Creating Her Own Path

Ashley Blackburn processing skulls at University of Groningen. Photo credit: CMU News

Ashley Blackburn processing skulls at University of Groningen. Photo credit: CMU News

Ashley Blackburn, a Central Michigan University senior majoring in public history with minors in anthropology and museum studies, not only studied abroad this summer, but also created the internship program path she took.

Central Michigan's public history and museum studies programs equip students with the skills they need for success and Ashley is a prime example of collaboration between advisors and students to enrich the experience. 

CMU News featured Ashley's internship:

'The skulls. They speak to me.'

Student creates internship and processes artifacts in The Netherlands

August 7, 2017

Ashley Blackburn spent the summer working with hominin skulls and early human tools.

It's exactly what the Central Michigan University senior wanted from the international internship that she created.

"The skulls. They speak to me," Blackburn told her internship supervisor when he asked her to choose between organizing the museum's medical collection or skull collection.

The internship was at the museum for the University of Groningen — Rijksuniversiteit Groningen — in The Netherlands. Her internship ended in late July after her spring semester of classes in history and anthropology.

The internship work was in line with Blackburn's interests. ...

Continue reading at CMU News.

Local Schools: Then and Now

Students’ names and initials carved into the wall of a schoolhouse in Grantham, Lincolnshire.  The building dates to the late fifteenth century. Photo by Carrie Euler.

Students’ names and initials carved into the wall of a schoolhouse in Grantham, Lincolnshire.  The building dates to the late fifteenth century. Photo by Carrie Euler.

By Carrie Euler

I have spent much of the summer writing a draft of what I hope will be the first peer-reviewed journal article to come out of my new project on local schools in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England.  It has led me to ponder some interesting similarities and differences between education then and now.

Some things have not changed.  Then as now, most people placed a high value in education and saw it as a path to upward mobility.  Most of these schools were founded on charitable endowments made by middle and upper-class men who wanted to give less fortunate children (mostly boys—more on that in a minute) in their hometowns the chance to obtain an education for free.  They would set aside money or land to support the salary of a schoolmaster and stipulate that the master was not to charge the students any fees.  This is why many schools in this period were referred to as “free schools.”  Then as now, most parents sent their children to these local schools, rather than to distant boarding schools, and most clearly paid attention to and cared about what their children learned.  In one case, parents complained about a certain schoolmaster and said their children were “losing their time” with him (i.e. wasting their time).  This reveals another similarity to the present day: an uneasy relationship between teachers and scholars, on the one hand, and the non-academics whose children they were teaching on the other.  In some cases, it is clear that the non-academics respected teachers and university scholars.  The founders of several schools stipulated that if the school trustees needed advice or somehow failed to appoint a schoolmaster when the position became vacant, the advice or appointment would be made by the fellows (professors) of a specific college at Oxford or Cambridge.  Nevertheless, documents relating to charitable donations to Oxford and Cambridge colleges themselves often reveal a belief among the donors (wealthy businessmen) that the fellows were lazy, ivory-tower types not to be trusted with money.  Also, like today, teachers were not paid very much compared to other professionals and often had to find second and third jobs to make ends meet.  Finally, another similarity that surprised me a little was the difficulties teachers had disciplining students.  The popular stereotype of pre-modern schools being institutions with fierce discipline because schoolmasters were allowed to inflict corporeal punishment seems to be overblown.  Yes, there was corporeal punishment at times, but it is clear that, just as teachers do today, masters often struggled to control students.  The most amusing example is that in several schools across the two English counties that I studied, it was apparently a tradition for the students to break all the schoolhouse windows on the last day before Christmas.

Of course, there are things about education that have changed a great deal since the seventeenth century, mostly for the better.  The most obvious is the increase in female students in the modern period.  Between approximately 1500 and 1650, girls would only have been present in the primary schools, up to about age eight.  After that, boys could move onto the secondary schools, known as “grammar schools” (because they taught mostly Latin grammar), where girls were not allowed.  Starting around 1650, though, there are a few secondary schools for girls only, and by the eighteenth century, a few that admit both.  Women were not allowed in universities, however, until the nineteenth century.  Another obvious difference is that there was no such thing as public education.  None of these schools was funded by the state, and there was no belief in education as a right.  Consequently, while the number of schools gradually increased over the entire period I am studying, a much smaller proportion of the population received an education and became literate than today.  Finally, while the low pay and little respect teachers received was arguably similar to today, schoolmasters four hundred years ago actually had it worse in many ways because their jobs were, for the most part, subject to the whims of the parents and boards of trustees set up by the charitable endowments.  There were no unions and no onsite administrators, like principles or counselors, to help the teachers in the case of crisis or corruption.  I did encounter one legal case in which a schoolmaster successfully sued the trustees for breach of contract, but this was pretty rare.

If there’s one thing that most historians can agree on, it’s that progress over time is not a given, but in the area of education, it appears that the modernity brought mostly positive changes.  I have learned a lot through this research and hope to continue to do so as I expand the project in the future.

Podcasts: Listen, Create, Engage

By Jennifer Vannette

Podcasts are getting quite a bit of attention lately, but they really aren't new. In 2008, the American Historical Association (AHA)'s blog featured podcasts as an alternative teaching method. The article suggested that podcasts provided a great way to listen to lectures outside of a classroom setting. This is indeed one type of history podcast.

Over the last decade, many more podcasters have offered a whole host of new material. Some are still based on presenting a stand alone lecture while others deeply explore long arcs of historical events, such as The Fall of Rome. Still others explore the quirky side of history by highlighting stories you may not have heard in history classes such as the dark history of Hollywood on You Must Remember This or the travails of the high seas on The History of Pirates. There are so many interesting facets of history that podcasters tackle to the delight of public audiences. Seriously, just google history podcasts and you be offered many different lists of the "best."

Then there are also podcasts that appeal to those of us in the profession. The Organization of American Historians (OAH) has its own podcast to compliment their journal. Each month last year Ed Linenthal, the executive editor of the Journal of American History interviewed a guest about the article he or she had recently contributed to the journal. Another approach by some of our own grad students at CMU (two current and one alum) discusses all the things we talk about with other grad students -- navigating school, teaching, professional networking, and more. I Was Told There'd Be Food is a great introduction to grad school life or a place to go for ideas and commiseration.

History departments are also finding ways to involve faculty and students in creating podcasts. A highly regarded offering that has been active for awhile, 15 Minute History, comes from the University of Texas at Austin faculty and grad students. It is what it sounds like -- brief episodes that cover a wide range of history. The faculty of University of Oxford also have a similar podcasts, and they have some general history and a few more specific podcasts such as Stories, Spaces, and Societies -- Globalising and Localising the Great War. These can be an excellent method of public engagement for faculty and grad students alike. The very specific topics are a great place to engage with the research of your specialization.

