Friday, March 05, 2010

Historiann and GayProf Teach It All, Part III: REVOLUTION!

Today Historiann and I finish up our discussion about the U.S. survey class. Together we have already outlined devious ways to undermine the entire nation through our teaching. Won't somebody think of the children?

If you are just joining the discussion, remember to read up on Part I and Part II. All of your friends already read Part I and II. You want to be cool like them, don't you?


Historiann: It would still be a Great Leap Forward if Anglophone historians would reorient their teaching, if not their research. Perhaps the best way to alter the center of gravity

GayProf (GP): *coughGravitas*cough*

Historiann: (ignoring GayProf) Perhaps the best way to alter the center of gravity in American history is to change the date of that split between the first and second "halves" of American history. (I put "half" in quotation marks, as someone who teaches a "half" that goes from 1492-1877 and is therefore 385 years in 15 weeks, by comparison to my modern U.S. colleagues who teach a "half" that goes from 1877-2010, or only 133 years in 15 weeks. What can I say? Some Democrat, who thinks that 60 is "half" of 100, must have done the math.)

GP: Our colleagues teaching the History of Asia won’t give us much sympathy in the divide. Remember that they often have to cover several centuries every class session! Sometimes my two-part lecture on the U.S.-Mexican War (which was, you know, less than two years) seems really indulgent in comparison.

Historiann: Let's end the first "half" in 1848, instead of 1877, putting the Mexican War rather than the Civil War and Reconstruction at the center of American history.

GP: Ending in 1848 would be a good start. If the goal was to end the class with the incorporation of tens of thousands Mexicans into the U.S., maybe it would encourage professors to provide a modicum of background on Mexico (and if, as a side effect, that increases the marketability of the Never Ending Research Project of Doom, how could I disagree?). But I worry even then we would just end up with a ra-ra version of the Texas Rebellion.

Maybe we could even end the first section in 1821 with Mexican Independence? Tell me that wouldn’t blow the minds of many historians to think that a “foreign” event could define the cycle of U.S. history! And, yet, it did. Once the wars for independence in Latin America took hold, the U.S. was in a very different place in the global economy. Independence in Latin America meant the U.S. could suddenly exercise its emerging power in ways that were unthinkable in 1780.

Starting the class earlier than the seventeenth century would also be a nice thing to do. It seems like (and the WMQ articles alluded to it as well) that most of the non-Anglo history is given scant attention. A typical first-day lecture usually goes, “There were Native Americans in the hemisphere for tens of thousands of years; but not much happened until Jamestown was founded in 1607!” Or, if you are in a slightly more informed class, “There were Native Americans in the hemisphere for tens of thousands of years; then Columbus sailed in 1492. Then not much happened until Jamestown was founded in 1607!”

Lately I have been toying with the idea of offering a colonial borderlands class. I’m not looking to move over to CEUS, but I feel like Spain’s northern frontier is entirely absent from BMU It’s either teach that or an entire semester devoted to the golden-age of Queen Hippolyta. Really a toss up to me.

Historiann: As Donna Merwick said back in 1994 in her response to Hijiya's article, "to tamper seriously with America's received story of its past is dangerous because it is tampering with a myth. It disturbs the fixed version of the sanctified past that makes the present bearable," (WMQ 51:4, October 1994, 736). Suggesting that the independence movement in another nation or a trumped-up war of imperial aggression, rather than a noble war to end slavery, is at the center of American history certainly would challenge "the sanctified past!"

GP: I also think it has to do with the fact that we (as a profession) never really talk about what purpose the U.S. Survey is supposed to serve. Are we there to provide a backdrop political history? If so, which one(s)? Or are we there to teach basic historical methodologies? Or is our goal to shake up that “sanctified past?” All of these are potentially worthy goals for a survey class.

I personally struggle with the balance between “coverage” and “skills” in all my classes. While I prefer to talk about more “fun” things (like how we understand changing ideas about sexuality through time), I also can’t help feeling that they should know some really basic events and people before they move out of college.

For instance, if my class is going to contemplate the Mexican Revolution as one of the most important events in North American History, I feel like I need to give students at least a basic frame of reference. Like, you know, who Emiliano Zapata was.

Historiann: (Who???)

