I am going to talk about teaching about race as a relevant topic in today’s world. Teaching about race has been a primary part of my own American history classes and of both my undergraduate and graduate studies.
I was first introduced to discussions of race in American history during my time studying history at Rice University. The courses taught by Dr. Edward Cox there opened my eyes to a whole new sense of the world that I simply did not have from my K-12 experience. Although I went to diverse schools overall in K-12, being in the honors/gifted program meant being primarily around whites. I had never even thought of why that was or what might be wrong with that model until my undergraduate studies.
Courses in the history department at Rice in the African American experience, in Caribbean and Latin American history, and in the history of the Civil Rights Movement all served to provide me with a broader understanding of the history of race. History put me on that path to understanding, and it is a path that I am still on today.
While Dr. Cox was certainly not the only one at Rice from whom I learned about the history of race and racial issues, his courses were so crucial to my growing understanding that I still look back fondly on him and his classes today (over 2 decades later). I took every class that he offered while at Rice and only wish I could relive some of those classes now, knowing what I do, as I think I could get even more out of them in the current era.
In graduate school at Penn State, I did not have as much exposure directly to African American history or the history of race overall, but I still was able to read a diverse set of materials in my classes, and the Civil War focus of a number of my graduate courses did give me a good background in the ideas of slavery and emancipation.
While I had many strong history professors as a graduate student at Penn State, the one who still sticks out to me is Dr. Thavolia Glymph, who is now at Duke University. Her Slavery and Emancipation class was transformative for me. It was certainly one of the most difficult classes I had at Penn State, with a reading load that was astoundingly high on a weekly basis (think between 600-800 pages a week with over 1000 pages a week a couple of times). It was also a strange class, as there were five of us in the class, all white men from the South and West, who were taking a class on slavery from a black woman. I admire her patience and understanding with us, and I still remember the class today as a key one in my education. The amount of information in the class was so high, that I do wish that I could go back and take the same class a second time, this time without the time pressure and cramped setting of a full graduate semester, just so that I could delve deeper and understand the concepts, theories, and ideas with more time for consideration.
I did not set out to be a historian of African American history (although I strongly considered that as a focus while an undergraduate), and I still am learning all the time about issues of race and ethnicity in the United States. I feel moderately educated in African American history, and I have often regretted not going into that as a specialty going into graduate school, as it has become more and more of a field of strong interest for me. I am still woefully undereducated in many other fields of the history of race, have taken almost no courses on Mexican-American or even broader Latin American and South American history. I also never once took a course on Native American history or many other specific ethnic groups in the American history experience. So, for much of what we might consider the history of non-white American history, I am still very much a beginner.
I wish I knew more, but I bring what I do to my courses and to my life. In the context of a national conversation about race, I do my part by staying current and applying the lessons of history to what is going on around us today. I hope to show some of these things about how I think about and teach race in American history as I move forward in this series.
Two articles were delivered into my email yesterday on the state of the field of history. So, I thought I would write about them, having gone through the dissertation process myself (without completing it) and teaching history now. I certainly have my own opinions, and I’m sure that will come through here.
What’s Been Lost in History (As a note, I got this off of some place that allows me to read the full article. You have to have a subscription to read it on the Chronicle’s site.)
This is a fairly common-sense recounting of the problems with the job market for people pursuing a Ph.D. in history. He notes that the typical history department prepares students for a single profession, that of being a professor in a tenure-track job, doing research and a bit of teaching as necessary. If you do not aspire to that, the current state of history graduate education is not designed for you. While I did not go through the program looking for a nonacademic job, as this article focuses on, I still was an outsider, as I quickly discovered that I was much more interested in teaching than research. In fact, I spent 5 1/2 years in a Ph.D. program trying to convince myself that I could do enough of the research side of things to get through with the Ph.D. and hopefully get a teaching job somewhere. In the end, I left with a good amount of teaching experience, so I am thankful for that, but the emphasis on producing researchers was undoubtedly the only acceptable focus in my experience, just as this article discusses. As he says, “I do not have solid evidence on this point, but I think the notion of academe as the only suitable outcome of doctoral education is a myth generated by the highly untypical period from the mid-1950s to about 1970. My sense is that the historical profession (and the human sciences generally) became much narrower and more academic in the decades after World War II.” I think it is stuck in a rut, just as I’ve been talking about with other aspects of teaching in this blog so far. Why do we get taught this way in doctoral programs, because that’s the way they were taught. We even talked about the comprehensive exams as an archaic hazing ritual, done because that’s what our professors had to do.
