Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Past is a Footnote

Over the past few weeks I have been hearing from a variety of graduate students in my academic programs about their frustrations with the current curriculum. Normally I don’t pay much heed to the whining. A complaining graduate student is about as rare as a Popeye Pez dispenser. Disappointingly, they don’t jettison delicious candy from their throat, either. Trust me.

In these cases, though, the graduate-student concerns reflect a much more serious problem with History and American Studies as fields beyond Big Midwestern University. Many of these students arrived at BMU with the explicit intent of studying Chicano/Latino/a Studies. Yet, in their required courses on the U.S., they have read zero (0) books on Latino/as in the U.S.

I am concerned about these revelations less for the students already interested in Latino/a Studies. After all, they will do what similar scholars have always had to do. They will fulfill the expectations for their classes while simultaneously building reading lists on Latino/a Studies that they will complete on their own time. Despite their intellectual isolation, they will nonetheless persevere because they are committed to Latino/a communities.

Rather, I am worried about the students who are not explicitly interested in Latina/o Studies in those classes. These are students who will (if they have some luck) obtain jobs teaching U.S. history at other universities across the nation. They will do so having received the implicit message that it is acceptable to ignore the nation’s largest minority entirely. It will, in other words, replicate a disciplinary ignorance that has been in place since the nineteenth century.

Curriculum, of course, is a touchy subject. It is hard to bring up these issues without sounding like I am wagging my finger and clucking in disapproval. That’s probably because I bring these issues up while I am wagging my finger and clucking in disapproval.

Still, these classes are taught by colleagues whom I deeply respect. They are some mighty smart people whose own research is impeccable. We aren’t talking about secret members of the Klan in other words. I can guarantee they aren’t pushing a covert white supremacist agenda. Hey, that might not sound like such a ringing endorsement, but it’s not a guarantee that I could have made about some of my former colleagues in Texas. At Big Midwestern University, though, these are faculty who are fiercely interested in social justice issues.

So if these colleagues aren’t disciples of Lou “Immigrants are Hiding Under My Bed” Dobbs, just what is going on? Why is there a disconnect between their politics and their course content?

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.

This year, 2009, marks the fortieth anniversary of El Plan de Santa Barbara: A Chicano Plan for Higher Education. Back in 1969, Chicano/a college students were mighty pissed. Universities failed to acknowledge the contributions, struggles, and perspectives of Chicanos and Chicanas (and Latino/as more broadly) within the United States. These students turned their frustration into direct action. Most universities responded by creating subunits focused on Latino/a Studies. After four decades of activism, scholarship, and teaching within those units, it seems that Latino Studies has failed to convince other historians of their importance. And guess what? Latino/a students are still pissed.

It is to historians’ peril that they continue to bury their head in the sand around Latino/a issues. Today, twenty percent of the nation’s schoolchildren currently identify as Latina/o. The Census Bureau further predicts that Latino/as will constitute 28 percent of the nation’s population by 2050. Latino/as will profoundly change the face (literally) of higher education in the next decade.

What will the poorly trained historians we are producing tell those future students? That the nation’s history isn’t relevant for Latino/as? That a quarter of the nation's population isn't relevant for its history? That they would have learned more about Latinos in grad school, but it just didn’t seem that important? That salsa is delicious?

This is not to say that I think every U.S. historian must devote themselves to studying the experiences of Latino/as exclusively. I am saying, however, that it is inexcusable that we have graduate students earning Ph.D.’s who have little or no knowledge of this history. Savvy departments who are currently searching in any field in U.S. history would be wise to ask a new assistant professor how they will address the surging Latino/a Student body in their course content.

The knowledge and research that we conduct about the past means that historians have an unusual ability to speak about political and social issues in the present. By refusing to understand how much the nation’s population has actually changed, however, historians forfeit their intellectual authority.


Historiann said...

You raise a lot of interesting (and vexing) issues here, GayProf. There is a kind of "groundhog day" quality to media coverage of a LOT of social justice issues--perhaps because it's easier to marginalize people and ideas if you portray them as totally new, without a history or context necessary to understand them. (Feminism, for example, is always being treated like it's a radical new thing, instead of something with 200+ years of intellectual and social history.)

I wonder if the exclusion of Latin@/Chican@ history on the syllabi you describe is due to people's assumption that that's something *you'll* do for the grad students, so they don't have to? (Kind of like when history departments hire a women's historian, and the rest of the department assumes that *she'll* do all that, so they're off the hook.)

