Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Historiann and GayProf Teach It All, Part I

My blogging buddy Historiann recently invited me to join her in a discussion about teaching the U.S. history survey. In particular, she wanted to tackle new ways of framing this familiar freshman class that were more inclusive. Talking about this class seemed like an ideal way to squeeze out some content on this blog to tackle this very serious issue facing our profession.

Join us here, at CoG, and at her place over the next three days to read our ideas. It's sorta a blog slumber party. You'll laugh. You'll cry. They are the feel good posts of the year!

Historiann (Text in Blue): A few months ago, GayProf published a thought-provoking post on the exclusion of "the nation’s largest minority" from graduate education in his department, and the implications this has for the teaching of history into the near future. Because I thought that post raised some important questions about history curricula and how our imagination of the past shapes our present politics, GayProf and I thought we'd continue the conversation and invite the rest of you to join in!

Back in December, GayProf wrote:

"Latino/as’ long presence in this nation means they should appear in both halves of the traditional U.S. history survey. For most U.S. historians, though, Latinos (much less Latinas) remain an “and also” topic rather than being construed as fundamental to the history of the nation. If they make it onto a syllabus at all, Latinos are most likely to be found in the “Suggested Reading” section rather than in the “required” list.

"Part of this is a problem much larger than academia. For the past 160 years, the United States has been in collective denial about Latino populations north of Mexico. The mass media periodically expresses “shock (SHOCK!)” that Latino/as account for a large slice of the nation every twenty years or so. Even in those moments, you can depend on the fact that Latino/as will be figured as “foreign” or “recent arrivals” rather than as communities with a century-and-a-half of history that informs their experiences in this nation.

"But where would the media learn such things? Given my recent conversations with grad students, it turns out that even the best history departments can't be relied upon to teach that history."

GayProf, your point about the erasure of Latino/as from American history and the political implications of portraying Latino/a people always as "recent arrivals" to the U.S. really struck me, both as an early Americanist and as a transplant to Colorado, where the Latino/a population has grown dramatically in the past few decades (along with the population of white immigrants from California and Texas).

GayProf (GP): I think that the entire country just doesn’t want to acknowledge how much the nation’s demographics have changed. Latino/as are the nation’s largest minority and the fastest growing population. Those changes are harder to ignore in a place like Colorado. Still, politicians and the media are pretending that they can simply wish away Latinos.

From my perspective the demographic changes should be prompting everybody to ask questions about the historic role of Latino/as in the U.S. That doesn’t seem to be happening, though.

The other evening I was at a dinner party with non-academics. One of the guests asked what type of history that I teach. When I told hir, “Latinos in the U.S.,” Ze responded, “Oh, I thought that you were a history professor. Didn’t Latinos arrive, like, just a few days ago?”

That isn’t just the case with the general public, either. I have been in several meetings where colleagues have bemoaned that the department doesn’t have enough people in nineteenth-century U.S. history. Somehow my work, despite being dead center in the nineteenth century, only registers as “modern U.S.”

Historiann: Wow. As if Latino/a = post-1945, or post-1980!

GP: Or post 2000! Shouldn’t I really just be a sociologist? But maybe my wardrobe is too good for sociology. . .

Historiann: In 2004, our former U.S. Senator Ken Salazar's campaign capitalized on his identity as a Latino, but also couched it carefully by repeatedly claiming that "his family has lived on land it has farmed for nearly 400 years," so as to reassure the white majority that "he's not from a family of illegals! He's a native Coloradoan with deep roots!"

GP: I was sad to learn that there has been a significant amount of conflict between “recent” Mexican migrants and established Latino communities in my home state of Paradise Island. Or, er, I mean New Mexico. Salazar’s campaign wasn’t just strategic; it is also part of a larger (and often unexplored) disavowal that many Mexican Americans make of more recent Mexican migrants.

Historiann: It seems like my field could very easily incorporate Latino/a history in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries because the important issues and topics are the same: Conquistadors, La Malinche, The Virgin of Guadalupe, and The Pueblo Revolt are just other ways of talking about power, slavery, religious syncretism, and Native resistance. And yet it seems like my field is the most resistant to said incorporation because (perhaps) of the reluctance you noted in recognizing that Latino/a history is one of the longue durée.

GP: I don’t know if Colonial/Early U.S.(CEUS) is more resistant than the other fields. Recently I attended two public talks at Big Midwestern University that focused on race in “modern” U.S. history. In both cases, it was clear that the speaker had never once thought that Latino/as might be important to hir research on race. Quite shockingly, most scholars still can’t wrap their mind around a vision of history that is not the white/black binary.

