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When you teach a survey course, you make choices about what to emphasize, what to leave out and what your narrative or analytical through-line for the course will be. For example, for the introduction to US history since 1865, I emphasize the relation between sectionalism and the growth of federal power.

But for lecture you can’t just do a piece of that analytical narrative every time – that would be monotonous. So to change pace and liven things up, you have certain stories you like to tell, even if they slow the insistent forward motion of survey lectures. You say, maybe, here’s a story that helps to illustrate the themes I’ve been laying out; something with a little finer grain to let us see how these issues play out in individual lives.

For example, I use the murder of William McKinley (not surprising, I suppose), the Warren Court and the Brown case; Robert F. Kennedy’s appearance in Indianapolis in 1968.

What are your favorite drop-in stories and why?


Received in the mail on Friday, by a fellow EotAW blogger-person:


Required for my spring course on “Conspiracy theories in American History.”

Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action was White shows how government social programs of the New Deal and immediately afterward skewed heavily toward white people – and, as the title indicates, this early “affirmative action” occasioned no objection from the paler members of the citizenry. It was only later, when government programs aimed to help Americans with darker skins, that principled libertarian objections became so popular among white folks.
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This advice on business writing, although pitched against academic writing, actually seems like pretty sound advice for academics, except maybe for the advice to use “I” and “you”. But: don’t assume a captive audience, get to the point, cut, especially cut fancy words, and it’s okay to begin sentences with conjunctions—all of that sounds pretty good.

I’m having an unusually difficult time this quarter convincing the students in one of my courses that I really do want them to be quiet while I teach. As always, I began the quarter by mentioning that I have very few pet peeves, but people who chat while I’m lecturing are near the top of that short list. I mean, people who kick kittens and/or puppies are far worse than incessant talkers. But I don’t encounter kitten- and puppy-kickers all that often, at least not while I teach, so they’re not a real-world pedagogical concern of mine.

That said, for some reason the initial no-talking PSA didn’t seem to take this go round, so I decided to mention it again. Adopting my very best insouciant manner (because I wanted to make sure that everybody understood that the talkers weren’t getting under my skin), I stopped class a couple of weeks ago and said, to nobody in particular (because I didn’t want to embarrass the talkers), “Hey, look, all of this talking is very distracting for me. And if my needs don’t concern you — and really, why would my needs matter to you, I’m only the one doing the grading — perhaps you could consider that you’re probably distracting the people sitting around you as well. So, please stop.” And then I started back in on the Puritans. Which was an odd thing to do, I’ll admit, because before the interruption I had been lecturing about cotton culture in the Chesapeake. See? All of the talking distracted me!

Well, I’m afraid that didn’t work either. Which meant that yesterday I stopped lecture suddenly, looked directly at the same group of people who have been chatting the quarter away, and said, without regard for their delicate sensibilities, “Enough. I’ve asked you before, and I meant it: please stop.” One member of this gang of recidivists then tried to stare me down, but I just smiled my Gore Vidal smile and looked away. Because I’m that cool. Well, fifteen minutes later they were talking again. No, seriously, they were.

I’m almost out of ideas at this point and thought I’d see if you can help. I suppose the next step is to ask this group of louts to see me after class. But I don’t really want to spend more of my time on this sort of classroom management. In part I feel that way because, really, this isn’t middle school. But it’s also so depressing to waste time on such stupid crap*.

So, what’s worked for you? Anything short of bringing a dart gun to class? Bear in mind that your answer will be recorded for posterity and that PhD candidates apparently read this blog. Which is to say, this is another opportunity for us to consider those things that don’t typically get taught in graduate school to aspiring scholars/teachers. Also bear in mind that, yes, I know these sorts of challenges are very often a much bigger problem for women. And I know, too, that the most appropriate and effective responses to such problems differ depending on the race, gender, age, and deportment of the professor in question. Still, I’m stumped and thought I’d see if you people can help me out.

