Erin Bartram

doomed to distraction

Author: Erin Bartram (page 1 of 6)

Killing the Dad Book Table

On a recent trip to Barnes & Noble, I was not surprised to see the usual tables of “Father’s Day” suggestions piled high with books about famous white men, making war and doing politics, largely authored by people who look remarkably like their subjects. Around this time last year, I was thinking about related issues, most notably “relevance” and writing for “the public.” There’s lots of talk about Dad Books, which overlaps with talk about crappy popular history, followed by self-flagellation about historians and our bad writing. None of it ever goes anywhere. But I think a lot of the talk of bad writing is overblown, just as I think a lot of the talk about “the public” and its interests is misguided.

If you’re a historian and you want the people in your life to read “good” history, it has to start with knowing what your family members and friends are interested in. One of the things we say is awesome about our discipline is that there’s a history of everything. If there is, surely there’s some good, well-written history on anything the people in your life are interested in.

My dad is a potential reader but rarely an actual reader. By that I mean he loves to read, but he is also a true Yankee who can’t stop working and volunteering. The one time he makes sure to read is our one week of vacation every summer. Still, I get him books all the time, hoping that one day he’ll read them, and he often does. He has a degree in meteorology, works as an architectural consultant, volunteers as a firefighter and an EMT, and teaches both of those subjects. He likes history, but he doesn’t particularly go in for the conventional Dad Book.1)He did read a used copy of the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ once, because we all got stories from that one Christmas, but I don’t know whether he picked it up himself or it was mine that I left at home. To that end, I’ve tried to get him books about topics that interest him, but that might bring in a subject he doesn’t even realize is relevant, or examine it in a way that a popular history isn’t going to.

Here are some of the books I’ve gotten him, and how they went over.

Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life Dad read this several summers ago when we were in Maine, and told us all about his reading every night at dinner. I loved it, but I’m not sure my mother and sister did. He didn’t idolize Guthrie beforehand, so I didn’t worry that this would tarnish a hero for him.

Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon, Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics I got this last year on the recommendation of one of my doctors at UConn, because it seemed up his alley. I don’t think it’s been touched yet.

Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History I bought for my father before I’d read it myself. I think that was a mistake.

Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City I think my father read this, or part of it, because I think I remember him recounting a story from it to me.

Peter Bernstein, Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation and Carol Sheriff, The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862 I got him these because he loves reading about big civil engineering projects, but I wanted to show him how historians can write about the same thing very differently. He read both, and when he was reading the second one, which was Sheriff’s, he mentioned it to me and said how amazing it was that it was presenting such a different interpretation. I count this as one of my real successes.

Ryan Dearinger, The Filth of Progress: Immigrants, Americans, and the Building of Canals and Railroads in the West I spotted this in a University of California Press sale last fall and snared it for him. He had a hearty laugh at the title when he opened it at Christmas, but I don’t think he’s read it yet.

David Wyatt, Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, and the Shaping of California Another gift this past Christmas, so I don’t think it’s been read yet, but I hope he might like it.

Obviously not all of these have been successes, and some have been outright failures. I think that’s a risk you run any time you get someone a book, though. I’ve certainly been given books that I’ve never broken the spine of. Sure, we should think about how “readable” a book is, but I don’t think that’s the thing that’s going to solve the problem. The first step is knowing the people you’re giving or recommending books to. The second might be asking your colleagues for recommendations if they are well-read in an area and you are not. There are plenty of academic history books that are perfectly readable to interested laypeople, but there are some that are dry and unreadable even to those of us who read this stuff for a living, so we should help each other navigate around those boulders.

To that end, any suggestions for books I should get my dad?

References   [ + ]

1. He did read a used copy of the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ once, because we all got stories from that one Christmas, but I don’t know whether he picked it up himself or it was mine that I left at home.

The Year of Writing Dangerously

Well, folks, it’s the one year anniversary of this website, so it seems like time for me to think about what I’ve done.

I say that I’ve been “writing dangerously”  not because anything I’ve written here has been particularly provocative, but rather because doing anything other than keeping your head down and publishing your ass off is often framed as “dangerous” for young scholars, particularly those of us living life on the job market.

