Do Objects Lie? A New Video for Teaching About Material Evidence

Is material culture as inherently untrustworthy? I was once at a conference roundtable where one attendee claimed that “Material culture is so elitist, just rich people’s stuff in museums.” Fortunately, a historical archaeologist in the room begged to differ, arguing that archaeology offered a rich record of people who did not necessarily leave written sources behind. When I recently required my students to analyze both a material and a textual source, they concluded that material sources were inherently more difficult to work with than their written counterparts. “Once I describe the object, there’s nothing left to say about it,” one student complained.

I’ve been hearing variations of this argument my entire academic life. As a scholar who both studies and teaches with material culture, I find this reasoning both fascinating and frustrating. Why do so many people, from scholars to students, consider material culture somehow a lesser form of evidence than the written word? Continue reading

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

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

Inspiration Roundtable: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Respect the Historiography

This is the second post in a roundtable about research inspirations. You can read the first essay, a guest post by Whitney Barlow Robles, here.

My dissertation on food and war, which became my first book project on war and hunger, originated at a crossroads between panic and personal interests. I was a sophomore, taking a class on the American Revolution, and the professor was walking us through the process of writing a final paper by requiring a paragraph-long research proposal, followed later in the semester by an annotated bibliography. We were at the point in the semester where research proposals were nearly due, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about. I remember discussing my growing sense of panic at swim practice with a friend, and vacillating between this sense of anxiety, and pleasant anticipation of dinnertime. I swam for the team friendships, and the fact that even bad dining hall food tasted good after a hard workout. As I speculated about our dinner choices, my friend interrupted me, observed that I was obsessed with food, and suggested that I write about it for my history paper. 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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