I’ve Got a Good Feeling About This

The Force, it seems right now, is with me.  I sent off my first dissertation chapter this week, and my adviser gave positive marks and helpful remarks–a lot of “add stuff here” or “build on this,” which is much better than “change this,” “dump that,” or “this is horrible; lose it.”  I’m waiting to hear back from the other two people on my committee, so all this could change, but I’ll slosh around in these happy vibes for a while.  On top of that, I had a great week of brainstorming and outlining the next chapter.  I have a pretty detailed eight-page outline and some ideas that are as original and interesting as my little brain can muster.  In my headier moments of confidence while preparing the outline, I’ve fancied myself as revolutionizing the field and blowing your minds.

And I’m going to run with it.  Sure, the trash compacter will start compressing at any moment, and it’ll take an R2 unit to save my ass from dissertation destruction.  But these moments of confidence and enthusiasm are pretty rare when you’re waist-deep in dissertation Death Star refuse.  And we need them, grad students, we need them.  Not as much as we need hard work, resolution, stick-to-it-ness–that’s the shit that gets you through the shit.  But these moments of enthusiasm and inspiration provide a quick reminder of the potential of our work.  Times like these remind us that we’re doing this not just to get a job or impress our advisers, but out of some deeper sense that we’re contributing to knowledge and truth.  It’s a good feeling.  Go with it when you can.

Making My Dream Students Cry

Last night, I dreamed that the first day of class was so mind-blowingly awesome that my students cried.  The tears started when I explained why non-majors should care about the course, about why history is so important.  It was awesome.  Now, if I can just remember what dream-me said.  Damn.

Student Eval Smack-Down: My Racist and Sexist Pedagogy?

Is my pedagogy racist and sexist?  Am I racist and sexist?  I quote from a student evaluation:

I am/was concerned by the lack of analysis/discussions around systems of oppression and where we’re coming from as historians.  I think the professor could/should have addressed the biases and power construction as a mostly white class analyzing and making claims about African American history.  I also would really have valued moving more beyond the black (straight) male experience.

This from from the African American history (post-1865) course I taught last fall.  I got the evaluation in January and have been thinking–stewing–about it since.  I still haven’t quite figured out my response, but here are some of the components.

First and foremost: My sincerest thanks and applause to the student who was actually honest and thoughtful in this evaluation.  Providing this sort of meaningful and direct critique is exactly what I, as a new-ish teacher, need.  Plus, saying this stuff to a prof, or even an adjunct instructor, takes some serious balls.  Ooops, there I go again…

In response to the concern about course-required readings, I think I’d plead that the student try to understand the challenge of designing this course.  It’s a 300-level (third-year undergraduate) course, so it’s meant to be challenging.  So I can understand the student’s desire to get a broad array of perspectives.  But on the other hand, only two students had ever taken classes in any area of what the school labels ethnic studies.  The rest of the students started from scratch, not only in terms of history (there’s more to the Civil Rights movement than “I Have a Dream”) but also concepts (“racism” means more than confederate-flag-carrying white dudes who hate black people).  I chose readings that would give rookies a place to start, and veterans opportunities to explore.  Which is also why students also did their own historiography project–so they could explore more complex topics if they were in a place to do so.  Students did projects on African American agency in lynching; on black feminism in the Civil Rights movement; and on the work of bell hooks.  Finally, I don’t think the reading list was that monolithic.  Included: a white academic, a black intellectual, a former sharecropper, a radical activist, and the first black president.

Perhaps more damning is the suggestion–demand?–that the class talk about our (white) subjectivity.  I ask: to what end?  How would that have changed our discussions?  I foresee two effects.  The first would be to introduce a degree of relativity that is completely out of place for a history course.  We are in the business of telling meaningful stories about the past, the quality of which can and should be measured by the soundness of logic and the use of evidence.  I do not want the students leaving the course thinking that all stories are equally good–or equally bad, if they are told by people outside of the externally- and internally-defined boundaries of the group being studied.  The suggestion here is that, the white people in our class were unable to access, understand, and indeed even accurately portray the past of non-white people.  I reject this assertion.

That said, the student makes good points.  It is important to talk about one’s own subjectivity–in fact, I’m pretty sure we did, but perhaps not enough.  I think I might have gone too far in the direction of encouraging students to embrace the possibilities of evaluating the past as neutral observers.  In my limited experience, students are a bit too quick to dismiss challenging arguments as simply a matter of perspective and bias.  Everything is completely relative for students, and so I find myself insisting that no, in fact, there are some things that are objectively true–like the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  That actually happened.  In my head, I’m trying to manage a balancing act between truth and interpretation, but, judging from this student’s review, I may be swinging too hard toward the former.  Duly noted.  But what a challenge, right?  Maybe one of the reasons that I didn’t talk more about our class’s subjectivity is that I haven’t seen/participated in such a discussion, or at least a good one that doesn’t lapse into academic jargon bullshit.  I’d love to know how to do this.  Suggestions, friends?

As for the diversity of the reading list, I think the student stands on shakier ground.  I maintain that the list was pretty good–after all, readers of this blog helped me put it together.  So it’s your fault, really.  But maybe we could have done more.  Perhaps I could have provided supplementary reading lists for students who wanted to go farther.  Certainly I could, and probably should, have incorporated into my lecture material that went “beyond the black (straight) male experience.”

After thinking about this evaluation for, oh, eight months now, I’m left having learned some lessons: about reading lists, about lecture material, about discussing the position of the historian.  But I’m also left wondering if the student learned anything from the course.  Did the student think about C. Vann Woodward’s arguments about legal systems as foundations for racism?  Did the student consider in full the meaning of DuBois’s veil?  Did the life of Nate Shaw give the student any sense of what it was like to be a sharecropper?  Did Elaine Brown’s story bring any complexity to the student’s romantic, idealized ideas about the Black Panthers?  Does the student understand any better what makes Obama tick?  Most importantly, did the student learn that racism is not the same in every place at all times, but that it has changed over time?  Or did the student simply dismiss all of this because I am, apparently, a racist, sexist Philistine?  I hope not.  I hope that I never get in the way of what the material has to offer.