Time in Transit


Four gas pumps in Yoder KS - 1979

Commencement is today. As a part-time faculty member, I’m vague on the details. The event is being held in a hockey arena twenty miles from the university, but I see families wandering around near campus. The effect is pleasing.

It’s a bright blue day. The air smells like gasoline and dirt. People are mowing their lawns. All the lawns in town, or so you would think.

I’m using the day to finish grading essays for the other university. That’s what I promised myself last night. Much of my day has really been given over to preparing for the upcoming move.

When I came to Scranton, I imagined I would stay here. I’m not very good at growing roots, but I believe in them. I hoped to find permanent work here. Yet it’s time to leave. I have been wondering how to measure the success of my years here, and I have been wondering what will come next, and when I will finally move someplace and stay.

There will be a lot more driving after this summer, perhaps ninety minutes per weekday. More if I find additional courses to teach, which I need to do. The oil industry will consume a lot of my earnings, and my carbon footprint, as they call it, will grow. That’s something else I had not envisioned as a life. Or rather, it’s something I had carefully excluded from my vision of a good life.

I have been lucky.

But it’s time to move on.

But not today. Today I’m in between.

_______________

Image: John Margolies, Four Gas Pumps, Yoder, Kansas, 1979. John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Public domain.

Scranton by the Numbers

Classroom at the University of Scranton: Loyola Science Center

Here’s a small life update. This summer, I will move away from the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, after almost five years. Although I will miss this quirky city terribly (The Office references and all), I established a college teaching record here of which I’m proud:

  • Distinct courses: 7
  • Total classes: 26
  • Median class size: 29.5
  • Total students: 762

I’ll be starting over in the region of Philadelphia and southern New Jersey with some employment plans I can’t announce yet. Meanwhile, if you’re in that area and need an experienced history instructor (United States and world), let’s talk.

Generous Reading in the Classroom and the World

How might we begin to understand the function of scholarship in dialogue with reading-in-general? And how might that understanding begin to shape a more productive relationship between the academy and the broader public?

A first step in this process could involve thinking about the kinds of work that we regularly do in our classrooms, especially in early undergraduate courses—not thinking about that work in order to change it, but rather thinking about it in order to understand how the engagements we foster in the classroom and the positions we develop and embrace as instructors might point the way to potential connections with the publics around us. Much of our effort in those scenes of reading instruction has to do with making what feels obvious instead appear strange, asking our students to step back from something that seems familiar or transparent and instead look at it obliquely. … In order to encourage this interest in perspective, however, we need to begin from rather than reject readers’ immediate experiences of the text, even where they seem to us sentimental or superficial. … Rather than setting aside emotional responses in favor of critical distance, the more fruitful approach is to dig into such responses, to figure out how they are produced and what kinds of work they do. …

Books engage and enrich the reader; they do things for people rather than for the world of texts or the cultures they move in. Acknowledging that perspective might encourage us, in the words of Clara Claiborne Park, to consider the ways ‘we would teach literature if we were in fact convinced that what we were doing could make a person different.’ And … this potential applies not just to the transformation of the lives of individual readers, but to the transformation of communities: if we could think about the ways that reading affects the building and sustenance of community, we might be encouraged to step outside of the literary or scholarly marketplace of ideas, and instead focus a bit on the more collective economies that structure much artistic and educational exchange.

—Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), 105-106 and 110

PowerPoint Basics for Historians, Part 5

powerpoint-for-historians

Part 5: The Case for Cinematic Design

The previous post in this series explained how to use images more effectively in PowerPoint. Today’s post makes a recommendation about style.

Every good presenter, deliberately or not, cultivates a style. Your style is not simply a sort of decoration on top of your communication; you communicate through and with it. (Even the disdain that some academics affect toward style is itself a style—one that communicates specific things about what matters and who is worthy of their time.)

With this in mind, I’m going to make a recommendation today. It will not please everyone, and it’s probably not what’s best for everyone. You may, in fact, think it’s silly. But I’m going to recommend that when you design your PowerPoint template, you consider taking design cues from documentary film. I’m calling this approach “cinematic design.”

Continue reading “PowerPoint Basics for Historians, Part 5”

The Imagination Sets the Terms

Ta-Nehisi Coates in a new interview:

I think we as political writers — and this is one of the reasons why I’ve been making comic books and other things — we can argue with people up one side, and down the other. You confront them with facts, and they’ll just look away. They’ll completely look away.

Because our politics occurs within the imagination of the citizen. If I don’t believe that black people are human, it really doesn’t matter what you say to me about policy. So the question is: How do we decide who gets to be human and who doesn’t? How do we decide who our heroes are, and who our heroes aren’t? All of that is tied together in the stories we tell ourselves. …

Willie Horton, the welfare queen. These things are dangerous because of their impact on policy. But they’re also dangerous because of how they make black people look in the white American imagination. And in some cases, in their own imaginations. Because it’s the imagination that sets the terms for what’s possible in terms of policy. And so popular culture matters. It’s a part of it too.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, interviewed by Eric Levitz in “Ta-Nehisi Coates Is an Optimist Now,” New York, March 18, 2019

Who Gets Historical Empathy?

winslowhomer-waterfan

On Sunday, the Nebraska political scientist Ari Kohen learned he had been mentioned in a former student’s white-nationalist chat messages. I heard about this when Matt Gabriele, a medievalist, pointed out Kohen’s news on Twitter.

“They’re in our classes y’all,” Gabriele warned historians. “What’s your pedagogy?”

It’s a good question.

