Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Contagion, part II

FDR was Wrong ... There is so much more to fear than fear itself
We had our first discussion yesterday, and I thought it went quite nicely. We began with the simple question: what would you do in a contagion? I like the question because as I added on layers of context, different students had different answers. At first, the class univocally said “we would leave.” But then, what if it was your mother who was sick? Oh, now that changes things. Perhaps we would stay. But what if you had a child that you feared could get infected by your parent? Oh, now that changes things even more. And then, where do you go? Do you join another tribe? How would that work? What language would you speak? What rituals would you perform? How would decisions be made, and how in the world can you decide all of this while grieving so much death. As James Merrell so nicely discusses in his article on “TheIndians’ New World,” death is more than death. It transformed every issue, question, and problem for so many tribal peoples.

John Vanderlyn, "Landing of Columbus"
Then we moved into the issue of “contact” or “conquest”. As we read documents from Portuguese slave traders, Christopher Columbus, Aztec chroniclers of Cortes’s attack, Dutch and British first encounters with Native Americans on the eastern seaboard, we kept coming back to one fundamental problem: agenda. When Columbus discussed the people he encountered as having no military wares and no interest in fighting, when he described them as sharing all their goods, and seeming to think of him as from the sacred “sky,” did he have an agenda? Was he merely trying to tell the Spanish crown and investors that his adventures would not be like the old crusades or even the recent wars against Muslims in the south of Spain … that these people would be easy to dominate … that they would consider their domination a positive good? Students can debate whether this was an era of contact where people marveled at one another and enjoyed one another, or they can see it as the awakening of European conquest of the New World. It was a fun debate.

Next time, we’re going to rush madly into the English settlements, and hopefully we fare better than they did (my class has about 160 students; I’m hoping at least 100 will survive the first few months). In the “wink, wink … nod, nod” portion of this post, my students may want to pay attention in Hist to the reasons why section regarding European exploration outside Europe, the role of the Pope in South America, the Pequot war, and how the English first settled.

For blog readers, later this week we’ll have an interview from Rice University’s Rebecca Goetz on the major problems of teaching the early colonies. Until then … try to survive.

Friday, January 27, 2012


Death in the Age of Encounter
My wife is quite excited, because the Matt Damon and Kate Winslet film Contagion is about to come to our local Red Box. She loves a good mystery, especially one that involves mass epidemics. It seems that every few years we recycle the idea of a massive outbreak (think Outbreak, for instance). Perhaps outbreaks frighten us because they have happened so devastatingly in the past and, we fear, could happen again. It's only fitting, too, that this post follows Kevin's on Jonathan Edwards ... who, sadly, died after taking a smallpox inoculation as part of an effort to convince others that inoculations would prevent future outbreaks.

On Monday, we’re going to have our first discussion on the colonial era. We will start with contagion. What would you do if an outbreak began and around you people were dying? Would you run away? Would you pray to God, blame God, or change faiths? Would you abandon family? Would you hide? What would you do?

The conversation will, hopefully, startle them into imagining the world Europeans inhabited in the fourteenth century and then Native Americans did in North and South America after 1492. The Black Death and then the smallpox ravaging that took place had drastic impacts in Europe and in the Americas. I’m not sure what my students will say about it, but we’ll find out on Monday.
Europeans knew plagues too - Bubonic plague

Some other elements for discussion (and, here is the wink, wink … nod, nod about our quiz) will be the main arguments from James Merrell and Neal Salisbury, the Iroquois creation myth, the Portuguese battling along the coast of West Africa, the various ways Native Americans used the land, and the first British colonies. As we think about whether this was an era best defined by conquest or contact, it strikes me that one thing everyone shared was death. It leads me to wonder about Drew Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, in which she claims that the American Civil War inaugurated a new era of thinking about massive death. It seems that those who lived in the first hundred and fifty years of European-Native American interaction knew epidemic and epidemic death of another profound sort.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Great Awakening

I sometimes refer to the Great Awakening as a time when my students really need to wake up. The honeymoon of days 1 and 2 is over and the class has started in earnest--we now have tests and papers to think about!

