Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Teaching American History in an Atlantic World

Six weeks ago, my colleague John Marks and I organized and hosted an exciting event at Rice University. “Race and Nation in the Age of Emancipations: A Symposium on the Atlantic World” included 6 panels, 15 presentations, 2 keynote lectures, and many informal conversations over Tex-Mex and barbeque exploring the complicated relationship between race, nation, and citizenship over the long nineteenth century. But this was not just a conference about research; John and I also wanted to discuss the usefulness, perhaps the imperative, to teach with or within the framework of the Atlantic World.  Five eminent scholars – James Sidbury (Rice University), Martha Jones (University of Michigan), James Sanders (Utah State University), Laura Rosanne Adderley (Tulane University), and Matt Clavin (University of Houston) – led our Saturday luncheon roundtable, which touched on a number of subjects ranging from textbooks to the questionable morality of Atlantic World scholarship.

Most of us around the table agreed that incorporating an Atlantic World perspective in our classes was important, as it expands students’ sometimes narrow view of what comprises American history. Particularly for those at institutions that require a certain textbook, one that might not be up to the standards of the texts produced by the past and current editors of this blog (namely, Kevin Schutz’s HIST, Ed Blum’s Major Problems series, or Ben Wright and Joe Locke’s forthcoming The American Yawp), we can take the information students learn from these textbooks and explode it by inculcating an Atlantic World outlook in class lectures, discussion, activities, and assignments. This is useful especially in survey classes, though many of our roundtable leaders emphasized that they organize upper-level undergraduate courses around a core tenet of Atlantic World scholarship: that the movement of people, things, and ideas across and around the Atlantic created potential for greater freedoms and unfreedoms in the modern age. Of course those of us that teach American history have long emphasized the paradox of freedom and slavery in our classrooms. But when we open our eyes to the pervasiveness of this contradiction around the Atlantic World, it lessens America’s exceptionalism and exemplifies the ways that American history has always been connected to a larger (and more important) global story.

Now I noted that most but not all of us agreed on incorporating an Atlantic perspective. This was because some participants were wary about this discussion in the first place. That caution stemmed from their belief that “Atlantic World” is a problematic term both at the roundtable and in the classroom. This was certainly the most contentious part of the lunch, spurring discussion about the potential harm that a specifically Atlantic World viewpoint might cause. Some scholars noted the slow erosion of diasporic studies as the more “sexy” Atlantic World field gained traction. Others argued that an Atlantic World framework has too often emphasized connections to the detriment of the many and varied disconnections within this world. Additionally, when we stress movement across and around the Atlantic, we ignore a large percentage of people (particularly women and children) who more often stayed put. Are we then telling as much of a biased story with an Atlantic World perspective as with the more traditional American history narrative?

What do you think—do you regard the Atlantic World (as a framework, concept, or analytical tool) as something essential to incorporate into the American history survey? If so, in what ways do you integrate it, and how do you feel students respond to it? If not, how do you present American history to your students?

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