Teachers of history (and related fields) who imagine we can argue students into rejecting white-power ideology are mostly mistaken. Although white power involves many false beliefs, it amounts to nothing less than a conception of basic human social bonds and the nature of personal selfhood. Freeing oneself from such a hell of the imagination requires more than hearing refutations.

(That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t refute false ideas. The “backfire effect” is probably overblown. But refutation is only going to get us so far.)

Work of the imagination is required.

In this context, I’m among the historians who think the most powerful specialized tool we have for combating toxic ideologies is “historical empathy.”

But there’s an important problem with the way some of us try to use it.

Continue reading “Who Gets Historical Empathy?”

Goodness Happened Here

Map from inside the back cover of Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed

In the introduction to Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, his account of the rescue operation run by the villagers of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon during the Holocaust, Philip Hallie relates a story about the importance of allowing oneself to be moved by goodness:

For years I had been studying cruelty, the slow crushing and grinding of a human being by other human beings. I had studied the tortures white men inflicted upon native Indians and then upon blacks in the Americas, and now I was reading mainly about the torture experiments the Nazis conducted upon the bodies of small children in those death camps.

Across all these studies, the pattern of the strong crushing the weak kept repeating itself and repeating itself, so that when I was not bitterly angry, I was bored at the repetition of the patterns of persecution. When I was not desiring to be cruel with the cruel, I was a monster—like, perhaps, many others around me—who could look upon torture and death without a shudder, and who therefore looked upon life without a belief in its preciousness. My study of evil incarnate had become a prison whose bars were my bitterness toward the violent, and whose walls were my horrified indifference to slow murder. Reading about the damned I was damned myself, as damned as the murderers, and as damned as their victims. Somehow over the years I had dug myself into Hell, and I had forgotten redemption, had forgotten the possibility of escape.

On this particular day, I was reading in an anthology of documents from the Holocaust, and I came across a short article about a little village in the mountains of southern France. As usual, I was reading the pages with an effort at objectivity; I was trying to sort out the forms and elements of cruelty and of resistance to it in much the same way a veterinarian might sort out ill from healthy cattle. After all, I was doing this work not to torture myself but to understand the indignity and the dignity of man.

About halfway down the third page of the account of this village, I was annoyed by a strange sensation on my cheeks. The story was so simple and so factual that I had found it easy to concentrate upon it, not upon my own feelings. And so, still following the story, and thinking about how neatly some of it fit into the old patterns of persecution, I reached up to my cheek to wipe away a bit of dust, and I felt tears upon my fingertips. Not one or two drops; my whole cheek was wet.

‘Oh,’ my sentinel mind told me, ‘you are losing your grasp on things again. Instead of learning about cruelty, you are becoming one more of its victims. You are doing it again.’ I was disgusted with myself for daring to intrude. …

But that night when I lay on my back in bed with my eyes closed, I saw more clearly than ever the images that had made me weep. …

Lying there in bed, I began to weep again. I thought, Why run away from that which is excellent simply because it goes through you like a spear? … [Cruelty] I knew. But why not know joy? Why not leave root room [sic] for comfort? (1-4)

—Philip P. Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened Here. New York: Harper & Row, 1979

I came across this account when I was a teenager, at a critical time in my early historical education. Hallie’s story became part of the way I came to terms with what I was learning—part of the way I fended off a creeping sense of nihilism.

I revisit this story from time to time, and I’ve come to think it plays a crucial role in my understanding of the job of a history teacher. I’ve written before about the conviction that stories of goodness and defiance must be part of teaching. But this isn’t simply a matter of finding a way to have hope. Hallie explains how personal the stakes are. To allow a sense of joy in the face of goodness is necessary for remaining—or finding—ourselves.

Parachutists and Truffle Hunters

Front cover of ‘Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History’

American history educators sometimes find themselves taking sides in a peculiar long-running battle of the culture war.

One side in the battle says that history instruction has become relativistic and impressionistic, discarding coherent narratives for fragmented particular stories. People who take this side believe that history is in danger of losing public support as an integrating force in civic life, and that students have a tenuous grasp of fundamental facts.

The other side says that traditional narratives depict nationalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and economic inequality as the natural order of things. People who take this side believe that historians must encourage students to think of history primarily as a critical process. A reliance on unified traditional narratives, they think, tends to perpetuate injustice. And the traditional canon of facts is largely a collection of facts about wealthy white men—what about the facts students should know about other people?

The picture I have just drawn is too stark. Most academically trained history instructors I know actually have a foot in each camp. As a matter of theory, too, both camps make a point that could be valid, and I suspect most well-trained history teachers take the point. But we tend to think one camp’s complaint has been exploited to nefarious ends more than the other’s.

But here’s where I think the battle could be more useful to the profession than it typically is: It should lead us to think about how students construct or question the larger narrative frameworks that they necessarily rely upon to make sense of critical history.

Continue reading “Parachutists and Truffle Hunters”

We Need to Cover the Recent Past

TeachingUSHistory

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

In 2014, the former interrogator Eric Fair asked young undergraduates at Lehigh University to recall what it had been like for them to learn about the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. They gave him blank looks. To these students, who had been small children in 2004, a scandal that had been a landmark in Fair’s recent life (and a turning point in contemporary global politics) was mere history.

Not just history. History they had never been taught.

Those of us designing modern survey courses this spring can do our students a favor by making sure to cover things we still think of as current events—including material from the 1990s and 2000s and probably even the 2010s. More time has passed than we realize.

Continue reading “We Need to Cover the Recent Past”