There is also the possibility of incorporating podcasts in the classroom. Not only can students gain deeper understanding of material if we assign specific podcast episodes in addition to (or instead of) a reading assignment but we can also consider having students produce a podcast episode as an alternative to a paper or other project. Free recording software is available to download from the internet and then all it takes is a pair of earbuds with built in microphone (standard with most phones now) and our students have what they need.

Podcasts can be listened to while driving, while exercising, or doing chores. When you search for podcasts, you will find wide enough variety to suit all tastes. While we listen, we can brainstorm methods for incorporating as an alternative teaching method. So, go explore the wide world of history podcasts.

In Real Time: Twitter as Public History

By Jennifer Vannette

In the summer of 1967, violence and chaos consumed Detroit. Fifty years after the summer rebellion (race riot?) engulfed the city and captured the nation's attention, there are several resources available for us to revisit or learn for the first time about the event. One of the most intriguing resources that blends public history, social media, and primary sources comes from the @StatesideRadio Today in 1967 Twitter account. 

Today in 1967 recounted the Detroit rebellion in real time by tweeting information and primary sources at the time they occurred. For example:

The tweets begin fifty years to the minute when the police officer entered the blind pig and continue through the fires, looting, snipers, political decisions, and arrests. Tweets layer the police accounts with people's memories. Several tweets note the reactions and lack of concern over smoke rising just past left field by those at the Detroit Tigers baseball game. One tweet provides a link to a Detroit Free Press article attempting to explain why the rioting spread so quickly across the city. Other tweets note where Gov. George Romney was and what he was doing at different points during the crisis. One embeds his radio address. The organized collection of primary sources is outstanding. Not only is it a great method of presenting public history -- partly because you feel just how long the event took -- but it will also make a great teaching resource since it is automatically archived. You find the whole series of tweets either on Today in 1967's profile of with the #rebellion67.

This may become something of a trend. Representative John Lewis also used this format earlier this year to detail his experience at Selma. His series is tagged with #Selma52. Twitter is offering historians a new world of engagement.

Colonists had Political Satire Too

History News Network posted and op-ed by our own professor Andrew Wehrman. In the piece Wehrman compares the SNL parody of the current administration to the satirical political commentary leading up to the American Revolution. His piece places the current trend into historical context.

An excerpt from "To the American Colonists, Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer & the Rest of the Trump Crowd Would Seem Familiar Characters"

"The cartoon-like representations of Donald Trump and his advisors Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and perhaps especially Steve Bannon on Saturday Night live point to a crisis of constitutional authority perhaps not seen in American popular culture since America’s first constitutional crisis during the tense decade prior to the American Revolution ... Saturday Night Live’s depictions of Trump’s narcissistic know-nothingness, Sean Spicer’s weaponized podium, Conway’s “alternative facts,” Ivanka Trump’s complicity, Jared Kushner’s speechless power-grab, and, of course, Steve Bannon’s ominously skeletal grim reaper, harken back to early fears that constitutional checks and balances do not protect a nation from nefarious advisors, ministers, family members, and interlopers. 

While the policies, issues, and people differ greatly, these representations echo with the ways in which political satirists in the 1760s and 1770s warned colonial Americans of an impending constitutional crisis."

To continue reading: http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/166118

Expanding into Public Scholarship

Unessays by Ashley Woodworth (left) and McKayla Sundberg (right)

Unessays by Ashley Woodworth (left) and McKayla Sundberg (right)

By Jordan X. Evans

How can we as scholars, educators, and historians engage with students and the public in the age of “alternative facts” and constant funding cuts? This is of utmost importance to us at CMU because in April the University decided to cut nearly ten percent of the financial operating budget for the College of Humanities, Social & Behavioral Sciences. A recent article in The Chronicle by Keisha N. Blain and Ibram X. Kendi, “How to Avoid a Post-Scholar America,” attempts to answer some of those questions. One of their suggestions was to become public historians: pull ourselves out of the archives, conferences, libraries, labs, and the historical jargon. Our history department has already started to engage in this through activities like Reacting to the Past. where students gain an appreciation for how complicated history is by placing themselves within a historical moment. Through the use of RTTP students also learn to critically think about historical events in a fun way. Teaching critical thinking skills in a game brings value to the students and our own classrooms.

However, this is one step; what are some other methods and activities we can do to reengage and fight against the world of alternative facts? Instead of engaging in a highly specialized field that is nearly inaccessible for the public, we as historians must become the defenders of truth, critical thinking, and history. If we take seriously Blain and Kendi's call to become public scholars, what might that look like?. Public scholars engage with people in unique ways, for example; giving public lectures, editing and creating blogs, and inventing interesting and different ways to publish scholarship. The focus is on accessibility, not demonstrating your impressive vocabulary. Can we as historians capitalize on alternative methods to combat alternative facts inside of and outside of the hallowed walls of our university?

On April 21, CMU hosted Dr. Ari Kelman as a speaker for our Blackburn Lecture series. During his time on campus he spoke about his new project with co-author Jonathan Fetter-Vorm the creation of a graphic novel called Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War. The book tells the real history of the American Civil War in a graphic novel-style format – , full of pictures and simple language, it would be highly accessible to the public. Kelman’s project is following in the footsteps of the award winning graphic book series March, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell,  which traces the history of John Lewis during his struggle in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. March exemplifies a singular narrative that traces one story, captured in a fun, easy, and insightful way. Following Kelman’s visit, the use of graphic novel style to bridge the academic and public worlds lingered on my mind. If we could incorporate them then how do we start creating work like that in our own classrooms?

Dr. Christopher Jones, a visiting assistant professor at Brigham Young University, answered that question by sharing a series of photographs on Twitter documenting his students unessays. An unessay is meant “to break open the corral of the traditional essay and encourage students to take a different approach to the assignment. It requires some creativity” (emphasis added). One picture is a collection of four paintings that depict “the near-erasure of all but white men from American history + efforts to correct that record”. A Landscape Management major “drew up ‘landscape blueprints’ to depict clash of cultures b[y] Powhatans and English in 17c Virginia”. Scholars should keep in mind that students working on their undergraduate degrees come to learn carrying their own unique talents and interests. Using unessays could be one way to keep them engaged in a class they may otherwise lose interest in. In addition, assigning work like this can challenge us as historians beyond the classroom to be more creative and make work like graphic histories.