Finally, yeah, don’t even get me started on all the texting and web-surfing that’s going on this quarter. I’ve mostly decided that the best thing to do about such practices is to ignore them. Except, of course, that I announced early in the quarter my “please don’t distract your neighbors with your gadgets” policy. Whether that works or not is anybody’s guess. I’m at the front of the room, fortunately, so I can’t see what’s displayed on the students’ screens.

* No, teaching about cotton culture in the Chesapeake and the Halfway Covenant is not “stupid crap”. You talked a lot in class during college, didn’t you?

Among the many things we don’t teach our graduate students — not just here but anywhere that I can think of — is how to referee a manuscript. There are many reasons why this skill isn’t taught: methods aren’t universal, time is short, most people suck at it. There are others, too, I’m sure. That said, this is a really useful guide. Useful enough that I’m just going to paste it in its entirety below the fold.

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Plagiarism is understood to be a cardinal sin at the professional level. But, via the email, we get this piece asking whether there are ambiguities at the undergraduate level.

In comments andrew patiently reminds us he has previously pointed to Andrew Cayton’s lament that historians “leave the world of emotion to novelists, poets, and filmmakers.”1 While this is perhaps true, it is not only historians who have made this shift to bloodlessness. This discussion began with an example from the 1960s. Here are a few more, which I use in lectures.
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Yesterday I gave my Richard Nixon lecture, which I begin by talking about the tales of two other Richards, quoting this passage from Richard II:
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Students Frequently Ask this Question: when did the major US parties switch places, and why? Which is to say, when and why did the Democrats, who had been the party of limited federal government, begin to favor expanding Washington’s power? When and why did the Republicans, who had favored so strong a central government in Washington that they would accept a civil war rather than see its power curbed, become the party rhetorically committed to curbing its power?

When is easier to answer than why, though there’s no single date. (It would be nicer, though, if in one presidential election, say, the two candidates had done a partial do-si-do and ended up in each other’s places.) But we can pretty easily bracket the era of change.

At the beginning, we can put the Civil War. During the 1860s, the Republicans favored an expansion of federal power and passed over Democratic opposition a set of laws sometimes called the Second American System, providing federal aid for the transcontinental railroad, for the state university system, for the settlement of the West by homesteaders; for a national currency and a protective tariff.

Taken together, this was a highly ambitious program for expanding federal power. It was mercantilist, but it also aimed to get small-time farmers and ordinary citizens to buy into it with the Homestead Act and the state universities. And, broadly speaking, Democrats opposed it.

The postwar era of Reconstruction saw this division grow clearer, as the Republicans supported an expansion of federal power to provide civil right for African Americans in the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Fourteenth Amendment and the creation of the Department of Justice—an expansion that, again, Democrats opposed.

So through the early 1870s, then, the lines are pretty clearly drawn. Let’s leave that era for a moment and flash forward to our closing bracket, which we might as well make the 1936 election. Here we have the Democratic incumbent Franklin Roosevelt winning reelection for the successes and promise of the New Deal, which expanded federal power to provide … well, an awfully long list of benefits including banking, securities, and currency regulation; relief for the unemployed and pensions for the elderly; wilderness conservation; improvements to roads and electric infrastructure; support for unionization; and much else. And he was opposed in this election by Republicans staunchly against this expansion of state power.

So the switch takes place sometime between, let’s say, 1872 and 1936. That may not sound very narrow, but it’s a start.

Now, we can go further by finding some landmark dates in there. One of them has to be the 1896 election, when the Democratic Party fused with the People’s Party, and the incumbent Grover Cleveland, a rather conservative Democrat, was displaced by the young and fiery William Jennings Bryan, whose rhetoric emphasized the importance of social justice in the priorities of the federal government. The next time the Democrats had a Congressional majority, with the start of Wilson’s presidency in 1913, they passed a raft of Bryanish legislation, including the income tax and the Federal Reserve Act. And the next Democratic president after that was FDR. So from Bryan onward, the Democratic Party looks much more like the modern Democratic Party than it does like the party of the 1870s.

