Who’s telling who to STFU at American universities? Observations on teaching at a HWCU.

cupofSTFUAh, yes: freedom of speech. What some really mean when they evoke it is, “my right to have my say and not have you talk back,” like all of those crybabies who have cancelled their appearances at commencement ceremonies in the last few years because not every student and faculty member greeted their future appearance on campus with hugs and cocoa and slankets.

If you really believe in liberty of speech, then stop telling others to STFU.  In my view, the people who are being criticized most vigorously for speaking up lately at Yale and the University of Missouri are all too often quiet about their experiences, silent on campus, and eager not to draw attention to themselves, and it’s these students whose voices we need to listen to the most.

Too many people have zero imagination about what it is to be African American or Latin@ on a historically white college or university (HWCU) campus. But everyone who has ever attended or taught or worked at a HWCU knows that African Americans on HWCUs are viewed with suspicion just for being there, let alone when they try to unlock their own damn bikes or organize a protest about their marginalization.

I teach at a HWCU in Northern Colorado, a place that is increasingly Latin@ but has very few African American residents.  In my classes, my experience with non-white students in general, and African American students in particular, over the past fourteen years is that they go out of their way to be polite, inoffensive, unobtrusive, and try not to call attention to themselves in any way.  Their efforts to try to fly under the radar and evade notice grieve me, even as I think I understand their interest in remaining quiet and unobtrusive.  I work to offer a non-white perspective on history constantly, but I don’t know if I’m making it better or worse for my non-white students (or if they even care.) That’s the reality of attending a HWCU for the majority of black students in the United States:  working hard to get your degree, trying not be noticed, not taking up much space or speaking up in class. Continue reading

Insert buzzword-filled garbage headline here.

Satire worthy of Jonathan Swift on the future of higher education op-ed generating machines over at The Tattooed Prof (Kevin Gannon)  Go read:

Cutting-edge overgeneralizations culled from evolutionary science tells us that we’re hardwired to meet these existential threats via a combination of fight-or-flight response and provocative thinkpieces. American Higher Education stands at such a moment now, a disruptive juncture to end all disruptive junctures. At the end of the day, it will be the Innovators who preside over the College of the Future. And they will be joined by the Humanities professors who are brave enough to ignore the nattering nabobs of pedagogy and cling tenaciously to What Made Us Great. Both groups will win, or neither will. That’s the nature of Disruption. 

Continue reading

Ghost children: Carly Fiorina’s invocation of fetal and maternal suffering

One of these things is not like the others.

One of these things is not like the others.

Miss me, friends? I’m having a great time in the classroom again with my students, but clearly I need to figure out how it was that I was once able to manage my day job and to blog daily.  Maybe I was younger?  Maybe I felt like I had fresh ideas once upon a time?

Although I didn’t liveblog or Tweet about it, I watched the Republican debate Wednesday night from start to finish.  I thought it was both highly entertaining and permitted the candidates to stake out and articulate their positions.  There were some very important differences among the Republicans on the main stage–on federalism (good according to Mike “Two Buck” Huckabee when it permits a state to resist marriage equality, and bad according to Chris Christie when it permits Coloradoans to spark up without fear of Johnny Law), on U.S. borders and whether it’s good or bad to speak Spanish, on the previous decade-plus of warfare and other intervention in the Middle East, and on the most important question of the night:  whether to honor your wife or your mother by putting her face on a sawbuck.  (Srsly?)

I miss Rick Perry, but only because he was the closest thing to a handsome man anywhere near that stage.  I’ve also decided that Rand Paul looks like just about every boy I had a crush on in high school in the 1980s, with pretty much the same haircut too.  (Don’t judge.)

But this is a blog written by a women’s historian, and there is a woman running for President again on the Republican side, so let’s talk about Carly Fiorina and her interesting offensive on motherhood last night.  Amanda Marcotte wonders “What Was Up with Carly Fiorina’s Grisly Abortion Rant?” in the debate last night.  I don’t think it’s so difficult to guess–Fiorina is the only person on the stage who didn’t have children of her own.  While the male Republican candidates eruped in a patronizing ooze about their wives and families when given the opportunity to introduce themselves to the general public, each of them name-checking their wives and most listing their children by name, Fiorina was at a disadvantage in the DNA-bestowing contest. Continue reading

It’s back to work at the hellhole of political correctness and man-hating that is the modern university

I keep scoreMy sabbatical is over!  I went back to the classroom today, and was immediately attacked by Ellen Jamesian undergraduates for assigning a book about rape without posting a trigger warning on my syllabus.  They also constantly accused me and one another repeatedly of racist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist microaggressions, and we were only talking about the syllabus today!

Just kidding.  The students in HIST 369:  History of Sexuality in America seemed fine, even enthusiastic.  All of those who stayed after class to talk to me and my fellow instructor introduced themselves politely, shook our hands, and thanked us for answering their questions.

