The Case of the Missing Adjective: Writing and Choosing Whiteness

Consider the following sentences:

“…learning absorbed the lives of southern youth prior to the Civil War in substantial ways.”

“A belief in Manifest Destiny cut across partisan and sectional lines…Southerners as well as Northerners expressed it.”

“The states rights reaction came after several decades of loose construction on the part of southerners concerning slavery in the territories.”

“Most Southerners saw the election [of 1860] as a catastrophe.”

Overheard at the SHA?

Each of them is drawn from an essay or textbook, a batch of sources united only by the fact that I have personally been reading them in the last twenty-four hours. Know what else they have in common? They represent something historians of this period do ALL THE TIME, an implicit and unthinking elision that I argue does more damage than we ever realize.

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My Cell Phone Policy is to Have No Policy’s John Warner had an interesting and thoughtful blog post today, writing about his struggle “to figure out what to do about cell phones and computers in class.” And aren’t we all? If you haven’t heard a faculty member complain about students texting in class, you haven’t been listening; this scourge of classroom decorum everywhere may well have supplanted parking, travel funding, and associate-provost-proliferation as the top grievance of academics. Laptops and smartphones are the bane of classrooms today in the same manner as hemlock was for those in ancient Athens, it seems.

Hold on, you guys. I need to live-tweet this.  #Idrankwhat
Hold on, you guys. I need to live-tweet this.

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I Can’t Speak The Language

I think everybody ought to experience what it’s like to be the only one in a particular setting who doesn’t “belong.” As a white, hetero, abled, cis male for whom English is the first language, that’s not an experience I have often; in fact, it’s rare indeed that I find myself in a place where I am not “like” many of the people around me. The older I get, the more aware of that I have become, and the more attuned I am to the ways in which that reality so dramatically helps people who look like me. In the US, we live in a society that has always been structured around privilege; the last year’s spate of police violence against citizens in places like Ferguson and New York City underscores just how stark the lines of privilege have been drawn. The historically-constructed idea of “race,” the ways in which power is (mal)distributed, how privilege shapes every facet of our lives and those around us–I teach, read, speak, and write about these things all the time. But I am keenly aware that I do so from a privileged position–that is, I have not myself experienced the negative effects of how power and privilege work against those who do not look or speak like the historically-dominant class. So how do I effectively teach and engage with students who have those experiences? And how do I do so in a way that is empathetic and genuine, as opposed to fraudulent and condescending?

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On Student-Shaming and Punching Down

A few years ago, trapped in the midst of final exam grading, I started posting some of the real howlers I got as answers on Facebook. I didn’t use students’ names, and I don’t “friend” students on FB, so this sort of venting seemed like an OK way for me to keep my sense of humor during the end-term crush.

I have felt guilty about doing that ever since.

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Canons, Power, and Pushing Back

It’s certainly been a banner week or so for kulturkampf in the historical field. The most visible example is the Oklahoma legislature’s movements toward banning AP US History, because that course’s curriculum does not hew sufficiently to the “American Exceptionalism” creed that’s de rigeur in Neanderthal Right circles. Not as far down the spectrum, but still very much in the same spirit, was Gordon Wood’s baffling and grumpy essay in the Weekly Standard, which alternated between being a screed against the last thirty years of historical scholarship and a battle cry for privileged white men who are feeling a bit out of sorts about having their hegemonic narratives challenged. There have been plenty of good responses to these rear-guard actions of the cornered and desperate culture warriors. Jezebel’s takedown of the Oklahoma legislators is scathing and on point, and Kevin Levin has a trenchant piece on Wood’s get-off-my-lawn manifesto, to cite just two of the best examples.  But there will be more diatribes coming, you can bet on it.

You and your postmodern relativism can just get the hell out.
You and your postmodern relativism can just get the hell out.

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Failing to Succeed

I remember my first F. It came my first semester in college, actually: Intermediate Latin with Magister Lisle–a Harvard School of Classics product who I am convinced spoke Latin better than Cicero ever did. I was in over my head, too stupid to drop, and had discovered the joys of dorm parties and unstructured time. The final project was to translate large sections of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and I had difficulty making it through sentences like “He is a farmer.” It went poorly.  In what had been a train wreck of a semester, I also earned a D in a 5-credit section of Intermediate Calculus.

My Freshman Year
My Freshman Year

My institution had a repeat/forgiveness process where you could retake up to two classes, though, and substitute the new grade for your old one. The catch: whatever the new grade was, that was the one that counted. I retook Calculus the following fall, and got my second F. That replaced the D. I decided I wouldn’t even bother with retaking Latin.

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