Once you say that, Jonathan Edwards becomes more interesting. This is especially true if you have them read Marsden's A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards, a concise but sweeping book that pairs Edwards against Ben Franklin, showing the variety of changes going on in 18th-century colonial America, and the variety of responses available to the colonists.

While my students are mulling over the question of "Were we founded as a Protestant nation?" (write!), I'm mulling over the Great Awakening's influence on the Revolution. This has a long and distinguished historiography I know, but it also gets to the question of religion and, more broadly, culture as a moving force in history. For instance, it seems impossible to suggest that the "long train of abuses"--political and economic--that lead to the Revolution were unimportant. On the other hand, it's striking in today's political climate for students to think that religion and religious identities don't have ramifications regarding who belongs and who doesn't in any sort of political constituency. My students see religion as a marker of which side you're on in today's political culture. Why would it be different at other times? Thus the Great Awakening seems to be an obvious location of social cohesion, perhaps an extremely vital one.

While there are answers to this latter question about things mattering more at one time and not at another, I still think it's interesting how historiography is really a reflection of today's questions as much as anything else, and how things come back into vogue depending on the state of current debates. I'm also struck by the obvious if fascinating connections between economics, politics, and culture/religion in the colonial era, and I use Jonathan Edwards to make this seem interesting. Let's hope it works!

Otherwise, I'll be dangling like a spider from a pencil thin web over the flames of eternal hell...never mind.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A New World for Indians? The Scholars' Speak

The Scholars Speak: An Interview with Professor James Merrell

We are delighted to have Professor James Merrell of Vassar College. In the first chapter of Major Problems, his essay on “The Indians’ New World” highlights how radically transformative the age of encounter and contact was for Native Americans as well. Here’s his bio from Vassar, and the Q&A is below.

Born and raised in Minnesota, Lucy Maynard Salmon Professor of History James Merrell studied at Lawrence University and Oxford University before receiving his Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University in 1982. Before coming to Vassar in 1984, he was a Fellow at The Newberry Library Center for the History of the American Indian in Chicago and the Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, Virginia. He has also received fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Professor Merrell’s teaching and research interests are in early American history (up to 1830), particularly the Indian experience in colonial times. His first book, The Indians’ New World: Catawbas and Their Neighbors from European Contact through the Era of Removal (University of North Carolina Press, 1989) won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award and the Merle Curti Award from the Organization of American Historians as well as the Bancroft Prize. His second book, Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier (W.W. Norton, 1999), was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and won Professor Merrell his second Bancroft Prize, making him only the fifth historian ever to win that prestigious award twice.

1) Why were you first drawn to early American history?

The short answer is two words long: Doug Greenberg. I went to college at Lawrence University, in Appleton, Wisconsin. The place had lots of terrific professors, especially in the History Department, but for me the most inspiring was Doug, then just out of grad school. I got a sense from him (this was the early-mid 1970s) that early America was a fascinating and strange place, and that it was then a very exciting place to be doing scholarship. I was hooked.

2) Major Problems in American History sets up the first major problem in US history as one related to contact with Europeans. You suggest that the age of encounter created a “new world” for Indians. Do you still think this is the case, and what would you say were the biggest changes for Native Americans?

Yes, I do still think that the idea of “new world” works in helping us understand what went on in the centuries after Europeans first began arriving in their new world. The challenges of unfamiliar and devastating diseases, alien technologies and modes of exchange, colonial expansion, and the arrival of colonial farmers constituted, for Catawbas as for other Native peoples, an array of challenges that, together, ushered in a profound change in the character of the Native experience.

That said, I would now stress more strongly, in light of scholarship since, that the impact of Europeans’ arrival was even slower to reshape life than I suggested. I would also think through a bit more what “new world” means: Did it come to Indian Country from outside? (As in “European colonists ‘brought’ a new world.”) Did Catawbas create their new world? Did they fashion it along WITH European colonists and African slaves? And, for that matter, how many “new worlds” are we talking about in that time and place? Was there a Catawba New World, a Cherokee New World, etc.? An Indian New World, a European New World, etc.? Or was there one “new world” that all in North America were part of? I don’t have an answer to that question--but at least the question has now occurred to me to ask!

