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A great many of the pearls of wisdom in this primer on how to write about Africa and Africans apply to writing about Native Americans and Indian Country.

Take note, young scholars, of how to make the subaltern bleak:

Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone. Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can’t live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love—take advantage of this. If you are a man, thrust yourself into her warm virgin forests. If you are a woman, treat Africa as a man who wears a bush jacket and disappears off into the sunset. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.

Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.

These are words to live by. All you have to do is replace “Africa” and “Africans” with “Indian Country” and “Native People/Indians/Native Americans”.


A reader writes in with a rather depressing scenario and a question [editor’s note: what follows has been edited to protect the innocent/add a sex scene for SEK]:

There are a number of folks here, young scholars and aging grad students like myself who are trying to figure out the ramifications of a difficult situation so I thought I’d ask.

Here’s the deal: our American Studies [editor’s note: at a venerable and outstanding public institution located in the center of the country, “the heartland”] department has been recommended for closure by an “independent task force”. We’re appealing of course, but in a climate where they’ve already added student fees and slashed TA positions right and left, I’m dubious about our prospects. Part of the reason I’m dubious is that some of the problems cited in the evaluation are indeed real problems [editor’s note: including declining applications, lack of diversity, limited funding, high attrition, lengthy time to degree, and an iffy placement record].

Our situation, especially as it relates to similar situations in other disciplines, departments, and programs, raises questions about the rationalization of eduction in the humanities and, not to be too dramatic, the future of American Studies as a significant presence in US colleges and universities.

But for many of us here, the more pressing question is practical: how much is this going to devalue my degree in an already depressed and depressing academic job market? How will it play out in the committees evaluating my applications?

I am curious about what the people who manage and comment at EOTAW — which I value as a forum for the intertwined realistic and idealistic imperatives in academic life — have to say about any of this. Thanks in advance for your time.

My two cents? There’s a lot going on here, issues that have implications for graduate programs throughout the humanities and parts of the social sciences. But I’m going to limit myself to the reader’s core question: what will this mean for recent graduates of the program and for those students still in the pipeline there?

My guess, and it’s only a guess, because I don’t know enough about the job market in American Studies, is that closure of the program, on its own, won’t necessarily mean much for these people — at least for those who can get clear of the wreckage. Hiring committees, assuming the program currently has a good reputation, will still look at applicants from this program as serious contenders for jobs. Some hiring committee members might even feel extra sympathy for these applicants. But as ever, the work will be the thing*. Graduates of this program who have written good or hot (or both) dissertations will probably do just fine — relatively speaking.

Still, there’s another issue that troubles me. What’s going to become of the faculty currently affiliated with this program? Will they be around after the program is defunct? Will they still be willing to write letters of recommendation for their students? These seem like important questions to me, as a disinterested or disappeared mentor or recommender can certainly scuttle a job-seeker’s candidacy.

So? What do you think? What does the future hold for the students trapped in this lousy situation? Will they be okay? And do these pants make me look fat?

* Plus luck. And all the other variables that determine success on the market.

If you’ve got questions, we’ve got answers. Or maybe we don’t. But you can still try. Send your queries, serious or otherwise, to edgeoftheamericanwest AT geemail DOT com, and we’ll do our best to give you absolutely ridiculous answers.

* Adapted from Lillian Hellman.

A reader writes in to ask what I do about students who talk during my lectures. It’s a good question, as the problem seems to be getting worse the longer I teach. Whether I’m getting more boring (likely), my students are getting more unruly (perhaps), or the classroom culture is becoming more and more like the comments section of Matthew Yglesias’s blog (I doubt it, but maybe), I don’t really know.

As for the question, at the beginning of every quarter I talk to my students about my expectations of them, including my desire that they not talk during lecture. Honestly, I no longer care if they sleep, read, or surf the web. So long as they don’t keep other people in the class from listening to me and maybe learning (I can dream, right?), and so long as they’re somewhat respectful of me, we’re cool. Which is to say, I prefer that they not snore loudly while sleeping or make a big show of reading their friends’ facebook pages. Other than that, though, whatevs.

But a few years back, I singled out some backward-ball-cap-wearing kewl kidz for repeatedly talking and laughing during classes in the latter part of the term. They were recidivists, in other words, and should have known better. They had initially ignored my subtle looks and later my not-so-subtle glares. And they were clearly going to keep up their shenanigans until I smacked them down. So I did. I didn’t say anything too terribly harsh, something along the lines of, “Please stop talking during class. It’s incredibly hard for me to concentrate when you guys behave in this way.” And they stopped. For the rest of the term. Mission accomplished, right?

Well, I later wished that I had talked to them individually*, as the punishment — public humiliation — seemed to outstrip the crime. So since then, I’ve either tried to pull people aside after class or make an announcement, to the whole room, without looking at the offending parties, during my lecture: “You’ll recall that on the first day I said that I really can’t stand it when people talk during class. Please try to keep that in mind, okay.” And that seems to do the trick. But I’m open to new ideas, as the older I get, the more crowded my lawn seems to become.

* Of course I felt guilty. Because I always feel guilty. (Seriously, always. It never stops.) Put another way, one’s approach to classroom management is almost certainly going to vary depending on one’s personality. Not to mention one’s gender, which obviously has a huge impact on how one approaches these issues. So while I’m a guilt-ridden Jew, I’m also a relatively big** guy, which means that I probably have to deal with less of this crap than many other people out there do.

** Fine, fat. You’re so mean. This is supposed to be a safe space, you know.

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