Cass Sunstein’s Curiously Contradictory Case for Conservative Professors

sunstein-informationadmin

This week, the legal scholar and sometime Obama-administration official Cass R. Sunstein published an essay arguing that American professors are mostly liberals and that this is a problem. Notwithstanding the banality of that claim, his essay seems worth a reply, if only because Sunstein is a famous example of the liberal professors in question.

But upon closer inspection, the essay is remarkable for another reason: Sunstein has co-opted boilerplate conservative talking points about academic bias in order to make what appears to be a liberal argument for changing nothing about the liberal academy at all.

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Teach September 11

9-11-PaulMorse-NARA

A traditional undergraduate entering college this fall was probably an infant on September 11, 2001. Across my courses, most of my younger students no longer remember the day itself. They remember fragmented impressions of its aftermath, as seen through the eyes of older family members and teachers. Or they remember only the impression that something really bad had happened. They summon up images of adults in tears, holding mysterious school assemblies or sending them home early, trying vainly to comfort themselves by offering comfort to uncomprehending kids.

September 11, which I do remember vividly, now occupies the same role for many of my students that the late days of the Cold War had for me. It was a moment of tectonic power, causing frequent aftershocks ever since, that defines their lives without their really being there for it. But there is a difference.

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PowerPoint Basics for Historians, Part 4

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Part 4: Images

The previous post in this series described how to create a custom PowerPoint template. Today’s post is about how to incorporate images more effectively into your slides. As always, for clarity’s sake, the instructions here are written for Windows PC users on fairly recent versions of the PowerPoint software.

As a historian, no matter what kind of presentation you’re giving, you want to use images to help your audience see historically. In a classroom, you are training your students to be careful observers. So images shouldn’t be included haphazardly or for mere decoration. Whether you are using them as primary or as secondary sources, they are evidence for your students to learn how to interpret.

In using images this way, you’ll want to think about three key practical aspects of the way you present any image in your PowerPoint presentation:

  1. Size and shape
  2. Sharpness, brightness, and contrast
  3. Depth

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Short Sources 1

getz-primerforafricanhistoryI’m linking these here for future reference. I found all of these as recommendations in Trevor Getz’s Primer for Teaching African History, published earlier this year. They seem potentially useful as assigned readings for undergraduates or as background reading for me.

 

National Museum of Brazil

Lapa_Vermelha_IV_Hominid_1-Homo_Sapiens_11,500_Years_Old

For the U.S. survey, I’ve just updated tomorrow’s usual lecture on human migration to the Americas to include a specific discussion of “Luzia.”

Having lived about 11,500 years ago, she was one of the oldest sets of human remains in the Americas. She has been a subject of ongoing study, a crucial piece of evidence for researchers debating human arrival and migration patterns in the hemisphere.

She may have been destroyed in the fire that consumed Brazil’s Museu Nacional last night—perhaps one loss to scholarship among millions. I hardly know what to say, but I hope to use the fire as a terrible occasion to emphasize the fragility of historical knowledge, its interconnectedness across regions of the world, and the necessity of robust public funding to protect it.

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Image: A cast of Luzia’s skull at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Ryan Somma. Shared under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

First Things First: Doing a Methods-and-Approaches Week

Jill Lepore: "To write history is to make an argument by telling a story about dead people. You'll be dead one day, too, so please play fair. ... Your research question hasn't been tattooed on your forehead. You can change it. ... A question isn't a fish, a very wise historian once said; it's a fishing license."
One of my presentation slides, featuring an excerpt from this handout. (The newspaper photo used in the background for informational purposes is blurred here out of concern for copyright.)

When I began teaching history, I would jump into the course narrative as early as possible. My key goal was to avoid boring the students. A secondary goal was to cover a full textbook chapter each week. So after syllabus-and-roster preliminaries, I would launch directly into a lecture that introduced, e.g., the peoples of North America prior to European contact–often in our very first class meeting.

The first time I taught a survey of premodern world history, however, I decided to try a different approach. Starting out in World History I, it seemed, my students needed less a flood of specific historical information than insight into anthropology, sociology, and historical reasoning in general. Also, my textbook and document reader were a couple of chapters short of the usual fifteen, so I needed to add material. Thus, almost on a whim, I inserted something new to the schedule: “Week 1: Prologue and Basic Concepts.” It introduced my students to the rudiments of historical research and writing.