3) Major Problems now includes documents from the Atlantic slave trade in its chapter on first encounters, how do you see West Africans and/or the early slave trade fitting with your essay and the debate over a new world created for Native Americans with and after the first encounters?

As your book attests, the landscape of “colonial American history” has changed dramatically since I published that essay. Among other things, it is more attuned to the notion of an Atlantic World, of which of course the slave trade was a major part. Enlightened by that work, I would certainly be even more attuned to the wider currents into which Native Americans were drawn. And I would also have worked harder to bring the arrival of African peoples on American shores into the fabric of interpretation I fashioned. (As it happens, the same year I published “The Indians’ New World,” I also published, in The Journal of Southern History, “The Racial Education of the Catawba Indians,” which dealt with Catawbas’ response to the racial realities of colonization. That said, some aspects of that story should have found their way into the “New World” essay.

Speaking of the slave trade, another realm of early American history that has been illuminated in the past generation or so is not only the African slave trade but the Indian slave trade. Allan Gallay, Paul Kelton, and many other scholars have shown the extent--both in numbers and in geographical range--of this system, and that, too, belongs in the stories we construct about that era.

4) If you had to set up a debate about this time period differently, how would you do it? What would be in the principle contest or major problem? What would be the take home message for students?

I’m not sure it’s about changing the debate, exactly, but one of the things I’m interested in talking about these days is the very language we use to talk about early America, language I have myself used, often, without being full cognizant of its being loaded. We no longer use terms like “savage,” “primitive,” “superstitious,” and the like, but still in common currency are terms that more subtly reinforce the perspective of the winners (Europeans): precontact implies that Natives had no contact with foreigners before 1492; discovery; settlement/settler; wilderness; and so on. Some will say this is political correctness run amok; I say otherwise, that it’s not political correctness, just correctness!

5) What are you working on now or are there any of your more recent articles or books that would help students more interested in this topic?

Speaking of terminology, I have an essay on this in an upcoming issue of the William and MaryQuarterly. People might also be interested in the Introduction I wrote for the 20th-anniversary edition of The Indians’ New World. In about 10 pages, I offer some background on how I came to the subject of Indians, and how I see the book, its themes, its weaknesses and blind spots, in light of my own further thinking and the education I’ve gotten from other scholarly work.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Wrongs of Columbus - A Friday Funny

Today’s Friday funny is Columbus. Here’s a link to a high school project that proclaims “Columbus is our hero” at its end.
But Columbus is funny for another reason. He’s famous for being wrong – and wrong on so many levels, and that’s one of the aspects I like to teach about US history. Sometimes historical causation comes from people being flat wrong. First, Columbus never made it to his desired location on the East Indies. His hope and belief that he had reached Japan turned out to be way wrong. Second, he was even willing to try his wild idea of going west to get to the east because he was wrong about the size of the globe. Columbus thought the Earth was 16,000 miles in circumference. In actuality, it’s about 25,000. Third, and here’s where we get a little religion from an older but terrific essay by Pauline Moffitt Watts, Columbus was wrong that his voyage was destined to help bring the biblical “end times.” He wrote in 1500, “God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John after having spoken of it through the mouth of Isaiah; and he showed me the spot where to find it.” A form of apocalypse came with Columbus – in the form of microbes that destroyed the bodies and communities of native peoples – but last I checked, Jesus hasn’t shown up yet.
What’s the point about all this “wrong”? Perhaps the take home message is this: history can be clumsy; misinformation can be meaningful, very meaningful; legends can make us laugh, but they can also have lasting effects. When I teach the Age of Encounter, one of the main points is the messiness of history.
So ... do you have any other examples of wrongs making big change in history? If so, I'd love to hear them.
Other main points (and this is where students interested in a good grade on Wednesday’s quiz will really pay attention – wink, wink) are the various theories about how humans first made it to North and South America, the types of crops that allowed for sedentary communities to emerge, what factors led western Europeans to explore in the first place, and where in Africa did those who were enslaved come from.
Hopefully my students won’t have as many wrong answers as Columbus. But then again, if they do, maybe they’ll become as famous and infamous as that old intrepid sailor.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

New Blog on Research

Hey all, quick announcement. Gale Kenny, whose excellent blog entries here discussed her use of blogs for her fall courses, has started a new blog on research: how to, what not to do, and the entire experience. Here's the link: http://intothearchives.wordpress.com/ 

Monday, January 16, 2012

To Begin Again

Before the Beginning

In his previous post, Kevin asked the question I pose to my students on the first day: “where would you begin?” I follow it with “where would you end?” And, of course, “why?” In upper-division courses, I use those questions to assess what my students already know and to give a basic overview of the main people, events, and concepts.