Don't be so sure that the non-Latin@ history grad students don't care and/or will never change or grow themselves as scholars. Some of the best and most effective conversations in my graduate education came out of conversations with fellow grad students not about what was included in our syllabi, but what was EXcluded, and why, and was that right, wrong, or indifferent. (They'll surely change their tune if they end up teaching in the Southwest or CA--as a lot of us do!)

Anonymous said...

As a Europeanist, I have to say I'm appalled by this. How can anyone teach American colonial history without addressing this? Hello! Who got to the new world first, and settled far more extensive colonies than any other European region?! I know there has been a real shift to focus on the Atlantic World for early modern studies in the last several years, but shouldn't any decent grad program offer similar courses for the western two-thirds of the country?

pacalaga said...

But, GayProf, salsa IS delicious. Also, guacamole is the food of the gods.
On the other hand, I cannot speak to the rest of your post. As a student of engineering, I was not only not required to read Latino/a history, I was not actually required to read at all.

Pete said...

But ... But ... The Spanish have been part of the history of this country since 1513. What the ... ?

Seriously, there has apparently been a big shift in cultural acceptance since I was in school, back in the dark ages, because we were required in grade, middle, and high school to read Latino/a history along with all the rest of it. We knew who got here first, who explored the most comprehensively, who established the earliest European settlements. We got huge chunks of South American history, as well. Why is this not being taught now, I wonder? I'm not saying any of this was afterthoughts -- it was core curriculum for half the year, so it must have been being taught in the colleges and universities.

Mel said...

Salsa *is* delicious! So is flan.

I think the history issue is something of a chicken-and-egg one. The received knowledge we're indoctrinated with as kids is all Founding Fathers, four score and seven years, Manifest Destiny, etc. The whole Chicano/Latino thing just doesn't fit neatly into that WASP tradition and gets left out, which then affects post-secondary scholarly pursuits, which then trickles back down to elementary education, perpetuating the cycle. It's hard for an iconoclastic GayProf to break through that cycle, but the very fact of its existence means that we need scholars like you to chip away at it and hopefully bring others in to help change the paradigm.

With occasional breaks for tamales and sopapillas, of course.

Susan said...

Ah, yes. We're glad to have you, GayProf, but you don't really expect us to integrate your work into our courses, do you?

As a Europeanist, my guess is that most US history classes are still taught as if history starts in the east and moves west. Which means we forget that the Spanish were around.

But I'd ask about the required courses for grad students: are they of the "recent really interesting books and approaches" type, or a grad student version of the survey. If the former, then you could go to whoever teaches and say, I've heard these complaints, and know you wouldn't deliberately do this. But you might want to look at book X or Y which help address such and such interpretive/theoreitcal issue...

Unknown said...

Trying to get the kid off to school, but wanted to comment quickly! My 7th grader has learned nothing about Latin@s in the U.S. He's learned the very white version of U.S. history (including the idea that somehow white folks were good for "Indians" and the American west was empty). This, by the way, in a major city--Chicago--and in a "gifted" program. Africa is completely missing, although African Americans are present through the story of enslavement. And, of course, there are no Asians or women in the U.S., or at least, they've never done anything important.

Curriculum must be approved by the Board of Education, so we're talking about a problem much bigger than just teachers who need more education. We have a long way to go!

GayProf said...

HistoriAnn: I think that there is some assumption that Latino/a Studies will "cover" the material therefore others won't need to do so. That, though, seems like flimsy logic. How would they feel if I started my U.S. Freshman Survey class with statements like, "The Civil War? Nah -- We won't talk about that. The Civil War is Prof. Smith's specialization. You should really take his class if you want to know about the Civil War."

I am not confident, either, that non-Latino/a Studies grad students will seek out this material. We do offer grad courses in the field and actually expect non LS people to enroll. So far, tough, they do not. Again, I think this is partly because they get the message from their other grad instructors that those classes are either unnecessary or "not for them."

Anon: I have started to grow a bit leery of the way some scholars are seemingly using the "Atlantic World" as a means to reassert the centrailty of British imperialism as the story of the Americas. Apparently Spain did not sail the Atlantic. . . And the "Black Atlantic" seems to return people of African descent to a status as "commodity."

Pacalaga: I often wonder how my life might have been different if I opted for a degree in something useful to the world.