As the country becomes ever more entrenched in a battle of facts and alternative facts it falls on us to remember our duty to engage and teach in ways that the public and undergraduates will value, understand, and share. Are we doing that effectively? If we cannot easily say yes, then what more can we do before this ten percent funding cut becomes twenty percent next year? Scholars must defend truth, critical thinking, and history, not just in our academic sphere but with the public as well, by using methods previously scoffed at before historians become a matter of history ourselves.

Happy Independence Day!

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776, "Had a Declaration..."

Philadelphia July 3d. 1776

Had a Declaration of Independency been made seven Months ago, it would have been attended with many great and glorious Effects . . . . We might before this Hour, have formed Alliances with foreign States. -- We should have mastered Quebec and been in Possession of Canada .... You will perhaps wonder, how such a Declaration would have influenced our Affairs, in Canada, but if I could write with Freedom I could easily convince you, that it would, and explain to you the manner how. -- Many Gentlemen in high Stations and of great Influence have been duped, by the ministerial Bubble of Commissioners to treat .... And in real, sincere Expectation of this effort Event, which they so fondly wished, they have been slow and languid, in promoting Measures for the Reduction of that Province. Others there are in the Colonies who really wished that our Enterprise in Canada would be defeated, that the Colonies might be brought into Danger and Distress between two Fires, and be thus induced to submit. Others really wished to defeat the Expedition to Canada, lest the Conquest of it, should elevate the Minds of the People too much to hearken to those Terms of Reconciliation which they believed would be offered Us. These jarring Views, Wishes and Designs, occasioned an opposition to many salutary Measures, which were proposed for the Support of that Expedition, and caused Obstructions, Embarrassments and studied Delays, which have finally, lost Us the Province.

All these Causes however in Conjunction would not have disappointed Us, if it had not been for a Misfortune, which could not be foreseen, and perhaps could not have been prevented, I mean the Prevalence of the small Pox among our Troops .... This fatal Pestilence compleated our Destruction. -- It is a Frown of Providence upon Us, which We ought to lay to heart.

But on the other Hand, the Delay of this Declaration to this Time, has many great Advantages attending it. -- The Hopes of Reconciliation, which were fondly entertained by Multitudes of honest and well meaning tho weak and mistaken People, have been gradually and at last totally extinguished. -- Time has been given for the whole People, maturely to consider the great Question of Independence and to ripen their judgments, dissipate their Fears, and allure their Hopes, by discussing it in News Papers and Pamphletts, by debating it, in Assemblies, Conventions, Committees of Safety and Inspection, in Town and County Meetings, as well as in private Conversations, so that the whole People in every Colony of the 13, have now adopted it, as their own Act. -- This will cement the Union, and avoid those Heats and perhaps Convulsions which might have been occasioned, by such a Declaration Six Months ago.

But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. -- I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. -- Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776, "Had a Declaration..." [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/

Road Closed

Island Park, Mt. Pleasant, MI

Island Park, Mt. Pleasant, MI

Historic flooding in mid-Michigan last week, June 23. Central Michigan University closed for a day, and CM-Life has reported the costs of the damage is expected to be between $7-10 million. Most of the flooding on campus affected basements, but the flood damaged some first floors as well. The buildings with reported damage include: Student Activity Center, Rowe Hall, Calkins Hall, Foust Hall, Dow Science Complex and Theunissen Stadium.

Nearby towns and rural areas also experienced flooding, closing many streets, and drawing comparisons to past floods. Midland, Michigan experienced the second worst recorded flood -- and this just about a year after the 30th Anniversary of the Great Flood of 1986. Like the last major flood, people were out in kayaks and canoes checking damages and aiding others. The year of the Great Flood the state experienced damage from Muskegon to Bay City with 14 dams breaking and over $500 million (which would be about $1.1 billion today) in crop and property damages. We won't know for awhile yet what the damages will cost mid-Michigan. MLive featured photos from the 1986 flood for the anniversary.

So, this week we are cleaning up, putting things back together, and contemplating the historic nature of weather events. Stay dry, friends.

Maps as History

1988 Road Atlas, Rand McNally

1988 Road Atlas, Rand McNally

By Jennifer Vannette

I love maps. I've always been drawn to them. I spent many hours as a child happily entertaining myself by studying the road atlas on long car trips. Maps tell stories and offer all sorts of interesting little rabbit holes down which to get lost. They can also help teach history in a visual, dynamic way.

With so many new digital archives available, we now have access to maps of nearly everything we might want to teach. The David Rumsey Collection, the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas, the Newberry Library Map and Cartography Collections, and Stanford University Spatial History Project are excellent resources available for historians.

John Pickles, a geographer with interests in social power and maps, suggests:

maps have the character of being textual in that they have words associated with them, that they employ a system of symbols within their own syntax, that they function as a form of writing (inscription), and that they are discursively embedded within broader contexts of social action and power.

Teaching with maps not only can help students visualize the trade routes of the British empire, the westward expansion of the US, or the ways religions spread, maps can also be used to teach primary source analysis. Students can learn to interrogate what the map depicts, who made the map, why they made the map. Other questions suggested by the National Archives lesson plans include: "What did you find out from this map that you might not learn anywhere else?" and "What other documents or historical evidence are you going to use to help you undertand this event or topic?"

Maps help us orient history in time and place. Visualizing space can be very powerful.

In Defense of History: A New Blog Feature

Paul Revere sounding the call. Boston.

Paul Revere sounding the call. Boston.

The blog is changing. Even historians can stride purposefully towards progress!  If you go up to the Newsworthy tab, you will notice a drop down menu with two options: News & Happenings, which has all the announcements you are familiar with finding under Newsworthy, and the new In Defense of History.

In Defense of History is where you will find links to different resources that discuss the importance of studying history and the usefulness of a history degree (or more broadly liberal arts/humanities). The collection of articles features people such as entrepreneur Mark Cuban stating that liberal arts is the future or The Harvard Business Review echoing the sentiment and arguing that innovative thinkers come from the humanities. David Kalt, the founder of Reverb.com penned a piece for the Wall Street Journal saying that he was wrong to believe he need computer science people exclusively to build his business. He wrote, “A well-­rounded liberal arts degree establishes a foundation of critical thinking. Critical thinkers can accomplish anything.”

While we need to apply our critical thinking skills to our own field and question whether or not we are effectively communicating the importance of historical studies to our universities and the broader public, we should also remember that it’s not all doom and gloom. There are many people who understand our abilities and want to have us on their team.

