Open(ish) letter to the University of Chicago

This morning, I received an alumni survey from my alma mater, the University of Chicago.  At the end, there was a section for extended comment.  Since I indicated in the survey that I highly valued my education, the connections I made, and the mission of the institution, but that I had no plans to give in the future, I thought I should explain myself.  Here’s what I wrote:

I used to donate to the University of Chicago, in large part because I received an excellent education that prepared me for graduate school, and for my own career in academia.  In the past few years, four factors have kept me from giving, and will likely keep me from giving for the foreseeable future:

1) President Zimmer’s salary in comparison to other major research universities – since 2011, President Zimmer’s salary has been among the top 15 highest base salaries paid to presidents of private institutions.  While being a university president is certainly a role that requires skill and expertise, Dr. Zimmer’s salary suggests an institutional emphasis on administrative prestige, rather than on the support of students.

2) Safe spaces – earlier this year, the University published an ill-informed (with regards to the theory of safe spaces) and, from the perspective of a faculty member, misguided statement on the place of safe spaces at the University of Chicago.  There were a number of very thoughtful critiques of this statement, but for me it signaled a fundamental disregard for students who fell outside of dominant categories.  Put simply, by dint of their race, class, gender, gender presentation and sexual orientation, some students experience the world as safer (both in terms of discourse and in terms of physical safety) than others.  That the University of Chicago would ignore these disparities, and criticize some of the student-led structures that push back against it was, for me, unconscionable.

3) Rachel Fulton – I took undergraduate classes with Dr. Fulton.  She was an excellent lecturer, and fundamentally shaped the way I approach my own teaching.  She is absolutely entitled to her political opinions, but I was shocked that the language she used to describe women in some of her posts (this in particular – and even more shocked that no one in a position of power at the university thought that it would be good to disavow those ideas (I’m not, by the way, calling for Fulton to be fired).  In this case, the university seemed more interested in studied non-action than it did in reassuring students that one faculty member’s thoughts about women’s sexuality, appearances and students’ sexuality in general did not represent the institution as a whole.

4) Unionization – the arguments that are being offered against graduate student unionization this week further undermine the value of a University of Chicago education.  Lawyers for the university have argued that graduate students do not teach for the benefit of undergraduates, are not assessed on the quality of their teaching, create more work for tenure-track faculty (presumably detracting time from their own research) and are just there to learn to teach(apparently at the expense of undergraduates).  I don’t believe this to be true – it reads as classic anti-union rhetoric – but if I take the university at its word in these proceedings, then I must conclude the University of Chicago cares only for training graduate students, and not for either faculty or undergraduates. If I take the rhetoric that the university disseminates about the value it places on education and research at face value, then I  must conclude that it is more important to defeat a graduate student union than it is to be consistent in values.

In sum, the actions of the University of Chicago in the past years suggest to me a fundamental disregard for undergraduate education specifically, and higher education more broadly.  I do not recognize the institution that I attended from 2002-2006 in the institution of 2016-2017.  I see no reason to give my money or support to a University of Chicago that seems so alienated from the views it has historically espoused, which drew me in as a student, and which supported my own education.

Diagnostic tools – or – the pretty visualization is not the end

As the semester and my first graduate digital history class wind down, I’ve been thinking a lot about building DH things for investigation vs. argument.  There’s a lot of good work on tools-as-theory, and whether a digital thing can be a satisfying argument, and an upcoming conference on argumentation in the digital humanities – so I’m not the only one.

I also just finished writing 1-2 pages – maybe 1,000 words – based on a diagnostic tool that it took me over a month to build.  I’m hoping to spin what it tells me out into a longer article in future, but for now I thought I’d share it here, with some commentary on how I made it, what it told me, and why it is not an effective argument.

One of my book chapters is on a group of enslaved and free people in Richmond who raised funds for victims of famine in Ireland.  The First African Baptist Church of Richmond raised just under $35 in 1847. While the amount per congregant was low (the church listed thousands of active members, but many of them were not able to regularly attend because of their enslavement) the donation itself was relatively unique in the church’s history.  This was one of the first times that this congregation raised funds for people not connected with the church.  I have a much longer argument on the political work that this donation did, but I wanted to be able to make some concrete statements about congregants’ experiences in the 1840s.

