The captivity and redemption of Derek Black, or, the power of education and engagement

Derek Black, photo by Matt McClain in the Washington Post, October 16, 2016

Derek Black, photo by Matt McClain in the Washington Post, October 16, 2016

I know this blog has been a little heavy on the book promotion these days, but here’s a modern captivity narrative with that most elusive of all endings, a happy one!  Drop what you’re doing now and go read Eli Saslow’s “The White Flight of Derek Black” in today’s Washington Post, which describes the disenchantment of one of the young scions of white nationalism over the past eight years.  Derek Black, the son of Stormfront founder Don Black and the godson of David Duke, has renounced his former views and apologizes for participating in the racist movement.

What caused this charming, homeschooled, young white supremacist to change his views over the past eight years, from age 19 to 27?  In one word:  college.  Specifically, a liberal arts college, where he majored in history with an emphasis in medieval Europe. Continue reading

Richard (Rick) Beeman, 1942-2016

Richard (Rick) Beeman

Richard (Rick) Beeman

My friend Wayne Bodle, another alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania Department of History, wrote to me yesterday with some remembrances of an emeritus Professor, Richard Beeman, who died Monday of complications from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease.) He has agreed to let me share them with you, and we both invite any of you who knew Rick to share your memories too–whether you are “Old Pennsters” (as Richard Dunn calls us) or not.

Here are Wayne’s memories of Rick, which go back almost as far as Rick’s “freshman year” as a professor in 1968– Continue reading

Georgetown University and the legacy of slavery

I’m pretty underwhelmed by Georgetown University’s offer to give “preference in admissions” to the descendants of the enslaved people whose sale (and breakup of their families) financed the university in its earliest days.  For those of you who missed the story this week:

In 1838, two priests who served as president of the university orchestrated the sale of 272 men, women and children for $115,000, or roughly $3.3 million in today’s dollars, to pay off debts at the school. The slaves were sent from Jesuit plantations in Maryland to Louisiana, “where they labored under dreadful conditions,” and families were broken up, according to a report issued by the school committee.

The transaction was one of the most thoroughly documented large sales of enslaved people in history, and the names of many of the people sold are included in bills of sale, a transport manifest and other documents. Genealogical research conducted by Georgetown and other organizations, including The New York Times, has identified many living descendants of the slaves.

.       .       .       .       .

The university will reach out to those descendants and recruit them to the university, and they will have the same advantage in admissions that’s given to people whose parents or grandparents attended Georgetown, [University President John] DeGioia said. Universities around the United States have taken various attempts to atone for their participation in slavery, but several historians said the establishment of an admissions preference is unprecedented.

NPR had some good coverage of this story too this week.

It’s nice of Georgetown to offer legacy status to the descendants of people they sold, but let’s rewind:  what does it take for student to apply for admission to Georgetown and possibly to take advantage of this benefit?  First, she or he will need 1) a high school diploma, 2) with a strong academic record, and 3) an awareness of family genealogy.  Even then, admission is not guaranteed, it’s merely “preferred.” Continue reading

The AAR for PPL 2016

rockymtnnpOr, After Action Review for Parks as Portals to Learning–just a little taste of the ways in which military culture informs the history and present operations of the National Park Service.

My week up in Rocky, or ROMO (=ROcky MOuntain), another acronym used by Parkies, was a rich learning experience.  As a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Eastern historian my expertise was fairly irrelevant, but I took the opportunity to learn about how the NPS works.  Besides keeping up with all of the military- and government-style acronyms (EIS, NEPA, EA , ETC) for the laws and procedures that structure the park’s conservation work, faculty from Colorado State and UC Santa Barbara helped CSU students think through the ways that environmental history informs and can assist natural resource preservation as well as the interpretation and visitor experience of the park. Continue reading

“I am an investigative journalist, please take me seriously.”

We love your brave and adventurous journalism, Suki Kim!

We love your brave and adventurous journalism, Suki Kim!

Click away from this blog immediately and go read Suki Kim’s angry and disturbing article “The Reluctant Memoirist” about the marketing and reception of her book Without You There Is No Us:  My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite.  It’s a fascinating exploration about the intersection of journalism, marketing, race, and sex.

