From the mailbag: it’s an old-fashioned, Historiann round-up!


A belated Valentine to all my readers!

Oh, my friends:  so much is happening globally, nationally, regionally, locally, and even here at the Black Cat Ranch that it’s hard to find time to blog even just one little bit these days.  My apologies!  Over the weekend I saved up some bits and bobs of oakum, old yarn, and loose string that might distract you from that sense of impending doom that weighs on so many of us these days.  Who knows?  It might help, and it surely can’t hurt, right?  So, andiamo, mi amici–

  • First, a request from a reader, Catherine Devine, who writes:  “I’m designing a ‘NEVERTHELESS SHE PERSISTED’ banner, and I want to have the names of women across time, occupation and location in the background. Esther Wheelwright’s definitely there 🙂 I have the beginning of a  list, but I’m white and not a historian. Your readers are sane and and well informed. I’m looking to politics, art, science, literature – anywhere. There will be plenty of room on the banner.  If you’re willing, please have people send me names & references to catherinedevine at mac dot com with ‘Persisted’ in the subject line. I’m hoping to create one of the only footnoted banners ever. Oh yeah, I’m not doing this for profit. I will share the file for printing.”  Readers, can you help?  You can also leave suggestions in the comments below–I’ll be sure to let Devine know when this post goes live so she can check in there, too.

  • Next, from The Resistance Files over at Megan Kate Nelson’s blog Historista, a plea from a pseudonymous university administrator who is concerned about free speech on campus and the overheated protests that sometimes greet professional white supremacist and sexist provocateurs.  (You know who I mean; I won’t publish the name here.)  “Jo March” writes, “Then there are the anarchists, who. . . sneer at knowledge, substitute rage for reason, and would subject you and me and all our lily-livered backsliding ilk to political purity tests we can only hope we would fail.  They come to rumble, hidden behind masks, hammers and chains and smoke bombs at the ready.  They may not be alone in using the cloak of anonymity to do harm; nobody can know who lurks behind a mask.  For his part, [the provocateur] would love nothing more than a big fight between protesters and supporters, trashing the campus.  Short of that, he is satisfied with having his events shut down as he drapes the mantle of free speech around his shoulders and struts off the stage, slithering on to the next campus confrontation.”  Yes.  As difficult as it is, we should try ignoring him entirely.  Subject his ideas to the disinfecting power of sunlight, but ignore the man behind the curtain entirely and he’ll stop selling books and having fun.  (It seems worth a try, anyway.)
  • I’m hitting the road next week for a couple of gigs in Southern Maine–Esther Wheelwright’s homeland–on February 22 and 23.  Next Wednesday night the 22nd, I’m giving a talk about my latest book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwrightat Bowdoin College, from 4:30 to 6 p.m. in Hubbard Hall.  My host is their French historian Meghan Roberts, who has a new book of her own out in 2016, Sentimental Savants:  Philosophical Families in Enlightenment FranceI’ll be visiting one of her classes on Thursday morning too.  My copy of Sentimental Savants is on its way–I hope I get it in time to get it autographed by the author!  On Thursday night the 23rd, I’m giving a talk about the book at the Old Berwick Historical Society as part of their “Forgotten Frontier” lecture series and museum exhibition opening this spring.  That talk will begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Berwick Academy in South Berwick.
  • Will we never hear the end of this story?  Over at Lady Science, an anonymous historian of science reports in “The End of the Story” that her students ding her in course evaluations for talking too much about women in science.  Some sample comments from her evaluations:
    • “make sure the teacher teaches the material and not what she wants”
    • “Teach the material that is important to the class, not the agenda the professor is trying to push.”
    • Then there was this one, which struck me particularly hard, so I share it in its entirety verbatim (grammar mistakes abound):  “let students know their grade feminist articles shouldn’t make up half of the course material mistreatment of women is a strong point in history but shouldn’t be half of the material, it has been taught in all history classes I have had that women have been and still are mistreated (yes, they were taught by men whether you believe it or not) but they didn’t spend the majority of the course on the subject for obvious reasons.  I have a story for perspective: My first college course was English Composition 1, in this course my black teacher. . . “(Historiann here:  That one goes on for a while–because, of course his opinions about other courses clearly are totally relevant to his grievance about this course.  He’s clearly the master of “material that is important to the class.”)

Readers, can you offer support and advice over at Lady Science–or here in the comments–for this junior scholar?  Complaints about material that is unfamiliar or uncomfortable for students are unavoidable and perennial–it is after all why they’re in our classes and why we have work to do.  The real issue for all of us is not that students complain about being asked to think about history, or any other subject, in different ways, but the potential use of these comments by colleagues who are hostile to new (and improved!) ways of thinking and teaching.

