What are the rules for writing good history? An Independence Day weekend provocation.

rossflagThis morning on the Twitter, my fellow Coloradoan Paul Harvey directed me to an article at The Atlantic by a young whippersnapper, Michael Conway, who was himself a student in an Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History course in 2008-09. He writes about “The Problem with History Classes,” by which he seems to mean “The Problem with High School History Classes,” and rehearses the argument that it’s important to show students that history is not in fact a linear narrative of consensual facts but rather aggressively contested ground on which historians and students disagree, sometimes loudly and rancorously.  Yes indeed!  Although history itself is sometimes a bitterly contested ground, I’d be hard pressed to find an AP-USH teacher or a Ph.D.-holding scholar of U.S. history who would disagree with this point.

Conway then says that no one shared the contested nature of historical inquiry with him until he went to college, which surprised me because he took AP-USH, and I thought the point of that was introducing students to college-level ideas and analysis.  He writes:

When I took AP U.S. History, I jumbled these diverse histories into one indistinct narrative. Although the test involved open-ended essay questions, I was taught that graders were looking for a firm thesis—forcing students to adopt a side. The AP test also, unsurprisingly, rewards students who cite a wealth of supporting details. By the time I took the test in 2009, I was a master at “checking boxes,” weighing political factors equally against those involving socioeconomics and ensuring that previously neglected populations like women and ethnic minorities received their due. I did not know that I was pulling ideas from different historiographical traditions. I still subscribed to the idea of a prevailing national narrative and served as an unwitting sponsor of synthesis, oblivious to the academic battles that made such synthesis impossible.  

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Friday round-up: the good and evil edition

Ding a ling a ling!

Ding a ling a ling!

Ask not for whom the dinner bell tolls!  I’m on a tight deadline to crank out an essay before the bell rings, so here are a few long reads to keep you busy while I’m out roping up some historiographical longhorns.  I don’t know why, but all of these links seem to be about good actors struggling to cope with their mixed feelings about the bad behavior of others.  Bookmark this post the next time someone tells you that “secular humanists” and “liberal relativists” refuse to deal with the problem of evil in the world, willya?

  • Clemson Communications Professor Chenjerai Kumanyika writes at the NPR Code Switch blog about “The Cost of White Comfort,” and nails a sneaking suspicion I’ve had about the (mostly white) chorus of hosannas about the forgiveness shown by the families of the black victims of last week’s terrible massacre in Charleston:  “I couldn’t shake a paralyzing feeling: When black people and white people clasped hands in the arena that night, the comfort wouldn’t be evenly distributed. The healing wouldn’t flow both ways.”  White Americans just love it when we’re let off the hook, don’t we?  We’re the kings and queens of the fantasy that history doesn’t matter.
  • Writer Andrew Chee dishes on his time in the early 1990s working as a cater-waiter for William F. and Pat Buckley:  “The tuxedo and the starched white shirt—and the fact that each assignment was at a different, often exclusive, place—all made me feel a little like James Bond. Sometimes my fellow waiters and I called it the Gay Peace Corps for how we could come into places, clean them up, make them fabulous, throw a party, and leave. And I liked that when I went home, I didn’t think about the work at all.”  But would his recent past as an ACT-UP activist get him kicked out of the famously anti-gay Bill’s household?  Or would it get him an invitation to skinny dip with Bill at the end of the evening?  (Because “that’s how they used to swim at Yale, after all.”)  Really!  For you younger people, this essay really captures a slice of gay, urban life in the 1990s, before and just after the invention of protease inhibitors while rendered HIV a condition people could live with instead of just die from.  I was an urban straight at the time, but Chee and I are the same age and his recollections really jibe with my memories of the time.

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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.

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Universities choose their students, not the other way around.

You don't get to go here or stay here unless we say so.  Full stop.

You don’t get to go here or stay here unless we say so. Full stop.

Why are people so confused about the right of both public and private universities to select their student body and establish a code of student conduct?

Public universities, as universities that are funded by and answerable to the taxpayers of the U.S. states in which they reside, have to play by somewhat different rules than private universities.  For example, they can’t discriminate on the basis of religion when it comes to student admission or faculty employment, but private sectarian colleges and universities may discriminate.  Also, I’m pretty sure that the god-bags and the crazies that scream at passing students and faculty on the main plaza at Baa Ram U. are there because our campus is a public square, whereas a private university is probably permitted to escort protesters to the borders of campus.

In short, there is as yet no constitutional right to a university education at a particular institution, so public unis–like private schools–are perfectly within their rights to establish codes of conduct for students and faculty alike.  Indeed many would argue that they’re under an obligation to establish and uphold rules for conduct so as to better ensure safe and equitable access to and experience of classroom and campus life.  (Does anyone else remember Gina Grant, the Harvard admit whose offer was rescinded 20 years ago because it discovered that she killed her mother?  Now, maybe her mother needed killing, but that doesn’t mean that Harvard or any other university, public or private, doesn’t have discretion over the students they admit, or over their on- and off-campus conduct.)

Jonathan Zimmerman apparently disagrees, as he argues today at Inside Higher Ed, citing the recent expulsions from the University of Oklahoma and the University of South Carolina for the use of a highly offensive ethnic slur.  Zimmerman, a historian and education proffie at New York University, thinks that universities can’t expel students for speech acts:   Continue reading