Thursday, June 29, 2006

Historians More Likely to Indoctrinate Students

I was doing some random searching last week and came across This is one of those websites that allows students who feel like their professors or schools are pushing "sociopolitical agendas" and "supplanting, suppressing, and ultimately excluding alternative views" a place to publicly air their grievances.

I didn't find very many of the stories I examined that compelling, but what did interest me was that close to 30% of those listed on the site as being guilty of indoctrination were history professors. I found this pretty startling given that your average student probably takes one college level history course in four years. Therefore, if one was making predictions on how many history teachers would be listed on such a site based strictly on the numbers it should be around 2.5%.

So of course, I've been wondering what the heck is it about history or history professors that makes them over-represented among those perceived to be indoctrinating their students? My best guess would that that history is one of the most political subjects taught on college campuses. Moreover, any interpretation given on how good a president was Lincoln, or how effective was the New Deal, or what was the treatment of Native Americans can be related to some current political or ideological debate. If you take a side on whether or not Martin Luther King, Jr. was essential to the Civil Rights Movement, someone in class could argue you are liberal or conservative, even if you later interpreted another event in a contradictory way.

I am sure there are some out there who would argue that it is the professor's job to present all the various interpretations to students and let them decide which is correct. And I think that in upper level classes this is more attainable. But in survey courses, students need some direction - some analysis of events, if history is going to make sense. It is the professor's responsibility in survey classes to sift through the various interpretations using the analytical skills they acquired at graduate school and working with the accepted paradigms of the profession to present to students the best understanding of events currently available.

While there is nothing wrong with providing survey students with a glimpse into some of the debates surround historical issues (especially ones that are not clear cut), at the same time it is not indoctrination to present a standard interpretation of history even if it might support or undermine a current political issue.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Prices a Gateway to the Past?

I've spent this last week in Missouri for my grandparents 60th Anniversary. I was in charge of putting together a slide show of their 60 years together. It showed their courting, wedding, them with their children, grandchildren, and vacationing over the last 6 decades. It turned out pretty well.

Of course I couldn't resist adding a touch of context to the slide show by starting out with a few historical facts from the era: For example, in 1946 Harry Truman was president, the Cards beat the Red Socks in the World Series, gas was .27 a gallon (or about 2.77 a gallon in today's money), the average home sold for $12,500 (128,400 today), and the national debt was 269 billion dollars.

While the numbers sound impressive - when not shown in today's $$$, they really aren't that much different than what they are today. Nevertheless, it is an effective way to grab an audience's attention and get them thinking historically (or at least thinking about the past). I typically do a similar thing in my survey courses, tell them some numbers that I think will get their attention before moving into the important content. There is something about numbers or maybe I mean prices/values that works to create an instant gateway between today and past. From my perspective prices are more effective than dates and most anecdotes in getting people to think about the what life was like 10 or 20 or 50 years ago.

I'm not sure this approach would work everywhere -- maybe it is only effective in a society that is driven by consumer spending and capitalism, but as a quick way to get people to put themselves in a historical context there is little more effective.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Social Mistakes and the Historian

I had some people over to dinner tonight and we started talking about women and work. Some one brought up how long women with young children have worked - suggesting that it a very recent phenomenon. Before I could stop myself I had launched into a lecture on women's roles in families and how society has viewed children since the colonial period to today. What a smuck. Sometimes I wonder how historians ever convince anyone to date/procreate with them. :P

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

History on Comedy Central

I was flipping through the channels last night and ended up on Comedy Central watching the Mind of Mencia, which seemed to be something of a cross between a standup comedy show and a show with comedy skits. One of the skits last night was entitled - "That's F*cking Historical."

"That's F*cking Historical" purported to be re-enactments of historical events. Last nights episode was inspired by the Divinci Code and was supposed to show what life really would have been like for Jesus if he had been married.

For example, one scene showed the disciples questioning Jesus' manhood after he allowed his wife to pick out a pink robe for him to wear. In another scene Jesus called for God's help, when his wife's only answer to whether or not she was mad was 'Well, if you don't know what's wrong, everything must be FINE.' The funniest one, however, was when Jesus returned from the dead and his wife accused him of having an affair since he hadn't been home for three days.

I'm not really sure that this says about the view of history in society. In someways, it suggeststhat the public does have a healthy historical consciousness - if you didn't have some awareness of past events, skits like 'That's F*cking Historical' would not be funny. But it also might suggest that people see history or the ability to really know what happened in the past a joke. The person who acted as commentator for 'That's F*cking Historical', for example, was continually making statements like - 'Could Jesus cure his wife of PMS? I don't know! Or do I?'