This happened to me.  Almost twenty years ago, I got four (out of 30 or so) student evaluations that said something to the effect that “this isn’t American history.  This is only blacks, women, and Indians,” aka the majority of Americans at any given time or place in American history.  That bothered me, but whatever:   they’re students!  I was the professor.  If they didn’t like it, they should have switched out of my section into one of the 800 other sections of American history offered that year.  What bothered me more was the department Chair, who told me I had to take this minority complaint seriously:  “We’ve denied tenure to people because they didn’t teach broadly enough,” she told me.

Ugh.  So our goal as teachers must be to offend no one?  That’s a really $hitty, defeatist message, don’t you think?  I’m not one to get all Dead Poets Society here, but students don’t want professors who strive above all to be inoffensive and anodyne.  I think they kind of like it when we’re characters with a point of view so long as we are fair.  Most of them get the difference between our angles, our pitches, our spin, or whatever–and outright bias.  So long as we treat them and their ideas respectfully, and of course evaluate their work fairly, then that’s cool–or at least, it should be.

Sometimes, you just have to giddyap.

Sometimes, you just have to giddyap.

But back to the anonymous blogger at Lady Science:  the key here is whether or not her colleagues, chair, and deans take these kinds of comments seriously.  They should not, and they should offer support and suggestions for how to reach resistant students rather than hide behind a minority of poorly informed student opinion.  If they don’t discount these comments, then she should try to contextualize them in light of the constructive and positive feedback she got.  After all, she is the professor, and she was hired presumably with the full knowledge as to her approach to teaching the history of science.  If she’s being bullied with a minority student opinion about her judgment as to her own field, then it’s time to start looking for another job.

The very least courtesy a colleague can offer is to respect another colleague’s expertise.  If that’s not happening–as it wasn’t for me–then finding a more congenial group of colleagues is her only recourse.

22 thoughts on “From the mailbag: it’s an old-fashioned, Historiann round-up!

  1. For “But she persisted”, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. She loved to write, loved science and wrote and dressed as she wanted. There’s a huge amount of research on her. Elite white woman, but although she was criticized, but she kept at it.

    As for teaching: when I was a mere slip of a lass, I was teaching a small class at a SLAC. I had decided to approach the course thematically, and spent the first week or so on economy and demography. One male freshman asked, “When are we getting to history?” Sigh. There were issues with the course organization, but that didn’t help!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s so fascinating, this impulse among students & colleagues to explain to us what our proper field of expertise is, and then demand that we color only within those lines.

      Cavendish is pretty awesome! I just learned about her at the Huntington. (Isn’t Hilda Smith writing something about her–I’m assuming a big bio, but IDK?)


    • Yeah, that’s such a nasty gaslight, isn’t it? It’s no fair to hire someone and then tell her she’s doing it all wrong, she doesn’t possess the requisite knowledge or correct judgement to decide how to teach her own field, etc.

      When I quit my previous job, I gave a speech at a faculty meeting in which I reminded them that they knew exactly what they were getting when the hired me. For Chrissakes, I used for my teaching demonstration a primary source documenting an allegation of interracial rape in the seventeenth century! So no question–this was the 1990s–it was fair advertising for what I’d bring to the department. I never hide my light under a bushel! That’s what really chapped my a$$.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Completely what I’ve said. Was anybody listening to that explicit autobiographical academic accounting that I gave at my job talk? It was not a chopped down dissertation chapter. I’m still in some measure following parts of the research track that I laid out then. And certainly the disciplinary orientations that I laid out then.


  2. As a student, I never thought of anything that came up in any class as being “material” (as a noun), much less THE material. Is this a term-of-art that has materialized in pedagogical precincts in recent years. (Students have an amazing way of absorbing vocabularies that are going around back there in the ed. school world, even if not what’s going on in the course in question). And don’t get me going on E-vals. Mine was the most self-absorbed and opinionated generation ever to land on a campus, and we would have dropped dead laughing at the idea of spending class time bubbling in highly-agree, agree, disagree choices and scratching out opinions about “the material.” Not when there were Pentagons to levitate, wars to stop, and other serious business afoot. If the material isn’t to taste, drop-add, and keep on going.

    Will try to direct deposit something for the Persisted banner.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Catherine, let me add a few people to your banner:

    Luisa Capetillo, a Puerto Rican labor organizer and feminist

    Floryence Kennedy, feminist lawyer, civil rights activist, and a fellow cowgirl. (See Sherri Reynolds’s recent bio of her.)

    Nanyehi (Nancy) Ward, Cherokee warrior woman

    Mother Jones (Mary Harris), Irish immigrant hellraiser, labor activist, co-founder of the IWW

    I’ll add more as I think of them. Most of these are modern (19th-20th C or entirely 20th C) but Ward was an 18th-19th C woman.


  4. Some medieval(ish) persisters:

    Hildegard of Bingen
    Margery Kempe
    Christine de Pizan
    Marguerite Porete (burned at the stake in 1310!)
    Mirabai (16th-c. Hindu poet)
    Christina of Markyate (12th c.; went to insane lengths to avoid the marriage that her parents had planned for her)
    Joan of Arc (naturally)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve read your post and the post at Lady Science twice since yesterday. I’ve been trying to think of what I could say or do in a comment that would help our anonymous colleague and reassure her that not all is in vain. I have a couple of thoughts and something concrete to suggest for the next semester.