I had been worried about boredom, but my students responded well. They seemed to find it interesting to talk about history as a process of investigation, to puzzle out strategies for telling truer and more creative stories about the past. I was lecturing, yes, but these were topics that lent themselves to an interactive sort of lecture; students could directly engage with these questions without much background knowledge at all.

Taking the time to discuss basic theory made for an excellent first week in the survey. I was also amazed to note that some students brought up concepts from the first week later in the course.

These days, I start all of my survey courses this way, even when it requires some fancy footwork later in the semester to make up the “lost” time. At first, this seemed a bit more awkward in U.S. history courses than in world history courses, but I think I’m over that now.

Here’s what I tried to cover or accomplish in all of my courses last week as my autumn semester started:
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My Favorite First-Day Activity

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I came up with a version of the following activity for a tiny U.S. history class about a decade ago. Since then, I’ve revised it and used it successfully in both world and U.S. history survey courses, for classes ranging in size up to thirty-five students. It’s become my go-to exercise for illustrating what history is and why it matters.

I make minor adjustments to fit the course and the students, but here’s how it usually goes. I call it “The History of Your Lifetime,” for obvious reasons. It happens on either the first or the second day of a survey course.

Step 1

First I ask students to form groups of three or four (just based on where they’re sitting) and take a couple of minutes to introduce themselves and get to know each other a little. This obviously has the benefit of encouraging a little first-day conversation and promoting neighborly interaction.

Step 2

Then I direct the students each to take out a piece of paper—any paper will do, just something to scribble onand individually write out a list of seven things he or she would include in a history of the United States (or the world, as appropriate) during his or her lifetime.

The things on the list can be events, people, inventions, trends, ideas, whatever. (They don’t have to be things the student remembers personally, as long as the student was alive for them.) I encourage my students to be creative with their answers–but to remember that the goal is to list things that might help our descendants understand what the world was like.

Step 3

Now I have the students compare lists within their small groups. I direct them to decide as a group what seven things to include on a combined group list. I ask them to talk together about their criteria and reasoning in order to come to agreement before writing down their group’s answers.

By now, the room is usually buzzing fairly loudly. Undergraduates often like comparing notes on how they remember their childhoods, and the exercise typically leads them into general conversation once they’re done with their lists. Even fairly shy students often respond enthusiastically. Especially in a larger class, I often have to interrupt the proceedings for the sake of time.

Step 4

Now I stand in front of the class at the blackboard and call for volunteers to name some of the things they put on their group lists. As they do, I write their answers on the board. I keep calling for nominations until the board is mostly full; if necessary, I prompt the students to contribute things they don’t see on the board yet, or things that might seem offbeat, or things they weren’t sure about including, or things that didn’t make the cut for a group list.

The September 11 attacks are always among the first things students mention. (If you call for a show of hands to see who had September 11 on the list, virtually everyone will put a hand upan instructive fact.) This has held true even for students who increasingly have no clear personal memory of that day. (Remember, traditional college freshmen in 2018 are likely to have been infants at the time.) So I ask my students why there’s so much agreement on this point. Why do we all agree that September 11 is crucial for our descendants to know about? They usually furnish excellent answers to this question.

Then I continue asking questions about how they arrived at their lists and about what they see on the board for the class as a whole:

  • “What did you decide to leave out of your group lists? Can you explain a criterion you used in order to reach your decision?” (Often students will realize that they tried to focus on things that seemed to have a big impact in the worldi.e., things that caused other things, including other things on the board, to happen. Sometimes I draw lines between them to indicate this.)
  • “Where are you getting your memory of these things? If you don’t remember them all personally, where did you learn about them?”
  • “Look at the board as a whole. If we wrote a detailed history of our lifetimes based on this list, using it for a rough outline, would our audience get an accurate impression of the world we lived in? Why or why not? What’s missing? What’s distorted?”
  • “What kind of a story would we be telling about our lifetimes?” (Answer to this question often include “It’s depressing” or “It’s full of conflict.” In world history courses, students often realize that their answers are very U.S.-centric.)
  • “Is this how you remember your own lifetime? Is this the world you lived in, or is this a misleading picture?” (Answers will vary, but they’re often pretty emphatic in one way or another.)
  • “What is missing from this story we’re outlining? What things should we add in order to give future generations a more accurate picture of the world we lived in?”