This was helped by the church minute books, which recorded the names of baptized, excluded and restored members (there were a lot of exclusions for adultery in the 1840s) as well as the names of the men and women who owned the congregants who were enslaved.  So I built a network (using Gephi, which benefits tremendously from the recent update) that showed only relationships characterized by slavery, to see if any white Richmonders were particularly over-represented. (made with sigma.js and the Gephi plugin created by OII)

While some men and women owned more than one congregant, by and large this network was fairly diffuse.  Congregants obviously shared the religious and physical space of the church, but their relationships outside of the church did not seem to be conditioned by their enslavement by particular men and women. (There is an excellent and robust literature on enslaved people in urban spaces, resistance and community building, which I won’t recap here – but suffice it to say that scholars have charted many other ways of relating beyond ownership by the same person, and I assume those modes were at play in 1840s Richmond).

As I put together the database of congregants, I realized that many and unusual names (Chamberlayne, Poindexter, Frayzer, Polland, among others) recurred among both slaveholding and enslaved people.  So I made another network, this one assuming that people who shared a surname had some kind of relationship (this is not a 100% defensible assumption – some of the more common names might have been happenstance).  With those kinds of connections, the network (which includes all of the same people as above) becomes much more dense, with clusters that signify relationships based both in slavery and (most often coerced) sex.

It’s interactive!  It’s dynamic!  It’s a network!

It is not an argument.

At best, this is a tool that lets me locate an individual and see connections.  It relies on two kinds of relationships (and likely overstates the certainly of genetic relationships or previous ownership based on shared surnames).  It helped me to write two pages about the density of connections among black and white Richmonders, and bolster claims about the broader relationships that the First African Baptist Church was embedded in.  It remains an investigative tool.

I think it could be helpful, which is why I am putting it on the internet, but it does not constitute argument.  It does not even constitute analysis (that happened behind the scenes in R).  It did take – from the start of transcription to now – over a month to build.

Was it worth it?  Well, I was able to see connections among the 800+ congregants mentioned in the minute books from 1845-1847 that I would not have been able to see just by reading the names.  I was able to place individuals in a broader social context.  I wrote two pages.  I think that work like this can be tremendously generative, but either happens behind the scenes and only lives on a researcher’s computer, or is presented as the end of an investigative process. This is firmly in the middle of the investigation, but I suppose that has value too.

Quick note: Timeline of famine philanthropy

I’m sitting down to tackle my introduction, and wanted to say something specific about the timeline for famine philanthropy. Tableau helped to track the total number of donors by organization.  This is a better measure than the total amount of donations – at least until I go back and standardize British pounds and U.S. dollars, but it gives a good sense of time timeline of relief.


Teaching reading notes

When I was in college, a friend of mine made a joke that he couldn’t read novels without a pencil in his hand, because he was so used to note-taking his philosophy books.

My father is a professor, but I don’t remember ever seeing him read a work of fiction, and always remember him having a manuscript to work on in his spare time.

One of the goals of the historical methods class at CSUF is to teach students how to be history majors, and a part of that is teaching them how to read scholarly texts.  My friend and my father come to mind because they, and I, treat academic reading as the default form of reading, and (at least in my case) can forget what it was like to learn to read for argument and scholarly conversation rather than for information.  I have acute memories of feeling like I was reading in the wrong way in college, but not of learning what the right way was.

I’m hoping to help my historical methods students skip, or at least speed through the uncomfortable confusion stage of this (which is not to say that discomfort can’t be productive, but that the feeling that you’re missing something that everyone else gets isn’t really productive).  So I made a reading worksheet that’s based on the notes I took for my grad comps.  I’ve been filling one out for each of the readings we have this semester, and it’s helping me to ground my thoughts about a text.  Hopefully it does the same for the students, and models a way to take reading notes.