So, when you need a dose of inspiration, an injection of optimism, or resources to boost your argument, you will find a growing archive under In Defense of History. Feel free to pass along suggestions for the page. Send links to cmichhistoryblog@gmail.com

History through Students' Eyes

By Katie Krawetzke

US History through Michigan Eyes is like many survey courses in that it features a large lecture hall, multiple TAs, and many of the enrolled students are required to take it, either as a University Program or Writing Intensive course. Unlike many survey courses, though, it draws an exceptional number of Education Majors and Minors. HST 210 fulfills a requirement for CMU’s future teachers, which means I was teaching the next generation of educators. Running discussion sections for teachers raises my expectations for class participation because educators in both primary and secondary schools are going to be in front of (increasingly) large classes and are constantly kept on their toes by their students. In my semester of TAing for this class, I was lucky enough to see some highly engaged students, who I am sure will make wonderful teachers when they graduate from CMU. Featured here are two of those students who I have no doubt will make great teachers because of their own inquisitiveness and passion for learning.


By Keturah Ashford

This course has affected my understanding of American and Michigan history by giving me a clearer and deeper understanding of what truly transpired within our state and nation. I feel as though the education system does not make a large enough emphasis on history at the primary and secondary level. The information in lower grades is also biased to what the author’s views are and what they deem important. Through the activities, essays, and discussion in HST 210, I have gained more knowledge and new found perspective on the history previously learned.

One of the most important skills I acquired is finding and analyzing primary sources in order to gain my own deeper understanding. Without this skill I would still be under the impression that Lincoln freed all slaves, Henry Ford was a good man who cared about all employees and their families, the civil rights was the only movement in the 1960s, the Boston Massacre was a horrible tragedy because of Britain, and how much Michigan actually relied on slavery. I know know that Michigan played a huge role in national history including through industry, agriculture, mining, forts, mining, timber, and race rallies.

The knowledge and skills accumulated will help me educate the future generations on historical facts, how to find the most accurate information, and how to actively read, analyze, and form opinions and connections from the past, present, and future.


By Krystal Headley

In the course United States History through Michigan Eyes, the emphasis on perspective most affected my understanding of history. The more I learn about history in general, from any point in time, I see that there are many ways to view each event. I feel like this class did a great job showing us how to separate the account of events from emotional responses in many documents. We used and analyzed primary source documents accounts from events like the Boston Massacre or the Civil War or WWII, and we were able to get down to the bare bones to study events and learn about bias.

As an education major, I spend a lot of time considering how to best to teach future students. These historical thinking activities changed my perspective about how history should be taught. Rather than memorize a set of facts, dates, or series of events, it should be about uncovering clues form the past through a multi sensory experience. Then, critical thinking and comparison should be applied; for example, how does a series of events apply to our current political climate?

I appreciate how this class forced us to do more than just know what happened, but to put it into real context.

For Public Consumption: Food History and Youtube

By Simon Walker

               University of Strathclyde

When I started my post-graduate training, I envisaged a world of books, half-moon glasses and dusty archives.  I looked forward to writing a book that no one, except my suffering students, would read and delivering lectures to a room of people more interested in their catnaps, computers and coffees.   Then I discovered, the scourge of 21st century academia: Public Engagement! 

 Strange thing is, I love public engagement.  I blog, I tweet, I teach in local schools and occasionally guest lecture at public events.  It’s great fun and its very different to dealing with other academics who half the time are waiting nervously (or sometimes impatiently) for their turn to speak.  At a PhD level your peers tend to be kind, your betters benevolent and your academic audience, polite.  With the public you get quirks, questions and often genuine interest. 

One of the best public talks I ever gave was to an audience of only six people as part of the Glasgow Southside Fringe festival. Serves me right for presenting in the basement of a grand mansion whilst the sun streamed down on music and comedy acts elsewhere!  To be fair, I wouldn’t have to come to see me either.  But the talk was great, because as I explained about trench food and hard tack (the impossible to eat biscuit / bread that was the British soldiers last resort on the front line), the audience engaged, leaned forward and conversed. 

But all of these things have been done and done again.  Even my teaching in schools, which is great fun, is not exactly unique.  So, in the best tradition of finding any distraction from not writing my thesis, I searched for something ‘a wee bit different.’  In the middle of the Great British Bake Off,* I had a very daft idea.  When I’m insolently not writing my thesis, I have a tendency to bake.  I bake cakes for friend’s birthdays, cookies for my younglings, and doughnuts because it’s Friday. So, I decided to blend together: my love of cooking, my passion for the First World War, and let’s be honest, my dashingly handsome and charismatic self.  I decided to make a YouTube cookery show which I called Feeding Under Fire

The format was simple: get camera, use camera, cook!  Having never presented on camera before, I was ridiculously naïve.  The research bit was the easy part.  I pulled a recipe from an Army Service Cook Book from 1914 for Hard Tack and then trawled through my personal archives for my unwritten thesis for accounts of trying to eat it.  I storyboarded the scene, wrote my script and it was time for Lights, Camera, Action!  This is where it fell apart. 

So, I enlisted a YouTube expert to help me film.  Together we managed to make an 11-minute film, which took six hours to make and then ten hours for me to edit.  I couldn’t look at the camera, I couldn’t remember my lines, I hated the way I looked, my voice, my kitchen.  To get me to lighten up, my director placed a funny sign behind the camera to help my slightly manic smile have some enthusiasm to it.   Finally, I managed to upload it to YouTubeThis was it, I would be, well not famous, but you know, popular at least, I’m sure!   Over the next four days, there was around 15 views, and those were from a smattering of friends, and mostly me, from different devices.  As it stands there are over 200 views on the first episode 5 up thumbs and 1 down thumb (I don’t know who that was but I’m going to force feed you hardtack raw, my friend).  That was the hardest part.  Knowing I had put so much effort into it and no one cared.  

Then a schoolteacher friend messaged me to say she had enjoyed the video and that she had used it as part of a lesson plan.  She passed it on to another person who did the same and suddenly I felt better about the whole thing.  I learned from the mistakes in the first episode. The next one was better researched, I brought in a friend to ‘taste test’ on camera, I actually bought a decent video camera and microphone and I fixed much of the oddities of the first video.  Episode two currently has just over 100 views.  Episode three is now up and episode four is in post-production hell. It will be done. 

So, what is the point I hear you ask. Well done, mate, you made a Youtube video that got less views than a French speaking cat trying to get into a house!  Basically, who cares? Well the point is, whilst I am not a YouTube star (yet – I have hope), I love Feeding Under Fire. Public engagement is important for developing wider key skills that are useful both within and beyond academia. Also, having a more varied presentation platform means that you can reach a more diverse audience with your research.  Feeding Under Fire is on my academic CV, it helped me get a job at the Scottish Parliament, and I’m planning to apply for funding to push the series as an engagement project for six months whilst in the post-doc, pre-job wilderness.  Feeding Under Fire is daft, but it’s fun, it’s interesting and it dares to be a little different; also, my kids love it, so why not.  Try it yourself, you never know what might happen, but give me a thumb up when you do, eh?