It does seem (from the outside), though, that CEUS has gone through a period of retrenchment. When I was in graduate school (which wasn’t even that long ago (GayProf is so very, very young, after all)), the colonial historians often talked about the importance of knowing the overlapping histories of contact (France, England, Netherlands, Spain, plus the multiple indigenous groups). They even seemed to take it is a point of pride that CEUS required a more “global” approach than slouchy, lazy modern U.S. scholars. This isn’t to say that they all actually did that, but there was at least talk of it as an ideal.

Today, though, CEUS has really fallen back to its old bad habits. If it didn’t involve people with buckles on their hats, they aren’t interested.

Historiann: This may have to do with the digitization of some published primary and archival sources (for example, Early American Imprints, otherwise known as the Evans Series), and the lack of availability of travel funds and other support for graduate students and junior scholars. (I have spoken and written about this before—at the OAH and the Omohundro Institute conferences in 2009, for example.) When people rely on published sources for their research, they’re relying for the most part on the thoughts and opinions of a tiny slice of elite, Euro-American men. The really interesting sources about and by the majority of colonial Americans are in the archives.

GP: Right – It is a self-fulfilling archive. The archives that are digitized and/or printed are the ones that are imagined to be “most important,” which, of course, people assume are the ones written by Euro American men.

Grad students use of this material is probably also tied to the rush to finish their degrees. Not only don’t they have funding to travel, but they don’t have the time if they are supposed to be out the door in five years.


squadratomagico said...

In my department, for about ten years now we've been reframing early US history as "Atlantic World" rather than "Colonial America." On the one hand, this seems like a more porous and interesting way of configuring things, embracing European migrants, Native American populations, and African slave populations; on the other hand, placing the Atlantic at the center makes the East Coast (especially NE "original colonies") into the continental focus of the US, and de-emphasizes the west and south. In addition, defining the field by the Atlantic ocean suggests that what is most important is migration -- the crossing of that ocean, whether voluntarily or involuntarily -- and thus shifts focus away from peoples and cultures that were born and lived exclusively on this continent.

Anonymous said...

The trend in Squadrato's department is widespread, I think. But I'm also noticing an attendant trend towards study of "borderlands" which includes seemingly interesting work on Latino and Chicano history, distant and more recent. It also seems like Western history as a category gaining some traction. Of course US History is not my area, but I'd love to hear from Americanists if these trends are in fact taking hold and if they are leading to more inclusion of Latino history - especially outside the SW. (I'm particularly intrigued by the idea of continued invisibility of Latino and Chicano history in the US context contrasted with the enormous growth of Latin American studies - I guess LAS is always non-US?)


Historiann said...

perpetua--tomorrow back at, we'll be talking about the place of the West in early America, so stay tuned. You're right that "borderlands" is the new transnational concept that's eclipsing Atlantic World somewhat. (I may be biased here, since I tried to take a borderlands approach with my first book.) I agree with Squadrato's point that centering a "World" on the Atlantic ends up privileging some people over others--but then, so does any particular analytical frame we use.

OK--must go teach a class! I'll be back in an hour or so to check in on y'all.

GayProf said...

Squadratomagico: I agree entirely with your assessment of "Atlantic World" (Historiann and I even chatted about this in RL last time she was in Midwestern Funky Town). Atlantic World started as a means to be more inclusive, but somehow ended up reinforcing a particular vision of the country that was anglophone and eastern. Apparently Spain did not sail the Atlantic Ocean?

Perpetua: Not only is LAS excluded from U.S. history, but Latino/as in the U.S. are excluded from LAS! National borders continue to inform our scholarship in shocking sorts of ways.

Several "borderlands" books have come out in the past several years that have generated lots of interest and attention. I wonder, though, how many graduate students are encouraged to pursue a SW topic (or even a Puerto Rico topic) in colonial U.S. fields...

Perpetua said...

@ Gayprof: When you talk about the vision of the Atlantic as anglo-phone and eastern - do you mean within the American and British historiographies? I only ask this because the Atlantic has been so huge in Spanish and Lusophone studies. . . I know this comment might be an unhelpful generalization, but Americanists and British historians (as a group) seem shockingly confined to national borders/ national myths to me. Perhaps this is why I always fled from US history?

GayProf said...