GP: But, of course, the problem with those types of narratives is that they privilege a pretty darn exclusive group: Men more than women; Whites more than people of color; Heteros more than the queer folk. Spending time on simply establishing who the hell Zapata was means that the soldaderas get cheated. It is much the same issue as how we all fall into the "Parade of Presidents" that you mentioned in the comments of Part I. We know better, yet somehow can't help ourselves. I am conflicted.

Historiann: I agree with you that we never discuss the purpose of the U.S. survey. At least, I can’t recall taking part in a formal conversation about the purpose of survey courses in the fifteen years I’ve been on various History faculties. This may have something to do again with the bruising “culture wars” of previous decades—a lot got said and written that I think embarrassed people in retrospect. (I’ve heard one confession from a culture warrior—with whom I utterly disagree—who told me personally that he regrets some of the things he wrote and said in those days. If I told you who it was, I’d have to kill you, so I’ll take his secret to my grave.) Immediately after 9/11, we had a brief discussion in which the importance of history to the creation of a patriotic citizenry was affirmed. But even then, none of us wanted to be terribly specific about what we’re up to because we all have different ideas and priorities.

GP: See, I don’t really see it as my job to affirm or discredit one’s patriotism. Instead, I think it is my job to provide historical context to our modern concerns as a nation. What students want to do with that once they leave my class (Wave flags, move to Canada, join the Army, start a sensible bistro) is entirely up to them.

What if instead of mandating “U.S. History,” we made the requirement “History of North America” or even “History of the Western Hemisphere (Including the Africa bits everybody always forgets is technically part of this hemisphere)?” We could forgo the nation as an organizing principle entirely.

Of course, there are downsides to that as well. Right now the rush to teach “Global History,” for instance, feels flat to me. It seems those classes are just “Western Civ, Now With China!” rather than really rethinking old structures. But that is another post entirely…

Historiann: What we certainly don’t want to talk about is the ridiculousness of expecting a compulsory history class of two quarters or one semester to cure historical ignorance in all of its many forms.

GP: True, but it would be nice if we could market our classes like they were a snakeoil cure. “Take Dr. GayProf’s Patented Chicano/a History Class – Cures All: Racism, Sexism, Homophobia, Scurvy, Billousness, and Dropsy. Satisfied Customers Feel Less Ignorant After Just One Dose! Goes Down Easy – Great for Young or Old!”

Historiann: If various states of the union, or universities, or liberal arts colleges actually thought American history was important, they’d require more than a one-semester dose. What we’re left with in the popular discourse is the insistence that U.S. history is vitally important for everyone to know, and the injunction that we (the History professors) are doing it all wrong. (A former mentor of mine used to call this the “history is too important to be left to the historians” point of view.

GP: That’s so true. We don’t have a hard time convincing either the political Left or Right that people should know history. They are just at odds in deciding what history they really want people to know.

Historiann: Maybe it’s my Midwestern low-church WASP heritage of conflict-avoidance, but this state of affairs (call it d├ętante) is better than the projectile insults and name-calling of the kulturkampf. Let’s just all teach what we want to teach, and let others teach what they want to teach. Let a thousand flowers bloom, in other words. (Or as we say here on the plains: “it’s your affair, and none of my own.”)

GP: Yes, I want to echo that. I am not interested in establishing a formal curriculum or dictating what must be taught. Still, I’d like to think that most people want to be more inclusive in their classes (I’m in a “People are Basically Good” sort of mood -- Or at least, “Historians are Basically Good” sort of mood). The problem is that they either have never thought about it (because they, themselves, were never taught in an inclusive way) or because they don’t know how to go about it.

Historiann: That doesn’t mean busybodies like you and me can’t point out who’s being left out of the dominant U.S. history narratives, of course, and why it’s problematic.

GP: And we still get to judge them, right?

Historiann: By all means. Over cocktails, of course!


RPS77 said...

I'll play devil's advocate and point out that the main problem I can see with replacing U.S. history with the history of North America or even the whole western hemisphere. The problem is that the history of a continent or an entire hemisphere is so much broader than the history of even a very large country. It's basically impossible to cover everything important in the history of just the U.S. alone in a survey course - covering one or two continents in the same time frame means having to completely ignore even larger swathes of history.