Oddly though, during the first part of this period, i.e., the time of Bryan, the Republican Party does not immediately, in reaction, become the party of smaller government; there’s no do-si-do. Instead, for a couple of decades, both parties are promising an augmented federal government devoted in various ways to the cause of social justice. It’s not until the 1920s, and the era of Coolidge especially, that the Republican Party begins to sound like the modern Republican Party, rhetorically devoted to smaller government.1 And that rhetorical tendency doesn’t really set in firmly until the early 1930s and the era of Republican opposition to the New Deal.

So now we have a better idea of when this happens; we need now at least the beginning of an explanation why. And the short answer to that is, the West. Which is to say, had the US not expanded westward and taken in a swath of new states in the post-Civil War era, it’s plausible that the parties would have remained as they were, with the Democrats the party of the South and states’ rights and segregation, and the Republicans seeking electoral advantage by trying to enforce civil rights legislation. But the admission of new western states changed the political calculus. In the West were voters disillusioned with the Republican Party’s Second American System, which turned out awfully favorable to banks, railroads, and manufacturing interests, and less favorable to small-time farmers such as those who had gone West and gone bust.

Those western voters were up for grabs—Bryan got them in 1896, Roosevelt helped McKinley get them in 1900, and got them for himself in 1904—and the only way to get them was to promise that some of the federal largesse that had hitherto benefited the northeast. Which is why you have the period of both parties promising some augmentation of federal power in the decades around the turn of the century.

Now, what happens next is that the Republicans prove able to regain western electoral votes from 1920 without having to promise anything much like Bryanite policies. Why this happens is, to my mind, a bit murky. Possibly it’s because a lot of Bryanite policies have already been passed, and western voters are less rebellious. Possibly it’s because of reaction against the Democrats and the war. Possibly it’s to do with the reaction against immigration. Or all of the above plus something else.

Anyway, that’s the when plus a little of the why the parties switched places. Now, one can get cleverer and point out that although the rhetoric and to a degree the policies of the parties do switch places, their core supporters don’t—which is to say, the Republicans remain, throughout, the party of bigger businesses; it’s just that in the earlier era bigger businesses want bigger government and in the later era they don’t. But this post is already long enough.

1That is to say, rhetorically devoted to smaller government even while increasing government’s size and power to regulate behavior with, e.g. Prohibition—but that’s another wrinkle to this story.

Ari and I are again teaching the core graduate seminar in history this fall. Below is our reading list, by topic, for your delectation.
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Edward M. Bernstein, the man who supposedly added the words “and Development” to “International Bank for Reconstruction and Development,” talking to an interviewer, Stanley Black, about his good fortune in life; he got hired right out of graduate school to tenure at North Carolina State in 1930, the midst of the Great Depression.

Bernstein: No, I didn’t start at the bottom. To tell you the truth, although my wife doesn’t like me to say it, all my life I’ve been overappreciated, overhonored, and overpaid. Everywhere I went I got to the top of the scale very fast.

S.B.: It helps to have the talent with words, and writing.

Bernstein: Maybe, oh yes, there’s nothing like being able to write. Being able to write is a remarkable gift. There’s none better, if you can also think.

I really like that caveat. Though the exchange is also nice for Black’s Steve-Martinish interposition.

Ari and I are teaching the methods and philosophy seminar for incoming graduate students, all fields of history. If you’re interested, please have a look below the fold to see what we’ve assigned.

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The last light of summer fades into fall.  The air has become crisp and stern, as if it’s giving you a final warning lecture before it really takes you to task in December.   The leaves will soon burst into yellows and oranges, and plaid-trousered alumni wander the campus and point out where things aren’t.

(At least on campuses with proper climates.  Mutatis mutandis for pleasant weather.)

But it’s also the time of year where the first assignments of the semester come due, and the students, busy with papers and tests, come dead-eyed into class.  If your class is the one giving the exam or requiring the paper, all their attention is focused on that, not on lecture or discussion.  If your class isn’t the one currently assessing them, your class just dropped off the priority list.