All in all, I’ve liked the space I have here, and I’ve liked what I’ve done with it. People often ask me if my writing here takes a lot of time, the unspoken question being “Does this take away from your real work?” I can honestly say no, it doesn’t take a lot of my time, but that’s mostly because the things I write about are things I’m already thinking about. Sometimes I poke at a draft of something for a while, but most of the time, I’ve thought it through in my head by the time I sit down to write.  Heck, the anniversary of this blog was actually two days ago, but I wasn’t ready to sit down and write this till today, so I didn’t!

I’ve written a lot on teaching, and some on the intersections between the past and the present, and now I write about both of those things on other blogs too: Teaching United States History and The Daily Context.  I have also written a bit on the strange historiographical and disciplinary conventions I find myself tangled up in. Those have been some of my favorite pieces to write, and they’re the ones that will always stay here, I think, because they’re so central to my scholarship.

I can’t say what any of this writing has done for anyone out there, but I think it’s done some things for me. It’s certainly helped me practice writing in a different voice, to such an extent that I can really feel the shift between this voice and the more scholarly voice I use in other forms of writing. Sometimes it feels like I have a bad kickdown cable, honestly. But I think being aware of these different voices has helped me refine each one, just a little.

It’s also just helped me think better. My high school had signs in all the classrooms that said “Writing is Thinking,” and I’ve done a lot of thinking through writing in this space. As a result, I’ve put a lot of in-process thoughts out into the world, which is sometimes tough, and I know that some might find it dangerous for an early career scholar. But really, isn’t every bit of writing we put out into the world unfinished in some way? As long as I don’t claim that what’s here is the equivalent of peer-reviewed writing – and it is most certainly not – I think I’m okay with it.

So, in this age of data, let’s look at what people read.

My most-read piece was this description of think-alouds, the assignment I use in my intro classes. Second, another piece on teaching, “Teaching religious n00bs and skeptics.” which also received the most comments by far. Both posts deal with something that I think we don’t talk about enough when we talk about teaching – the assumptions our students bring with them when they enter our classes and approach the texts we give them. I remember the Twitter conversations that erupted over the second post, mainly from scholars who were aghast at the lack of religious knowledge my students generally bring to the classroom. But my goal with both of these – and indeed with all of my posts on teaching – was never to shake my head at “kids these days.” I cannot claim to have figured out how to deal with my students’ assumptions and blind spots, but it seems fruitful to continue thinking about them and comparing notes with each other.

The #3 piece on my list of the most-read is one that I really liked, but that generated almost no response at the time, so I was really surprised to see it ranked so highly. I didn’t think many people read it! It was a piece I wrote just before Christmas about my frustration with the “Hillary didn’t win the working class” narrative, a narrative built on ideas about labor, race, and gender. She did win the working class, and she did talk about labor issues, but since the dominant image of “the worker” in America continues to be a white man with a wrench (or a coal miner’s helmet), policy proposals delivered by a woman that aimed to help workers who were also women, people with disabilities, immigrants, and non-white Americans were written off as things for special interests, not “American workers.” I actually think the piece holds up even better all these months later.

There are two pieces I wish more people had read and engaged with: last fall’s “The planks in our own eyes” and the more recent “Confessions of a horse shed historian.” The first dealt with my discomfort as a historian of Catholicism in the broader field of American religion, and the second with my discomfort as a historian of things non-religious in the field of American religion. I understand why some people might have worried that I was attacking their scholarly priorities; I can assure you that was never my intention. But I do think the people who engaged with both were generally those who, I suspect, feel these same discomforts in their own scholarly lives, and I hope my giving voice to them was helpful.

We’re always telling our students to think about audience when they read a text. When I started here, I wasn’t sure who my audience would be, or even if I’d have an audience. I’m still not actually sure on either count. But I’m going to keep doing it, and if anything I’ve written or anything I write in the future is interesting or helpful to those of you who do read, I’m going to count that as a win.

Confessions of a horse shed historian

David Hall famously wrote of the “horse shed  Christians,” those people in early New England who, during service, were just as likely to be out back by the horse shed talking about the price of wheat with their friends as they were to be in the church listening attentively.  I’m stretching the metaphor a lot for the purpose of this little essay, but I hope you’ll go with me.

Much of the time, I feel like a horse shed historian of American religion.

I am an editor for H-AmRel, I list religion as one of the things I study, I did a comps field in it. But while I’m usually always at the first service, by the second one I find myself out at the horse shed, talking about other things with other historians.