Can everyone who wants to scream and wail and rend their garments over so-called “political correctness” please get a grip on reality?  Based on what I’ve seen back here at Baa Ram U., the kids are alright, the professors seem chipper, and the only people who seem to have a problem with what’s going on here are people who don’t work on a college campus.  Today’s case in point, Emily Yoffe, a.k.a. “Dear Prudence” at Slate.  Now I ordinarily enjoy her agony column, although I disagree with her sometimes.  But when I read this yesterday I just about plotzed: Continue reading

Stop complaining about “p.c. culture” and engage

annetaintorwarninglabelAt Salon, Swarthmore College alum Arthur Chu writes a brilliantly funny and angry screed about those silly “p.c. culture” articles published as clickbait by The Atlantic last week, and says exactly what I’ve been thinking and meaning to write all week long–just go read and think about it. His thesis is pretty clearly announced in the headline “So college ‘p.c. culture’ stifles comedy? Ever hear a comedian sh*t on the American Dream at a Wal-Mart shareholders meeting?”  In short, Chu exposes once again that the term “politically correct” is a meaningless bludgeon only used against some forms of speech and protest, and not against others.

Chu says it all much better than I can, but I’d just like to add two things:  although I’ve been guilty of it on this blog on occasion, and only in the distant past I think, the recent jeremiads about “kids these days” published in The Atlantic just make the authors appear sclerotic and judgy, as the young people say.  Please protest if I ever write something as carelessly and thoughtlessly dismissive as those silly articles!  (Pro tip to those worried about “p.c.” today on college campuses:  the best cure for bad, silly, or uninformed speech is more speech, not a huffy demand that an entire generation of students S.T.F.U.)

Finally, I’d just like to add that although I think that I can teach college students a thing or two that might come in handy some day, I also think that older people should pay attention and see what we can learn from our students too.  They are the generation that made sodomy laws and constitutional amendments preventing same-sex marriage fall so quickly.  It wasn’t my Generation X, which has mostly been just about us instead of serving others or working towards political action.  Even on a politically complacent, historically white campus like Baa Ram U. during the 2004 election, in which gay marriage bans were on several state ballots, I had majorities of students ask me in honest disbelief why anyone would be against same-sex marriage or harbor prejudice against gay and lesbian people. Continue reading

Crossing over, part III: The uses and limits of literary models


Mary with Laura holding Susan. Illustration by Garth Williams, Little House in the Big Woods, 1932

Today’s post is an unanticipated part III in my series Crossing Over, on writing and publishing an academic book that aims to be a “crossover” title with a popular audience.  Part I can be found here, “What is my book about?”, and Part II here, “Will I ever publish this book?”  Many thanks to those of you in the comments on those posts who encouraged me to write a Part III.  I hope to hear from the rest of you as to the writers and titles you see as your historical and literary models.

One of the challenges in writing The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2016) was the fact that her life is very eventful early in childhood and adolescence, and then again in old age–a reversal of most biographies, which tend to focus on the adult years of a subject’s life, and offer only scant attention to their youths and their decline in old age.  But while her childhood was very eventful–taken captive at age 7, brought to New France at age 12, and announced her intention to become a nun at age 14–most of it before she enters the Ursuline convent as a student at age 12 is only very lightly documented.

How does one write the history of an eighteenth-century childhood, especially one almost entirely undocumented?  Although I was powerfully influenced by the historians I’ve been reading all my professional life, especially those who have focused on telling the story of a single life, I saw this as more of a literary problem than a historical one.  That is, I knew what I could do as a historian–I just didn’t know how I could bring it all together.  Or, as I wrote in part I of the Crossing Over series a few weeks ago: Continue reading

Writers, readers, publishers, and money

Ursuline convent, Quebec, July 10, 2015

Ursuline convent, Quebec, July 10, 2015

Liz Covart has a post on her blog called “How to Write for Your Readers,” which is effectively a post about “How to Write for Readers Beyond Your Colleagues and their Students.”  She points out that journalists are very effective at writing history books that people actually buy and read.  They’re eating our lunches!

History books written by journalists tend to be more popular than those written by professionally-trained historians because journalists write them to reveal history in a way that readers want to discover more about it.

In contrast, professionally-trained historians tend to write books that emphasize argument. Historians present the main topic of their book in a way that supports the case they are trying to make. Our books tend to be more about argument than story.

To encourage historians to think about story first, she reports on an interview with Mitchell Zuckoff, a journalism professor and author of two historical books that landed on the New York Times bestseller list, she shares his very good advice for effective storytelling.  His advice–quite good, actually–boils down to these three points:  Find a fascinating story focused on human actors, make sure there are plenty of sources to help you tell it, and finally, write the story for a broad audience and rewrite agressively.  I especially like his advice about reading your drafts out loud to identify writing and syntax problems, and to help you cut out the parts that just aren’t working.  (Read Liz’s discussion of his advice–it’s more thorough than this brief summary.)

This is all good advice, but I think the issue of journalists who write books that people buy versus historians who write books for other historians is oversimplified, and ignores the question of resources, platforms, and marketing that work to the advantage of the journalists who write a history book or two.  Commercial publishers want to publish books not to help obscure writers make a name for themselves; they want to publish books by people who are already well-known because they think (rightly!) that a journalist with a prominent perch at a national newspaper or (better yet) who regularly appear on television will help them sell more books. Continue reading