Why I’m Thankful I Teach in the Age of Trump

TeachingUSHistory

This is a cross-post of today’s content on Teaching United States History, where I am blogging during the current academic year.

The 2016 election launched countless anxious responses from American academics. Many instructors reworked their syllabuses. Some worried about being targeted for harassment. Many became more explicit in the classroom about their political views. A creative writing professor, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, declared that “expanding the study of history could be an essential bulwark against the rising tide of misinformation, manipulation, and lies.”

“On a superficial level,” wrote Frank Cogliano, who teaches in Scotland, “Trump’s good for the business of teaching history. We’ve got more students than ever in our courses. … One of the unforeseen consequences of his election is that there’s probably not been a time in recent memory when it has been more to vital to be an historian.”

As others pointed out, though, there was nothing really new about the urgency of U.S. history in the age of Trump. What was new, perhaps, was the attention white Americans were paying. As my fellow Teaching U.S. History contributor Robert Greene observed this summer, “African Americans have led the way in this fight for over a century, refusing to yield to an explicitly white supremacist interpretation of the past.”

My modest contribution to this genre in the summer of 2017 was to argue a bit peevishly that the main job of college history teachers hadn’t changed at all.

* * *

Now two years have passed, and another general election has taken place in the United States, altering the political scene a bit. And this is the week of Thanksgiving. So I’m going to take stock and give thanks for one of the blessings I’ve received.

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Religious Beliefs in History: Viewpoints versus Conclusions

cornwallvillechurch-farmersmuseum

In the wake of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History’s recent annual conference, L.D. Burnett presents historians in the society with a question that relates to teaching as well as research. It’s a question about treating religious ideas with respect:

[S]hould we treat religious thought differently, as a special case, from other kinds of thought? Should we refrain from critiquing arguments as racist, or sexist, or anti-gay, or anti-woman, or anti-intellectual, because they proceed from a position of deep religious conviction?

That was the suggestion offered to me in conversation at USIH. …

These are the kinds of questions I have to think about as the editor of this blog. For, at the conference, someone suggested to me that religiously conservative intellectual historians feel unwelcome in this space.

I wasn’t a party to the original conversation and can’t address its particular context or nuances. But the question is important, and I think it comes up a lot in different forms.

For example, this question is part of the subtext of current academic debates over “viewpoint diversity.” (I hate that term, but it’s fairly widely used now.) In my understanding of the term, a viewpoint isn’t the same thing as a scholarly conclusion, so viewpoint diversity is different from what academics usually mean by “academic freedom.” It describes a much greater degree of intellectual openness and tolerance.

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Building a First-Year Writing Course

Ferns growing on a stone wall

This spring, I’m adding a new course to my repertoire. It’s a single-semester class called Composition. The advanced track of a first-year writing requirement, it focuses not on basic prose but on rhetoric, or “making effective contributions in writing to intellectual discussions, academically and in other cultural settings.”

In other words, this course will initiate new undergraduates into academic rationality.

This is exciting. No, that’s not strong enough. Planning this course is really, really fun.

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Teaching for First-Time Voters

electionday

With a U.S. general election coming up on Tuesday, I’ve been encouraging my students to vote. I included voter registration information in my syllabuses, sent out email alerts as the state registration deadline approached, and explained the basic registration rights of college students in class.

I’m sure some students are voting by absentee ballot in home counties or states. (Pennsylvania does not offer early in-person voting.) For those who registered locally, it’s time to do what I can to encourage personal turnout.

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Making Course Evaluations More Useful

TeachingUSHistory

This is a cross-post of today’s content on Teaching United States History, where I am blogging during the current academic year.

Student teaching evaluations are notoriously flawed. At best, they are unreliable. (They are, on the other hand, reliably sexist.) Educators are understandably cynical about them, not only because of student bias but also because of the arbitrary ways they’re sometimes used. “The less time we spend talking about teaching, the better,” I once heard a senior academic say during a job search; this same professor was rumored to have used poor teaching evaluations to sink the tenure application of someone he disliked. A friend of mine even believes a colleague wrote fake Rate My Professors entries to use against him at a promotion hearing.

Yet student course evaluations are part of life for most college instructors. Is there any way to make them more useful, or at least to mitigate the harm they can do? I’ve found two things moderately helpful.

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Teaching for Hope

George_Frederic_Watts_Hope_1886

I try to end every history course on a contemporary note. Either we bring a second-half survey right up to the present (or to things my students can remember well) or we finish on a long-ago topic that has strong contemporary resonance. The best history courses leave some unfinished business. They tell a long story whose outcome we don’t know. There’s power in that.