To some extent, we’re all like this. We often have a primary field and several secondary ones. Knowing a few fields well is key to formulating productive research questions, and usually those fields are defined by theme, by geography, and by time period. Specialization is not only the way the academic discipline works, it’s prudent.

I think about the history of the 19th century in America, including Americans abroad. I think about the history of women. I think about the history of ideas. I think about the history of social status. But it’s really only when operating in the history of American religion scene that I feel as though I’ll never be a full member, in the old New England sense.

I have discerned two distinct markers of full membership. They are not explicitly stated anywhere, and indeed many of you reading this might recoil at the suggestion that they exist and have power, but I hope you can hear me out. It strikes me that if a historian can manage one of these things, they can scrape by and get full membership. Having neither means I probably know you from the horse shed.

First, if you’re not a historian of mainline/evangelical Protestant Christianity or conversant enough not to embarrass yourself when talk turns to Protestant theology and church structure over drinks at a conference, you’re not a full member. Understanding Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism, Buddhism, etc etc etc beyond a few notable events or figures is optional.

The argument one might make here is that, for better or worse, Protestant Christianity has dominated American public life and institutions. If you’re going to be a historian of religion in America, you have to know this stuff. And I’ll grant you that, to an extent. But the LDS church is about as American as you can get, and Catholicism is the largest denomination in the country and has been for a long time. Knowledge of neither is sufficient or even always necessary for membership.1)Most of what gets discussed on H-AmRel is Protestant-related, and anecdotally, I know that many of my friends who study American Catholicism don’t subscribe to the listserv. This is not to deny that people who study Protestantism and Catholicism and Buddhism in America have different goals and frameworks. I also know that there are historic reasons why the listserv is what it is. But it is something we should be aware of – the listserv about “American Religion” is not a place where many different religions get discussed.

Second, and to my mind more important, is that if religion isn’t the central topic and driving force of your scholarship, you’re not a full member. This, I find, is as applicable when I’m among historians of Catholicism as it is when I’m among historians of Protestantism. I find it more the case among historians of religion than any other historians I work with. It is also, unfortunately, much harder for me to articulate and explain, but I’ll give it a whirl.

We have all these fields, and most of us work across fields all the time, because people in the past lived “across fields.” But most of us have a place we start from. A thing that we want to know more about, more than anything. The framework in which we operate. Talking with other historians of religion, I have heard scholars (who were not there) described as “not really a historian of religion” or “not really a historian of Catholicism.” These comments indicated that religion was not central enough to a particular scholar’s work for it to “count,” that history of religion wasn’t the singular place from which the scholar formulated their questions and departed.

Religion often seemed pretty central to the books we were discussing, so at first I was confused. How could they not really be historians of religion? Sometimes, it was because the book wasn’t a certain percentage about religion. What was the right percentage? That was for them to know and for me to find out, apparently. Sometimes, it was because the historian had written a book in which religion played the central role but had also written a book in which religion didn’t play the central role, even if it was there. Sometimes, it meant that their work on religion didn’t give sufficient attention to The Institutions Where Religion Happened and The People Who Defined What Religion Was. Sometimes it was just that the history of religion was forced to share the page with the history of women.2)Who are not – I repeat, not – The People Who Defined What Religion Was.

This is why I find myself at the horse shed.  I didn’t go to grad school to study the history of religion explicitly, though I had done extensive work in American Jewish history in college. I didn’t have a department with any prominent historian of American religion. I listen attentively and hope no one asks me my thoughts when conversation turns to Joseph Bellamy. But I found a dissertation topic that interested me, and a good part of it was about religion. I wrote it, and now I’m revising it for publication, and I know it’s not going to be about religion enough to count. 3)Even when I’m doing religion, the people I study were Unitarians (but weren’t Channings) and Catholics, so I’m already sort of on the fringe.

My study of the history of religion has been and continues to be fruitful and fascinating, but I don’t think it’s ever going to get me to full membership because it’s never going to hit both of those markers. Moreover, I’m not actually sure I know whether there’s any topic that I always want to know more about, other than the 19th century in America, which might be a problem.4)A friend of mine in college who went on to do a PhD at Chicago once said to me: “It’s just that nothing after the 11th century really makes any sense to me, you know?” A much as I have felt compelled to convince historians who don’t focus on religion that what I study is important and worthwhile, a thing many of us have had to do, I have also felt that I had convince other historians of religion that what I study is enough about religion – and not too much about other things – for them to care about it.