I can certainly understand why historians would want to break the old pattern of teaching U.S. history as if the world outside the English-speaking US was a separate, parallel universe that only occasionally and briefly had any significance. On the other hand, given the time constraints I think that a broader approach may mean students learning even less of the basic facts about the history of their own country.

Then again, I guess a North American or hemispheric history is incredibly focused and thorough compared to a world history course that tries to cover all of human civilization for thousands of years in a semester!

squadratomagico said...

I teach a millennium of a continent's worth of History, so issues of what's left in or left out are quite difficult for my survey-making. Perhaps that's why, after many years teaching these classes, I seem to revise the syllabus every time. I hate the whole survey format.
But to respond more specifically to your conversation (which I have throughly enjoyed -- thanks for letting us be flies on the wall): I think one reason I became a medievalist is because I was drawn to something "other." In grammar and High School (e.g., 1960s & 70s) I found myself very turned off by the frankly patriotic triumphalism of my American history classes, as well as the whiggishness of their narrative. Without being able to articulate this critique, I nonetheless felt deeply resentful of these classes, which I sensed had an ideological dimension lacking in my other classes. In college, at "Zenith," I never took any US history classes as a result. I wonder how widespread this way of teaching the material still is, or whether a more decentered and even sometimes critical approach has taken hold at all in secondary education.

Historiann said...

RPS77: thanks for your comment. I think it begs the question as to why we bother to teach survey courses at all, since (as you observe, and I agree) "coverage" is always an impossible goal, and most everything gets left out in the end.

This is why I'm fundamentally opposed to survey courses. But, when I wrote about this last year, very few people agreed with me! What is it that makes us love the survey as a concept, although neither faculty nor students appear to enjoy them very much? Why do we inflict them on ourselves and our students, when they're doomed from the start?

Historiann said...

Squadrato--thanks for taking part in the conversation!

I think you're right that U.S. history classes tend to be more obviously nationalist in the U.S. than the teaching of other histories. But as you suggested yourself yesterday over at my place, Anglophones tend to stick together and insist on some kind of Anglophone exceptionalism.

Interestingly, Ruth Karras is at Baa Ram U. right now, and last night in her lecture about the regulation of sexuality in late medieval London and Paris, she talked about the idea that England's history is different from Continental medieval history, although some of her research findings in gender & sexuality contradict this belief. She said that it's a belief that resides almost exclusively in the Anglophone literature, not in the Francophone literature--so there's ideology in other histories, but an ideology that may not be as clear or as obvious to modern U.S. citizens.

But, I absolutely take your point that in avoiding North American and/or U.S. history, American scholars may be able to imagine and contribute to a historiography that's not as politically charged for them as U.S. history is.

GayProf said...

RPS77: As Historiann points out, dumping the survey entirely might be an option that we should explore. If not that, I think that by reframing the class as "North America" or even "Western Hemisphere" would at least prompt professors to push outside of the U.S. a bit or rethink narratives that are more comfortable. If they have a goal (impossible though it might be) of being more inclusive, then maybe we can finally rid ourselves of the Parade of Presidents model.

squadratomagico: When I taught the survey at my former TexAss school, the students were really angry that it did not conform to their nationalist expectations. At that institution, to even propose that the nation's history involved more than valiant, white hetero men was tantamount to treason!

Historiann said...

GayProf's reminder ((shudder)) of his TexAss experiences reminded me ((double shudder)) of my Bad Job, in which four student evaluations out of 30 for one section of my survey course that complained that "this isn't American history--it's just Blacks, Women, and Indians!" were used as evidence by my "colleagues" that I wasn't "teaching broadly enough."

The reason I bring this up is to raise the question: what are the politics of history education in the U.S. when Latin@s, Indians, women, African Americans, etc. are brought into the survey only by Latin@s, women, Indians, and African American scholars, and not by "white hetero men?" I've never heard serious discussion of the problematics of teaching the filiopietistic white hetero male version of U.S. history--I've heard students grumbling about it, but I've never heard these complaints raised to the level of a faculty meeting or T & P committee meeting. And yet, I've heard people raise these questions about teaching non-white, non-straight, and/or non-male histories by people who themselves are non-white, non-straight and/or non-male.

