Public engagement: ask not why, but why not?


View from my hotel room, Quebec City, July 4, 2015.

Yesterday’s post on the latest panic over the fictitious “epidemic” of “p.c.” on American college and university campuses got me thinking about something else I’ve been meaning to write about here on the subject of public engagement. Our students are the public we engage most frequently, so the two subjects are interrelated. Those of us who are open to and generous with our students will probably have an easier time thinking about the role that public engagement plays in our work life.  Public engagement is now a component of how faculty are evaluated every year, so it’s a good thing for all of us to think about now that we’ve rounded third base of summer and are headed for home and a new semester.

I’ve alluded to this before, but because the air date approaches soon, I can tell you that I was invited to collaborate and participate on-camera in an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” which will air on TLC at 9 EDT/8 Central on Sunday, August 30. I would encourage any historian contacted by the show’s researchers to communicate with them and share your knowledge, because unlike some other shows and cable channels that traffic in historical content–cough**TheHistoryChannel**coughcough–“WhoDo” researchers and producers take pride in learning from their collaborators and encourage us to play a role in developing the most interesting stories that a celebrity subject might want to learn about. 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

Stuck au millieu with vous.

Esther Wheelwright (1696-1780), ca. 1763

Esther Wheelwright (1696-1780), ca. 1763

I know I’ve been a very bad blogger lately–but I promise, it’s only because I’m trying to be a very good historian (or Historiann!) who makes my deadline for my book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, exactly two weeks from today.  I’m at the point that it’s really not much fun any more, and my brain is making weird mistakes in-between French and English words.  I find myself not seeing words that I’ve written in French when I should use the English word.  I also sometimes forget if the word I’m scrutinizing is actually in French or in English.  (Those of you who work in languages other than the one you publish in can relate, right?  I hope?  Maybe I just need to work through my brain damage.)

There are some words that seem equally weird in both languages–like guimpe and wimple, just weird, amirite?–that confuse me now in my exhaustion.  A wimple is the large swath of fabric that a nun wears over her head and which covers the upper part of her torso in fabric, like a hijab but it doesn’t cover the face as well.  I can’t seem to remember whether or not I want to type ceinture or cincture, which describes the belt that some nuns wear.   Continue reading

Bloody, bloody Donald Trump: Sex segregation, the corrosive power of menstrual blood, and why Republicans can’t stay out of our vaginas.

Laura Bennett analyzes Donald Trump’s comments on Megyn Kelly’s questions in last week’s Republican debate in Slate today.  To review:  Trump complained about the question she asked him regarding his offensive comments about women, saying that “[s]he gets out there and she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions, and you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her … wherever.”  Bennett writes,

To be clear, Trump sounded like a Grade A bozo throughout the Kelly tirade, and his history of enthusiastic sexism made the period subtext seem like a safe assumption. If you listen to the full segment, though, it is not entirely evident where Trump was going with that “wherever.” At the end of the sentence, he did sort of peter out, distracted by the gleam of his own next thought about how well he was doing in the polls. Several minutes later, he declared that Chris Wallace seemed to have “blood pouring out of his eyes” while interrogating him, too. It is no secret that Trump is a cartoonish misogynist. But the media frenzy over bloodgate also seemed to be missing some key context.

Who knows if Trump meant specifically to reference menstruation?  It doesn’t really matter.  Anyone with half a brain–even half a lizard-brain like Trump–has to know that talking about blood and the only woman involved in the whole debate was just inviting others to make the connection he apparently pulled back from making himself.  (Listen to the recording and judge for yourself.  He’s a rude and crude dude.  As Bennett suggests, compared to calling Gail Collins a “dog,” talking about Megyn Kelly’s menstrual blood is almost, to use a Trumpism, “world class.”)  Trump evoked a taboo with ancient roots and surprising staying power, one that (not coincidentally) recalls male fears of emasculation by the power-sapping mojo of menstrual blood. Continue reading

You #LookLikeAProfessor too!

magicmirrorThere’s a nice explanation at Inside Higher Ed today about the #ILookLikeAProfessor meme that took off last week on Twitter.  Masterminded by my Tweet peeps Sarah Pritchard, Adeline Koh, and Michelle Moravec, the movement attempts to address the age-old problem that we professors who aren’t bearded white men face at work:

Frustrated by the microaggressions we experience as “nontraditional” faculty, we started a new hashtag:#ILookLikeAProfessor. The flurry of photos, retweets and horror stories since last Thursday suggests that we are not alone in experiencing entrenched stereotypes and bias — both subtle and explicit.

  • The female professor mistaken for an undergraduate. She was grading homework, not doing it.
  • Male teaching assistants assumed to be the professor.
  • Faculty members of color assumed to be the custodian.
  • Asian professors assumed to be Chinese food delivery drivers.

We are not making this up.

Continue reading

Georgia O’Keeffe, Claudia O’Keeffe & Joan Didion: three original cowgirls

cowgirlropeMy beach reading this week is Joan Didion:  her famous essays on the 1960s collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album (1979), and her novel from that era as well, Play it As it Lays.  I’ve completed the essay collections, and came across this 1976 article about Georgia O’Keeffe that reminded me about the conversation a few days ago about women writers and artistic creativity and confidence: Continue reading

Abortion, “privacy,” and those Planned Parenthood videos

reallyuglybabyKatha Pollitt has some ideas for reclaiming the moral high ground on abortion rights. I agree with her that abortion needs to be seen more visibly as a part of women’s health care. We all know women who have had abortions–some of us have assisted them in some way, and a third of have had abortions ourselves. I’ve helped one friend recover from an abortion. I’ve never had one myself, and count myself fortunate, not virtuous. There’s no question but that if I had become pregnant before I wanted to be that I too would have sought an abortion.

In fact, it was my planned, wanted pregnancy that made me feel even more strongly about the importance of abortion rights.  Some women begin to question the morality of abortion when they become pregnant, and I always wondered if pregnancy would change my mind.  It didn’t–in fact, it struck me as even crazier and more absurd that so-called “pro-lifers” cared more about the little jelly bean inside my uterus than the adult human woman in which it grew, a human with adult responsibilities and family and community ties.  It struck me as the most clueless and obnoxious form of misogyny–the utter erasure of living, breathing women and all of our labor, hopes, and creativity in favor of the potential human life growing in our uteri.  The notion that anyone but me would presume to make decisions about the rest of our lives enraged me. Continue reading