Thursday, February 28, 2013

Teaching W. E. B. Du Bois with Amy Bass

If you follow me on twitter (@edwardjblum) or on Facebook, you know that I am a huge fan of the work of Dr. Amy Bass. A historian of race, sports, culture, and twentieth-century America and the Director of the Honors Program at the College of New Rochelle, she has written two fantastic books. We’re going to feature both at the blog, today her work on how Great Barrington, Massachusetts, struggled to honor its most famous son – W. E. B. Du Bois. My questions are based on reading Dr. Bass’s book, Those About Him Remained Silent: The Battle over W. E. B. Du Bois.
1) When we teach US history, we almost always mention Du Bois in the early 20th century. Perhaps it is his opposition to Booker T. Washington; perhaps it is him as a progressive with The Souls of Black Folk. How can he easily be incorporated into the middle part of the 20th century when the the Cold War and civil rights movements get the lion's share of attention?
AB: There is part of me that is always really excited when someone asks me a question at a reading or a lecture about Booker T., even though it really has nothing to do with what I focus on in my work on Du Bois, because it speaks to the fact that the Booker T. versus Du Bois opposition is part of the standard historical canon.  Du Bois doesn't really appear a whole lot in, for example, history text books:  the NAACP and Booker T. are where he is located.  So when someone asks that question -- and someone always does -- it reminds me to never take for granted that people understand the enormity of Du Bois's importance across the 20th century, and also to be heartened that they know who he is at all.  That said:  there is a reason civil rights organizers took pause on the eve of the March on Washington when news of Du Bois's death in Ghana surfaced.  All that lay before them, he laid foundations for.  But he was far more complex than that, which is why he is such a fascinating figure in terms of postwar culture and politics.  I spent a lot of time with his autobiographies, which really mark how living a long life of thinking and writing becomes a way of documenting the past in and of itself.  The subtitle of the final memoir piece, "A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century," speaks volumes to this, I think.  From his travels throughout the South in his college days to his travels to the Soviet Union in the decade after the Russian Revolution , from his leadership in the Niagara Movement to what Manning Marable has called his "political assassination" by the State Department, there are few transitions in the 20th century that cannot be scoped through Du Bois.  Think of it:  pan-Africanism, pacifism, McCarthyism, socialism and Communism, and so on.  Further, much can be learned about how difficult political operation can be -- his problems with the NAACP, especially with Walter White, his power at The Crisis, the lack of support he received from so many longtime colleagues in the wake of the Peace Information Center investigation.  In so many ways, his life IS the 20th century, even -- perhaps especially -- after his death, with the radicalization of civil rights movements and then, as I have found, the struggle over his legacy, writ large.
2) In Those About Him Remained Silent, you emphasize the local history of such a global figure. If you had to use one primary document from that local story, what would it be and how does it exemplify main themes in your book.
AB: There's a letter to the editor of the local paper, The Berkshire Eagle, written in 2004 about the debate engulfing Du Bois's hometown, Great Barrington, over whether or not to name the new school after him.  This debate arose as I (foolishly) thought I was finishing the book.  It delayed my timeline, as I realized that the 21st century debate over Du Bois almost exactly mirrored the late 1960s controversies I had devoted so much research and writing to.  I was in awe, which is funny, because as a historian, I know that change and progress are not the same thing, and the latter -- indeed - does not exist.  In this one letter, the writer made all the same points that those who had come some forty years before had, condemning Du Bois for his expatriation and, even more importantly, his communism.  But then she brought it right into the present, likening the naming of a school for Du Bois to doing for "Mussolini, Stalin or Hussein."  That last one really hit me, demonstrating how easily the past racist musings of a small town could be translated into the current moment, and even add a new shade to it.  It was the moment that I fully realized that the post-911 moment of the so-called War on Terror was nothing new.  This isn't to say I didn't think that before, but there was something about her letter that really hit home for me, perhaps particularly because my New England self has lived in New York for a long time now.  When I found the statement by a member of a local VFW in the late 1960s comparing Du Bois to Hitler, I was gleeful, almost, in how well I saw my project coming together.  But there was something about the letter some forty years later comparing him to Hussein that just really hit, well, home.
3) Can you think of any research assignments that students could do themselves that would follow your approach?
AB: I think finding the local in the global, and the global in the local, is a fantastic way for students to begin their research.  One of the things I have them do in one of my lower level courses is go into the New York Times archives and find their birthday, any year that they want, and figure out a research topic based on it.  It's not exactly the same thing, but I think that when the personal investment in your subject is that upfront, you can really be motivated to sink your teeth in.  Finding this stuff in your backyard, as I did, literally, works the same way.  The recent "This American Life" piece about the mass execution of Native Americans in 1862 in Mankato, Minnesota is a great example.  No one ever talked about it, but John Biewen, who grew up there, went and got the story.  When I was first working on the Du Bois project, which came about in a similar way, I had just read Diane McWhorter's "Carry Me Home," a very personal take of Birmingham in the civil rights era, but also a really well-written and well-researched one.  Her own memories of key events in that period, without question, offer an important take on the national scene.  These stories are everywhere.  You just have to make sure you keep looking for the big picture.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Video Killed … the Great Depression?