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Teaching theory in history (part two of some) – or – In Theory podcast meets Typhoid Mary

Big theoretical concepts can help us to see the world in new ways.  Big theoretical concepts can help us  see historical events in new ways.  This is especially important for methods classes like the one I am teaching now, since these courses seek to bridge the gap between history as a set of stories that someone else tells, and history as a practice that students themselves can engage in.  We want students to leave these classes loving history as much as when they came in, but we also want to destabilize the idea that there is one, “objective,” “true” narrative to be told about each historical event.  We want them to think about how to select evidence, put that evidence in conversation with other scholars, and offer an interpretative framework for that evidence that nets something beyond arguing that a thing happened in a place and at a time.  Theory helps with that framework.

Undergrad-me would not have believed that current-me would someday be singing the praises of theory.  Luckily, a compatriot of undergrad-me was more prescient than I – Maria Cecire and Noorain Khan are responsible for the In Theory Podcast, which seeks to “raid academia for the the most fascinating and relevant social, cultural, and scientific theories, and use them to help make sense of this beautiful mess of a world we live in.”  It is excellent.  You should listen to it.

I’ve especially enjoyed using In Theory in the classroom.  I’ve generally found teaching theory in history to be one of the more challenging parts of undergraduate pedagogy.  This isn’t because students are incapable of understanding, or even enjoying, theory.  However, I do think that it is difficult to understand the value of theory in the abstract (at least, this was true of me in my theory-adverse undergraduate days).  This course features several weeks on classic theory for history, but this semester I found that pairing the In Theory podcast with a classic in historical scholarship – Judith Walzer Leavitt’s Typhoid Mary – helped to illustrate the ways in which theory can be useful generally, and useful in historical scholarship in particular.

How it worked:

First: I assigned pairs of students different episodes of In Theory.  As they listened, they were asked to identify (1) the theories engaged with in the episode (2) how the podcasters apply those theories to everyday life and (3) other things to which they might apply that theory.

Second: In class, the groups diagrammed their notes on the board, focusing on one particular theoretical concept from the assigned episodes.

Third: Each group presented on their theory of choice, and then each student went around the room and commented on how they might use one of the theoretical concepts outlined in class to further their own research.

Fourth: For the next class, students were assigned chapters from Judith Walzer Leavitt’s Typhoid Mary.   Each chapter takes a different perspective on Mary Mallon (the first silent carrier of typhoid fever, colloquially named “Typhoid Mary,” and imprisoned by the state of New York until her death).

Fifth: Armed with their knowledge of how different theories help us to understand different aspects of the world we live in, students dove into Typhoid Mary and undertook the same kind of diagramming they had done for the In Theory podcast.

Sixth: Each student once again commented on how they might use the theoretical concepts used in Typhoid Mary to further their own research.

By the end of this two class arc, students had two different examples of the application of theory in concrete ways.  Next time I teach this class I am going to have a more defined section on theory, and probably build in an additional class and assignment that recapitulates the different theories the students have been exposed to.  Nevertheless, I think the concrete application of theory evinced in the In Theory podcast and in Typhoid Mary really helped to clarify theory for students.

Protest is a feature, not a bug, of American politics

Protests are inconvenient. They disrupt everyday people just trying to do their jobs. They are “dumb.” They are “arrogant.”   They take American liberties for granted. These arguments appear, as if from the ether, every time a protest (individual or widespread) makes national headlines. The people who make them – who come from across the political spectrum – seem to see protest as a modern tactic, one anathema to the genteel politics of yesteryear. Why, these arguments imply, in the aftermath of political defeat, can’t we all just come together, put differences aside, not resister displeasure?

Some excellent scholars have spent a lot of time pointing out the problems with applying this vision to the Civil Rights Era (the short answer is that Civil Rights was never just about peaceful protest, and that protests that began peacefully were often rendered violent by state actors), but I want to look farther back in time, and to sketch the history of protest in early America.

What follows is a series of historiographical vignettes about protests, riots and violence in American history. The short version of this history: protest – disruptive, sometimes violent, always inconvenient, rarely genteel – is baked into American politics. It is not a modern or millennial invention. It is not a product of rudeness and self-centeredness. It is a feature, not a bug.

