stipulation is no different in this country. What’s clear, however, is that whereas as an undergraduate I could go to the stacks and wander around until I had a pile of travel narratives, diaries, and monograph reproductions related to early American Atlantic history, that’s not necessarily the case here for students taking classes on early American history, Native American history, the Atlantic world, slavery, trade, and colonization. The costs of a Readex subscription, just for example, are too expensive for the library to justify when most students aren’t going to research early American newspapers. As a result, I’ve had to think hard about how to ease students’ worries about locating sources. Continue reading

“Early America” in The Open Syllabus Project

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 9.39.43 AMThe Open Syllabus Project (@opensyllabus) has collected “over 1 million syllabi” in the hopes of determining “how often texts are taught” and “what’s taught with what.” They hope their project will provide “a promising means of exploring the history of fields, curricular change, and differences in teaching across institutions, states, and countries.” The OSP has released a beta version of their “Syllabus Explorer,” which “makes curricula visible and navigable in ways that we think can become valuable to authors, teachers, researchers, administrators, publishers, and students.” Intrigued that the project claims to have catalogued the assigned readings from 460,760 History syllabi, I went through the list to find the most assigned works of early American history. Continue reading