Celebrating Four Years at Jacksonian America

Home made party cupcake with a number candle on topI started this blog four years ago today. It’s been quieter than normal the past few months, as I’ve been wrapped up in speaking about Andrew Jackson, Southerner and focused on writing on several new projects.

Despite my infrequent posting, this year witnessed a huge spike in views. This was largely due to a post I wrote on Andrew Jackson’s parrot. Who knew so many people were curious about a swearing bird?

Blogging continues to be a helpful creative outlet for me. Regardless of what brought you here originally or what keeps you coming back, thank you for reading.

Peter Onuf on MOOCs

OnufPeter Onuf’s interview at The Junto blog struck a chord with me, and I want to use it to address some things that are implied in his remarks.

(Just to be clear, none of what follows is meant to disparage Onuf in any way. Although I don’t know him personally, I respect his scholarship and his position as the dean of Jeffersonian studies. His interview simply offered me the opportunity to address some attitudes toward MOOCs that continue to bother me.)

The first is Onuf’s identification of one of the oxymorons of MOOCs: lecture vs. interaction. On the one hand, he argues, “I think the performance level among academics is abysmally low, and that more people ought to develop lecturing skills that would merit being, you know, MOOC’ed.” Later, he suggests, “But let’s not make believe that having a bunch of lectures in the can is the sovereign solution to all of our problems in higher education today. My solution, having lots of seminar-tutorial contact, is very expensive, it’s labor-intensive.” And then, near the end, “That people will hold onto the idea that a lecture is some kind of sacred thing—that it’s the essence of our teaching and learning experience—that’s got to be nonsense! I mean, it’s not! And so we have to get over that.” Maybe it’s the structure of the interview, but it appears that he is saying grad students and junior faculty should learn to lecture better in order to contribute to MOOCs, which need to be more like seminars (a contradiction, to say the least).

The tension between lecturing vs. interaction is a major problem that MOOCs have so far failed to address in any meaningful way. Onuf admits that he stayed away from the discussion boards because “it’s embarrassing—it’s about me.” I can imagine that anyone would feel that way, but for a student in a face-to-face course, interaction with the professor is crucial. How much more so for a MOOC, where you are one of hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands? If a student truly wanted to receive the full benefit of the course, s/he would need to have access to the professor. It’s one thing to lecture, even lecture well–it’s quite another to lead discussions, answer questions, moderate debates, and hold office hours. MOOCs seem inadequate for all of those necessities of a quality education. (For opposing views on peer evaluation, the backbone of MOOC “interaction,” read Jonathan Rees* and Ben Wiggins).

That brings me to the second point about Onuf’s post. He alludes to the threat that MOOCs pose to future professors, including his own grad students. The reality is, MOOCs, as they are conceived by venture capitalists and administrators, are meant to be taught, not by junior faculty who have great performance skills, but by the faculty Rees calls “superprofessors.” In his post, “Every Man His Own Superprofessor,” Rees notes,

what happens to the professors who get left behind? Every man cannot be their own super professor. The world will run out of students first. And as online classes get scaled up and MOOCs get scaled down, all the rest of us will be left as ministers without portfolios.

(See also Rees’ post on the ways in which superprofessors undermine the rest of academia.)

The point is that esteemed history faculty such as Onuf, Jeremy Adelman, and others have the name recognition and the elite-university appointments and resources to produce either full-blown or “boutique” MOOCs. Their jobs are not at stake, either because of where they hold their appointment or, in Onuf’s case, because he is retired.

Most of us don’t have that luxury. We teach at institutions that depend on declining enrollment and languishing endowments to keep the doors open and maintain current faculty lines. Our institutions don’t have the resources to develop a MOOC, which, by Onuf’s estimation, cost at least $100,000 for a short course. Many of us also don’t have the job security that Onuf et al. possess/ed, either because we are adjuncts, we work at institutions without tenure, or our jobs are dependent on financial factors beyond our control. Add to those circumstances the very real threat to future academic employment posed by MOOCs as currently conceived, and it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to see them as anything other than a threat to higher education.