Pete: I actually do think we have taken some steps backward. A couple of decades ago there was much more pressure for students to think about diverse histories. Now, though, we have moved into an era where people focus only on their narrow sub-specialty and feel they can ignore the rest (and sometimes ethnic studies is guilty of this as well as I have often been frustrated that Latino/a Studies students don't feel the need to learn Afro Am or vice versa).

Mel: It is astounding that even in discussions of "Manifest Destiny," Latino/as are still left out of the story! Even the U.S.-Mexican War is reconfigured away from Mexico and made a precursor to the U.S. Civil War.

Susan: Yes, the east is the begining and end of all U.S. history it seems. It's tough, though, to consider how to broach the subject (especially as a junior professor). Because there is so much anxiety around topics of race in this country, it is diffcult to make suggestions about reading without sounding like you are saying "je accuse."

Sydney: Thanks for the insight into Chicago schools. It's true, I think, that at the primary and secondary level we have definitely seen some retrenchment in curriculum (Let's not forget Lynn Cheney's campaign to restore "great white men" as the history of the nation). But, nonetheless, if universities educated those teachers about wider possibilities, then they will have the tools to combat narrow curriculum choices by school boards. Right now, they might not even be aware that there are other ways to teach this history.

Anonymous said...

If I may add to the conversation, American history begins hundred of years before any European touched "American" soil. The Hopewell period, the Mississippian culture, and the Hohokam existed as well developed and cultivated cultures. I don't know, but I would doubt they are even mentioned as a footnote in most (any) history class. There is an American history before 1491.

Anonymous said...

Good post, and you're smart, Center of Gravitas, interesting points by you in this comments thread. I could add 2 cents of speculation but I think I'll think about this first.

Re Atlantic world: Spain and Portugal too!

Blake said...

I attended a Big Midwestern University myself, in American Studies, and while Latina/o studies was not my area of focus, I was assigned a number of what were then the classics. That said, I also don't think that Latina/o history got its due, certainly not when compared to, say, the history of African Americans. That said, they got a lot more play than Native Americans or Asian Americans.

I now teach in the West and in an area with a particularly high concentration of Mexican Americans. In large part because of this -- though clearly I shouldn't actually have needed that shove -- I incorporate material on Latina/os into all of my history classes, from the 1500s to the present. "Incorporate" makes it sound like I "tack on." I very much try not to do it that way, but I wonder how much my training led me to think of it in this way.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I love being the non-US historian in my department! I get to teach this stuff as part of World History, and get to be unapologetic about it. A bit of framing: my department is three Americanists and me. One is colonial (as in Our State and the other British Colonies), one who teaches public history and women's history and the post CW stuff (but nothir research specialty, which is African-American history -- zie's white), one whose specialty is the middle period, so teaches that and A-A history -- not hir specialty, but zie's A-A. NONE of them teach Latino stuff, and when the senior person sent out a list of content zie thought should be included in all US courses, it was all the narrative of Britain (and a little France) moving westward.

Enter ADM. Raised on the West Coast, where the streets have names in Spanish and every town has a mission or some sort of historic site with the names of Spaniards. That and I'm old enough to remember boycotting grapes and lettuce because Cesar Chavez asked us to! I enjoy confusing the hell out of my students by letting them know that the first modern European settlements in the Americas were Spanish, although the confusion is sort of sad when students can't reconcile that with Jamestown and end up saying the Spanish founded Jamestown (or Roanoke)!

I teach the Atlantic stuff using a book that focuses on the effects of the Americas on European culture, and it spends an awful lot of time on Spain, France, and Holland. Sadly, I really don't have much time to talk about North America, because I spend most of the rest of the semester talking about Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa, then the post-colonial world. But I will suggest to my most modern colleague that zie add more about the western US and Latino/a history, because zie will likely do it.

RPS77 said...

Oddly, even though I grew up in New England, a part of the United States that can genuinely claim to have had almost no Spanish or other European influence before the English, I remember learning about the Spanish empire in the Americas and the fact that there were Spanish colonies in Florida and New Mexico before there were any English settlements in the present-day USA. This was, however, presented as a rather brief prelude before the mainstream of US history started with Jamestown and Plymouth. Over ten thousand years of Native American history were similarly presented as a quick prelude before the more "mainstream" history.