What tricks do you have to keep the classroom engaging?

Sybil tells of the development of a troubling classroom dynamic: some of the male students in her survey course seem to have a hard time taking a pretty, young female instructor seriously, and as a result, in class they either doze, disrupt, or sulk.  Unfortunately, dealing with them has been hard on the other students, leading to a classroom atmosphere which is tense and generally unpleasant for everyone.

Sybil’s an experienced instructor and I suspect she doesn’t need advice and her post didn’t solicit any, but her difficulty struck me as an instance of a problem that easily generalizes away from the specifics of her situation.  Whatever the ultimate source of the toxin, it’s likely those of us who have taught have all had classroom environments become unpleasant and unproductive places.  (Not you.  You’re an excellent instructor.  Your friend.)

What’s worked to restore a pleasant environment in which to learn and teach?  What hasn’t?  If you’ve been a student in a class that foundered, what things worked to right the course?

The State of Texas is in the process of defining new social studies standards for its public schools. And if the above video is any indication, we can look forward to a much more appealing version of American history going forward. I say that because Texas is a huge market for textbooks. So if Texans want happy history, the rest of the nation will just have to go along for the ride.

Which news, I have to say, comes as a bit of a relief. I mean, history can be such a downer. Things will be much better when we focus, relentlessly, on how exceptional our country is. Also: if we delete all mention of isolationism. Because that topic is pernicious and depressing. And U.S. history should be a celebration of us. Heck, us is right there in the title of the course.

More here and here.


When I teach my seminar on monuments, museums, and memorials, I typically cover the Enola Gay controversy. But one of the challenges I face is getting my students to look “beneath the mushroom cloud” (borrowing a phrase from John Dower). So, given that it’s the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima (see here for contemporary coverage), I thought I’d mention that I once juxtaposed Barefoot Gen with the bombing scene from Above and Beyond as a way of accomplishing this goal. This approach has its share of problems, unfortunately, and since I’ll be teaching the course again in the fall, I’d be eager to hear other ideas.

By the way, Barefoot Gen is fascinating for a variety of reasons, almost certainly worth the time for its treatment of class, the role of bureaucracy in Japanese culture, and popular misgivings about the war, not to mention its brutal depiction of Hiroshima’s destruction. It’s not just a one-trick pony, in other words. Above and Beyond, on the other hand, is probably best avoided. No doubt I’m wrong on both counts, though, and will soon hear about it. I eagerly await your replies.

A great illustration of an urban legend I’ve heard in various forms since, oh, sometime in high school.   This is one of those things meant to show the power of the noble Christian David over the godless academy Goliath.  I’ve heard it set in a philosophy classroom, in an evolutionist’s class room, in a  chemistry classroom, at Harvard, Yale, Berkeley.   I had it told to me in church youth group.  I had it told to me by friends, and by professors who had heard the story set at their PhD granting institution.

(Sobering thought:  perhaps this Wandering Atheist Professor is an adjunct…)

I think the course is clear.

Next semester, I’m getting some chalk….

(So, originally, this post was supposed to follow the other post by one week.  Life got in the way.  Spring turned into summer, gave autumn a miss, &c.  This post contains no camera angles or rightwing lunacy.  Part 2 of 2.)

Let me jog your memory.   A month and a half ago, I described the challenges facing the professor who wants to avoid giving the impression that Spinoza’s Ethics is really just metaphysics. I promised a solution, or at least a suggestion.  I believe this can be done in the couple of weeks normally spent on Spinoza in a history of early modern survey course.

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Following up to yesterday’s rather idle post, I want systematically to take up questions raised in comments as to whether computer presentation software1 is evil and whether there are distinctive features of computer presentation software that make it useful in the classroom. As the title indicates, I will try to make a case that there’s nothing inherently wrong with the software and indeed it can do quite good things for a classroom instructor, particularly in this case a history instructor.
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