Perpetua2: I think I mean the way "Atlantic World" is generally imagined by U.S. colonial historians (which seems to be anglophone). For my part, Atlantic World could be (and sometimes is) more broadly defined to include other vantage points. Nonetheless, many of the people who I have met who claim to be "Atlantic World" are shockingly uninformed about Spain's colonial ambitions. Surprisingly, this seems to be more true for younger scholars than older ones.

StinkyLulu said...

I'm a performance historian, trained as an Americanist in one of the leading programs in my field.

And my own NERPOD addresses -- as a historical question -- this very "rediscovery" phenomenon of Latino/a cultural presence. (I basically discuss the genealogy of what I call such "Latin Explosions" all the way back.) I make a pretty good case that the recurrence of such cultural moments are instrumental in the history of racialization of the demographic groups we might now call Latina/o.

But I do so as an interdisciplinary performance historian who, despite my training, is generally not considered a historian at all by the "serious" historians comprising my institution's history dept (one that GayProf knows well). And despite my having possibly the deepest background in U.S. Latina/o history at said institution, I'm nowhere on the map for any graduate student interested in "doing" said history. Perhaps because my core sources rank pretty low on the heirarchy of evidence? Perhaps because of my departmental location well afield of the history dept? I don't know.

But -- yeah -- it's a problem.

gayerprof said...

It seems that part of the problem is that mainline political history continues to frame the survey, even as many have tried to incorporate economic/cultural/social history in individual lectures (as window dressing?). With this framework, early American history becomes a narrative of the rise of the political structure of the US, rather than a true history of the land/peoples that were to become part of the current US. California and the West are not just marginal in this account, but irrelevant.

I agree with GayProf about the representation of the history of Latinos in the survey and the framing of them, as a group, as relatively recent immigrants. I also think that Native Americans tend to be forgotten in the second half of the survey, relegated to an intellectual reservation. The implicit message is that Native Americans are dead, and Latinos are just arrived and at the margins.

squadratomagico said...

Isn't part of the problem here one of self-reproduction within fields of knowledge, rather than just being inability to "see" Latino/as? Most profs teach two types of courses: surveys of broad topics in which they are trained; and more specialized classes drawn from their own research specialization. For the survey, they probably take as a baseline a syllabus modeled after the ones they TAed or subbed for as a graduate student. Added into that basic framework will be some sources or coverage of their own research specialization, and *perhaps* some additional topics drawn from conversations with colleagues, new ideas heard at conferences, new books read in order to keep current in the field, etc. But the basic narrative framework will likely change only slowly. Thus, surveys are always the slowest part of any field to change, because of the self-replicating nature of the system. The people who teach them usually are looking to their own general training in their grad student pasts in order to design them. The best teachers try to keep current and update their themes and narratives, but I suspect this is the exception rather than the rule.

Historiann said...

StinkyLulu--I'm fascinated by the concept of an interdisciplinary performance historian! I would love to hear more about your work.

Gayerprof raises the issue of the political narrative, and how the story of the rise of the U.S. state tends to overshadow (or relegate to "text boxes") the stories about the people of North America. I agree--but in my view, it's easier to teach the social and cultural history pre-1776, because there is no U.S. state. I believe historians have been more successful in talking about power relations, gender, slavery, etc. in the earlier period in survey courses, but as soon as we get the U.S. and the Revolution and it's 1789, then it's the March of the Presidents that dominates the narrative. (At least, that's what my survey course tends to do, unfortunately, but--for example--I use Andrew Jackson as an excuse to talk about Indian Removal, and James K. Polk to talk about the Mexican War.)

Still--with all of that social and cultural history before 1776, you'd think we could do a better job squeezing in a few non-English or Algonquian-speaking peoples. . . I absolutely take Gayerprof's point about the disappearance of Indians after 1776 (or 1838, too, I suppose.)

In U.S. classrooms teaching in English, so many of us evoke an ethnic group only to explain why and how it's either enslaved, removed, or assimilated by English-speaking Euro-Americans.

Historiann said...

Confidential to GayProf: why is your blog in the Pacific Time Zone? (Are you blogging from a temperate and sunny undisclosed location this week?)

feMOMhist said...

FAB post :)

All time favorite comment ever "are you including Spain in your course about latino/as in the United states? (you have NO IDEA how I founght the "in the United States" as redundant but to no avail).

In grad school we used to fantasize about teaching survey west to east. i should do it. No one at TTLAC would probably notice.