This seemed to strike a little to close to relativism and the belief that seems to be growing that if historicans can't prove something didn't happened - then perhaps it did.

I Hate Freshmen

I know this is not PC to admit - but I hate freshmen. I suppose that isn't completely true. I usually like freshmen after they have been 'seasoned' a bit. Once they've had their first essay test, gotten back their first paper for Comp., or got their mid-term grades, freshmen usually become likeable people. Up to then, however, they are still acting like high school kids. They try to act cool all the time, they know everything, and they think their college professors are hallroom monitors who they respect about as much as they did their high school teachers.

At some point during that first semester, however, they go through what I like to call 'the change'. They wise up, they become interesting and interested in stuff, they start to figure out that learning is challenging and difficult, but also can be fun. I really like them after 'the change'.

So why am I thinking about this in the middle of the summer? Because I had to meet with a group of incoming freshmen this morning. They actually weren't too bad, but one of them left me feeling like her mother and another like her servant. I have to stay in touch with them for the next six months as they get accustomed to college. I think this is an important part of my job and I realize that making the transition isn't easy for everyone, however, I am really looking forward to 'the change' so I can actually enjoy working with them.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Teaching Manifesto

There is an interesting post on the Chronicle today called: A Tough-Love Manifesto for Professors. This article urges teachers who have job security (ie tenure) to take a tougher stance with students, to not coddle them, to not treat them like customers, and to insure that when they leave your classroom, their grade reflects the knowledge they have obtained about the subject.

His manifesto reads like this:

I. Students are not customers. Teachers are not employees.
II. Students and teachers have obligations to each other.
III. Here is what I expect from students:
- You will treat everyone in the class, including the professor, with the respect due to all human beings.
- You will attend every class, give your full attention to the material, and conduct yourself in an appropriate manner.
- You will agree to do the work outlined in the syllabus on time.
- You will acknowledge that previous academic preparation (e.g., writing skills) will affect your performance in this course.
- You will acknowledge that your perception of effort, by itself, is not enough to justify a distinguished grade.
- You will not plagiarize or otherwise steal the work of others.
- You will not make excuses for your failure to do what you ought.
- You will accept the consequences -- good and bad -- of your actions.
IV. Here is what students can expect from me:
- I will treat you with the respect due to all human beings.
- I will know your name and treat you as an individual.
- I will not discriminate against you on the basis of your identity or your well-informed viewpoints.
- I will manage the class in a professional manner. That may include educating you in appropriate behavior.
- I will prepare carefully for every class.
- I will begin and end class on time.
- I will teach only in areas of my professional expertise. If I do not know something, I will say so.
- I will conduct scholarly research and publication with the aim of making myself a more informed teacher.
- I will return your assignments quickly with detailed feedback.
- I will pursue the maximum punishment for plagiarism, cheating, and other violations of academic integrity.
- I will keep careful records of your attendance, performance, and progress.
- I will investigate every excuse for nonattendance of classes and noncompletion of assignments.
- I will make myself available to you for advising.
- I will maintain confidentiality concerning your performance.
- I will provide you with professional support and write recommendations for you if appropriate.
- I will be honest with you.
- Your grade will reflect the quality of your work and nothing else.
- I am interested in your feedback about the class, but I am more interested in what you learned than how you feel.

I like the idea of a manifesto and of laying out the obligations that students and faculty have to each other, but I can't imagine putting it on my syllabus. It seems that things would really have to awful and students would have to be constantly failing to meet my expectations before I would take such a step. I would be interested to see how such a manifesto changes the atmosphere of the class. Does it work? Do students become resentful? Do they even understand or care what your manifesto says or means?

I would suspect that if you didn't read it to the students on the first day of class and just listed it in the syllabus then probably 1/2 the class wouldn't take the effort to read it.

Of course maybe I'm fooling myself into thinking that MY classes are different. That because I usually create a good rapport with my students, I don't need such a written document. Perhaps that is my excuse for not holding them to high enough standards, letting them cut too many corners, and letting them feel they are purchasing an education.

I definitely need to think seriously about the implications of taking or not taking such a course of action, because I do believe that professors have an obligation to get students to understand important concepts and learn significant skills and information. And if tough love is more successful at accomplishing that perhaps it is a cop-out to argue that MY classes don't need it.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Most Popular President - Vanity Addition

I started thinking last night about who was the most popular president today - as oppposed to which president was most popular during his time in office - so I ran a couple of senerios through Google Tracker. (Google Tracker let you compare how often different terms are searched for on

I started out comparing in big name presidents prior to 1877 - Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, and Lincoln. Little surprise that Washington was at the top. Lincoln usually second, although Jefferson did surge ahead at a few times during the last couple of years. Jackson stayed pretty much at the bottom.