Sometimes my students complain that there’s “too much religion” in US I, and of course I know that relative to how important religion was to the people I study, there’s actually far too little. Part of the reason that this issue of full membership is so frustrating to me is that it seems to work against the goal that many of us have: to help others understand how important – how integral – how integrated – religion was and is in the history of the United States. It feels like these markers of full membership exclude lots of people from scholarly conversations that would help further this goal. And to put it bluntly, if historians of religion are going to complain all the time that “regular” historians don’t pay attention to our work, I should never have to hear, or feel, like certain scholarship about religion isn’t about religion enough. That’s the stuff that sends me to the horse shed, folks. And you know what? It’s not bad out here.



References   [ + ]

1. Most of what gets discussed on H-AmRel is Protestant-related, and anecdotally, I know that many of my friends who study American Catholicism don’t subscribe to the listserv. This is not to deny that people who study Protestantism and Catholicism and Buddhism in America have different goals and frameworks. I also know that there are historic reasons why the listserv is what it is. But it is something we should be aware of – the listserv about “American Religion” is not a place where many different religions get discussed.
2. Who are not – I repeat, not – The People Who Defined What Religion Was.
3. Even when I’m doing religion, the people I study were Unitarians (but weren’t Channings) and Catholics, so I’m already sort of on the fringe.
4. A friend of mine in college who went on to do a PhD at Chicago once said to me: “It’s just that nothing after the 11th century really makes any sense to me, you know?”

No, I didn’t read that article in The New Yorker

In the past few weeks, I’ve added a couple more online writing outlets to my list of things to do. I’ve started contributing to Teaching United States History, which I’m really excited about.  I’ve also started something else, with my friend Chris: The Daily Context.  It is a group blog, aimed at non-academic readers, providing introductory historical context to what’s happening in the news. Each post is 1000 words max, preferably shorter, and includes a primary source and links to further reading.  This is meant to be rapid response history, so no long editorial process. If you could give a good solid answer to a student who asked a question about the topic in class, that’s all we’re looking for. We are using Facebook a lot, and inviting our academic friends to both write for us and share our posts with their friends and family.

Why do this? You’d be right to point out that there are lots of other ways to communicate this information to the public. Why don’t I pitch a piece for a newspaper? Why don’t I write for an existing blog? Why don’t I tweetstorm?

I could, I suppose. Those are all great things to do, and I’m glad lots of historians are doing them. But the reason why I want to do this, and why I’d love to have more of my colleagues join, is that I don’t think a lot of what we’re doing right now is very accessible to a non-academic audience, both because of the forms we use and the approach we take to writing.

To put it more bluntly, lots of what we’re writing is for people like us.  I love the conversations we have in the blogosphere and the Twitterverse but ultimately, very little of that is reaching the people I grew up with.

Because here’s the thing – I’m not sure I’m really supposed to be here. I’m from a working class family in rural Connecticut. I was in no way the poorest of the poor, and I had the advantage of growing up white, in New England,  with an okay school system and a small-but-friendly library. But most of the people I went to high school with – the 99 people from a six-town district I graduated with – didn’t go to college, let alone finish it. We grew up in a small, isolated part of the state where rich people from the city came to hide away. “Cultured” people drifted through our lives, and we patiently listened to their complaints about the poor selection of fish in the grocery store and helped them find the train station at the end of the weekend. I knew those people, but I was never going to be of those people.

I left that place, went to a liberal arts college, then went to graduate school, and like everyone else in academia who came from a background like mine, I’ve been faking it ever since. Laughing and nodding like I’ve read that person or could share a similarly amusing travel anecdote, blushing furiously every time I said something that revealed I didn’t speak the cultural language of everyone around me. Every one of those moments sticks in my memory. “Fake it till you make it” is bunk, as is the idea that you can talk about this openly and bear no repercussions. But maybe I can come clean here. To everyone who’s ever asked me this question: no, I didn’t read that article in The New Yorker. And you could probably tell.

The thing is, when I go home, I’m not sure I’m supposed to be there anymore either. I so deeply respect the people I grew up with and the work they do and the lives they live, but they’re uncomfortable with me. I want to share what I do with them, but can’t find a way to do it.

