Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Should we start with Reconstruction?

I'm revising my textbook once again and I'm struck every time I do it that the chapter on Reconstruction appears in both Volume 1, designed for the first half of the survey, and volume 2, designed for the second.

This time, I'm revising the book at the same time I'm freshening up my syllabus for the fall.  We in the history department at UIC have decided to rename the second half of the survey "From Industrialization to Globalization," thus firmly implying that the course start with the Industrial Revolution, thereby moving Reconstruction to the first half.  The logic there, which I think is sound, was that you can't really understand Reconstruction without understanding the Civil War, and thus they must be taught together.

Is this right? 

Can you effectively teach Reconstruction without having taught the Civil War?  Is there some reason to include Reconstruction as a complete unit in the second half of the survey?  Or is part of the first half, done and dusted?  I'm curious to hear how others have done it.

I remember right after I taught Reconstruction last year, my colleague Rick Fried, who used the same classroom right after me, walked in as I was finishing Reconstruction and said, "hey, you cheated, you can't start there."

Was he right?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Celebrate Good Times, C'mon ... with new work on Reconstruction

There's a lot to celebrate these days:
  • a certain co-editor of TUSH.0 received tenure
  • some seniors are graduating
  • I had lunch with Pamela Klassen yesterday, an amazing scholar of religion
  • and friend of the blog Gregory P. Downs just published a new essay in the American Historical Review.
Ten years from now, I'm guessing that when we teach Reconstruction, we'll be relying on textbooks that have been changed by Gregory Downs's new work. So if you want to get ahead of the curve, here's the skinny. Downs is a professor at the City College of New York. His disseration/first book Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908 is a tremendous study of how white and black North Carolinians deployed the language of dependence (a political relationship Downs links to patronalism). It should be on every graduate students' "must read" section on Reconstruction.

imageAnd now, Downs's essay in the AHR, "The Mexicanization of American Politics" examines how American society and politics became stable after the Civil War. Through and by various comparisons with Mexico, political and military leaders within the United States helped institutionalize and then create a rhetoric for stability even during the traumatic decade from the end of the war to the contested election of 1876 (which could have easily resulted in another war with George McClellan leading the troops for the Democrats!).

As we're celebrating all the wonderful occasions, let's not forget: late August will be here before we know it.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Schools Out For Summer

Well, the semester is officially ending here in San Diego. We’ve had a run ride this academic year – reading insights from wonderful scholars like Matthew Bowman, Jennifer Graber, Thomas Kidd, Amy Murrell Taylor (who, by the way, is on her way to the great state and university of Kentucky), Anthony Kaye, Linford Fisher (who, by the way, had his book published last month andinitial reactions have been “WOW”), Rebecca Goetz, and James Merrell. We’ve enjoyed our new co-editor Nina McCune’s thoughts on teaching the twentieth century, and we’ve endured the blah, blah, blahs of Blum and Schultz (excuse me, Kevin, Schultz and Blum).

For the summer months, we plan on having one post a week as we prepare for teaching in the fall. I’ll be teaching the mammoth, 500 person U.S. survey from the colonial period through Reconstruction. With 8 teaching associates by my side, we’ll be making a nation, breaking it, and putting it back together again. Along with another round of “the scholars speak,” I plan on incorporating a section “from the back row” where students chime in with their likes and dislikes and a section “are the 99%” from graduate students discussing their experiences as TAs.

I hope everyone has safe, fun, exciting, and stress-free summers. Thanks for joining us here these two semesters.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What should they know?

I was reading Anthony Grafton's review of Andrew Delbanco's new book, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, and was thinking about a question that constantly lurks in the back of my mind as I teach:

What do I need my students to leave this class with?

For example, one morning I read in the New York Times a David Brooks column where he had a throw-away line along the lines of: "If you go to college and don't know the critique of industrial capitalism brought forward by the Transcendentalist, then your education wasn't worth a damn."  Sometimes I actually agree with David Brooks, and this was one of those times.  That very day I taught a longer section than planned on the Transcendentalists.  Perhaps Jackson's war on the banks got less time than it deserved, but, at the end of the day, having my students know the Transcendental critique of capitalism was far more important than having them know the insides and outs of the Biddle-Jackson bank battle.

The rise of fundamentalism and bibilical literalism are other examples of events that maybe weren't the most recognized of the era, but I really wanted my students to know about it.  It affects their lives to this day.

What else gets mentioned?  The Southern strategy, the white ethnic revival of the 1970s, the Populist and Labor Movement critique of the industrial order. 

I guess at the end of the day I want them to learn at least two things: (1) the world is not preordained but was created among a range of options; and (2) what those options were (and are) so they can have tools in their intellectual quiver.  This is different from the uncoverage method of teaching that I've blogged about.  But it is really what we're all after, no? 