    There are some students, of both genders, who will never accept that a woman can be in a position of authority, except maybe their mom. Period. Its more of a problem with twenty something males, but not exclusively. I think that is the problem the last comment that Historiann shared here. This person, or I should say, little boy, cannot see a woman as having expertise in anything ever. So just throw that away, along with comments from the people who scored zero for teaching ability.

    But there is some hope for the people who think that the professor did a good job, but said, “I think her only weakness is perhaps putting too much emphasis on women in science. […] this sounds misogynistic, and is in an unconscious way, but this is a person who is probably persuadable. I suspect this is a person who knows, and probably believes, that women have been unfairly discriminated against, but thinks that somehow the history of science is just a chronological narrative of discoveries and inventions, rather than a way of understanding science and its relationship with society. So I think that anonymous could pull off a bit of pedagogical jujitsu that could persuade this student that gender is pivotal to understanding how science is done and that history is more than names, dates and milestones.

    I’ve been reading a lot of the scholarship on teaching and learning in college as well as in the discipline of history. One thing that comes up again is how difficult it is to get help students unlearn incorrect information or models. It is true across disciplines, and its especially true in history. Students will go to their graves believing the nonsense they learned about the Mayflower and the first Thanksgiving in the fourth grade. But one way to address this is a pre-assessment: You need to figure out what your students know that is correct, and what misconceptions or misunderstandings they bring to the class. Once you have an idea about the misconceptions, then you can put them out in the open to not only correct them, but then engage in a discussion of why people believe the things that they do even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

    Anonymous can give the class a quiz about facts and skills they need to learn for her history of science course on the first day. Load it up with questions that go into the importance of women and gender in science like, “Who discovered empirical proof of the existence of Dark Matter? Einstein, Steven Hawking or Vera Rubin? ” Then Anonymous grades the quizzes and tallies up the number of people who wrongly believed that men discovered Dark Matter and turn it into a pie chart to share with the class. Do the same with the other gender Then anonymous can start with the question, why do so many people get this wrong? Why are women invisible when they do important work and make such an pivotal contribution? That way it can be a central theme of the course and it can be a discussion of what “we” as a class and a society get wrong about women and science. I think that if Anonymous can show the persuadable students that there is a lot more to history and women in science that they thought they knew, they won’t be so resistant and it won’t come up in the evaluations. Gender is baked into the course in the first week.

    Liked by 1 person

    • sorry for all the proofreading errors. I hope the idea still comes through. Use preassesment to make gender even more central to the survey class and earn better evaluations.

      Liked by 1 person

      • that comment sounds really dumb. “Learn one easy trick for bad teaching evaluations from the internets!” I’ll stop now. Good Luck Anonymous, we are all rooting for you!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you, Ann, for the forum, and thanks to everyone who has posted or emailed suggestions! Please keep them coming and spread the word, if you’re willing. I have about 50 now that weren’t already on my list, but it’s going to be a really big banner and I want the background full of names.

    Thanks again for your help!


  7. For the “Persisted” banner: Jedidah Kingsbury (1779-1840/2), schoolmistress and children’s dictionary compiler, Rindge, NH, Milledgeville and Columbus, GA; Carrie L. (Reed) Marshall, and Eva M. Reed, sisters, (1846-??,), and (1856-1901), children’s novelist, and botanist, respectively, Wisconsin, Iowa, Pueblo, CO, and St. Louis, MO–both also Kingsburys; and Sarah Jane W. Bullard, aka Jenny Bullard, (1828-c. 1903), Boston and New Ipswich, NH, apothecary, householder, friend-of-a-friend of Whitman.

    Alas, they all would probably fall into the Wikipedia sand trap about “no original research,” as there is little or no secondary work about any of them (yet). Still, at least one of them (Bullard) belongs on a banner if only for having been described (by an admirer) as “handsome, bountiful, generous, cordial, strong, careless, laughing, large, regardless of dress or personal appearance–you would like her.” You would have to persist to run up a record like that.!


    • Oh, I get that Wiki bro gap. My boss has been trying to get a Wiki article on a living, published woman posted. But her field is girly (personal protective equipment, very girly) and her myriad publications apparently don’t count.

      Thanks for your persisting women!


      • Totally late to the party here but <a href="; check this out for modern women who persisted (and whose fans got them into the Wikipedia).

        I’ll also volunteer:
        Dame Kathleen Lonsdale, DBE FRS (Friend, war resister, campaigner for girls’ education, and badass x-ray crystallographer);
        Isobel Moira Dunbar, OC FRSC (1918-1999, sea ice scientist who argued her way into field work on an icebreaker by going up the chain of command until she had he answer she wanted);
        Laura Levi (Argentine physicist whose family fled fascism in Italy only to face off with dictators in their new home, who returned to Argentina before it was really safe to do so because she thought the people needed science)


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