* Aired on PBS as the Great British Baking Show.

 

Editor's Note: University of Strathclyde is one of our partner institutions. This fruitful exchange has sent many of our PhD students to Glasgow for a year of study, and Strathclyde has sent CMU many students. Simon Walker is a PhD Student at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.  He focuses on the physical transformation and control that British soldier’s bodies experienced during the First World War.     Email: Simon.h.walker@strath.ac.uk

Navigating the Crisis: Set a New Course

By Jennifer Vannette

The crisis of the humanities has been a long lamented point in the academy. As we well know at CMU, budget shortfalls are balanced on the backs of history programs, which then have to cut courses and new hires. As other programs send us fewer students due to their own restructuring and society deems the study of history less important, universities have begun to require fewer credits in history. Additionally, many people view history as less useful to their futures. It’s easy to get discouraged.

The latest issue of Perspectives on History (May 2017) offers two articles addressing the challenges of and failures regarding teaching history. David Pace, in his piece “The History of the Classroom in an Era of Crisis: A Change of Course Is Needed,” begins with the clarion call that “in a ‘post-truth’ age of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news,’ historians must ask fundamental questions about our public roles,” and he argues that we have a moral obligation to defend the institutions of democracy. Pace promotes a change in how we teach history, being sure to move away from memorization and towards reasoning and critical analysis. This is not a new idea, and many historians have already made that shift at the college level. But, Pace, notes that we have a tendency to blame students lack of preparation for college rather than reshaping courses to address the needs of the student body we have.

 The numbers are startling when it comes to fail rates. The companion article in Perspectives, “Many Thousands Failed: A Wakeup Call to History Educators” by Andrew Koch, complied data on 28,000 students from 32 different institutions over the course of three academic years spanning 2012-2015 who were enrolled in a US history survey course. The data showed that about two-thirds of the students earned a grade of a C or higher. But, looking at the demographic variables, the research team saw that race, family income level, gender, and status as a first-generation college student were indicators that predicted the success rate of students in a history class: “…the likelihood of earning a D, F, W, or I grade is lower for Asian Americans, white, and female students who are not first generation, and do not receive a Pell Grant. It is higher, and sometimes significantly higher, for every other demographic group.” And, the failure in one introductory course, like a US survey, increases the likelihood of dropping out of school.

 Koch also criticizes past methods of teaching history. He sees promise in active-learning strategies. But, additionally, he implores historians to take an active role in preventing the negative outcomes for disadvantaged students. Inequality in society predicts inequality in learning outcomes, and we have an obligation to intercede.

Both articles also express worry that part of the fail rates are due to a lack of diversity in the narratives communicated to students. Even though historians have produced a great body of literature that addresses class, race, gender, ethnic studies, religion, and many more interesting facets of humanity, many minority students are not finding themselves represented in the survey courses. We’ve adjusted how we talk to each other as academics, but we are faltering in communication of the rich body of history to students and the public.

Pace and Koch acknowledge the lack of willpower at institutions to make changes, particularly when the results are unknown. We need to try something new, but a university rarely wants to be the first to use an untested method. The work that goes into changing course offerings can be daunting, but there are resources available and a network of historians working on educational research. Change can happen – Yale recently announced that through their efforts of revamping their history major courses and requirements, history is once again the top major at the university.

Both authors offer good starting points for the conversation, and they indicate that we need more creativity. We perhaps need the political determination to challenge the norm (should I say sacred cow?) of historical survey courses. Even when historians have tested new methods, we still cling to the survey lecture structure. Consider the example of how the game-based pedagogy Reacting to the Past has been typically used. The game focuses on one particular historical experience during a discussion section while the chronological survey continues with lectures during two of their three meeting times.

Some historians have begun to approach courses, even university required surveys, with a thematic approach. This can be difficult to do; it’s hard to relinquish the chronology. I know when I taught US Since 1945, although I organized the lectures by themes, I made sure to also balance that with a chronological structure. I’m not sure I went far enough. We have the ability to cover a broad sweep of history while focusing entirely on a single theme. Course examples from the American Studies program at Canterbury in the UK are quite exciting, for example, The Invention of America: Texts and Contexts from 1670 to the Present; Rise of the American Colossus: US Foreign Policy, 1898 to the Present; or, Banned Books: A Literary History of the US. Can we pique student interest better by focusing on a particular theme rather than trying to cover everything that happened over hundreds of years?

As historians, we know that we are relevant to the conversations that consume society today, and as Pace pointed out, we perhaps even have a moral obligation to do all we can to defend our institutions. With the fail-rate data and the layers of bureaucracy that must be navigated to make changes, it's easy to want to just stay the course. But there are positive signs. Even with STEM promotion, many technology business leaders have said that they seek people with the skills historians have and can teach. (Here. Here. And here.) The work of a course change is daunting, and there are no guarantees. And, still, we should engage in new ideas and try new methods for engaging our students – even if it means killing the sacred cow.        

It’s a TA Life for Me: Living in Greenwich Village

Art Work and Items for game points.

Art Work and Items for game points.

By Gillian Macdonald

“To start with I thought it was terrible, then we got to the game, and oh my god, I had no idea that I knew that much about American history just immersing myself in one person.”

This is the statement that makes being a Teaching Assistant worth it. TA’s are forever talking about teaching assignments and class work –  it’s all part of the experience – and what you tend to find is that either the funny or the heartwarming stories stick out. There are so many great stories when using the game-based learning pedagogy, Reacting to the Past or RTTP. It may seem strange to use game based learning in a history class, but when the documents alone can’t quite get the idea across or grab students attention, it’s a fabulous way to learn. In a wide-ranging survey course designed to teach students American history from Reconstruction to present, “experiencing” a moment often is the best way to explain historical events and help students deepen their understanding of their very unique heritage.

Reacting to the Past: Greenwich Village 1913 is one of those moments. Don’t be fooled by the game aspect –  it is a lot of work; students must take on a historical role and remain in that character for 4 or 5 weeks while trying to achieve their game objectives. Because it is a game, they mostly focus on the winning, but in the end, they have a much better understanding of how historical forces actually work in real life. To play the game, there is a period of set up. However, this is the point where you can lose students. Prepping for the game is work, but once the game gets going it feels much smoother and pretty much runs itself. However, this type of leg work is often something students are not accustomed to and complaints are to be expected. Those who stay end up really enjoying it, especially if they win ;-).

