The Presentism Essay

Cover of the September 2022 issue of Perspectives

This summer, James H. Sweet, the president of the American Historical Association, published an essay in the AHA’s magazine. It elicited weeks of indignation among some historians. At the end of October, The Atlantic’s David Frum wrote about the controversy. Frum described an American historical profession gripped by partisanship and chilled by political correctness. Now I’ve finally written my own analysis of the affair.

Today, in Clio and the Contemporary, I try to explain what happened, why it really happened, and why the whole thing was a missed opportunity. I hope you’ll take a look.

Week Links in Education: Nov. 26

Some of the stories and essays, particularly related to education in the United States, that caught my attention this week. A 🕛 symbol indicates a known metered paywall.

Graduate students around the world are losing faith in their career prospects.

A jury awarded 🕛 an Auburn University economist $646,000 after the university punished him for speaking publicly about foundation money and the football team.

Sierra Leone has dedicated nearly a quarter of its national budget to education. The president called it “an existential issue.”

Rhitu Chatterjee remembered a Thanksgiving twenty years ago when a student forgot her homesickness.

In a predominantly white community in North Jersey, a grownup called the police, “scared” by a Black fourth grader’s interest in science.

A team of researchers found that racial and ethnic disparities in advanced math and science skills emerge by kindergarten.

In Orlando, a teacher got a student loan bill for $955,000.

An 11-year-old boy who dreams of joining the University of Michigan marching band got a surprise.

Class at a Historic Site: Inside Hollybush

This Tuesday, on a freezing morning, with Thanksgiving on everyone’s minds, fifteen students joined me in Hollybush, a nineteenth-century mansion on the main campus of Rowan University.

As planned, we assembled there to talk about primary sources related to the Glassboro Summit of 1967, when President Lyndon Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin held two days of talks in Hollybush. Tina Doran, the operations coordinator in Rowan’s Office of University Events, had very graciously helped us reserve the building and had given me an advance tour.

Supervised by a portrait of the current Rowan president,

Ali Houshmand, in Hollybush

Before our field trip, my students prepared by exploring the Glassboro Summit Collection, a project of Rowan’s Digital Scholarship Center. The DSC coordinator, Michael T. Benson, had visited my class a few days earlier to help students understand the collection, and to explain the work of archivists and digital humanists more broadly. I gave students an assignment that involved browsing the collection and then selecting three primary sources (a photograph, an audio or video recording, and an artifact of another kind) to write about before they visited Hollybush in person.

On Tuesday, now that we were inside the house, I gave students permission to explore the first floor of the house on their own. Then I distributed worksheets for students to use—first in pairs and then in larger groups—as a basis for discussion.

The questions on these worksheets asked students to compare their expectations with the reality they found when they arrived on site; to evaluate the house itself as a primary source; to reflect on additional information they would like to have in order to understand the 1967 conference better; and ultimately to talk about how visiting Hollybush in person, in conjunction with examining primary sources, has affected their thinking about the larger Cold War.

The responses I heard to that last question, when we compared notes as a full class, suggest to me that this project did help students conceptualize the Cold War in new ways. Just as importantly, it brought home the larger fact that history is not some distant thing—that one’s own backyard can be the focus of world events.

Week Links in Education: Nov. 19

Some of the stories and essays, particularly related to education in the United States, that caught my attention this week. A 🕛 symbol indicates a known metered paywall.

The FBI thinks most of this year’s racist threats against HBCUs were the work of just one minor.

A court released the Salvadoran army colonel who organized the assassinations of eight people, mostly Jesuit priests, at José Simeón Cañas Central American University in 1989.

At St. Petersburg Polytechnical University in 2009, a tall man approached an economics student after class and introduced himself as a friend of the instructor. He wanted to propose a business arrangement.

Yale University is rich, but it’s a bad place 🕛 to be a student in a mental health crisis. (This article discusses self-harm, sexual assault, and suicide.)

The law schools at Yale and Harvard will no longer 🕛 participate in U.S. News rankings.

In Virginia, the state board of education “punted” its decision about a chaotic 🕛 proposed revision to the state’s standards for K-12 history.

In Pennsylvania, the state education department released new standards for antiracist training in teacher education programs.

In Florida, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction against “dystopian” provisions of the state’s educational gag law.