In the decades before the American Revolution, protests often followed a set ritual.   Wayne Lee has documented the ways in which complainants gathered signatures for a petition, asking those in power to accede to their demands. If petitions went ignored, protesters would often turn symbolic violence on symbolic targets – hanging effigies, demanding performative gestures or trying absent officials in an invisible court of law. If symbols did not work, protestors would engage in structured, nominally legal protests, which often included bonfires, toasts, parades and public spectacle. If none of these worked, unstructured violence was seen as a feasible alternative.

The idea that protests were legitimate politics did not die with the colonial era. In the 1970s Pauline Maier pointed out that protest mobs – both those that sought to subvert the law and those which endavoured to enforce laws they though were being flouted – were central to the American Revolution. Not only were mobs important tools for revolutionary action, they were also viewed as legitimate political action by leading eighteenth-century Americans, who “could still grant such incidents an established and necessary role in free societies, one that made them an integral and even respected element of the political order.”

Neither did protest end with the Revolution. Scholars have documented the various ways in which people excluded from formal politics were able to make claims on those in power during the Early Republic. These included boycotts of non-American goods, public refusals to pay taxes to the new nation, and even the ceremonial presentation of a mammoth block of cheese. These newly minted American protestors were not inventing a new form of politics. They borrowed from colonial and revolutionary norms, rejecting what did not work, and keeping what did.

Enslaved people also engaged in similarly structured public protest. Some employed formal petitioning, others embodied protests – though (unsurprisingly) these protests were and are still today called rebellions or revolts. Eugene Genovese, and subsequently many others have put these protests, rebellions, revolts in the long genealogy of American resistance to structures of power. The idea that the way a person looks, or a set of behavioral markers, determines whether a protest is cast as legitimate or mob – riot or march – will surprise no one, but I think it is worth noting that these features also have historical roots.

In the decades that followed the era of the early republic, and leading up to the Civil War, protest remained a valuable part of Americans’ political repertoire. When faced with perceived injustice (perhaps most visibly the Civil War draft and the practice of buying out of military service) American men and women took to the streets. They embodied their political frustrations. Some of their causes were sympathetic, others are deplorable, but the mode of politics they were using to make those claims had a clear genealogy with roots in Colonial America (or, as Lee would have it, in the European polities from which colonists came).

All of this is to say that there was never a golden age of genteel and polite objections to politics. The only way to arrive at the impression that there was is if you willfully restrict your attention to what was happening in halls of power, where the rituals of politics are bound by yeas, nays, motions and seconds (though even in these spaces have been memorable instances of violent protest).

However, if we were only to study American politics from the perspective of these halls of power, we’d miss out on some of the driving engines of political change. Imagine a history of the American Revolution without the Boston Tea Party or Boston Massacre. Imagine a history of the Civil War without the draft riots. Imagine a history of the Great Depression without the Bonus army.

Histories of politics that lack what is happening outside of formal political spaces are missing a fundamental engine of change. To look to our current politics and ask that we limit ourselves to statehouses and capitol buildings is unreservedly ahistorical.


For some more reading, see

Dorsey, Bruce. Reforming Men and Women: Gender in the Antebellum City. Cornell University Press, 2002.

Genovese, Eugene D. From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.

Lee, Wayne E. Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: The Culture of Violence in Riot and War. University Press of Florida, 2001.

Maier, Pauline. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776. WW Norton & Company, 1991.

Pasley, Jeffrey L., Andrew W. Robertson, and David Waldstreicher. Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Roediger, David R. The Wages of Whiteness : Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London ; New York, NY: Verso, 1991.

Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820. Williamsburg, VA: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1997.

Teaching theory in history (part one of some)

I’ve recently had conversations with several colleagues about teaching theory in history.  As a discipline, we’re not as obviously theory heavy as some of our compatriots in the social sciences, and much of the theory we use is grounded, or embedded in assumptions we make about sources, voices and narrative.  Given the importance, but relative invisibility of theory in history writing (and given that students – especially new majors in historical methods classes – are likely to be a little allergic to heavily theorized writing anyway) I’ve been trying to figure out how to teach students how to identify and make us of theoretical frameworks for history.