A few years ago, I taught a version of my American Rev. class that looked extremely traditional to me--more traditional than I ordinarily teach it. And yet, there will still some students who complained and resented the choices I had made. I've come to the conclusion that some students will never see me as an authority in my field, no matter how I teach it, because of my sex (primarily). Seriously--I was lecturing them on military history and the history of the U.S. Constitution--good old rah-rah yea U.S.A. kind of stuff, and I ended up pissing off a lot of students anyway--and not because I wasn't lecturing enough about non-straight, non-white, non-males. Some of them appeared to question the authenticity of the history they were reading and hearing about simply because it was delivered in a women's voice and from a woman's body. Somehow, I corrupted it all by my very presence.

(I swear, I didn't make them read books with pink or lavender covers!)

GayProf said...

Historiann: We had the same experience from our colleagues! In my first year, even though my course evaluations were quite good for upper division classes on Latino/as in the U.S., I was reprimanded for the freshman survey's critiques. The department actually argued that I was clearly favoring Latino/a students over "other" (read: Euro American) students. Of course, that was totally absurd for many reasons (not the least of which is the assumption that my upper level class on Latino/as only had Latino/a heritage students (which was not the case)!).

Matt L said...

I think this is a great conversation and its not exclusive to the US history. This summer I am teaching the East Asian Survey dawn of time to the present. All four millennia. So clearly I've got to make choices, because thats not all going to happen in five weeks.

Those choices have to be informed by pedagogy. Why do our students need to take history? Is it to give them a basic cultural competence? (Like GayProf said, they really ought to know who the hell Zapata was before leaving college.) Well then maybe the students are better off with a thin narrative of everything. Then history is a subject and its a matter of teaching 'facts'/trivia.

Or, do you teach history as a discipline, a way of thinking about the world? Then at that point focusing on more narrowly defined topics or themes would be more effective. Students would have the chance to understand a fixed set of primary sources and historiography without having to plunk it down into a master narrative.

Right now, history teaching at the college level is backwards. The survey requires a high level of synthetic thinking and the ability to make connections. Thats really hard for 18-year-olds to do. It would be better to teach them something specific about colonial America, or the Mexican American War rather than asking them to hold all of American History in their heads.

After they take enough small topics courses, then as seniors they will be able to start making connections between time periods in the survey. Then they could make sense of that master narrative for themselves.

John said...

A couple of comments (since I am getting involved in this thread so late!)
1) @squadro and Historiann: I too agree that US history is more nationalist and ideologically charged than other history courses. But I wonder if this is just something of a "home team" effect. I remember being one of the two grad students on a committee to establish a World History Certificate program at my PhD school. The conversation turned to US history courses, when one professor there (a South Asianist) starting arguing that US history classes were uniquely narrow and nationalist--no one else did that in other countries. Whereupon our other South Asianist jokingly told him to shut up, explaining that when she got her AB in India the professors taught Indian history with all of the nationalist overtones that American historians hit with US history. Do historians in France deal with this when teaching French history, too?

2) For us, teaching the survey has a something of a "pay it forward" justification. Many of our majors go on to teach secondary school (some even primary) and are thus required to take survey courses in the areas they want to teach. It's paradoxical, because they're going to have to face a more difficult challenge vis a vis the skills vs. coverage problem. But given the rigid nature of the standards in our NCLB era, there is a pressure to hit coverage for those majors who will have to deal with this in their future jobs.

3) I do feel a certain kind of civic duty pull when I teach the survey that I don't feel in, say, my colonial America course. It calls to mind an anecdote from Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic in which an minister writes of one of the more rural parishes in England, "It is not that they are not acquainted with the Scriptures. It is that they do not know there are Scriptures." I will get students who don't know what the Bills of Rights is. Or Dred Scott. Or the connection between California's statehood and the Fugitive Slave Act (a particular deficiency here in the Golden State). Process, and theme, and skills are all crucial. But these basic events--I think students need to know them before they can move on to higher order work.

(Now, I won't question the notion that other basic events that they don't know are crucial as well. I mean, not all of them know that California was carved out of land conquered in the Mexican-American war. So yeah, that's pretty crucial too.)

squadratomagico said...