The hardest part for the TA is deciding on the cast. Greenwich Village has the luxury of so many great characters like Emma Goldman, John “Jack” Reed, and Margaret Sanger, to name just a few. Students must know their character inside out. Taking on the role of a historical person requires a multitude of skills – skills they often didn’t know that they had. In order to make their character believable the student must know: who was this person? How did their life experiences shape them? How did the events of the day influence their political views? What did they want and why? The TA on the other hand, has to know all of the characters—everything about them—including how they would react in a multitude of situations. It’s crazy, although now I could tell you all about “Big Bill” Haywood’s trial for murder and how students used this in the game, and more importantly, how and why it was used to make arguments for and against him and the labor faction’s objectives....

This year, the class did unbelievably well. Students went above and beyond – in costume every day, created buttons, posters, paintings – and it showed. The fun part, at least for me, was watching them learn, react, and evolve. For instance, there are a number of surprises in the game (which I won’t spoil) and seeing their faces and how they felt afterward was just fantastic. Students grow confident, learn how to speak out, and express historical opinions in meaningful ways, all while they gain transferable skills. Their journals and reflection papers, which help to try and ground the experience, are where the lightbulb moments happen, and that makes them so fun to read. Students often make connections between what they have learned playing the game and the lecture material. That reflection often creates a deeper understanding of historical forces at work.

This is where RTTP can do things that reading a document just doesn’t do. Students are reading and researching without even really thinking about it because they are immersing themselves in a situation because they want to win! It’s a game after all, experience matters. One faculty member, Dr. Kathleen Donohue told me that students feel RTTP has a lasting impact, particularly when they have played a person who was fundamentally different from themselves. It can be a powerful experience. One student expressed afterwards that it was an eye-opening experience and reinforced his opinions on gender-equality.

Overall, RTTP is definitely a worthwhile experience, but it’s not for the faint-hearted ;-).

But Do I Get to Wear a Hat?: A Day of Historical Interpretation

Fort Abraham Lincoln Cavalry Post Custer House

Fort Abraham Lincoln Cavalry Post Custer House

By Alexander Greff

     UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA; CMU ALUMUS

“Hey – are you the general?” Teenagers are always the one’s who ask first, though many of their parents aren’t far behind. It’s the question I seem to get more often than anything: more than anything about the house, the field equipment, the artillery pieces, or the stables – and it leaves me seriously reconsidering my commitment to grow a 1870s-style mustache. How was I supposed to know my facial hair would bleach in the summer sun?!

It was a grand, old-timey kind of summer that I spent, working as an undergraduate history major at Fort Abraham Lincoln, on the banks of the Missouri River in central North Dakota. It wasn’t my first stint working in public history (though that had also involved a cowboy-esque persona), but it was my most memorable. My work was split that summer between leading tours at a recreated Mandan Native American village site, and the adjoining 19th century frontier fort, which just so happened to be the final posting of George Armstrong Custer (only a Lieutenant Colonel after the Civil War, mind!) before the Little Bighorn. The fort posting also involved full living history -- the men in the blue woolen uniforms, the women in cotton dresses with petticoats and bonnets. Come the festival days of mid July, which involved activities in close proximity to horses, it was hard to tell who suffered most in the heat. And despite precipitous attempts to grow my hair out in a cool, period fashion, it was one of the best history related jobs I’ve had.

Public history is great for getting a real sense of the people’s perceptions of our field. You find out what interests people most about the past, like a real sense of connecting to famous or everyday people. Every time I had to put down my open-fire roasted cowboy coffee and explain to a family that I was not General Custer, but rather his aide dè campe and not fit to wear his fancy buckskins, I’d always get a laugh. Except with the teenagers. They laugh at nothing, but the unease of a docent earnestly describing the purpose of a fainting couch. Then they would laugh, because it meant talking about corsets. And this was public history – the conversation between the fixed stories of historical folks and objects, and the people with all new faces and interests to passed down our dusty road every day. If nothing else, working in public history is like being an improv-academic – you find that every person is interested in something different -- from cast iron cutlery, to the stables, to the firearms -- and that you’re responsible for keeping them entertained and, hopefully, letting them walk away better informed about the past.

Sometimes this goes awry and chaos becomes the teacher. On one day, with a particularly large tour, my colleague led the way under the line of cottonwood trees in front of the main house. From the back of the group there was little time to warn him of the six-foot long bull snake sliding out of the branches before it landed on his head, sending half the students running back towards the parking lot. “How lucky were these students?” I thought, nobody else every gets to join us in directly reliving all the parts of living on the frontier. Snakes were only one of the frequent interactions with the conditions of the past that, at least through terror, compelled visitors to think more about their own relationship with history…and how to safely approach a guest book laid across an outdoor veranda. (Another story, but I’m sure you can guess…)

Most days, working in public history was about taking all the mundane parts of the past and being given the chance to remember that history is full of weird things that interest people. The public historian is in the unique position not just to reach out to, but also to engage with the public in a way that research and writing doesn't often allow. And it's a great opportunity to remember the people (alive or long passed) who first interested you in history and to pass that opportunity on. So mind the snakes, grab some cowboy coffee, and try not to let the handlebar mustache distract you too much from jumping into history!

Reflective Teaching

By David Papendorf

As most of us know, the way that graduate students in history survive is by teaching—or at least that’s what our stipends pay us to do.  It can be both incredibly frustrating and rewarding to teach undergraduate students. However, I think too often in a moment of frustration or the busyness of our schedules, we can get caught up in a false dichotomy of crediting a bad class experience to “bad” students. It becomes so easy to chalk up classroom disappointments and poorly-written papers to disinterested, under-equipped, underachieving, and lazy students that we can easily mistake student performance as the ultimate judge of classroom success.  Alternatively, we can just as easily chalk up great classes to brilliant students and not attempt to understand exactly why things went well.

While I think it important to focus on the students’ experience, we must also not let our highs and lows of teaching be dependent on student response and energy in the classroom as the only metric. By examining each class through the prism of our teaching with some reflective method of evaluating our teaching, we can more readily find what works and doesn’t work and adjust our teaching plans accordingly.