Scholars at the Gilder Lehrman Center discussed 🕛 the challenges and benefits of designing “pluralistic” U.S. history courses.

American colleges espousing environmentalism often run on relatively dirty campus power plants.

Britain’s new higher education minister affirmed that giving opportunities to disadvantaged students is a legitimate main purpose of the university system.

Researchers found that the overall well-being of the American K-12 teaching profession has been falling since 2010 after two decades of stability.

Eastern University, a Baptist institution, was suspended from the evangelical Council for Christian Colleges and Universities after deciding not to discriminate against LGBTQ employees.

Spice Trader’s Pumpkin Pie

Now for something completely different: My recipe for a fragrant autumnal squash tart.

Pumpkin pie cooling on a counter

Chill a 9″ pie crust.

In a small bowl, mix:

  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp cardamom
  • ½ tsp cloves (ground)
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp nutmeg

Preheat your oven to 425°F.

Beat two large eggs in a large mixing bowl. Stir in one can (15 oz) of pumpkin purée and the spice mixture.

Thoroughly stir in one can (14 oz) of condensed milk and two tablespoons of sour cream. Then stir in one tablespoon of vanilla extract.

Pour the mixture into the chilled 9″ pie crust.

Bake the pie for 15 minutes at 425°F. Then reduce the heat to 350°F and bake for another 30-40 minutes or until the pie fully inflates (forming a dome with no depression in the center).

Turn the oven off, but leave it for 15 minutes with the door cracked open, so that the pie slowly deflates without cratering. Then remove the pie from the oven and let it cool for two more hours before refrigerating it. Chill the pie for at least 12 hours before serving.

This recipe produces a dense but silky pie with understated sweetness and a strong spice flavor.

Week Links in Education: Nov. 12

Some of the stories and essays, particularly related to education in the United States, that caught my attention this week. A 🕛 symbol indicates a known metered paywall. A ⏳ symbol indicates availability for a limited time.

Sold a Story is a true crime podcast about how education consultants killed American reading skills.

A middle school in Pasadena now bears the name of its most famous student. Nadra Nittle tells the story of Octavia E. Butler Magnet.

A college student once asked Octavia Butler how to stop the catastrophes her fiction prophesied. She had good news and bad news.

Last weekend, the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business; and the Richard and Frances Mallery Professor of Law and director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford University; and a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Toronto who has six million YouTube subscribers; and the Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania; and the John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law Emerita at New York Law School held an invitation-only event in the Bay Area to talk with Peter Thiel about what it’s like to be silenced 🕛 in academia.

Contrary to myth, college improves other students’ opinions of evangelical Christians.

Gender bias in student evaluations of teaching worsens 🕛 over time.

When schools around Boston lifted their mask mandates, it led to an extra 45 covid cases per 1,000 students and workers during the next four months.

Promising that “Oklahoma won’t go woke,” the state superintendent of education, now elected for a full term by voters, has a plan for history teachers.

American historians may not be able to end nationalism through their work, argues Eran Zelnik, but it’s also a mistake to think they can tame it.

In Kansas, someone pledged a matching gift of up to $500 million if McPherson College can raise $250 million by June. It would be the largest-ever single donation to a small liberal arts college.

In my day, Batman: The Animated Series was essential after-school and weekend viewing. Kevin Conroy, the voice of Batman, died this week at the age of 66.

Week Links in Education: Nov. 5

Some of the stories and essays, particularly related to education in the United States, that caught my attention this week. A 🕛 symbol indicates a known metered paywall. A ⏳ symbol indicates availability for a limited time.

Three weeks after claiming he knew of a school that installed a litter box for a furry, Joe Rogan admitted it wasn’t true.

Last week’s NAEP scores don’t reflect an educational emergency, writes 🕛 Jay Caspian Kang. They expose Americans’ fear that our children will live worse than we did.

Across the University of California system, UAW locals representing 48,000 academic workers voted to authorize a strike.

Collin College, a noted bastion of free speech, has settled with a professor it fired for saying she worked there.

The U.S. Department of Education plans to make life easier for student borrowers.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in cases that will let the Republican majority ban race-conscious college admissions.

About half the respondents in a recent survey think the Dobbs ruling will influence where they go to medical school.

Do America’s K-12 teachers believe civics education should be “content-free”? Rick Hess is worried 🕛 about a RAND study.

