Martin Luther King holiday book review: Toni Morrison's "A Mercy"

Over the holiday weekend, I finally had an opportunity to sit down and read Toni Morrison’s A Mercy.  As a colonial American women’s historian, it would have been a must-read for me anyway, but Morrison’s book surpassed my already high expectations.  I don’t know how useful my review of the book will be to non-historians, but in keeping with the spirit of the day, I’ll offer a review of the book along with some thoughts about using novels in history classes after the jump.  Spoiler alert:  continue reading only if you don’t mind learning a few key plot details! Continue reading

Daughters and political dynasties


Like his two immediate predecessors in the U.S. Presidency, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Barack Obama is the father of daughters and only of daughters.  In fact, there are now (at least as of Tuesday) six U.S. Presidents since World War II who were the fathers of daughters only:  Harry S Truman (Margaret), Lyndon Johnson (Lynda and Luci), Richard Nixon (Tricia and Julie), Bill Clinton (Chelsea), George W. Bush (Barbara and Jenna), and Barack Obama (Sasha and Malia).  The other six postwar presidents–Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush–all had children of both sexes.  None had Only Eisenhower had boys only, and only one (Bush) has sons with prominent careers in electoral politics.  (I suppose radio talk show host Michael Reagan is in politics, loosely speaking, but I’m talking here about involvement in electoral politics.)  Am I missing anyone in this list? 

We’ve only had two presidents whose sons also became president.  (And look how that worked out for us, with Mr. Worst and Mr. Second Worst President ever!)  Longtime readers know that I am opposed to nepotism and the creation of American aristocracies, but I recognize that wealth and a famous name are highly useful in launching a career in politics.  I wonder who the first daughter will be to follow her father into the White House?  (Or her mother?  Nah.  Not in my lifetime!)  A few of the women listed above have been active in politics because they married into political families–Julie Nixon Eisenhower is married to David Eisenhower, the grandson of the President after whom Camp David was named.  One married a politician:  Lynda Bird Johnson Robb is married to Chuck Robb, a former Virginia Governor and U.S. Senator.  But no daughters have chosen to become pols.  Most seem to cherish private life after their parents leave the White House.

Le 18 Janvier, 1709

Le 18 Janvier M. De Vaudreuil nous a donné une petite Angloise nommée Esther pour être a Nre pensionnaire elle payera sa pension sur a pied de 40 Ecus.

Translation:  “January 18th M. de Vaudreuil brought us a young English girl named Esther. She paid 40 ecus for her board.”

Today is the 300th anniversary of Esther Wheelwright’s matriculation at the Ursuline school for girls in Quebec.  She was twelve years old.  She had been taken from her natal family more than five years earlier at the age of 7 in an Abenaki raid on Wells, Maine in August of 1703.  Her admission to the school signified the loss of her Abenaki family and kin, who had adopted her, as well as her lifelong alienation from the Protestantism she was born into.  “M. Vaudreuil” refers to Madame Vaudreuil (despite the masculine-appearing title abbreviation “M.”), the wife of the Governor of New France, who enrolled her own daughter at the school later that year as well as paid the expenses for other girls who appear to have been English captives.  In the decades surrounding the turn of the century, the school served Indian, English-born, and French students alike.  Although the Marquise de Vaudreuil was an enthusiastic patron, other Quebecois in the local community also paid the fees on behalf of several English captive girls. 

Sister Marie-de-Jésus, "Arrival of the Ursulines and the Sisters of Charity in New France" (1928)

The Ursulines were a counter-reformation women’s order who are comparable to the Jesuits both in their zeal for founding New World missions and their dedication to educating young people for the preservation and spread of Roman Catholicism.  The school in Quebec taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, but the core of the experience was religious education.  The first day of school is a significant and usually memorable day in the lives of all children, but Esther could not have known in 1709 the role this school would play in her life.  Esther must have excelled as a student in spite of the fact that French was her third language, because she declared her intention to become a religieuse as a young teenager.  Except for a short time at the Ursuline convent school in Trois Rivieres, she remained at the convent for the rest of her life as a teacher in the first school she ever attended.  Continue reading

Est-ce qu'on faire du ski?

Yeah, me neither, but what do you expect:  I grew up in Ohio!  But I have these very cool ski pants now that make it look like I ski, so that’s pretty close.  (The tag above is “fluff,” but I think “powder” is perhaps more appropriate?)