Or am I wrong?  Or should I be stressing other things?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Last Slide and a Personal Update on the Elijah James Blum Memorial Fund

Jen and Elijah cheering on the mighty Aztecs
The final slide of the first half of the survey is also the first slide for the second half of the survey. It juxtaposes the photograph of a dying Union soldier from the Civil War with a digital image of Elijah James Blum, our little champ. It is a preview for how much changed from 1865 to now. The soldiers' clothes were probably made locally; Elijah's were made in China; the Civil War picture took hours and days to develop; Elijah's was taken in seconds, uploaded and sent to family in minutes, and put into the slide show right after. Most Americans in 1865 rarely traveled 50 miles from their homes. Elijah had been 50 miles from his home within 2 weeks of being born. In 1860, 3.5 million African Americans were owned by someone else and women could not vote. In 2011, an African American was president, a woman was Secretary of State, and a Mormon was preparing for another presidential run. Wow has the world changed.

Readers of this blog will know that Elijah and this Union soldier shared something as well. They both died too young. Thankfully, San Diego State University is establishing an award in his name.
Jen and I wanted to update you onthe Elijah James Blum Memorial Award. It has been amazing to see how much lovehas poured in to honor our little champ. San Diego State has received about $15,000 as of May 1, 2012. If the fund can achieve $21,000, it will create a permanent annual award in Elijah’s honor for a student dedicated to some form of history or social science education. The award winner will also receive a copy of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race, which Ed and Elijah’s Uncle Paul revised duringhis lifetime. The book is dedicated to Elijah and the final paragraph of the acknowledgments reads:

The saga of this book’s completion coincided with another saga, the life and journey of Elijah James Blum. You and your struggle gave so much. You were a good friend who swayed happily in your swing at Dad’s office (sometimes at 4 a.m.) so this book could be revised. As cataracts dimmed your vision, we longed for new ways to see this world and ones beyond. As your oral muscles degenerated and as you fought to eat and to breathe, we contemplated with greater depth the“bread of life” and the spirit moving in the wind. And as you giggled with your mom while playing peek-a-boo, you offered a vision of what it meant to laugh amid terrible loss. Elijah endured everything we asked, and we’re so proud of you. When the lights went out, we were grateful to have you in our arms. This book is for you. 

We are hoping that the book will serve as a living testimony with the award to our wonderful son. We have decided that any family that has (or does) contribute $100 or more in total to the Elijah fund will receive afree copy of The Color of Christ. For more information on the book, simply click on the title. To donate, see the contact information below.

With love and gratitude,
Ed and Jen Blum

<Tax-deductible contributions to the fund may be made by writing a check to “The Campanile Foundation,” referencing the Elijah James Blum Memorial Fund on the memo line and sending it to Bonnie Akashian, SDSU Dept. of History, 5500 Campanile Dr.,San Diego, CA 92182-6050. Please contact Beth Pollard (Associate Prof. ofHistory, or Nancy Lemkie (Senior Director of Development in CAL at SDSU, or 619-594-8569), if you haveany questions.>

Friday, May 4, 2012

(Source) Place Matters: Lucy McMillan and the Courage to Speak against the Klan

Voting in 1867
Harper's Weekly
We’re about finished with the semester, and my students are now writing either on how much the Civil War and Reconstruction changed life for African Americans or on the influence of slavery on US society in the decades before the war. I use these assignments for a number of reasons, but one of them is because I want to hammer home the importance of where sources come from. One of the finest examples is from the Ku Klux Klan hearings of the early 1870s. Lucy McMillan’s testimony (which can be found online at, in Going to the Source, and in Major Problems) is a case in point. A former slave, she discussed vicious attacks from local whites – burning homes, threatening violence, and murdering anyone who stood in their way. The Klan was especially angry with her for mentioning that she was going to try and buy land. If we simply read the words on the page, we could conclude that life may have gotten worse with freedom. Violence and more violence was the lot for slaves and now freed people.

But this is where paying attention to where the document came from matters so much. McMillan was testifying as part of a wide federal investigation into Klan activity. The United States government was listening to African Americans and their experiences. Not only listening, government officials had called her to the stand. In less than two decades from Chief Justice Roger Taney’s decision in Dred Scott that neither slave, nor free blacks had rights that white men were “bound to respect,” the government now respected the words and experiences of Lucy McMillan.

And when we think of where the source comes from, we also have a new take on the woman herself. She was willing to speak, in public with her name associated to her testimony, against men who had threatened and bullied her. This took guts, and the courage of Reconstruction should never be forgotten.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Christian nation v. Sharia and religious pluralism

As one of my students just put it, "Throughout American history there have been some themes have occurred."


The final assignment that brought out this wonderful sentence was to assess whether or not the United States is more or less religious now that it has been in the past.  The results have been fascinating.

What the assignment has unwittingly done is take their current perceptions of the world (hell in a hand basket or "ugh, all those Christians!") and use history to prove those perceptions right or wrong. The bad papers use bad history and thin sources to prove preconceptions. The goods ones wrestle with it all.

In the end, most seem to argue that the United States is in fact more religious than it was in the past (go Finke and Stark!), although less Christian (go Immigration Act of 1965!).  That makes some sense to me.  Although I still ask, "what to do with all those 'Nones?'"

That said, there has been more than one paper that reminded me that I clearly hadn't gotten through to every student and, in fact, that I had clearly missed them. It happens every semester--you read a final exam and say "what did I do wrong?" It stings.

But then you read one that goes over all those "themes have occurred" and you feel, maybe, just a little bit better.