I have been so busy reforming the nation (during the Progressive Era) and then learning all the new dances of the 1920s (hat tip to Terra Schultz for help locating this video on the “Black Bottom”) that I haven’t been able to show our blog the attention she deserves. So I come to you in a moment of depression, and not any old depression – the Great Depression. You know the one: Dust Bowl, buying on margin, Herbert Hoover being … well, Herbert Hoover.

When I TAed this class for Prof. Mark W. Summers at the University of Kentucky, he had a slide show of photographs from the 1930s and set it to “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.” It was beautiful and gripping. But I worry about the dramatic saga approach to teaching the Great Depression. In part, it sets up a villain-hero dynamic where FDR invariably becomes the god who didn’t fail. For instance, we watched this film on the 1930s that uses newsreel from the era. FDR is hero; Long is a villain; and the New Deal pretty much won the day. Of course, there are some truths here. FDR did win 4 presidential elections, but “good New Deal” versus “bad business folks” probably sounds to our students like more “liberal propaganda” thrown at them from “liberal professors” … the kind that Glenn Beck disdains.

So how do we teach the Great Depression without heroes and villains, without drama that shifts seems to have clear political undertones?

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Wordpress 101 Workshop for History Students

Ben Wright's class is a great example of how to integrate (free) digital tools into a history class, I'm enjoying hearing about it and hope there's more in store. On a related note, I recently had the change to run some workshops for history majors who were going to be using Wordpress for course blogging (in this case, each student was making her/his own, rather than posting/commenting to a class blog - more details here). I've been simply asserting that knowing Wordpress is a useful skill for history majors, but I think the case probably still needs to be made to the satisfaction of some of our more computer-phobic majors (and yes, they exist, even among the so-called "digital natives"). I'd love to hear, in the comments, what you feel you or your students have learned from using Wordpress, or from blogging in general (either reading or writing or both), or what the value might be of humanities majors knowing a bit about how to present a polished-looking internet presence. All of the above might seem rather self-evident, especially with our campus's emerging emphasis on integrative learning and information literacy (and I'm sure we're not alone in that), but not everyone yet sees the light and I'm kind of stunned by how few students have tried Wordpress on their own: almost none, actually.

Anyway, within the last couple of weeks I've had the chance to run two workshops, each one designed to get a full class of students signed on and familiar with the rudiments of setting up their own site for class use. By the second one, I had created a sample site and populated it with a couple of basic posts, a few pages, a header photo, and a list of basic tasks for the workshop. I thought I'd link to it here, in case it proves helpful for anyone else or as a model for how to run a similar workshop for beginners.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

