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 détante) 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!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Historiann and GayProf Teach It All, Part II

Yesterday Historiann and I chatted about teaching the U.S. history survey. Today, we continue with that conversation over at her ranch in Part II. We cover a range of topics like how the West is always lost; graduate language acquisition; and editing for content. I also finally reveal to Historiann that I am gay. Join us!

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.