Apropos of the survey, and whether it is better to strive for coverage or critical skills: I always opt for the latter, though I see the point of the former. But I was really impressed with a letter published in the NYTimes mag last week, responding to the "IS the US a Christian Nation?" cover story of the week before. The writer noted that it's no wonder that Texas lawmakers are ignorant about history, given the way it is taught. He (I believe it was a man) pointed out that classes in sciences often are geared around experimentation and problem-solving that actively demonstrates the principles of the discipline: rather than asking students to memorize facts about chemical interactions and physical laws and biology, there are lab days that vividly show the students how and why this knowledge is accepted. Yet in History, rather than giving a dossier of evidence and asking students to brainstorm about explanations for it, HS teachers and textbooks tend to present a seamless narrative with little debate or interrogation of sources. I wonder if part of the problem with the survey form is that they are designed to cover so much, it's impossible to show the students any methodology behind-the-scenes. That makes it frustrating on both sides: faculty are unable to share the problem-solving skills they enjoy, and that really lie at the heart of the discipline; and students in turn complain that surveys are "boring lists of names and dates."
I personally would be in favor of moving away from surveys entirely.

GayProf said...

Matt L.: It would be interesting to make survey courses senior "capstone" classes rather than entryways into history. Yet, we are actually moving more towards the "global" history scheme.

What sorts of things guide your choices in editing for the Asia survey?

John: You raise an important point about our teaching influencing High School and other teaching professionals. I might suggest, though, we aren't doing a particularly great job with those individuals. Coupled with NCLB, any "history" that is taught at those levels is often presented as memorizing "names and dates." Something that few people actually enjoy.

squadratomagico2: I would really like to see more undergraduate programs initiate a "History Theories and Methodologies" course at the undergraduate level. We (hopefully) spend time with graduate students discussing how and why various people wrote about the past. It is likely that undergraduates would also appreciate the "behind the scenes" action that you mention.

Historiann said...

Great comments. I think Matt's comment about history education happening backwards is spot on. I too think an emphasis on skills and methods is more important than coverage--after all, coverage can be done on one's own more easily.

I had a post last winter about Nancy Shoemaker's ideas about a "history lab," that made the same points that Squadrato makes. I endorsed her view--but my commenters didn't, not most of them anyway!

(Sorry that I can't embed the link:

susurro said...

I just got my thoughts together for part one and then I see you are all the way to part three ...

anyway ... glad you are talking about this. There are a lot of expected disconnects between "ethnic history" and every other kind of history in the discipline and some interesting new connections you are making here. As someone who was also trained when colonial history was more inclusive and overlapping, I do find it particularly interesting that there has been a reversal back to the centrality of pantaloons of late. I think the issue you raised in the previous post abt the perceptions of what Latin@ history scholars do also feeds into hiring practices that reinscribe these intellectual and periodizing splits.

For me, I've found that studies students fair much better in my history courses than history students b/c in general they are more prepared to think across identities, while my history students tend to have the advantage in my studies courses because they don't feel alienated by the inclusion of colonial history (or anything that happened before 1970 for that matter) in the course.

More on this on my blog when I get to it, so as not to take up so much of yours.

Matt L said...

Re: Choices for Asian history survey

Well. Cough. (awkward silence and shuffling of feet). I'm still working on the reading list. Last time I taught the semester long version of the class I used a standard textbook and a couple of outside readings. We did the whole 'march of time' through the ages. Student feedback was mostly positive. But I was totally demoralized. (I agree with squadro... it should be driven by skills and making sense of sources)

This time I sat down with a colleague who shares the Asian teaching duties, and we talked about what we'd like our students to know before they show up to take his Japan class and my China class. (We do not have a full time specialist covering any country in E. Asia or the Pacific Rim.) We thought it was more important for the students to know about Imperialism, the rise of Nationalism, WWII and the Cold War, because this is going to tie in better with what they will go on to do in either their other History courses or Global Studies classes. I would like to talk more about the ancient Chinese and medieval Japanese history. But Something has got to give.

The worst thing, is that I can talk about pedagogy and learning outcomes in the course design, but I am struggling to find the appropriate materials. Thats why I did the 'thin narrative' last time. The best textbook approached E. Asia as a 4 thousand year narrative history. There was no textbook organized to teach thematically and it takes a hell of a lot of work to develop the materials you need before you can take the 'uncoverage' approach Lendol Calder talks about.