Some of you may remember hearing about her book, which recounts her daring and adventurous mission to penetrate and report on North Korea by working as an ESL teacher at an evangelical Christian university that catered to the DPRK’s elite young men.   In her article for The New Republic, where she serves as a contributing editor, she recounts the potential danger she faced in the service of reporting on the world’s most locked-down and closed off dictatorship, or “virtual prison state,” as Kim calls it: Continue reading

P.C. culture run amok on campus! NOT.

That old snag again?

That old snag again?

Eyal Press has written about his experiences teaching journalism at SUNY-New Paltz recently. Contrary to the most popular university-themed clickbait you might have seen at The Atlantic or The Huffington Post in the past academic year, he finds that complaints about “political correctness” fascistically controlling class discussions and about this so-called “coddled” generation of students to be overwrought.  Says Press:

I’d been hired to teach an undergraduate journalism seminar that focused on polarizing, divisive subjects: abortion, immigration, Islamophobia, the gun debate, campus rape. Issues likely to touch sensitive nerves, in other words, and to stir considerable discomfort among my students.

Several of the students in my class felt strongly about these issues. A few chose to write term papers that drew on personal experiences as well as on research and interviews they did. But no one in the class seemed uncomfortable talking about them. Nor did anyone object when I told them that, especially when reporting on issues close to their heart in which they had a personal stake, it was essential to talk to people whose opinions they did not share and to imagine things from multiple points of view, including views that disturbed or repelled them. None of the students called for “trigger warnings” to be placed on any of the books or articles on the course syllabus, despite the fact that several contained vivid descriptions of abuse and violence. When students aired criticisms of the readings in class discussions, the objections were about the quality of the work, not the offensiveness of the content.

This is what I’ve been reporting from my perch at a public Aggie in the West.  My students are far from privileged, and as Press reports, the issue they’re most worried about is the debt they’re accruing in pursuing higher education.  In a class he visited with 15 students, Press asked how many would be graduating with student debt. Continue reading

WIZ 301: Defense Against the Dark Arts, or, how universal design improves our teaching


Dump the blue books!

The always-thoughtful David Perry of How Did We Get Into This Mess and on Twitter @Lollardfish) has given his last blue-book, in class, timed exam.  Those of you who know his writing will not be surprised that he’s doing this because of the inequities and exposure in-class exams mean for students with disabilities:

I’ve been inching away from the blue book for years, but it’s time to go cold turkey and match my praxis to my principles. Whatever pedagogical gains the in-class test might bring — and I’ll argue they are few and increasingly less relevant — I can no longer justify forcing people with disabilities to disclose their conditions in order to receive basic test-related accommodations.

Although protections for disabled students date back to Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act spurred widespread change throughout academe. Compliance with the ADA and with Section 504 — for any institution receiving federal funds (including financial aid) — requires providing reasonable accommodations to students with diagnosed disabilities. It’s become routine, rather than rare, for students to begin the semester by presenting their professors with documented requests for accommodation.

That it’s become routine is great but far from perfect. Not only do students have to disclose disability to their professors —who are no more immune to ableism than to any other sort of bias — but the most common form of accommodation extends the disclosure to classmates. Many students with invisible disabilities (such as anxiety disorders or ADHD) require quiet rooms and extra time to work on a test. I’m thrilled to provide both. On the other hand, when the whole class gathers to take an exam, with one student conspicuously absent, everyone notices.

Right on, David!  (Be sure to read the whole article.)  He comes to his conclusion about canning the in-class, timed exams based on his understanding of the concept of universal design.  Perry explains, “That term — coined in the 1970s around architecture and public space —advocates that systems be designed to accommodate the widest range of function and ability possible. Universal design asks us to try and build accessibility into the fabric of our institutions and culture, rather than wait until individuals make their needs known.”  I’m sure you’ve seen evidence of it in buildings of recent construction–the extra-wide doorways and hallways, the paddle-handle door pulls that have replaced traditional doorknobs because they don’t require the number of fine motor skills to operate. Continue reading