Beginnings tell us about meanings, about how we envision the story and what it’s about. A monograph’s opening vignette, for instance, should clue us into the main storyline of the book. For instance, Kevin’s Tri-Faith America begins with the tale of four chaplains (2 Protestant, 1 Jewish, and 1 Catholic) who sacrificed their lives together during WWII. What should have been a simple expression of tri-faith America in the mid twentieth century, however, turned into a political conflict in the 1950s and early 1960s. As Kevin wonderfully narrates, memorializing the chaplains became a sticking point where religious division expressed itself in political moments – particularly John F. Kennedy’s race for the White House.

For the first half of the survey, do we begin in western Europe? That form of beginning seems to privilege those who initiated the action and who eventually form the United States (and then tear it apart). Do we begin with nomadic hunters who crossed a land bridge into Alaska? That beginning seems to privilege the people who first occupied the place?

Lindsey Murtagh
Major Problems tries another tack. It begins with mythology. The first document is a story of the Iroquois describing the beginning of the world. The tale begins, as so many creation myths do, with the words, “In the beginning.” Before the beginning, there was “no world, no land, no creatures of the kind that are around us now.” The story then narrates how the world was made – how a woman of the Sky-World was too adventurous for her own good. After digging in the earth around the Great Tree, she fell through a hole only to be saved by a great sea turtle. The woman took the remains of earthy heaven she had held before she fell and with them made the land. She had two sons, one who represented the right and one who represented the wrong. They made animals and food – some good, some bad. The sons fought forever, with neither able to “vanquish the other.”

I like this beginning because it places the beginning of US history in the humanities of stories. Each lecture, each reading, each event – these are stories of a past long ago but still with us: the search for adventure or a better life like that of the Sky-Woman; the life-giving power of nature and its precarious state of being; our human role in making and transforming the land for good and ill; and the continual and confused struggle between good and bad.

The documents following then move through the rise of the west African slave trade, first contacts in South and North America, and two drawings (one of a smallpox outbreak and one of Native American land use). Those two images will be the focus of our first discussion next week.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Where to begin?

"Where shall I begin?" asked the White Rabbit of the King in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. "Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop" was the King's reply.

When it comes to American history, where shall we begin? The answer I put forward in HIST, my textbook, was not 1607 but instead to sweep quickly through the early peoples on the land that would become America and get to the contact of cultures--red, white, and black--that would shape colonial American life in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. To do that, you had to know a little about each culture before and at contact, so there was a summary of that (Chapter 1); otherwise the actions at contact wouldn't make any sense. Chapter 2 is settling the land by the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English, and by Chapter 3 we're on the British colonial steamroller, familiar terrain though it is.

That said, it led to my Indian problem, and ours. If we treat American history as we normally do--getting to the Revolution as quickly as possible--do we cut short the story of the Native Americans? An even more challenging questions is: is that okay? If we define United States history as the history of the making and transformations of the United States, what of pre-contact Native American history do you really need to know?

I don't pretend to have the answers, and the question of "the beginning of American history" will always be contested ground. But thinking it through gets to the more penetrating question of what we are teaching when we teach American history. Is it the story of how we became who we are (quite literally)? How the political nation came to look and act the way it does? Or is it the story of the land? Certainly all three and more, but how do we prioritize?

It is not altogether helpful to say: "Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop." To quote Pooh's Eeyore: "Oh bother."