I like Calder's ideas, but still I think he cheats a little bit. There is plenty of chronological coverage in the US since 1945 class that he uses as an example. I'd like to see him do it for US before 1865

Susan said...

Matt L suggested what I was going to say: especially in the survey, I am always constrained by what's available to use as a text. Even if I'm being topical, I want students to have a sense of a narrative within which the topics occur :)

WV= untape -- which is what we want to do with the survey.

Frank said...

If you put the survey last, though, what do you do when the students lack the context for many of the more focused classes? If you're doing a class on, say, the Revolution, and they don't know anything about colonization or anything other than Columbus came over at some point, how can they get anything out of the class?

Anyway, I just want to applaud my strong Amazon sister and Historiann; it's been a very interesting conversation to read. I'd say, GayProf, we should do one of these, but what would we talk about?

RPS77 said...

I guess I'm one of the weirdos who actually liked survey courses as a student. I also usually preferred reading about history in a narrative rather than thematic format, which is probably why I always liked the more traditional styles of historical writing. Some people complain that history is taught as just "one thing after another", but that was what I liked the most about it.

Apart from my own eccentric preferences, though, I always thought that even though survey courses are hardly an ideal format, they give the best (often the only) chance to teach a little bit of information about a wide variety of topics. Replacing the survey method with something that focuses more deeply on a smaller number of periods or themes would certainly have its advantages, but I think it comes at a very high cost of totally ignoring much more than even a survey. It seems a little like looking at a few square inches of a painting from very close up, while the survey method is looking at the entire painting from far away - you see a lot more detail, but you don't see anything about how those parts relate to the rest of the picture.

I also second John's point about the history of one's own country being much more vulnerable to the "home team" effect. It's just tough to be dispassionate and objective about one's own country - it's hard to avoid either romanticizing it or demonizing it, and historians are still just as human as anyone else.

GayProf said...

Susurro: You raise an important, related point. I have discussed at CoG before that History programs are failing to attract students of color. What is happening that ethnic studies feels divorced from history and historians have no ability to show its importance?

Matt L2: Having the type of concrete discussions that you and your colleague had about the purpose of a survey seems like an important start for the entire discipline. Just what are we up to with this stuff? Why do they need to know certain things over others?

Susan: I think that we shouldn't underestimate the role of textbooks in our teaching. For topics that are a bit outside our usual research field, we often depend on them to build lectures or a syllabus. If we use one that isn't particularly inclusive, then the class has the same result.

Frank: It would be fun to do a joint post. Goddess knows I rarely have original content on my own.

RPS772: But the narrative is one of our own invention and is often arbitrary. So, I guess I am back to the starting point of wondering whose stories get told in the survey and why.

Prof. Koshary said...

Quoth GayProf:

GP: True, but it would be nice if we could market our classes like they were a snakeoil cure. “Take Dr. GayProf’s Patented Chicano/a History Class – Cures All: Racism, Sexism, Homophobia, Scurvy, Billousness, and Dropsy. Satisfied Customers Feel Less Ignorant After Just One Dose! Goes Down Easy – Great for Young or Old!”

Wait -- you mean we're not supposed to put those kinds of claims in our job app letters?


Shaz said...

SO after the fact, but just watched an old Schoolhouse Rock Video -- remember The Great American Melting Pot? In light of this discussion, I just noticed the lyric:

"America was Founded by the British,
And also by the German, Dutch and French."

Hmm, anyone missing there??? Sigh, I hate revisiting my childhood loves through historian eyes...

I want to organize my survey around the repudiation of ideas that seemed good in the 70s.

Rebekah said...

I'm late to the discussion. Being in the UK for the year, I've been given books upon books from the American Embassy to give to my host school here. It's amazing to see history books from that one-sided perspective.

I'm sure you already know this, but in England, history is not required at all. Once a student hits year 10 (which is 9th grade) they only are required to take English, math(s) and science. I was really shocked. History is an elective. Wow.

Most of these kids can rattle of the names of the Tudors, but know very little about world history.

I'd love to spend more time and see how this country has portrayed the colonial history of its past.

Roger Owen Green said...

Dear Professor:

I DO NNED your insights re the Arizona immigration bill.

My take: Arizona Apartheid.

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