GayProf said...

StinkyLulu: The history department in question is surprisingly conservative. The do have some good Latino/a Studies folk, but they are seemingly quite marginal to the main department. Since the university has one of the largest Latino student bodies in the nation (and is a "Hispanic Serving Institution"), this seems unacceptable.

History, as a field, needs to engage more with historians like yourself. We have been far too isolated from other disciplinary perspectives about the past.

Gayerprof: Your pseudonym sounds like a challenge! Don't make me lay down a gay off.

I am glad that you brought up the representation of Native Americans. Like others have pointed out, if Latinos are perpetually a "modern issue," than Native Americans are trapped in a position as "ancient history."

Squadratomagico2: Training is a big part of it! My December post came about because I was worried that current graduate students were receiving zero (0) books on Latino/as in the U.S. in their own courses. This implicitly (or explicitly) set up the idea that it is more than okay to ignore this history in both their writing and teaching.

feMOMhist: Don't dream it, be it! The last time I taught the first half of the survey, I did do a "South to North" approach. It worked pretty well for me. But Historiann is right, once we get past 1776 we all seemed to get trapped into the "march of presidents" thing. Even those of use who know better. I wonder why....

Historiann: If GayProf were smarter, he would be in a warmer climate. Alas, his timestamp is less an indication of location than technological unease.

Sisyphus said...

Over in lit people often teach around the theme of racial mixing to really foreground the ways the landscape (and the literature) was all about migration and mixing and the fears/desires incorporated in them. That gets you into immigration history, racial construction through laws, the "one-drop rule" of the south, mestizaje, Manifest Destiny, the Daws rolls, everything.

I think "borderlands" used to be big but is much less in fashion over in the lit fields. Unfortunately, the move to "global" (which I didn't jump on because I dislike it --- stupid me) tends to go too big picture too early, repeating the erasure of groups in the US (particularly the more stable and settled groups) for areas of the globe that seem "more oppressed."

So, I've seen a turn to "Latino" or "Asian American" lit in classes that focuses solely on writing about experiences outside the US rather than within it --- repeating this move of seeing these "others" as foreign or perpetual outsiders.

Historiann said...

Wow--Sisyphus chimes in with strategies for rhetorical exclusion in literature! Fascinating. GayProf's post last December was prophetic.

This insistence in looking for Latin@s anywhere but here is along the lines of the "why don't you privileged Western feminists ever talk about women who are truly oppressed?" lectures, ethnic edition. IOW, there are no meaningful power relations or inequalities worthy of discussion in the good old U.S. of A. We're the freest, bestest country in the world!

polisciprof said...

The situation is similar in Political Science. I am a Latin American politics specialist who sometimes teaches the US politics survey. The Civil Rights chapter in American Politics books spend 3/4 of the time on African Americans with small sections at the end on Native Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans. The Brown decision is front and center, while Hernandez is not even mentioned in my otherwise serviceable text.

I wonder if part of the problem is language preparation. Most of my colleagues who work in US politics are monolingual English speakers. Latinos are not monolingual and neither are their sources. Working in another language makes on think about boundaries in different ways, I think.

Miss Trudy said...

I am a Latina and a scholar, though most of my research is not necessarily informed by my being Latina. Nevertheless, when people address my research, they always assume it is informed from a Latina perspective and often frame the question "from a Hispanic point of view, what do you think of...?" I was born and grew up in the USA. People tend to treat me, even in academia, as if I were a recent arrival. Latino studies are complicated by race (because Latinos are not one race, there are many), nationality, class, even language. It can be daunting to many, even inside Hispanic and/or Latino communities, and that is why many in academia prefer to sideline it and reduce it to simple terms. An in-depth exploration of the long-standing history of Hispanics and/or Latinos in the US problematizes standard narratives in history, even to this day, when we supposedly have moved away from grand narratives. It will be interesting, however, to see what happens to Latino studies in academia in the coming decades. Things will not remain the same as they are now, that's for sure.

Susan said...

This is a great post. As someone who has worked in Atlantic history, sort of (from a European perspective) I've wondered about the people who say, well, when Europeans crossed the Atlantic everywhere they went is part of Atlantic history. So California is... This approach is only one of many problematic aspects of Atlantic history.

I do think Squadrato is right: as soon as we get out of our comfort zone, we often retreat to what we were taught/have taught before. It's hard work to rethink the survey, because you also have to rewrite the textbooks (or at least you would in European history).

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