Finally, I try to wrap up the exercise with something like the following observation: “To complete this exercise, you all had to make judgments about significance. You were deciding what, or how much, these things meant in some bigger scheme of things. You didn’t just write lists of facts. You were thinking about how to tell a story that would be about somethinga story with a point.

“Well, that’s what historians do when they write about the more distant past. They are figuring out how to use pieces of informationabout all kinds of thingsto tell a true story, usually about things they don’t remember personally. It’s basically the same process.”

Then, if I think of it, I try to ask one more question: “Do you think your lists would look any different if you made them again twenty years from now?” That lets me talk about how our perspectives about what matters can change over time, even when the facts don’t change.

In the years since I started using this exercise, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it really fail.

The Most Misunderstood Purpose of Higher Ed

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Ask undergraduate students about the reasons for college, and you’ll probably get a mix of answers heavy in “to get a good job” and “to learn.” Ask academics and policy makers, and the answers will include “critical thinking skills.” And if you ask what makes a college education unique, critical thinking may top the list.

The truly distinctive goal of higher education, however, rarely gets much discussion.

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‘Silence’ and Historical Presence: Teaching a Novel in the Survey

Photo of the book Silence by Shusaku Endo

Speaking of Jesuits, here’s an assignment I used this spring for the first time. In my modern world history course at the University of Scranton, I assigned a short essay about Endō Shūsaku’s 1966 historical novel Silence, a story based on true events (involving Jesuits) in seventeenth-century Japan. It took a long time to work up the nerve.

If the assignment worked, my students would use the novel as a matrix upon which to practice visualizing a real time and place, building empathy with its people. They would also analyze how Silence, as a piece of fiction crafted to resonate with a modern audience, makes it easier to see that all kinds of historical discourse must communicate effectively between different times and places. This assignment would have the additional benefit of connecting the university’s Ignatian heritage with a specific topic already covered in class, in a way that students might find personally relevant and poignant. (I do not assume my students at the University of Scranton are—or should be—Catholics, but most of them do come from a Catholic cultural environment.)

As a history instructor, however, I had three main qualms about my own assignment. As the deadline approached, my apprehension grew.

First, my students needed to use the novel to clarify, not obscure, the relationships between fact and fiction. I didn’t want any confusion about Silence‘s genre, of course, but I also needed my students to grasp the historical-pedagogical purpose of reading fiction at all. This wasn’t supposed to be an arbitrary excursion into make-believe.

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Investing in a Part-Time Community

St Peter's Cathedral, Scranton, Pa.

My teaching season began today. The summer isn’t over, but for the next two weeks, I will be participating in faculty development seminars offered by the Jesuit Center at the University of Scranton.

These seminars focus on pedagogy and the vocation of a teacher. Most participants today said they came to learn how to teach better. However, there is also a larger institutional purpose. The University of Scranton encourages its instructors to think of our work in explicitly Catholic ways. We are not expected to be Catholics—although I suspect most participants in today’s seminar were at least raised that way—but we are encouraged to place our teaching within that tradition. We are asked to “support the mission,” in the typical language used on campus; these seminars are designed to help faculty members across different disciplines conceptualize what that means.

At this point, I’ll confess to mixed feelings, but not about Catholicism. I’m not Catholic myself, but I’ve spent many years living and working in various kinds of Christian communities, and I admire Catholic theology’s ways of framing education as a work of deep love for the created world. I love its characteristic insistence that education should be part of a search for meaning, not simply a process of narrow knowledge-creation or knowledge-dissemination. On a practical level, I have taught in three Catholic institutions, each with a slightly different mission, and although this also means I know some of Catholic education’s limitations, I’m profoundly grateful for each.

My mixed feelings come instead from my work’s liminal place in the institution. Because I’m an adjunct, part of me resists the idea that I should contribute anything to the institution, as a specific organization, unless I get paid for it. The university has made no long-term investment in me, so I would be foolish to make long-term investments in it. This arrangement can lead to deep cynicism, and I don’t think I’m alone among contingent faculty members in experiencing that problem.

But however little faith I have in institutions, I’m not cynical about teaching. It’s a thing of joy and a work of love, and I’m willing to do just about anything that will advance it. It’s exciting to see any university cultivate it, even if just in theory, as much as this one has. So I’m optimistic about the next two weeks, and I hope I will be able to contribute something useful to these discussions.

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Image: Postcard, “St. Peter’s Cathedral and Rectory, Scranton, Pa.,” mid-twentieth century. Tichnor Brothers Postcard Collection, Boston Public Library.