One last point, which seems appropos given Onuf’s Jeffersonian bent: how do MOOCs benefit the less powerful in a democratic society? Historiann had a guest post on this last May, which is worth reading in its entirety for its examination of the ways in which MOOCs contain assumptions about women, racial and ethnic minorities, and the economically disadvantaged. And lest you think this is hyperbole, consider the comment of Daphne Koller, cofounder and co-CEO of MOOC-provider Coursera, last year:

We’re moving into a world where knowledge, base content, is a commodity, which allows anyone who is smart and motivated and passionate to make something of themselves and open doors to opportunity. But at the same time, the much deeper cognitive skills that are taught in the face-to-face interaction—they’re still going to be a differentiator. The best place to acquire those is by coming and getting an education at the best universities.

I happen to like Onuf’s approach to the Jefferson MOOC. He saw it as a way to target adults interested in learning more about Jefferson, not as a replacement for a course on Jefferson. That type of MOOC is a great idea and would require the performance skills that he notes are important. I also agree with his view that historians should be engaging not just each other or our students but the public as well.

The problem, of course, is that Onuf’s situation is not the norm. Administrators don’t want to focus on “boutique” MOOCs–they want MOOCs that will allow them to cut labor costs and increase tuition revenue, all to the detriment of the vast majority of faculty. For all of their rhetoric about democratizing education and saving the world, venture capitalists are interested in making money and/or exercising power, the cost to faculty be damned. That’s what is really at stake.

Fortunately, the MOOC revolution appears to be losing steam, so Luddites like me, who use social media to interact with the public, students, and the profession and instructional technology to help bring knowledge into the classroom, appear to be winning.

* If you haven’t read Rees’ blog, you should. He has been the most consistent faculty advocate, and he provides lots of links to other voices, both pro-MOOC and anti-MOOC.

Was Calvin Coolidge a Klansman?

Coolidge and KKKI recently came across the photo to the left, which purports to show Calvin Coolidge marching with several Klansmen in Washington. A look at several Klan websites revealed that the picture, Coolidge’s membership, or both were included on many. (See examples here and here.)

One website that appears to be a major source for the Coolidge-Klan claim is run by the Indiana Historical Research Foundation. The photo to the left appears on the site with the statement that Coolidge was the man in the suit marching with Klan leaders. According to the individual who runs the site, “In the 1980′s, I spoke to everyone I could find who would have been alive in the 1920′s and old enough to remember what went on. They all told me it was common knowledge that President Coolidge was a Klan member.” Sixty-year-old statements and a photo of a man who doesn’t even resemble Coolidge–what more do you need for evidence?

I’d never heard of the Coolidge-Klan connection, so I asked Kelly J. Baker, author of Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, if she had.

Kelly’s response prompted me to look at some scholarly secondary sources on Coolidge and his presidency. None of them marked him as a Klansman or a Klan sympathizer; in fact, quite the opposite, given the era. This piece by Jerry L. Wallace does a good job of outlining Coolidge’s relationship with the Klan. I also recommend reading Alvin S. Felzenberg, “Calvin Coolidge and Race:  His Record in Dealing with the Racial Tensions of the 1920,” New England Journal of History 55 (Fall 1998): 83-96.

The Coolidge-Klan connection is prevalent even on non-Klan websites. On the front page of a simple Google search (“Was Calvin Coolidge a Klan Member?”), for example, seven of the ten links listed Coolidge as a KKK member. In the big picture, a false claim about “Silent Cal” is probably going to convince someone of the Klan’s legitimacy, but the concern is that over time, these types of myths undermine and even overtake historical accuracy. At the very least, it makes the job of professional historians harder.

Confronting Classism and Racism in Contemporary America: Two Recent Examples

CoatesTwo conversations have taken place in the past 24 hours that reveal two different approaches to class and race in the United States.

The first was Bethanie H. Tucker’s talk at the Wisconsin Technical College System Conference. Granted, I am relying on Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Storified timeline, which captures her tweets about the talk, but the sentiment of Tucker’s talk appeared to be patronizing and condescending toward college students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. My sense, and I hope I’m wrong, is that Tucker sees herself and educators in general as a “white saviour,” to use one commenter’s term. In this case, however, it isn’t about race, but class. It’s an attitude that I’ve witnessed among many educators, both pre-collegiate and in higher education: “Those (literally) poor students are so fortunate to have us help them.” It’s sickening, and it speaks to those educators’ inability or unwillingness to invest in students as individuals because they embody poverty.

Then, Ta-Nehisi Coates came out with his piece on the case for reparations. My reaction after reading it once is completely different from my response to the sentiment of Tucker’s talk. It’s hard to encapsulate Coates’ argument with just one quote, but this one stuck with me:

Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate—the kind that HR 40 proposes—we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.

