Maybe not the “dumbest generation?”

dunceMark Bauerlein, a not-that-old fogy at an elite university, wrote something cranky about the practice of higher education in the New York Times last weekend.  The column has been subjected to a ritual beating by many in the academic blogosphere.  Yesterday, a call went out from David Perry (@Lollardfish on Twitter, and the blog How Did We Get Into This Mess) that he “would like to see R1 profs engage in a loud and public conv[ersation] ab[out] teaching and research.”  Although I teach at an R1, it’s the Aggie school in my state and certainly not “elite.”  I also don’t teach Ph,D. students, as my History department offers just a Master’s Degree.

This year, as regular readers know, I’ve been far away from the grind at Baa Ram U. and on sabbatical at the Huntington Library, a.k.a. “Scholars’ Disneyland.”  I’ve been living much like a Renaissance scholar, dining at the table and enjoying the luxuries of my sponsoring Prince–that is to say, nothing like my real life, but you know what?  The conversations I’ve been having here with the Distinguished Fellows–all of whom teach at elite universities and supervise Ph.D. students as well as undergraduates–frequently revolves around teaching, and yes, teaching undergraduates!  How do we reach them?  How do we get them to become and remain History majors?  What subjects interest them most, and how can we use those interests to develop an aptitude for historical thinking?

We’re like young parents who want nothing more than a night away from the children, and then we end up talking about the children the whole time we’re out to dinner. Continue reading

The internets are sick and tired of David Brooks

For some reason, all I’ve seen over the past few days are takedowns of New York Times columnist David Brooks.  Here’s one excellent, high-minded example over at U.S. Intellectual History by Robin Marie:

David Brooks is a special kind of stupid. How can we describe it? It is a skilled stupidity, really; Brooks, more than any other conservative posing as not-completely-delusional and/or shameless, is extremely talented at transforming thoughtless middle-class biases into what thoughtless middle-class people then take to be wisdom.

.        .       .        .        .

I do have something to say, however, about Brooks’ latest masterpiece. In a column entitled “The Nature of Poverty,” where he recycles nearly every lazy assumption and distortion about “the culture of poverty” that the Right has been spouting for half a centuryhalf a century folks, that’s half of 100 years of this stuff! – he ends, after explaining that poverty is not really about money but “relationships,” with this gem: “The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology.”

Apparently, Brooks has never heard of Albert K. Cohen. In 1955, he wrote a book calledDelinquent Boys, which explained deviant behavior in the working class as the product of social failure.

Continue reading

The pedegogical benefits of giving in to the moment

Chernoh Sesay Jr. has a thoughtful post over at the African American Intellectual History Society blog about “Teaching Phillis Wheatley (and Olaudah Equiano) in light of Freddie Gray,” in which he describes his initial hesitation to talk about current events in Baltimore in a class devoted to two eighteenth-century African writers and their engagement with race, religion, and the age of revolution:

At the start of the period two of the students approached me and explained that because our class was about African Americans and issues of race, they thought it was appropriate to talk about Freddie Gray and the broader politics behind his death. Their request was polite and earnest. Without knowing how I would relate the eighteenth-century Atlantic world to the twenty-first century urban United States in a way that was directly relevant to the day’s topics I said yes. I allowed the two students to stand before the class and I sat amongst the other class participants. The student leaders described their participation in a march the previous night and explained the complex mix of frustration, motivation, solidarity, and inspiration that fed into and arose out of their activism.

After recounting their experiences at the protest and expressing their thoughts about the growing public revelations of police violence, the two students tried to link current anti-black brutality directly back to the issues of identity and representation relative to Wheatley and Equiano. Instead of following this path back to the syllabus, I allowed the entire class to engage in a discussion about current events. From my perspective, the discussion was extremely engaging but not well organized. I decided that rather than try awkwardly to reign in the themes of conversation, I would try to highlight comments that somehow related to the issues of historical continuity and change.  The ensuing conversation was wide ranging. Students made reference to continued racism and inequality. They discussed contemporary issues endemic to “the Black community.” They talked about racial profiling and issues of presentation and representation. They expressed frustration with efforts to combat racism and reduce poverty but they also argued for the necessity of action.

The conversation wandered and meandered and I did not successfully give any easily definable direction to the discussion. . . . I left class frustrated that I was not able to fashion a structured discussion and feeling as though I was failing in getting students to understand Wheatley and Equiano from their eighteenth-century experiences.

But wait!  Here’s what happened at the next class meeting: Continue reading

Cause, or effect? Plus a Sunday Morning Medicine signal boost, and meditations on death.

Utetrail

Not my typical morning run.

On days when I haul my butt out of bed at 5 a.m. and get out for an early morning run, I have lots of energy the rest of the day and can even stay up a little longer in the evenings. On days when I can’t manage to get rolling early and when I don’t go for a run, I have much less energy and frequently must go to bed early.  We hear that it’s the exercise that causes us to be more focused and alert for the rest of the day, but I wonder: Continue reading

Sorry, Nate–you didn’t make the cut.

NathanielWheelwright

Nathaniel Wheelwright (1721-66), by John Singleton Copley, ca. 1760, from Portraits in the Massachusetts Historical Society (1988)

I’ve been pulling together the images I’d like to include in my book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright. My publisher is very generous and is permitting me to include up to twenty of them (!)–and because Esther moves around so much (especially for a girl and a woman) and crosses so many cultural, religious, and linguistic borders, I’ll really need twenty illustrations to give readers a sense of the material culture of all of her different worlds and families.

The Massachusetts Historical Society owns a crude oil portrait on paper of Esther Wheelwright’s nephew, Nathaniel, by John Singleton Copley. Nathaniel becomes a diplomat on behalf of Massachusetts and goes to Montreal and Quebec in 1752-53 to attempt to effect the return of some New England child captives being held by Native allies of the French. In the course of this trip, he meets twice with his aunt, and gives us one of the only personality sketches of her that we have.  I’ve been considering including this portrait in my book, but I’ve decided not to. Continue reading