This question has been bugging me for the past year or so.  It first became apparent in a class on the intertwined histories of gender and technology, and I also see it in my current undergrad historical methods and Atlantic history classes.  This is not, I think, merely a consequence of mulling more on theory than I used to.  By design, none of these courses clear narrative path.  Gender and Technology took on several themes during the semester, often circling back to the same time, but a very different place or perception.  Atlantic history is arranged roughly chronologically, but approaches the Atlantic from a series of different spaces, and via different peoples, so we are often jumping in space and time.  Historical methods is loosely organized around the theme of American disasters, but we also skip around temporally, and often head down methodological or historiographical culs-de-sac before returning to the topical meat of the course. This shred lack of a singular storyline meant that theory was all the more important – it was the thing that could get the courses to hang together.

I wanted an assignment that allowed students to make connections from class to class, which emphasized theoretical framings, demonstrated the value of theories as organizing frameworks, and which wouldn’t rely on me lecturing at students.*

I’ve come up with something that I call “theory exercise.”  Each class uses a different variation on the same theme:

First: students review their notes and memories and write down one or two important framing concepts from the previous class.  Earlier in the semester these can be a bit vague, but I make sure that we identify important ideas in reading discussion, so that they can (hopefully) just go back to notes.

Second: some students come up to the board and write one important framing concept.  The only rules are (1) no duplicates and (2) you can amend what someone else writes

Third: the remaining students come up to the board and write down one topic from earlier in the semester, or from the reading for that day’s class that connects with those big ideas.  The same rules apply as in the second phase.

The final product
The final product

As a result of all of this whiteboard writing, we have a map of the main points of the previous class, and a visual representation of connections throughout the course.

This works with individual students working on their own, pairs of students, or even groups that have to consult and come up with one big idea or one connection.  I’ve been experimenting recently with randomly assigning students to big idea or connection and with allowing it to be more of a free for all.

I’ve learned a few things:

  • In classes where I’ve been using this exercise since the beginning of the semester, weekly reading responses do a much better job making links between a given reading and themes from earlier in the semester.  In making those links, students also invoke theoretical frameworks.  Some of these are more explicit than others, but the very act of linking disparate examples requires a theoretical underpinning.
  • In classes that don’t have a clear narrative (and this is probably true of most upper level classes) this exercise also helps students to make their own meaning out of the material covered, and to remember material from earlier in the semester.
  • On exams that ask students to identify and demonstrate the utility of theoretical frameworks, the classes that have been doing this kind of work do better than the classes that haven’t.
  • Having this material written on the board is a great way to mark the start of class with activity, rather than my recap; it also models note-taking strategies for students who aren’t familiar with documenting their participation in discussion based classes.

*I developed this assignment after many talks with Caroline Weist, pedagogue extraordinaire.

Safe Spaces in the Life of the Mind

The University of Chicago recently sent a letter to incoming students which has made me – for the first time – embarrassed to be affiliated with my undergraduate institution.

Image from the Chicago Maroon twitter feed.

This letter (as Kevin Gannon has noted) seems to be equal parts pedagogical statement and public posture.  It certainly needs to be understood in terms of evolving debates about college campuses, academic politics and student life.

I, however, want to address it from the perspective of both an alumna of the college and as a professor.

The call for “civility and mutual respect” in this letter is a heartening one, as is the reminder that “freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others.”  (This, by the way, sounds like what most academics mean when they talk about safe spaces) A space in which “members of our community [are expected] to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement” and to constructively manage ideas that “may challenge you and even cause discomfort” resonates with what I expected when I first stepped into U(C) classrooms some many years ago.

But I balk at what follows – first because the author of the letter seems not to have fully interrogated what “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” mean, in practice, in college classrooms; and second because rejecting student protests and trigger warnings works to undermine what Dean Ellison says is a priority: “building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds” and which supports students’ “freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.”

In my experience, and as described by faculty from different institutions, trigger warnings are not about “cancel[ing] speakers because their topics might prove controversial.”   Neither are they intended to allow students to “retreat form ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”  In the practice I have seen, trigger warnings are a way for faculty to help students manage their reactions to material without disrupting the intellectual community of the class, and without derailing students’ own academic progress.