I’ve had the internal intellectual debate about reparations on several occasions, usually coming down against the idea. I don’t know if reparations is an answer, or the answer, for American racism, but I think Coates is right–having the national conversation would be a monumental step in helping us take an honest look at our nation’s heritage. Realistically, I don’t think it will happen because Americans have shown a propensity to ignore their true history in favor of a watered-down, sanctimonious heritage.

Collectively, both Tucker and Coates, in different ways, reveal something about our nation: we don’t like to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that there are historical and structural problems that continue to exist that make it difficult to acknowledge anyone outside of our circle as equal or valuable. Instead, we prefer to stereotype and patronize because it helps us avoid taking actions that will make us uncomfortable.

Where in the World Was Andrew Jackson?

The Hermitage has the answer, thanks to a new mapping project. I’m still tinkering with it, but I’m impressed that there are short descriptions and sources for each of the map locations. (I wish the sources were to primary documents, but maybe that’s coming.)

H/t to Young Jacksonians for the title and link.

Andrew Jackson, Southerner Named Winner of Tennessee History Book Award

TN History Book Award (1)_My14On Thursday, Andrew Jackson, Southerner was named the winner of the 2013 Tennessee History Book Award, given jointly by the Tennessee Library Association and the Tennessee Historical Commission.

While every author secretly hopes to win some sort of award, I never thought that I would actually win one. What I write about isn’t fashionable, and I still remember the criticism of my writing by one grad school professor (which I won’t share here, but it’s advice I think still holds true for me today). As Twitterstorians and the blogosphere have been discussing recently (here and here), academic rejection is something that hurts immensely. While this award brings with it a sense of accomplishment, I suspect that imposter syndrome will set back in quickly.

Until then, I’ll enjoy the award. I am grateful to TLA, THC, and the awards committee for recognizing something worthwhile in the book, and I hope readers think it worth their time as well.TN History Book Award (2)_My14

What Killed William Henry Harrison?

HarrisonAccording to a recent New York Times article, it was probably not pneumonia.

In those days the nation’s capital had no sewer system. Until 1850, some sewage simply flowed onto public grounds a short distance from the White House, where it stagnated and formed a marsh; the White House water supply was just seven blocks downstream of a depository for “night soil,” hauled there each day at government expense.

That field of human excrement would have been a breeding ground for two deadly bacteria, Salmonella typhi and S. paratyphi, the causes of typhoid and paratyphoid fever — also known as enteric fever, for their devastating effect on the gastrointestinal system. . . .

Harrison had a history of dyspepsia, or indigestion, which potentially heightened his risk of infection by gastrointestinal pathogens that might have found their way into the White House water supply.

Whatever killed him, mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Whig presidents unless you want them to die in office.

Knowledge vs. Box-Checking

Checklist2Chronicle poster polly_mer recently posted this assessment of the importance of a college education:

This is why our responsibility in Gen Ed and even majors classes is to sell the benefits of knowing things instead of checking the boxes.

For example, I tell my students that being able to fake interest in deathly dull material is a primary job skill.  The person who gets the raise or the invitation to the more interesting projects is the person who is engaged all the time.  Yes, we’re all bored silly as that meeting extends into the second hour.  The person who keeps looking between the speaker and a paper that is being filled with notes is a go-getter, even if the notes are just the nouns from the speaker; those notes look plausible when someone looks over and help prevent drooling and obviously tuning out.  The person who is staring at the ceiling and isn’t even doodling is someone who might be told to not bother to come back tomorrow.  If you are a cog in the wheel, then you can be replaced.  If you are the rising star, even if that’s just perception of being keen, then you are harder to replace.  Fake it and keep that job.

The person who can smooze will also be offered opportunities that someone won’t who can’t even be bothered to take five minutes to skim the morning’s headlines and be ready.  When you end up in the coffee line or on the elevator with a boss, you want to be able to make small talk beyond the weather (although the weather is better than being on your phone texting instead of smoozing).  For that matter, you want to be able to make small talk with anyone you see casually regularly.  That guy who eats lunch in the company cafeteria with you at the same time may need another team member and will think of you if you spent five minutes chatting several times a week.  Those jobs will never be advertised; people get a quiet offer based on gut feeling.  Having a college degree can only make the difference if you have adopted the mannerisms of the worker bee instead of the forgettable cog.