When I used to look at maps of how much territory the Spanish (and Portuguese) controlled in the Americas before the English (later British) controlled anything, I actually thought of the English and later the Americans as underdogs who had started way behind but triumphed against the odds.

susurro said...

what concerns me about scholarly reproduction (the hegemonic - yes, I said it - reproduction of a narrow scope of knowledge that no longer reflects the breadth of knowledge considered "relevant" in this nation) is that whether we are talking abt conservative disciplines or once imagined radical ones, we find ourselves unable to break out of "add and stir." I think it is worse in some ways now precisely b/c we aren't talking about card carry Klan in the ranks but liberal historians who were never taught in an inclusive way and therefore have never thought to teach in one. It's like a colleague of mine who left history to teach permanently in LAS says: it's not the intent, its the content.

What is interesting to me is that this scholarly repro goes on even at times in which discussions abt it have reached an all time high. Whether it is the fear of having to "learn a whole new subject", of being challenged on one's "mastery" of a subject, or the simple "one of each is sufficient" there seems to be a reticence on the part of the discipline to move beyond black=slavery, Latino=immigrant, Asians=excluded (or interned if someone is feeling ambitious) and indigenous ppl all died on some trail somewhere.

When we think about how easy it is to know that there is so much more to the history of N. America than we do have to question how much of a difference colleagues who are intentional and colleagues who are just privileged really makes.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to make guacamole for our visiting high school seniors to lure them to the department ...

Anonymous said...

For beginning US history courses, maybe, or beginning graduate proseminar:

Clarence Walker, MONGREL NATION
Jackson Lears, REBIRTH OF A NATION (learned about that one on Historiann; here is in the LA Times:

Anonymous said...

OK, those books aren't mostly about Latinness, but they all do challenge the official whiteness of "America" with a lot of documentation.

I've thought about this problem a little now. I wonder if it is part of the general Anglo intellectual mepris of Latinos. Remember that Spain and England are traditional enemies. I think that plays out in the white Amurrica vs. Latin@ fight, in addition to all the other reasons said fight exists.

Field notes: Comp Lit at the U of Washington fairly recently wouldn't allow students to have Spanish as one of their literatures, because it "wasn't intellectual" (yeah, the language of Cervantes, etc.). My English department is constantly trying to tell me what Latin American literature is, yet cannot read Spanish or Portuguese and doesn't know the relevant journals.

Chad said...

Funnily enough, I was talking with one of my professors* on a similar topic and we noted how Native Americans similarly vanish from history surveys after the late nineteenth century at the latest and how blacks become invisible between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era.

*By the way, she is LeAnn Whites, who does research on gender and sexuality in the Civil War. I'm curious if you know of her.

Cataline said...

And while we're on the subject, there's always Sean Wilentz in the New York Times Book Review a couple of weeks ago. On Polk and the Mexican War, he says, among other things, "Mexico, far from being a passive, innocent victim of America’s lust for power and land, was ruled by a succession of corrupt, conservative, autocratic and truculent governments that administered a republic in name only, one that was distorted by centuries of domination by the Spanish crown and the Roman Catholic Church."

Elizabeth McClung said...

This is a type of education which is not exclusive to history, but in that we lie, because lying is simple. We teach children that it is not a rhumbus, it is a square (for the engineering crowd) - why? They are almost the same length in word. We teach that that the civil war was about slavery, then in high school it was about north and south, then in undergrad that it was about state rights, then in grad school, depending on the prof: that it was about Lincoln being Bipolar or the emergence of staged journalism or photography as history or.... - If history ever really wants to know the truth about anything, then it should probably teach it at the beginning, since it is no harder for children to learn of colonies in newfoundland, russians in Washington state, a odd lord trying to turn Winnipeg into a scottish fuedal Liard, Texas as the escape state for those believing in the rights of whites to own black slaves and war when catholicism cited that as wrong, than it is to teach what is already taught. Every year, we were lucky if we got to the spanish american war, of which we were lucky to get a charge down San Juan hill, which is the extent of US public school training to a prodominantly latino/a community.

Institutions look for those who reflect themselves in order to bestow the honors, grants, graduate studies. If marginalized studies occurred 40 years ago, it remains today. It will remain in 40 years unless something is changed; people who like pins on maps are those who give grants and are on interview panels for tenure positions. Why expect more from them than we do from ourselves? We are all in the fog of some privilage; I just don't know how to blow that fog away.