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 Wheelwright, at 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 France—I’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.
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.