Troubleshooting and diagnostics are incredibly important in reflecting on why the classroom experience went poorly. It can be difficult to think through why things went the way they did.  But I think we owe it to ourselves and our students to take a few minutes and reflect on each class.  I have learned from a former mentor and professor of mine one tip that I have tried to implement.  He suggested I write four sentences after every class/section/seminar summarizing the overall effectiveness of the class time.  This summary should include not just an evaluation of the class time, but at least one success and one area for improvement.  Each summary, he suggested, should be class specific and could even use the names of students directly.  He then suggested that, when preparing for the next week, I should consult these short summaries in order to be more reflective in my preparation.  When I have done this, I have found it extremely helpful. 

Think of it this way: we sometimes have our students write journals following class time to synthesize and summarize their experience.  New methods of pedagogy have taught us how helpful this is for long-term retention and synthesis of new information.  Let’s turn the pedagogy back on us to make us better teachers. This is one way, I believe, that we can begin to grow as instructors.

The Personal is Historical: Opportunity and Loss in the American West

Women on the Oregon Trail

Women on the Oregon Trail

By Shannon Kirkwood

Many years ago, I read an article about women’s experiences on the Oregon Trail. The authors expected to find that these women experienced a new level of freedom and equality on the trail that they lacked at home because they were performing essential and similar tasks to their male counterparts. That this was their expectation is not surprising, given that the article was written in 1975 – the halcyon days of the ERA, when work and notions of equality were at their peak convergence. Instead, the authors found that moving west was not viewed as an opportunity for equality, but as a process of loss for women. In relocating, they lost their families, their friends, their houses – everything that defined their identities and self-worth. They even lost their personal belongings, since china dishes, musical instruments, and heavy pieces of furniture were the first to be off-loaded along the trail as inessential. Generally speaking, moving west meant opportunity for men, and loss for women.

As it happens, I now live near the trailheads of the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the California Trail, and the Mormon Trail. The women who traveled westward on these famous trails had to pass through the area where I live on their way. My own relatives (my grandfather’s grandmother) came through this way and landed in Southeast Kansas, three hours from my house. Knowing the history of the area has highlighted for me in a very personal way all of the things that have changed in the last hundred and fifty years, and all the things that haven’t. Like those women before me, I have moved here from Michigan not for myself, but for my husband’s job. While I didn’t have to leave my stand mixer or the couch somewhere along I-70, I did have to leave behind my friends, my colleagues, and my sister. When my son was born three months ago, nurses asked repeatedly if I had a support system – anyone that could help us out – and were quite distressed when I answered, "No, we’re new here." It wasn’t anything like giving birth in a sod house, days-ride from the nearest neighbor, but the isolation was very real all the same.

What has changed since the 19th century are my own expectations from family life. The women who traveled the Oregon Trail did not expect equality, which is why their household objects were so important to them. The tea sets and the pianos represented a domestic domain where they had authority and autonomy, which they lost along with the actual possessions. Today, I expect a certain level of equality – we both do housework and we both have identities outside of the house. But even that is gone now – we are in an arrangement like that of generations past. My husband earns while I stay at home with the baby. This is has been one of the hardest and most surprising losses for me. I have never not worked. Ever. Much of my identity has come from my work.

While I am grateful for the fact that we can afford for me to stay home, I am also envious of my husband. He gets to teach, mingle with co-workers, and even grade papers, while I spend all day with someone who, for all that he’s cute, doesn’t realize that his feet are connected to his body. Not the most intellectually stimulating environment for someone with three degrees and working on a fourth.

Luckily, I have the benefit of historical insight for this time in my life as well. Yes, I am feeling more of the personal losses. But I know that it won’t be that way forever. I take comfort from the fact that I will go back to work at some point, and from the fact that I am not the first woman to feel torn between family and personal ambition. I just keep reminding myself it is possible to overcome these obstacles, and that women have done it in the past – with less support from their husbands and more children. Like the women who passed here before me, I feel the loss of what I left behind, but like them, I continue on this path knowing it holds promises for the future. This is just a weigh station on the road.

 

  

The Pedagogy of Hope: Continuing the Conversation

Brittany B. Fremion

Editor's Note: This is a follow-up post to last week's The Pedagogy of Hope.

The roundtable I participated in at the American Society for Environmental History conference at the end of March focused on ways instructors find hope in environmental history narratives in their courses. And I certainly work to incorporate research I present and learn about at conferences into my classes. In an effort to bring what I learned at this particular gathering to a wider audience, I offer this follow-up post.

My roundtable, “The Pedagogy of Hope: Teaching Hope in the Environmental Classroom,” featured instructors in environmental studies and history programs. Each presenter brought a unique perspective and strategy for finding hope to the roundtable. Jim Feldman from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh frequently checks in with his students after discussing particularly taxing topics in his environmental studies course. He works hard to engage current events and demonstrate to students that sustainability is “not a narrative of decline, it’s a narrative of hope.” Sarah Hamilton, now at Auburn University, talked about a course she taught at the University of Michigan in 2014, wherein students developed an environmental history of Detroit. By working directly with community leaders and members, her students recognized the significance of community action groups and the power of individuals to bring about change locally. The collaborative endeavor increased student empathy and demonstrated that “change is ongoing and they can be a part of it” (check out the course website: https://detroitenvironment.lsa.umich.edu). Amy Kohout uses post-apocalyptic fiction in her American environmental history course at Colorado College. Her use of Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, for example, creates opportunities for the discussion of hopeful narratives and what fiction may do for the study of history: it presents “the wide range of possible futures.” Finally, George Vrtis from Carleton College assessed the state of the field and its historiography, pointing out that while “hope is a feeling, not an intellectual enterprise,” it is important to kindle hope to help students understand the environmental challenges we face. He contended that there are hopeful narratives in environmental history and that instructors can identify them by designing discussions that encourage students to find themes that inspire them. 

Finding hope in environmental history—or any field, really—is important. Hope drives interest and cultivates passion, which in turn provokes a response. I took my first environmental history course as an undergraduate at the University of Saint Francis, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The instructor, also my advisor, assigned William Cronon’s Changes in the Land and William Ashworth’s The Late, Great Lakes. The class, and these books in particular, made a profound impression on me. I learned about the transformation of the American landscape both before and after European settlement, and the “death” of Lake Erie in the 1960s. I was astonished that the field rose out of the environmental movement in the 1970s (in fact, these activist roots are what first drew me to environmental history). I became interested in environmental issues, joined the Sierra Club, and helped establish a nature preserve on campus for Earth Day. I went to graduate school, first for a MA in history and then a doctorate. Now I teach my own environmental history class. The point is, I channeled any anger and despair I felt about the environmental present in 2003 and translated it into action. In turn, I have found hope (see previous post).

Following the short presentations by roundtable participants, audience members contributed to the conversation by bringing insight from their own experiences. Some of the questions they raised include the following, which I leave to you:

1)    How can one find hope in global environmental histories or histories typified by more tragic narratives? (I’m thinking of histories like Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts.)