Then, we get to why general education is important in terms of skills.  Everyone who wants a middle-class income needs to be able to write clear, coherent prose.  Your friends will accept texts.  Your elderly colleagues (i.e., practically everyone over 25 who signs the paychecks) expect emails and reports that have excellent grammar, organization, and main points supported by evidence.

Everyone who wants a middle-class income needs to be able to read at a college level, make inferences and connections, and be able to apply critical thinking to come to conclusions that aren’t already explicitly stated in the material.  Merely reiterating what someone else has already written is useless.  The value comes from putting together different sources of material to conclude something new.

Everyone who wants a middle-class income needs to be quantitatively literate at a college level.  That means being able to extract information from all graphs and tabular material.  That means being able to construct the appropriate type of graph to properly present data and analysis as necessary.  That means being able to call muggins on a mismatch between what is claimed in the text and what is evident in the data.

Oh, and then we return to smoozing.  It’s easier to smooze when you have years of material and background reading upon which to draw instead of trying to start from scratch in your first grown-up job.  For example, I ended up traveling to a conference yesterday with the president of my college–hours in her car, on the train, and at the hotel.  That’s face time and we spent almost no time discussing anything in my expertise since my expertise doesn’t match hers.  Instead, it was mostly talk related to general education, the news, and personal stories before we circled back to the purpose of the conference again.

The students are right that grades don’t matter as long as they are passing.  However, we must disabuse the students of the notion that the important thing is the piece of paper instead of the skills and habits the piece of paper is supposed to represent.

I think polly_mer is absolutely right. She (presumably, she) hits on the socialization factor of a university education, which MOOCs can’t even begin to address, as well as the importance of a liberal arts education.

Trying to convince students to take polly_mer’s perspective is another matter, one I struggle with every semester. I think I’m going to start by posting this on my office door.

Jim DeMint: Historian Extraordinaire

Jim DeMint Says There's No Way the Federal Government Freed the SlavesFormer South Carolina senator Jim DeMint doesn’t let history get in the way of his argument that the U.S. government didn’t end slavery:

DeMint: This progressive, the whole idea of being progressive is to progress away from those ideas that made this country great. What we’re trying to conserve as conservative are those things that work. They work today, they work for young people, they work for minorities and we can change this country and change its course very quickly if we just remember what works.

Newcombe: What if somebody, let’s say you’re talking with a liberal person and they were to turn around and say, ‘that Founding Fathers thing worked out really well, look at that Civil War we had eighty years later.’

DeMint: Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution, it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property, but the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights’ in the minds of God. But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people, it did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.

While DeMint is right that the abolitionist movement in the U.S. played an essential role in shaping white Americans’ views of slavery as an immoral institution, it still took a civil war, prosecuted by the national government and the nation’s armed forces, to make it happen. The U.S. didn’t “love” slavery away.

I also wonder what some of the libertarians, such as Thomas DiLorenzo, will think about DeMint’s perspective on Lincoln as not being representative of “big government.”

Books for Fall 2014 Courses

Credit: http://jhupress.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/adamshell-contrast.jpgI was going to write a blog post about a dream I had last night (in which Jonathan Rees revealed that he was part of a superhero tandem intent on fighting corruption within the history profession), but instead I decided to write about my fall semester book choices.

Early U.S.

I’ve abandoned my idea of trying to structure readings around themes in the U.S. survey courses, I reverted to picking readings that address different parts of the course.

Alex Beam, American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church (PublicAffairs, 2014) ISBN 9781610393133

This book seemed like a good option to explore the social aspects of the Jacksonian period.

Shearer Davis Bowman, At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2010) ISBN 9780807833926

I wanted to use a different book that addressed the Civil War period, and this one appealed to me.

James D. Rice, Tales from a Revolution: Bacon’s Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013) ISBN 9780195386943

Bacon’s Rebellion has fascinated me for a long time, but I’ve never read a book on it.

Civil War

Michael C.C. Adams, Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2014) ISBN 9781421412214

I vacillated between this book and Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering.

Herman Hattaway and Richard Beringer, Jefferson Davis, Confederate President (Univ. Press of Kansas, 2003) ISBN 9780700612932

I have wanted to assign this book in past semesters, but other books were a better fit. Not this semester, though.

Caroline Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2013) ISBN 9781469607061

Janney spoke on our campus several years ago when she was working on this book, and I have been looking forward to it ever since.

Rachel Shelden, Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2013) ISBN 9781469610856

I think students will like the approach Shelden takes to antebellum politics.



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