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Teaching with Blogs ... Reflection from the Fall (part 2 of 2)

Gale Kenny
Barnard College
Columbia University

(this is part 2 of Gale Kenny's reflections on teaching with blogs during the fall semester):

The bad:

· As I had feared, it became difficult to respond adequately to everyone’s posts, and to keep track of the comments for grading purposes. I ended up requiring the students to turn in three “blog portfolios” during the semester for which they collected their posts and comments and then emailed them to me. I would highly recommend this fix! It is easy to find and evaluate posts, but keeping track of the comments was really difficult.

· The other major flaw concerned timing. For reasons I’ve since forgotten, I had decided against creating a schedule for the blogs, and so students almost always posted and commented during a 24-hour period before class. This created a time crunch for me since my other class met on the same day as the seminar, and I couldn’t spend as much time responding to posts as I would have liked. It also annoyed some students who wanted to get their three comments done, but had to wait on their classmates to post. It also defeated one of the goals of the blog: to continue a discussion throughout the week.

Overall, the positive far outweighed the negative, and I ended up preferring the hub-and-spoke method to the class blog. I would, however, make a few changes in the future:

· Next semester, I’m going to divide the students up into groups, and then have each group create and maintain a blog. This will, I hope, create even more conversation since students will only have to keep track of 3-4 other people rather 20 other students.
· I am also requiring that the students post something new every day, and that they work out a schedule among themselves. I hope this will avoid a frenzy of posts and comments hours before class.

· To help with grading and commenting on my end, I’ve borrowed an idea from a colleague who asked a graduate student (not a TA, but a student taking the course) to keep track of the blogs for his class. I plan on doing the same for my course on the history of marriage in the US that I will be teaching in the Spring. Instead of writing her own weekly posts, one of the graduate students in my course will write up summaries about the various discussions on the blogs for the class’s main website and engage directly with the students on their blogs. This will give her some teaching experience beyond the usual TA work, and it will help me to manage the online part of class.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Teaching by questions

A few months ago, we had a vigorous debate on this blog about "uncoverage," the method of teaching that doesn't try to cover everything in the textbook but instead picks a few topics or event and dissects them deeply. The theory is that students won't and don't remember everything they are asked to understand in a broadly covered survey, but will, maybe, with some luck, remember things they are asked to investigate deeply.

In that debate, I expressed some doubts about how that method would work in a large lecture class, doubts I still have. But I am convinced that with smaller classes there is something to the method.

Toward that end, this semester I've divided my syllabus into five three-week sections, each of which will focus on answering a single question. The sections will proceed forward chronologically, although I will take a lecture at the end of each section to teach about the subsequent history of the debate.

For instance, my first questions is: "Was the United States founded as a Christian country?" Certainly that's a hot topic today, and one that's perhaps not even historical (see John Fea's book). But the question-method does three things for me: (1) it allows me to begin at the beginning, and carry forward to the Revolution, then the Market Revolution, then the Civil War, etc.; (2) it keeps the lectures focused on a single question--I'll always begin and end with the question, so students will receive information that they will immediately find useful; and (3) it will allow the student to leave the class with a working historical knowledge of a current hotly debated question.

I get to cheat a little, because this class is focused on religion and because it's smaller than most of my surveys (40 versus 120). At the same time, it's already been fun to write the lectures about the questions, because I find them fascinating myself.

Has anyone else tried this?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Reflections on the Fall teaching with Blogs

Teaching with Blogs: What Worked, What Didn’t. (part 1 - what worked)

(and as a quick side note, Gale's marvelous book is now out in paperback! - ejb)
Gale Kenny, Barnard College, Columbia University

At the beginning of the semester, I contributed a post about my experimental plan to have every student in one of my seminars create and write for their own blogs, and I’m back again for the final report. I should also add that early in the semester, I found out that other professors who are more teaching-with-technology-savvy than me had already dubbed this the “hub and spoke” model, and there are useful discussions about blogs out there, including Mark Sample’s discussion of blogs and the classroom (he prefers a central blog to the hub-and-spoke model), and this response from Teleogistic about blogging in large classes.

For my class, the experiment proved successful overall, but there were a few changes that I will make in the future.