The most popular presidential searches on for presidents prior to 1877. Posted by Picasa
I then moved on to check out the most popular presidents after 1877. This I found a bit more suprising since Theordore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson seemed to hover near the top. With a big spike for Wilson in early 2005.

The most popular presidential searches on for presidents after 1877. Posted by Picasa
I then took the most popular vote getters from the previous two tracks threw in Richard Nixon for the hell of it and came up with this graph showing the most popular previous president in American history - George Washington. While Lincoln is a close second, the rest of the previous presidents seem to meld together in a mushy line at the bottom of the graph. (BTW, the big surge for Nixon in 2004 was when the identity of Deep Throat was revealed.)

It is now official - George Washington is this nation's most popular previous president.

The most popular presidential searches on Posted by Picasa

(I deliberately left off the most recent previous presidents since not enough time has elapsed since they left office.)
Of course, in order to keep Washington from getting too full of himself with his popularity victory, I did track him against Britney Spears. And the evidence is pretty clear in this contest as well. Britney Spears is much more popular than the first president of the United States.

Now perhaps if Washington could parade around, showing his bare mid-rift he could gain some ground on the popstar.

George Washington v. Britney Spears Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Meeting the New President

My campus hired a new president for next year and later this month I have a group meeting scheduled with him. I decided that the best way to approach this meeting is to come up with a list of ideas, suggestions, concerns, that I hope will come and that if they don't come up at least a few of them I will personally bring up. I will also probably come up with a list of things that are going well, just in case that comes up too. This may be the only time I ever get to sit down with the new guy and talk about what I think is right and wrong with the institution, I don't want to waste this opportunity by not thinking it through.

Some of my concerns:

- Pay for humanities/social science professors
- The lack of a master plan to fill open/frozen faculty positions on campus
- The college's inability to adjust things like stipends, tenure raises, research grants, etc. for inflation
- The fact that we are a liberal arts college that doesn't require all students to take a foreign language
- The unreasonable requirements to get a minor in education
- The fact that the school does not make counter-offers to people who are good and add much to the campus - but leave to make more money elsewhere
- Inequities in teaching loads

Things that are going right:

- My department
- Chair system
- Housing Situation

I need to build on these... but I hope they are issues that the new president will be interested in.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Renaissance Fair

I went to my first Renaissance Festival today and had a good time, probably because I know very little about the Renaissance. I bought a snood (a 16th century hair net) - which I really like - although I have no idea where I'll ever be able to wear it. I got my picture taken with a big horse. And I ate that most favored food of King Henry VIII - the Calzone.

I have decided, however, that most of the people who attend these fairs aren't THAT interested in history, but instead like having an excuse to dress up without being thought of as a freak at other times of the year than Halloween.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Plagiarism Again

A story in the Chronicle today examines the confirmed reports of graduate student plagiarism by engineering students at Ohio University. I imagine that if this story had been about a Big 10 history department the fallout would be much worse and probably caught much sooner.

While I don't claim to understand the methodology by which engineers operate, I do know that the historiographical chapter of almost every history dissertation - no matter how boring to read- serves a purpose to place one's argument in context with other scholarship and highlight the originality of one's thesis. Even if an ABD candidate was able to hoodwink his or her advisor and plagiarize from another's work, someone else is eventually going to come along while working on a historiography and discover the damning evidence.

In fact, a few years back when I was teaching an undergraduate historiography course one of my students had gotten two dissertations from ILL to use in her paper and she discovered that one of the author's had plagiarized from the other. It made a great teachable moment. The student did wonder what to do with the information... I told her at least footnote it in her paper and that she could probably cause trouble for the perpetrator if she wanted to pursue it. She didn't, but the experience still provided a great example of the importance of originality and proper attribution in one's work.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Historical Pop Culture

Anyone dying to see some history on the big screen this summer? Here are some of the top contenders.

1. An American Haunting - based on a true story of John Bell, an early 19th Century man from Tennessee, whose physician determined he was poisoned by a ghost. Read more about the Bell Witch here.

2. The Da Vinci Code - Fictional story about the hunt for the descendants of Jesus. Story is built around a number of historical documents. Read the first chapter of historian Paul Maier's book, Da Vinci Code: Fact or Fiction?

3. The Lost City - Fictional story set in pre-Revolutionary Cuba. The film includes portrayals of figures from Cuban history - especially Fulgencio Batista and Che Guevarra. Read Humberto Fontova's comments on the film and its critics here. Fontova was born in Cuba, came to the U.S. when he was six years old, and has a M.A. in history from Tulane.