I’m on a little weekend getaway with pals, so consider this an open thread to play in.  I can’t reveal the location of our secret mountain hideaway–suffice it to say, “there’s always a beaver in the creek.”

(There’s a prize for anyone who gets that obscure reference, by the way.)

Marley in Muncie mulls a return to the groves of academe

It's actually a good potboiler!

From the mailbag at Historiann HQ:

I am interested in getting back in touch with a professor who was a great mentor for me in my undergrad years ten years ago.  I unfortunately did not go to grad school as I had hoped, and as she had encouraged, so I fell out of touch.  I am finally pursuing grad school again and have a renewed sense of purpose, and I would very much like to reconnect with her.  I am afraid of coming across as opportunistic, and that is not at all what I want.  I don’t plan on asking her, all these years later, for a letter of recommendation nor am I going to be applying to the university where she works. 

I hope that you will be kind enough to give me some advice so that I don’t make the kind of mistakes that would end up being complained about on a professor’s blog!

Ouch, Marley!  I guess I need to stop linking to Rate Your Students.  I’m sorry if we’ve frightened you with a glimpse at the blighted souls of most liberal arts proffies.  (Then again, if you’re thinking of going to grad school, you can’t be all that scared, right?)

Well, since you asked:  Continue reading

Practice, not content: the History lab

Nancy Shoemaker, a Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, has published an essay in the current issue of the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History called “Where is the History Lab Course?”  She wonders why historians don’t try to teach courses that actually reflect historical thinking and historical practice, and instead teach survey courses that reinforce the notion that history is just content, not an intellectual discipline:

Instead of introducing students to college-level history with a survey course, literally weighed down by a 500- to 600-page textbook with timelines and arcane facts, we should devise a laboratory course modeled after that in the sciences. Several years ago, while on a university-wide committee to develop new general education guidelines, I had to contend with colleagues in the sciences who did not see history as vital to general education because, they said, it was just about memorizing facts. That they all tested their students using multiple-choice exams when we in history used essay exams did not shake them from their view of history as mere transmission of knowledge from teacher to student.

.        .        .        .        .       .        .        .        .        .      

I envied the scientists’ defense of why science is important and particularly their talisman, the lab course. They did not just want science to stay in general education. They wanted the lab course to stay. A better metonym for their discipline than the primary document is for ours, the lab course replicates scientific inquiry from inception to discovery to interpretation of results. Most eye-opening for me was how the scientists, if they were to have only one opportunity to communicate to students what science was, wanted that moment to be spent immersed in scientific practice, not scientific content.

Because “[i]ntroductory surveys only make students knowledge consumers” instead of “knowledge producer[s],” she therefore has developed a lab course (or “as [she] prefer[s] to call it, ‘workshop’ course”) she calls “The Historian as Detective.”  (Shoemaker doesn’t mention it, but The Historian as Detective (1968) was also title of a book edited by Robin Winks popular in the 1970s and 1980s for undergraduate “introduction to the History major” courses.  I read it in the late 80s as an undergraduate, and even had the pleasure of meeting Prof. Winks when he visited our campus that year.)  Shoemaker writes, “I modeled my course after Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum’s Salem witchcraft course, which they had taught for many years at the University of Massachusetts and which eventually led to the monograph Salem Possessed (1974):” Continue reading



Melissa McEwan has the best, most succinct post I’ve seen yet on what’s wrong with the current Ms. cover, shown at right.

According to the press release (and a note on their site here), the cover was conceived after Ms.‘ publisher, Eleanor Smeal, and chair of the Feminist Majority Foundation board, Peg Yorkin, met Barack Obama and “he immediately offered ‘I am a feminist’.”

Which is nice to hear—in fact, I wish I’d heard it from him myself, at any time during the campaign, ahem—although I’m not sure his private admission to feminist women whose support he was courting warrants the cover, particularly when there are prominent female politicians who have never been given such glowing treatment, despite being authentic feminist champions who are quite willing to publicly identify as feminist.

And would enthusiastically wear the actual shirt on their actual bodies in the actual physical world in actual reality.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment–although it would have been nice (as McEwan said) to see the President-Elect actually f’real posing for the cover proudly wearing a feminist tee shirt.  She continues: Continue reading