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

Blog under reconstruction!

cowgirlhayoops

Oopsie!

Dear readers–as you can see, this blog has had a radical makeover in the past day. We’re working on fixing the glitches as well as personalizing the header to make it look more like Historiann rather than a generic WordPress blog.

Please be patient with me!

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

Index of suspicion

indexHow many of you make your own indexes (indices?) for your books? Have your practices changed since the advent of Google books?  (“Indices” just seems pretentious to me, although I usually go with the most correct usage advice.  Opinions on this point are also welcome in the comments below!)

I’m not quite at that point with my new book, but I’ve been thinking about this because a friend of mine here in Southern California whose book will be out this fall was recently at work on her index.  She’s making her own again, as she did for her first book, although she said she’s just going to do a very basic index because if people want to mine her book for discrete information, they’ll go to Google books and do keyword searches either to determine whether or not they should buy the book, or to use it as a finding aid next to the physical object itself.

At first I thought this was very sensible–why invest that time & energy in re-reading your proofs yet again, when few if any readers will get the benefit of the exercise?  But then I reconsidered.   Continue reading