For example, I teach on the history of disaster.  We read about terrible, heartbreaking things.  It does no one in my class – neither me nor the students – any good to not anticipate the possibility that some students might react strongly to (for example) discussions of the death of orphan children during the Galveston Hurricane.  Flagging scenes of infanticide (a trigger warning) in our readings likewise has no cost – it simply alerts students who may have strong reactions to a particular topic that they might want to take extra steps to prepare for class that day.*   These might include drafting a discussion question in advance, finding a time to do reading that might be trauma-inducing when they will not be in public, or even simply practicing scripts to get through the class period.  Rather than undercutting intellectual discourse or protecting students from uncomfortable material, trigger warnings as practiced by me and by many faculty seek to ensure that a student can fully prepare – in what ever way they need – t participate in class.

Dean Ellison similarly seems to be mistaken about the common use and history of “safe space.”  While it is laudable that the U(C) “welcomes people of all backgrounds” and encourages “diversity of opinion and background,” American higher education is historically constructed, and has – historically – been friendlier and more accommodating to certain groups more than others.  For one excellent example of this history, see Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy detailing the racial history of American education (while I have the utmost respect for Dean Boyer – the dean of the college when I was an undergrad – I can’t help but think that Wilder’s would certainly be a book that incoming first years would benefit from reading).  This history means that, in practice, colleges and university have been – and continue to be – safer spaces for some students than for others. Those for whom the college is already safe – many of them students who are not otherwise marginalized – do not need to petition for safe spaces on campus.  For them it already is one.

To reject the idea of safe spaces or to pre-empt any protest in response to a scheduled U(C) speaker is to say – again in practice – that the University of Chicago has no interest in attending to the needs of students who do not already feel safe.  These might include (and this is based on my experiences both as a student and now as a faculty member) students of color, first generation college students, LGBTQA students, undocumented students, students who grew up in poverty, students with learning differences, students with illnesses, students with disabilities.  Making higher education more welcoming to these students sometimes means re-imagining what campus civility looks like.  It means, rather than telling students that protests are unwelcome and silencing, interrogating why those students thought that protest was the best way to speak to the administration.  It involves treating protest as a tool of debate rather than as a fait accompli**.   It involves listening to students who ask for a heads up about potentially traumatic material.  None of this silences academic discourse.  Rather, it makes academic discourse a space in which more and more diverse students can participate.

As practiced*** most frequently, trigger warnings allow for classes to be flexible enough to accommodate students whose experiences of trauma and crisis are different from our (the faculty’s) own.  Discussions of how to make more safe spaces on campus are a way to expand campus culture to include people who historically were excluded from it.  Neither of these models is detrimental to undergraduate education.  Neither undermines the life of the mind.  It shocks and saddens me that a place which prides itself on intellectual rigor for all students would take such a stance.

*They might also choose to skip class, but I have seen no evidence that talking about possibly traumatizing material makes a student any more likely to skip a class than any other of the usual reasons college students have. Incidentally, this is why I do not have an excused absence policy in my classes – students can choose to be absent from a fixed number of class meetings without penalty, and I am not put in a position of adjudicating a good reason for missing my class.

**I want to think about this a bit more about this, but discussions of student protests of speakers tend to assume that having a protest means that the speaker will not come.  This has not been my experience of student protests, and is a perspective which, I think, dangerously misrepresents the institutional power that students, faculty and university deans have respectively.  When we talk about student protests, I think we miss the ways in which institutions and (in the case of Rice, invited speakers) have the power to react to protest.  Many times, institutions and speakers decide that a talk will go on.  When I was a U(C) undergrad, Fareed Zakaria came to speak.  Some students walked out in the middle of the talk.  Some called for the talk to be cancelled.  Both of these actions prompted robust and sustained discussion, and allowed for discussion about the place that Zakaria’s ideas had on the U(C) campus.  Calling for the cancellation of the talk was part of that discussion, not an attempt to silence it.

*** I have a shirt from my time as an undergraduate which reads “that’s all very well in practice, but how does it work in theory.”  I still love that shirt, but I think that the current U(C) administration might – in this case – benefit from thinking a little more about pedagogical practice, and less about theoretical posturing.