Gem from the archives

There’s almost never a “dear diary, here’s how I feel about [Anelise’s dissertation topic]” source, but its nice to find things that come close:

Returns are still coming in from all parts of the country, showing that the spirit of benevolence is as general as the information (thanks to the American newspaper press,) respecting the distress of our transatlantic brethren.  New York Herald, March 11th, 1847

The history project – or – what are we doing?

Tenured Radical has an excellent post reviewing Gordon Wood’s review of Jill Lepore’s The Whites of their Eyes: the tea party’s revolution and the battle over American history.  Among the very smart things that she says about women’s voices and authority in the academy and historical fundamentalism, she says this:

the point of Lepore’s book, as I understand it, is that history is a highly public project whether we scholars like it or not.  It cannot be confined to the archival work, truth seeking and critical methods that we historians see as fundamental to our craft, and we have some responsibility to grapple with and shape those larger belief systems.  As the public latches on to history as a way of discussing their political concerns, they develop fetish objects.  For the Tea Party activists in particular, the Founding Fathers operate as fetish objects, as well as intellectual touchstones for a set of political beliefs that are at least as presentist as they are located in any coherent eighteenth century intellectual world.

In light of recent and not-so-recent attacks on the humanities, and history in particular as politically motivated drek by people in ivory towers, I think that it is important to talk about the “highly public” side of history, and the links between that, research and teaching.  In particular, I’ve been thinking about how, as a teacher of undergraduates, I can connect history’s “highly public project” with the content in my classroom, without reifying what TR calls historical fetish objects, while providing students with skills that they can use beyond the U.S. survey.

One of the teaching pedagogy panels at the AHA that really struck me talked about how, at the survey level at least, it might behoove teachers to focus more on analytical skills than narrative, that being able to place a source in a historically specific setting, to make arguments about the motivations of the author and the possible responses of the audience, will be a longer-lasting lesson than the battles of WWI.  I don’t think that it needs to be one or the other, but in my classes I am going to try to think more critically about historical skill sets that better equip students to engage with history vis-a-vis larger belief systems, like founding father fundamentalism.

From the AHA

I was at the AHA in Boston this weekend, and was able to meet/talk to/listen to a lot of people who are doing really innovative things in historical research and teaching.  I like to treat big conferences like this as an opportunity to think about methods, more than about new findings or interpretations, and the AHA planning committee made this particularly easy by including many many panels on teaching and pedagogy.  I am still sifting through all that I heard from those, and a whole other chunk of my brain is devoted to parsing what I saw on social network theory, so some more in-depth thoughts on both of those will come later.  I do want to play around with some ideas that came out of the coincidence of those teaching panels, some others on the uses of narrative and “reading against the grain” in historical scholarship, and a video podcast walking tour that I stumbled across while looking for something to do in Boston over a particularly long lunch break.

Murder on Beacon Hill is both an iphone app and video podcast, made by the creators of the documentary Murder at Harvard, which is about the murder of George Parkman by John Webster, a Harvard doctor.  The murder and subsequent trial have turned up a lot in my own research, because they were widely reported in both the New York and the Cherokee press in 1849-50.  I had idly wondered who this Webster was that papers kept referencing, but I put it largely out of my mind because the case seemed to have no relevance to Irish famine reportage and relief.  I am a big fan of podcasted walking tours, and also of murder mysteries, and I was trebley happy to find that this particular podcast was dedicated to a relatively un-remembered event that I happened to be familiar with. 

But I think that this thing (podcast, art piece, cultural artifact – I’m not really sure what to call it) also connects in interesting ways with the panels on teaching I’d been attending in the past few days.  It’s creator, Eric Strange, says that he was compelled to make it because

People have told us they now understand connections become the geography of the area and the cultural history, and between the architecture and the social and political climate of 1850s Boston, that they never realized before.  All because of a 45-minute walk.  We want people to take the tour and afterwards never see the streets and buildings the same way again.  I think we achieved that. (Interview with history news network)

A lot of what I try to do as a teacher is to help students to never see the events of the past, or what follows them in the present the same way again.  I don’t mean that in a radical way, but in my ideal world, students who leave my classroom after, say, an intro to British imperial history class will pause when they hear about sectarian violence in Pakistan, and remember what they learnt about the historical circumstances that lead up to that event.  Although at its most basic we might think about Murder on Beacon Hill as entertainment, salacious and murderful at that, it makes me think about alternative approaches to teaching, and the incorporation of the oft-ballyhooed “digital humanities” into the classroom.  Even more so, about the nature of the “classroom” itself.  I am teaching a class on natural disasters in America this summer, and I am trying to find ways to get students out of the physically inscribed space of the classroom, and into the world in which historical events have happened.  It might be worthwhile to think about how to trouble the boundary between academic space and the “real world,” and if troubling that boundary can serve students well by connecting the often dry text of their readings with tangible lives.  C and I are going to play around with the idea of creating an interactive tour of New York this summer – we’ll see how that goes.