History Carnival #4
Welcome to this edition of the History Carnival. The main attraction is a selection of entries on the relevance of History or, more importantly, whether we should try to make it relevant. But because this is a carnival in more than one sense, we'll meander through the sideshows to explore the nature of expertise versus credentials and finally, take a quick gander at history that is relevant without our making it so.
Over the past couple of weeks, the question of the meaning of History, or of making History meaningful, has come up a few times, both on history blogs and in my more immediate experience. Just as I feel we should support the Arts because of their intrinsic value, and not because they draw economic health to the community, I believe that History and understanding it are also intrinsically valuable. Moreover, I think that History as a discipline aids in learning critical thinking, fostering greater awareness of other cultures, and understanding our own society. However, I also know that those of us who teach history are often challenged to justify it in terms of FTEs (by administrators) and by relevance (in terms of our students). "What will learning this stuff do for me?" they ask. My answer? Perhaps you're asking the wrong question. And then, sometimes, students try to see much deeper meaning in their history courses, from the almost ridiculous to the sublime, whereNew Kid finds that her Women's History course is almost too relevant:
It's just interesting to me that in some ways, the responses to my women's history assighments have become more a space for a kind of consciousness-raising than analysis of the texts. On the one hand, I kind of hate consciousness-raising; I want to teach women's history as a serious scholarly subject, something that's about using your reason and logic and intellect, rather than about trying to elicit a particular emotional reaction. I don't WANT students to analyze history through their emotions. On the other hand, though, we're talking about 18-21 year-old women who are (mostly, but not all) middle to upper-middle class, mostly from this general region, and while some are quite traveled and sophisticated, they're pretty darn young. Most of them don't know anything about what many women's lives are like TODAY, let alone what they were like in the past.
Want more? Ancarett brings more light on the subject with Little Whigs:
To some extent, I blame the entire “relevancy” culture. When we teach a course that’s billed as being relevant to another field (as when you cross-list with a popular program such as Women’s Studies, but more noticeably here at my institution, Education), we see a flood of students who almost automatically view the past as nothing more than prelude to the present.
On the other hand, there's something to be said for the popularization of History. Over at Threading the Needle, our host treats us to a view of Downward Progression, wherein we see the effects of good documentary programming on a non-specialist audience. It's a good read, although I think in some ways it also helps to illustrate the weaknesses of the medium -- a sometimes simplistic or not exactly correct understanding seems more likely because the big picture needs to be presented in a small, tidy package:
The first 20 African slaves arrived in the Jamestown colony during 1619. At the time, Jamestown was struggling to become an economically viable outpost in the New World. After several failed attempts at various colonial industries, a strain of tobacco began to show a potential for profitability. However, tobacco cultivation required a massive and inexpensive labor force, something in short supply. To remedy this dilemma, the colonists had two choices: indentured servitude and slavery.
Despite the distinction, there was initially little different between the two labor categories. Indentured servants were bound to service for a specific time period in exchange for passage across the Atlantic. Upon completion of their contract, they were released. Likewise, though slaves did not enter into the arrangement willingly, their term of service was not lifelong.
Nevetheless, it's clear from the essay that a popularization of History (and I shrink a bit as I write the phrase, because dammit, we shouldn't have to popularize something that is pretty interesting all by itself) can have great results. For proof that History can hold its own in the world of Interesting Stuff, we need only look to the illustrious Sharon Howard at Early Modern Notes, where she treats us to a series of episodes in ritual transvestism! I'm not going to excerpt it here, because it's pure fun and no one excerpt can give enough of the flavour.
Finally, in a pretty serendipitous submission, Natalie Bennett at Philobiblion has a short post on Postcard History that reminds us that certain kinds of evidence make the recent past both historical and relevant.
But wait! That's not all this Carnival has in store! Mark Grimsley, over at The Ohio Twenty-first write in The North Star about republicanism in American History -- or the teaching thereof -- and how that leads into helping students question their own ideas of citizenship. I found the article really interesting, both for the subject and for Grimsley's attempts to translate some of those reflections into action. Subject-wise, I suppose it's because I teach Ancient History, and so spend a lot of time on Athenian democracy and Roman republicanism. In terms of action, well ... I think you can figure that out yourselves.
Moving along to our final features, the topic is a bit tricker: what, exactly qualifies a person to do the job? An education with credentials, or ability? And what about the fuzzy areas where the person with credentials is nonetheless suspect in the eyes of his colleagues, and the person without them proves through his actions that he might should've had them all along? CW at the Dartmouth Observer offers his take on the Ward Churchill case, along with thoughts on Michelle Malkin and, as his main topic, Thomas Woods, author of A Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. CW shows little mercy to Woods (referring to a review by Max Boot):
Check out his book if you want more "evidence" that the Klan were just a bunch of "ham-handed" freedom fighters. Boot's not an academic historian, and his own Savage Wars of Peace suffers from selective examples and inadequate primary research, but he strikes me as being on the mark here.
I can sympathise with CW's sentiments, but as someone who's adjuncted at both 4-year colleges and taught full-time at a community college without drawing too much opprobrium from my colleagues (most of whom understand the vagaries of the job market), I was a bit disappointed at this:
And by solid credentials, I don't just mean a PhD from Harvard; I mean a tenured position at a reputable university (not Suffolk County Community College, where Woods teaches), with a series of peer-reviewed books and articles to one's name.
Despite that comment, which I attribute to inexperience, the article as a whole is quite good and worth your time. On the other end of the spectrum, Ralph Luker, Cliopatriarch par excellence, draws from his college days to remind us that, in some cases, credentials don't make the teacher, but lying about them still makes things, well, complicated, in
Why I Agree with Everything that You Say and with Nothing that You Say ... Read it and reflect, I say.
Last but not least, I seem to recall that in some places, it's the month where we honor women, extraordinary and otherwise (if there is such a thing). Lest we forget, and because again, it's just a really neat story, I leave you with melinama's account of The Rebel Nun of the 17th c. I like it because, among other things, it reminds us that for a very long time women looked to a life in the Church to free them from their obligations. I think in a very nice way, this leads us right back to the kinds of issues that New Kid and her students were dealing with, and something we all deal with on a regular basis -- the debunking of popular conceptions which, although they might help to make history personally relevant, get in the way of allowing history to be meaningful.
Thanks for all the great submissions, folks! The next History Carnival (#5) will be held at Clioweb on or about April 1. Submit entries to jboggs AT gmu DOT edu.