Ultimately, that’s why I’m trying this. Because the people I grew up with are not reading our tweetstorms, and they’re not reading our academic blogs, and they’re not reading our pieces in The Atlantic and The Washington Post.  And maybe they don’t want to read The Daily Context either. Maybe they do. Either way, I need to try. I want to be able to write a piece in The Atlantic, and I want to write my book, but if I truly believe that the study of history can enrich people’s lives – and I do – I need to be able to write this too.

I need to know that who I am now can write for who I was then.




Well worth hearing

The “rediscovery” of Frederick Douglass recently made me remember a letter I found in my research, from one young Sedgwick woman to her cousin. The letter is undated and no one in it is named, and it wasn’t really vital to my research so I never bothered to figure out precisely who it was talking about. Still, I know the letter writer’s life well enough to guess that this was written in Lenox, MA, in the mid-1840s, and I have always assumed the former slave mentioned in it was Douglass.1)Given Douglass’ speaking schedule, I suspect this is just before his May 9, 1843 speaking date in New York, but I have no way of knowing. The author, Bessie Sedgwick, would have been about 17 when she wrote this letter, which is in the Sedgwick Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Who do you think I had here to breakfast the other day? Two abolitionists who wish to keep the matter of slavery “agitating before the people” The one a ranting screaming pertinacious unamiable individual saying only what has been said a hundred times before but in a manner a hundred times as disagreeable as it ever was said before – The other, a nice little gentlemanly person, who had the sense not to say much in public. The third guest was a black slave who escaped from the South some time ago, and is one of the most quick witted and one of the most eloquent people I ever saw – He speaks with all the bitterness you would expect from one who had suffered under the wrongs of slavery – is very satirical and has a great deal of dramatic power – so to speak – uses perfectly good language – and is altogether well worth hearing. He is to be in New York on Tuesday evg and if you happened to hear him I am sure you would be very much interested by him…

Perhaps someone who knows more of the personalities of the abolitionists could identify this with more certainty.

References   [ + ]

1. Given Douglass’ speaking schedule, I suspect this is just before his May 9, 1843 speaking date in New York, but I have no way of knowing.

can’t leave well enough alone

Last summer I wrote that I was going to try to come up with new projects for my US I and US II survey courses. I did, and they were…fine. But they weren’t spectacular. So I’m trying something new again, while trying to rejigger one of the things I did last semester for use this semester

In my Fall 2016 US I class, I had them read Sean Wilentz’s 2015 NYT piece “Lincoln and Douglass Had It Right,” Peter Sagal’s letter of response to the Times, and then two more responses drawn from periodicals and history websites, and try to figure out A) which argument they bought, and B) whether everyone was even arguing the same point. Put bluntly, B was so slippery and challenging for students that the answers to A weren’t as well-considered as I wanted them to be. But given that historians are still arguing (and often arguing past each other) on this point, maybe my hopes were misplaced.

In my US II class, I had my students watch the first half hour of Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, and read about a dozen articles on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial between the late 1970s and the late 1990s, all drawn from major newspapers and magazines. Since we had explored 1980s culture through the lens of Daniel Marcus’ Happy Days and Wonder Years, they were tasked with thinking about the memorial in the context of nostalgia and remembrance. It worked well, but not as well as I hoped. I’m revamping it to use as the project in my one day a week US II survey this semester.

For my other two surveys, a US I and US II that are both MWF classes, I’m going with something new, still in the planning stages. Given that much of the work my students do with primary sources is a weird form of annotation, and given that the public writing my women’s history students did last semester was, on the whole, very successful, I’m looking to combine those two things.

What I’m going to have my students do is annotate one primary source each, using, for the public.  I had a great experience using it in my Civil War class last spring semester, and I’m excited to use it again. Things I’m thinking about:

  • I don’t want them having to search for primary sources available online, mostly because I want the sources to be comparable in difficulty/length. My goal is, therefore, to give them a curated set of sources to pick from.
  • To that end, I have to figure out how to host the documents themselves. The easiest way seems to be to create a blog, make each source excerpt a post, and let the students annotate there. I am open to thoughts on how to do this better.1)I should note that my university does not provide public digital spaces for students that could be used here.
  • Unlike the women’s history blogs, where the draft process was public, I want these students to draft their annotations with my help and the input of their peers offline, before publishing them.

I’ll be getting them started on source selection and initial analysis soon, and I have a bit of time before I need to have the mechanics worked out. I’ll update on the progress of the project; given that I’ll be contributing to Teaching United States History as well, there’ll probably be a post about it over there at some point.