That power comes from anxiety—mine as much as theirs. “Authenticity” or self-revelation usually doesn’t play much of a role in my conception of pedagogy, but at the end of a course, I try to let my personal apprehensions show a little. We’re living together in a time of obvious instability and change, and I don’t know the future any more than my students do.

If I’ve done my job well, my students now have an enlarged sense of how very bad things can get. (One of the things that has changed since I started teaching a decade ago is that I no longer have to fight my students’ naïve optimism to do that. A lot of today’s undergraduates are scared.)

But as I tell my students, historians dwell in the tense space between two realizations. First, we spend our time documenting how evil humans can be to each other, and how vulnerable every society has been. At the same time, we spend our time documenting how people have responded to danger: often foolishly, often oppressively, but also creatively, charitably, humanely, heroically.

At our best, we don’t tell stories about bright sides and silver linings. We tell stories about defiance.

It’s a cliché, but it’s true: Courage consists not of lacking fear, but of acting in spite of your fear. It’s in that sense that I try to make sure that my parting thoughts (as well as many moments earlier in the semester) are a call to courage.

I want my students to understand that the next part of the past, the part we haven’t covered because it hasn’t happened yet, is up to them and all the people they know and all the people like them.

They are the material of the histories of the future. That’s what hope means.

_______________

Image: Detail from George Frederic Watts, Hope, second version, 1886. Tate Britain via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Adjunctification Beneath the Numbers: The Rs and the Rest

The AAUP released a brief analysis yesterday—“Data Snapshot: Contingent Faculty in US Higher Ed”—with the warning that it demonstrates academic freedom is under threat in American colleges. In truth, I think, the analysis points toward a larger structural problem.

A supermajority of U.S. college instructors already have been denied the academic-freedom protections of tenure for many years now. It’s long been a myth that college instructors can speak their minds without any anxiety; that’s a privilege of the few (lately, about one fifth of us at any given time).

The larger problem the AAUP’s analysis may highlight is the vast and probably growing difference between what work means at the largest research universities (the so-called R1 and R2 schools) and every other kind of institution—i.e., the colleges where most American faculty members currently work. This difference distorts the public’s view of higher education, and thus our public debates about its future, at a time of political upheaval, and when 73% of America’s ruling party think academia is “heading in the wrong direction.” It thus places the entire higher-education system at risk.

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Adjunctification by the Numbers: Two Real Scenarios for a History Education

We talk a lot about an adjunct crisis in America’s universities, and we talk a lot about a hiring crisis in the academic humanities. Today, despite a certain amount of trepidation, I would like to get specific. I’m going to talk about the history instructors at two real universities. There are a lot of institutions like them. I have chosen not to name them, but all of the numbers from them are real, and all of these figures come from the current semester.

Their differences as well as their similarities are instructive.

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Finding Things to Talk About: A Discussion Activity

 

problematizing

I tried a new class exercise this week. One of my courses (with about thirty seats) is particularly heavy on weekly discussions of readings that the students do outside of class. (Each set of readings comprises both primary and secondary sources related to a particular group of people or geographic area in North America.) When last I taught the course, I had very chatty students, many of whom were already friends, and I got complacent about priming them for conversation. This time, I need to be more deliberate about eliciting discussion. I came up with a simple exercise that I thought might help.

In form, it’s just a think-pair-share (or really a pair-think-share) activity. I opened class by asking my students to pair up to answer four questions about the primary and secondary sources they’d read:

  1. What expectation did these readings confirm?
  2. What information was new?
  3. What was surprising or questionable?
  4. What’s something controversial it could mean?

I explained that the goal was to find things to grab ahold of in the readings—places to start talking. Often, I confided, I myself will read something about a new topic and have trouble finding something to say about it; the smooth page, though full of words and ideas, just doesn’t seem to have many cracks or rough spots to provide a handhold for me as I try to explore. What we have to do is “problematize” what we read: to turn it into a problem to solve, a question to answer, or a debate to settle. It’s OK if this process is a little artificial; often it leads us to real insights.

Somewhat to my surprise, my students took to this exercise easily and, I thought, eagerlytheir paired conversations were pretty animated. When they finished talking in pairs and I asked for volunteers to share some of their results, question by question, they didn’t exactly talk over each other, but they talked. In fact, their answers, which ranged widely, were an excellent basis for the content-focused discussion/lecture mix I wanted later in the class period.

This one experience doesn’t provide much data for appraising the activity’s usefulness or adaptability, of course. But I’ll be using this exercise again.