2)    Is there danger in overemphasizing hope? (This question was prefaced by the revelation that a prominent historian once told a student that “environmental history is depressing, so it should be.”)

3)    What other strategies enable instructors to teach empathy and hope?

The Pedagogy of Hope

By Brittany B. Fremion

Part of my job (and joy) as a professor and historian is to be actively engaged with the community of scholars in my field and to contribute to its growth outside of the immediate university setting. One of the primary means of doing so is by participating in academic conferences. The major organization for environmental historians hosted its annual conference at the end of March in Chicago. I had the good fortune of being part of one of two roundtables dedicated to finding hope in environmental history. The title of my panel, which focused on hope in teaching, was entitled “The Pedagogy of Hope,” whereas the other revolved around scholarship, “Hope in Environmental History” (check out the conference program here: http://aseh.net/conference-workshops/2017-conference-chicago-1/conference-program).

In his 1993 presidential address to the American Society for Environmental History, William Cronon identified a key challenge of teaching environmental history: the subject often evokes despair in students. Noting that this emotion seemed neither personally nor politically useful, Cronon called upon environmental historians to communicate the field’s lessons in a more hopeful key. Nearly twenty-five years later, the two roundtables will consider how effectively environmental historians have answered this call. My particular roundtable will feature instructors who have worked to bring hopeful narratives and strategies into their environmentally-themed courses (taken from roundtable abstract).

In my upper-level comparative environmental history course (HST 302) at CMU I have worked to identify ways that reinforce the positive components of my field, despite the persistence of narratives of decline that seem to characterize it (i.e. the looming theme of ecological collapse at the hand of humanity). In order to do so, I often stress that knowledge, as the adage goes, is power. Knowledge of history in particular enables us to make better, more informed decisions in the future, to understand how we got to be where we are, and why multiple perspectives matter. This is particularly important when it comes to environmental issues. We must understand how and why ecosystems have changed in order to develop creative responses to address those changes. The environmental historian plays an especially significant role in helping us recognize our power to dramatically alter the world we inhabit.

The vehicle that carries conversations about the power of individuals to incite change in my classroom is, perhaps oddly, Daniel Quinn's Ishmael (1992). Quinn’s philosophical novel is the first book students read for my course and often their favorite. This work of fiction reorients readers’ perspectives so that they recognize their place within nature, not as separate, through (spoiler alert!) a series of telepathic conversations between a gorilla and student—purposely unnamed or assigned a gender, an effective writing strategy that enables the reader to identify as the student. The conversations are largely driven by questions raised by Ishmael, the gorilla, who is the teacher in this story. One of the first questions he asks the student is about his/her culture’s “creation myth,” to which the student responds with certainty that it is no myth. But Ishmael proves him/her wrong by juxtaposing the human story of creation with that of a jellyfish (you’ll have to get your hands on a copy of the book to better understand why). The moral to this story, and others, is that the Earth exists for no one species in particular; that we, as humans, may not be the pinnacle of creation. Ishmael also points out that we are subject to the laws of nature, challenging the human assumption of control over the environment. As a result, he is able to emphasize that humans, as powerful members of ecosystems, must be better stewards. In the end, he teaches the reader “how to save the planet—from ourselves. With this knowledge, we have the power to change our lives and save the world.”  

The discussion sparked by this book leads students to recognize the significant roles they play as members of campus, regional, national, and global communities—that the knowledge and skills they have acquired in my class (and others) should extend into their daily lives. They have the power to bring about change, whether it’s doing something seemingly nominal (like buying organic fair trade products, recycling, or using public transportation) or recognizably significant (supporting environmental initiatives, engaging in social activism, and/or writing policymakers). This self-awareness is in itself transformative and empowering. And it certainly gives me hope.

Without Faith: Church Interactions

By Jonathan Truitt

This week has been a lesson in irony. This is no reflection on my students or my family, they have all been awesome. Rather, it is on the state of other responsibilities within my professional and personal life. I am a colonial Latin American Historian. My research focuses on indigenous interaction with the Catholic Church in colonial Mexico City. I am not actually interested in whether or not the indigenous population believed in the faith, but rather I’m interested in their day-to-day interactions with it and how those interactions influenced the rest of their community. To put it simply I am trying to remove religion from an examination of religious life. I know what you are thinking, what good is this? The short answer is that the Catholic Church, in order to serve the Spanish faithful in the manner in which they were accustomed, a whole lot of requirements needed to be met in order to operate, and there simply were not enough Spaniards to keep it functioning, so they needed the indigenous population to plug the very large gap.

To place it in more modern terms I think about this interaction in the ways in which people who live in a company town, like Midland, Michigan -- home of Dow Chemical -- interact with the company on a daily basis even if they don’t work for the company. Simply stated a lot of infrastructure needs to be in place to support the people who work for the company. That reaches beyond the business itself and includes everything from supporting a good school system to recreational activities. Whenever the company opens a new plant somewhere they have to make sure they have the infrastructure in place. If they don’t, it can still work, but the results are going to be mixed. This is the very basic version of what I spend my time thinking about when I am not grading, playing with my children, sitting in meetings (though truth be told I am sometimes thinking about this while I am in meetings), working on developing game-based pedagogy, or meeting with students and colleagues.

So where is the irony? My book is written and the press has had it for almost a year at this point. Rather, I should say the presses, plural, because it has been jostled between presses with changing partnerships. They are still very interested in my book and this past Tuesday asked me to make some edits based on a reviewer’s comments on my conclusion. They would like the corrections by the end of next week. The reviewer is having difficulty understanding the premise of my book. The idea of studying people’s interaction with something rather than their actual belief is apparently a hard sell. Here is the irony. My book is reflective of my own interaction with the church. I am not a religious person, yet I attend church regularly with my wife who is a devoted Christian and wants to raise our children in the Christian faith. I am currently getting ready to head to church with my boys (my wife has gone on ahead as she plays hand bells and has a performance today). When I get to church I will be helping out in the nursery, next week I will be at a personnel committee meeting for the church (on which I serve), I have just finished leading an eight-week educational course for children at the church, and have been asked to create a special discussion group on immigration, also for the church. I am a member and many of the people at the church know my views. I value the community and support them in many things and they support me. In my interactions with the community my belief doesn’t matter, but my actions do. This is the very thing that I study and somehow I haven’t made it clear to the anonymous reviewer that my book isn’t about belief, but about the day-to-day interactions, even though I live it. So, as I sit here preparing to take my kids to church I wonder, have I sold you?