Depressing Students

As I was leaving class Tuesday, one of my students good-naturedly quipped, “So, what are you going to make us feel bad about next class?”

This student was referring to the past week of classes, during which we have discussed lynching photographs on the Without Sanctuary website and the mythology of the Old West and watched clips from Bamboozled (the show pilot scene) and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (depicting the 1890 massacre).

I understood what the student was saying. The history we’re discussing isn’t pleasant, and it probably does seem like I’m only introducing topics that highlight the horrible things that have happened in our nation’s history.

Early in my teaching career, I chose to focus on debunking American mythology. Part of that choice came from reading James Loewen’s deconstruction of history textbooks during my first semester of teaching. Another reason for the choice is because it’s more interesting to look at humanity’s ugliness. It’s not an either/or proposition for me, but I would much rather discuss the Holocaust and internment of Japanese Americans than fight World War II battles or look at the disputes among the constitutional delegates than celebrate their points of agreement.

Does this make me cynical? Maybe. Am I revisionist? In the sense that all history is revisionist, yes. Am I doing students a disservice? That’s for them to decide.

Update: Joseph Adelman has dubbed me Professor Downer.

Prof., I mean, Debbie Downer

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4 Replies to “Depressing Students”

  1. Vickie,

    Good to hear from you!

    I think college freshmen in particular may find it overwhelming, especially if they were only taught celebratory history in middle and high school. It’s hard to transition from the “rah-rah” of American exceptionalism to the reality that the United States has hardly been exemplary in its treatment of certain ethnic and racial groups. Even though the latter isn’t the only thing that defines the U.S., my impression is that mentioning it is tantamount to being a pinko Commie (or the 21st-century equivalent) for many students.

  2. I don’t think you’re doing them a disservice. Here’s a public history angle to your situation. This reminds me of an issue we had making
    an exhibit on the battle of stones river. There’s a great painting done after the battle that displayed the soldiers marching into Murfreesboro which was perfect for our exhibit but it also showed slaves in the caricature typical for the time. So since one very opinionated classmate pushed so hard saying it was too offensive to include that section of the painting and we were forced to crop the image. Now that is a disservice! We all hated that the section was excluded because just because parts of history are ugly is no reason to censor.. to ignore the parts you dont like to make it as if it never happened. I’m glad you aren’t teaching the glorified version of history. Kudos!

    1. Rachel,

      It’s easy to understand why some people would like to remove certain aspects of history. My take is that we need to see history in its context. So, for example, I would never wear a Confederate flag as clothing because I think it represents a Confederate nation formed to protect the right to own other human beings as property. But I don’t find the flag offensive in a museum context.

      By the way, I talked about industrialization in class today, but at least I got to show pictures of cool houses in Newport, Rhode Island!

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