My experiment with digital history in the classroom

This semester, I am experimenting with digital history pedagogy. FWIS 167 - The Rise and Fall of Atlantic Slavery, a writing intensive course, uses tools in the digital humanities to explore the rise and fall of Atlantic slavery. You can access the course website at
Each week the students post brief blog entries on the readings and comment on at least two of their peers' posts. We have had occasional guest posters who also contribute to the discussion and react to student questions (we'd love to have any blog readers chime in, particularly those of you who specialize in the history of slavery). I am very pleased with how the blog posts have enhanced our in-class discussion. The students come to class with at least one clearly thought-out position on the readings, and through the student comments, we are able to pick up on conversations and debates that began online. While many of the posts are not as polished as I would have liked, the students are getting an opportunity to work on their writing (a stated goal of these writing-intensive seminars), they provide great teaching examples for our weekly writing exercises.  Thus far our workshops on grammar, concision, and the passive voice have begun with assessments of blog post entries.  
For the remainder of assignments, the students have selected their own subtopic under the umbrella of Atlantic slavery.  The student-selected sub-topics include economics, the Middle Passage, slave resistance, slave life, women and gender, and racial ideology.
The students have also begun constructing a timeline of major events in their subtopic. Using TimelineJS through VeriteCo, the students plug information into a google spreadsheet and then have it appear in a really lovely timeline. You can access our timeline here.  If you'd like to experiment making your own, you can start here.  We have had some technical difficulties with the timeline, but a few techie friends managed to solve our problem with relative ease (just don't ask me to explain how!).  
Using Tumblr, the students have also begun constructing their own primary source archive on their subtopic.  The students have found documents using a variety of online databases and then have written short summaries describing the content and importance of the document.  You can see the beginnings of their archives here.
Future assignments include a historiography paper on a Wikipedia page, a Prezi on modern slavery, and a final paper using the primary sources the students have found in their archives.  So far, I am pleased with the way the students have enthusiastically taken to these non-traditional assignments, and I'm excited to see how things develop.  Stay tuned for more updates.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

American Religions Class with Michael T. Pasquier

I have tried a couple of times to have students create blogs for the class, but never has it worked as effectively as Michael T. Pasquier's class at

Here are some paragraphs from him describing the course and the website.

Michael T. Pasquier

“American Religions” is a 2000-level general education course at LSU. We’re reading The Color of Christ alongside Amanda Porterfield and John Corrigan’s Religion in American History. Throughout the semester, students are required to produce four blog posts for our classroom blog: I encourage them to use multimedia materials (websites, images, podcasts, Youtube, etc.) that might stimulate conversation about the relationship between religion and race in American history. I also take advantage of the “Classroom Materials” feature at to give the students some ideas about what to post on the blog. I prefer not to give them too much explicit guidance on what to post. By the end of the semester, there will be over 100 blog posts exploring the religious and racial history of the United States.

In addition to blogging, students will be working together to produce a visual exhibit on the history of race and religion in Louisiana. Each student will identify one object, artifact, manuscript, or other primary source from the LSU Special Collections ( to include in the exhibit, which (if I can get university facilities services to agree) will be hung in the hallway of a prominent building on campus. We will pair facsimiles of the original primary sources—either photographs or high resolution scans—with short citations and descriptions that speak to the exhibit’s themes of race and religion in Louisiana.

Losing the TUSH

Just so everyone knows, we at this blog are vigorously against assault - and when a certain comedian recommends that certain people (men) videotape themselves assaulting other people (women) on camera, we say "NO!" And because of that, we are ending our relationship with that certain comedian.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Digital History in the Classroom

Many thanks to Ed for the invitation to join this outstanding blog.  Ed asked me to contribute after I shared with him my experiment in digital history pedagogy.  This semester, I am teaching a small seminar for Rice University freshman on the Rise and Fall of Atlantic Slavery.  While this course is not a survey, and at only six students it hardly mirrors the experience of most large surveys, I hope it might nonetheless offer an interesting opportunity to reflect on the opportunities and problems with bringing digital history into the classroom.  I am running the course out of a WordPress blog you can access at  

I will be sharing my experience over the next few months, but before I begin, I want to circle back to some of my favorite TUSH posts on digital history, and invite you to share links to other helpful considerations of digital history pedagogy.  

Just a few months ago, Nina McCune reflected on Dipity, Posterus, and Prezi.  

Tona Hangen shared her experience with a "design-forward syllabus" and using WordPress as a course website.      

Gale Kenny explained her process in using a class blog and shared her results.  I wonder if we can get an update from Gale on whether she has continued with the blog assignment?  [fire up the Gale Kenny bat signal]  

Stay tuned for more of my (mis)adventures with digital history in the classroom.