To break a strike, the government of Ontario plans to fine teachers $4,000 per day.

In Brazil, many young people see the presidential victory of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as a win for education.

Adele wants to study English literature. That makes sense, writes Andrea Busfield. By the way, you’re saying her name wrong.

In Arizona, the future of public education is the one-room schoolhouse.

Anxiety doesn’t make you worse at taking tests, according to research on German medical students. But it does interfere with studying.

The outcome of America’s nationwide elections on Tuesday could hinge on relatively inactive voters who care deeply about local education.

Thin Margins

A bearded tightrope walker carries another man high above raging water

There’s good news, in the first place. This academic year is much better than last year was at the same point. For me, anyway. And for most of my students and friends.

We may be living every day under apocalyptic headlines about the world at large, but the apocalypse isn’t happening inside my classrooms. Not this time. Not as far as I know. Though everybody has their own struggle.

With mask mandates lifted almost everywhere, newly matriculated college students now get to see each others’ faces on campus. For most students and most professors, that’s been a great thing for morale and probably, on the whole, for learning, whatever it means for physical health. (I’m not going to deny the tradeoffs—in either direction.)

But everybody’s working on thin margins. Teachers and students alike. There’s less room for error than there was at this time three years ago. We have lower reserves of energy, creativity, health, wealth, and patience.

Patience is the problem that’s really on my mind lately.

For me, the problem of patience has been brought into clearer focus by what’s happening on Twitter.

Continue reading “Thin Margins”

Week Links in Education: Oct. 29

I’m going to try to start compiling some of the stories and essays, particularly related to education in the United States, that catch my attention each week. Linking does not necessarily imply endorsement. This is an experiment that will be abandoned if it bores me.

A 🕛 symbol indicates a known metered paywall. A ⏳ symbol indicates availability for a limited time.

This summer, a Koch Industries executive became the president of Emporia State University. A month later, ESU began firing tenured professors. Was it a political purge?

In Germany, states that let 16-year-olds vote see higher turnout among 20-somethings, too.

The AHA’s annual awards in the field of teaching recognized Zachary M. Schrag (George Mason University), Katie Stringer Clary (Coastal Carolina University), Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School, and Orli Kleiner (Brooklyn Technical High School). Nominations for next year’s awards should be submitted to the American Historical Association by May 15, 2023.

Jeanne Theoharis gathered middle- and high-school teachers to come up with lessons related to The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks.

“Right now,” says the Uvalde teacher falsely accused of leaving open a door, “I’m lost.”

A man from Alabama posed as a pre-med student (’25) at Stanford for the last year and a half.

“The problem isn’t that [the academic canon wars] went too far”, writes 🕛 John Michael Colón. “It would be better to say that they stopped too soon.”

This week, the artist sometimes known as Kanye West may or may not have closed his Donda Academy, sometimes known as a school.

The Prevent surveillance program, which targets Muslims in British schools and universities, violates European law, according to an NGO report issued this week.

The new season of Slate’s podcast One Year focuses on 1942. This week, “The Year Everyone Got Married” ⏳ profiles Millie and Leo Summergrad—along with nearly two million other couples who married, often right out of school, as young Americans went off to war.

College football and traumatic brain injury: What did the NCAA know, when did it know it, and why have the records disappeared?

About those fallen NAEP reading and math scores, says 🕛 Jay Wamsted, “I cannot stress the level to which I do not care.”

Revising for Clarity and Brevity: A Worksheet Activity

This week, in a course for new college students, I decided to bring out one of my all-time favorite writing activities. This exercise has proven particularly effective for first-year students, especially if they’re reasonably comfortable writers already. It’s a strangely fun activity designed to teach a critical part of editing: cutting unnecessary words and simplifying complex phrases.

I distributed a worksheet with a single 26-word sentence on it.

This sentence came from a highly regarded historical monograph. It was written by a distinguished historian and released by a major university press. I won’t identify the source here because I have no desire to shame this author in public. As I told my students, it’s a great book. It’s just unnecessarily hard to get through.

I chose the sentence partly because it has some obvious redundant language—unnecessary complexity that many readers can spot quickly when they think about it.

The worksheet I distributed looked sort of like this:

Continue reading “Revising for Clarity and Brevity: A Worksheet Activity”