His solution is to make the history degree more of a “pre-professional degree” than just one that leads to an academic research career. Acknowledge that many people who go into history will get a law degree or a museum placement or (like me) a teaching job. He advocates linking up history with “public affairs, business administration, international relations, social work, and journalism” as well, which would strengthen historical thinking and reasoning across the professions. Make it into something that people have more options with. When I left my undergraduate institution with a degree in history, I never got any real guidance on what I could do outside of going to grad school. Nobody ever talked about other options, and I went to grad school largely because I really didn’t know what else to do. There were no real connections to other fields, outside of one class that was only tangentially connected to the history department that looked at public history. I also got an internship at a museum in the summer before my senior year, but it also never really led to anything. All paths pointed to grad school, with no real alternatives given. So, there I went. And there was a very focused program with little ideas outside of research.
As he says, “Doctoral training in history as it developed in the 19th century included a commitment to civic life and leadership; in the first half of the 20th century, history was at the core of civic professionalism, partly because the social sciences generally were then historicist.” I will go even further to say that it is not just doctoral history, but history at all levels. This is something that I have been struggling with here in this blog because it has to do with the relevance of the subject that I teach directly. Is history just the memorization of facts at the undergraduate level or the research of some minutia that somebody else hasn’t found yet at the graduate level? I hope that it is more than that, and I like the civic aspects and the preparation for other careers that are discussed as alternatives in this article.
I guess that the more I look back on it, the more disappointed I am in my undergraduate and graduate education in preparing me for what I am actually doing now. Perhaps that means I was not suited to do history as I did, but I love teaching it, and I’m not sure how else I could have gone through the process without getting the teaching experience ahead of time to be able to get the job I did get. It just seems somewhat hollow when I look back on it. One of my friends in grad school said it best — everything he wanted to do in history you could do without a Ph.D., while everything you did to get a Ph.D. in history was not anything he wanted to do. Yet, idealistic people keep going in, with the hope that they will be the ones to buck the system. Hopefully one of them succeeds, but for now, I will try to do my best from a lower rung in the academic ladder.
Coming out of the American Historical Association (I should probably join this again at some point) is apparently a new effort to define what it means to get a history degree at the “associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral” levels. Right now, there is no definition of that at all, and each institution’s degree is fundamentally different from each other one (I might even argue that each student’s experience in each program is fundamentally different). Of course, at my community college, you can’t even get an associate degree in history at all, so that’s a fascinating concept in and of itself. And, most importantly, this effort will not be about what is taught (the specifics), but about the competencies that one would expect to come out of a degree in history. In other words, this is another in the line of the assessment push now. It will be interesting to see how this turns out. Is it going to be a hollow change that ends up not meaning much, or will it provide some legitimacy and direction, much as was discussed in the previous article.
I don’t know that anything that I saw here will fundamentally change what I’m doing in the classroom, and it was interesting to see that the competencies here were basically the exact things that I already try to emphasize. But some commonalities would be good, especially if you could combine what was in this article with the previous one. I do think it would be even more valuable at the higher levels, as the graduate level is often even more amorphous. Some structure and variety in instructional ideas and techniques could have the potential to bring about changes. I guess I’m less optimistic there, but you would hope that things would change at some point to open up a field that is so singularly focused.