To recap: My class ended up with thirteen students, including two auditors, one of whom blogged and commented. I required students to post twice a week on their own blogs and to make three comments on their classmates’ blogs. At least one of their posts had to be on the class’s assigned readings, but the other could be on anything related to the course.

The good:

·         My students really liked having their own blogs. They chose their own templates on the Wordpress platform, and whenever they had something they wanted to say, they had a place to say it. I think that at the end of the semester, they were quite proud of their efforts. For example: Lexi’s blog, Hannah’s blog, Nick’s blog. (For links to the others, visit our class blog: religionandhumanitarianism.wordpress.com)

·         They taught themselves how to use technology.

·         While The Book of Mormon dominated last semester’s version of this course, this semester, the topic on everyone’s minds was Occupy Wall Street. The blogs became a place for students to post their hopes and doubts about OWS, and to compare the real-time social movement to the movements we studied in class. If I can brag about my students for a moment, here are some examples of posts about religion and OWS: Allison, Nicole, Tamara; and a post from Lexi about the campaign surrounding the execution of Troy Davis in September – this one led to a fantastic class discussion about Karen Halttunen’s article, “Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain in Anglo-American Culture,” (AHR, 1995).

·         In class, the blogs worked as conversation-generators. I could open class by asking which posts they had liked the most this week, or to elaborate more on what they had written on the blogs. It was an excellent exercise to have students summarize each other’s arguments as well as to present their own ideas. I was glad to see that over the course of the semester, certain posts became canonical texts in our seminar.

·         The blogs also allowed students to share their interests. So, Nick became the go-to student on social media and humanitarian organizations and Allison the expert on campaigns against child marriage. When anyone came across an article or an idea related to another person’s research topic, they could pass it along.

(part 2 on "the bad" will be posted on Wednesday)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

It's Always Spring in San Diego

Spring 2012: United States History through the Civil War

We’re doing it backwards this year: second half of the survey in the fall, first half in the spring. The reason: I’m not in charge of the universe … yet. In my case, I teach what I’m told so United States history from colonization to the Civil War and Reconstruction, here we come. I have some distinct plans for the spring and the blog – and here are some of them.
  1. We’re going to have interviews from leading scholars here at the blog. Major Problems in American History (and the other Major Problems volumes) set up scholarly debates for each time period. I think it’s time the authors get to directly interact with one another. I’ll be inviting them to discuss what they think of the debates, what primary documents they use, and how they see the fields moving. I’ll also interview more junior scholars in these fields to address the debates and discuss what primary documents they find most useful. Are there any scholars you would love to hear from in particular???
  2. We’re going to have some other commentators here, including some first time teachers of the U.S. history survey and some other longtime friends. If you want to contribute, just email me.
  3. I’m ditching exams this term in favor of reading quizzes … and I mean lots of reading quizzes. The class will have about 150 students, and I have a grader (another topic we will discuss). I’m tired of students not reading (isn’t it obvious when only those three lovely students who always read are the only ones who have even cracked open the book). I’m tired of trying to lead discussions or debates where I’m just telling everyone what was in the reading. So this term, there will be a reading quiz just about every class, and I will divide the students into three cohorts. So on a given day, two cohorts will be quizzed and the third will be left out. Students are going to hate me for this, but I don’t care. It’s time they treated the reading in my class as seriously as they do their calculus problem sets. And I’m thrilled to ditch the midterm(s) and final. They break up the class too much – with study sessions, review guides (or rather students mad at me that I don’t give them a review guide … although I love the idea brought up in our comments section last semester of the class making the review guide). Anybody else with me???
  4. Washington, appointed Commander in Chief
    Currier & Ives 1876
    Library of Congress
    I’m going to focus on three big issues. How a United States was born, which will run from colonial contact to the Revolutionary war; how the United States was made, which will go from the Articles of Confederation to the 1830s; and how the United States was almost unmade, which will run to the late nineteenth century. Obviously, the theme will be nationalistic – with the United States as the central artifact of being. But underneath that I can deal with cultural and racial diversity, economic growth and development, political transformations, war, peace, and everything else. Thanks to Lilian for her previous comments on how she is structuring her class. I look forward to hearing from others.
For those who will be at the AHA in Chicago, I look forward to seeing you.