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

13 Revolutions +1

Diego Rivera and Bertram D. Wolfe, "Portrait of America," 1934

Diego Rivera and Bertram D. Wolfe, “Portrait of America,” 1934

When John Adams looked back on the American Revolution (something he liked to do), he reflected that, “The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People.” The colonists’ drive to independence marked a new era of American history, Adams thought, when “Thirteen Clocks were made to Strike together; a perfection of Mechanism which no Artist had ever before effected.” Scholars have struggled to frame the experience of the Revolution in picture and on the page. How can we use digital tools to curate collections of revolutionary culture and #vastearlyamerica for use in the classroom?

Today, The Junto chats with Darren Milligan, Senior Digital Strategist at the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access, about the Smithsonian Learning Lab, which encourages us to make, use, and share new galleries of history.  Continue reading

Guest Post: How Do We Find Religion in the American Revolution?

Kate Carté Engel is an associate professor of history at Southern Methodist University.  She is the author of Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), and she is currently writing a history of international protestantism and the American Revolution.

Screenshot 2016-05-17 12.13.52.pngOn May 17, 1773, an advertisement appeared in the Massachusetts Gazette for a new book by English dissenting minister Micaiah Towgood (misidentified in the advertisement as Michael Twogood). The ad is interesting because it is one of only 67 items in that come up in a search of Readex’s American Historical Newspapers database for the period between 1764 and 1789 containing a particular trifecta of terms: “Jesus Christ,” “liberty”, and (to get both religion and cognates like religious and religiously) “religio*”.

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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

The Significance of Old Historiography in American History

Frederick_Jackson_TurnerIn designing courses, professors and teachers face a number of competing claims for time and attention: skill development appropriate to the level of the course, the content described in the course catalog, campus, system, or state requirements for content, the primary sources and scholarship that will promote the best discussions and consideration of the course topic. As many of us have written here at the Junto, not to mention elsewhere, much therefore ends up on the cutting room floor—and some of it painfully so.

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