References   [ + ]

1. I should note that my university does not provide public digital spaces for students that could be used here.

The American cantus firmus

There is an abyss between the man about to assume power and the best shared traditions of the country he represents.

Source: The Music Donald Trump Can’t Hear

In a beautiful piece in The New Yorker entitled “The Music Donald Trump Can’t Hear,” Adam Gopnik advises us to differentiate between the coming changes that we think are wrong but are reversible, through activism and electoral politics, and the changes that violate our fundamental values, which he claims are irreversible. Gopnik describes this second kind of change as follows:

Assaults on free speech; the imprisoning of critics and dissidents; attempts, on the Russian model, likely to begin soon, to intimidate critics of the regime with fake charges and conjured-up allegations; the intimidation and intolerance of even mild dissidence (that “Apologize!” tweet directed at members of the “Hamilton” cast who dared to politely petition Mike Pence); not to mention mass deportations or attempts at discrimination by religion—all things that the Trump and his cohorts have openly contemplated or even promised—are not part of the normal oscillations of power and policy. They are unprecedented and, history tells us, likely to be almost impossible to reverse.

This paean to the enduring values of the republic feels necessary at this point – a life preserver when it seems like the word has gone topsy-turvy.

What do we do, then, with the fact that all of these things – intimidation and imprisonment of dissidents, conjured-up allegations, discrimination by religion and country of origin – are as much a part of our nation’s history as the values Gopnik says should stand against them? Does it mean that our republic is strong enough to endure periods where these tactics intensify, even if the victims of those tactics don’t endure, or that we’re likely to tolerate an intensification of these tactics to the point where we’ve gone too far to go back?

It seems that one way to resist these things that purportedly run counter to the ideals of the republic is to learn more about the conditions under which they have long been tolerated by large swaths of the American public. If we are to save what Gopnik calls “the beautiful music of American democracy,” we must reckon with the fact that much of the time, Americans have been more willing to tolerate dissonance than dissidents. These “best shared traditions” have rarely been shared equally, and there’s no time like the present to think about why that’s been (and continues to be) the case.

Sometimes in a piece of polyphony, the cantus firmus is stretched beyond recognition; you wouldn’t even be able to pick it out if the composition didn’t bear its name. The American cantus firmus has been remarkably pliable, and we’d be well advised to make a study of the ways it has been stretched, reshaped, and inverted if we want it to remain anything more than the title of the piece.

AHA 2017; or, Twitter networking with wet feet

I had a grand old time in Denver for the 2017 American Historical Association meeting. I was there, ostensibly, to present on a panel under the auspices of the American Catholic Historical Association. In retrospect, this trip felt like a big shift in how I “do” conferences. I’m sure much of that was to do with where I am in my career – a year out from the defense, on the market – but there were other factors that I think were important, and it might help to be explicit about them.

I headed out to Denver on Friday morning from a snowy Connecticut. My flight was delayed getting off the ground, and then sat waiting for a gate in Denver, and by the time I got to the city I had already had to cancel a lunch meeting with Andrea Turpin.  By the time I got to my hotel, it was nearly 2:30, when I’d intended to go to my first panel, but as I was tired, hungry, and wet up to my ankles, I decided to bail on that and wander over to the book exhibit.

Coming around the corner, I threw my hand up to shade my eyes from the  late afternoon sun pouring in and heard “Erin Bartram, nice to put a face to a name.” Why, it was Our Lady of Colorado herself – Historiann – appearing out of the dazzling sunlight to lift me up when I was at my most bedraggled! We had a brief, lovely conversation, and she did the thing that the best scholars do – she introduced me to a person I wanted to meet. It may have made all the difference. That evening, I met up with Pete Cajka and a bunch of other young historians of religion including Daniel Silliman for drinks and scads of free appetizers given to us by the establishment to appease us after they moved us to a new table. And then moved us again.

Saturday was my long day, starting with the women historians’ breakfast, where I met Mandy Cooper briefly,  and then had a cheery conversation with a bunch of young women historians about syphilis, medieval hospitals, child slavery, and death.  We then had a wonderful talk by Ada Ferrer, on how to reconcile her mother’s rejection of the Cuban revolution with the fact that the dominant narrative suggests her mother would have been the sort of person who embraced it. It was a great reminder that we shouldn’t ignore or brush aside an outlier that challenges established historiography, even if it’s not immediately clear how to make sense of it or how it might change the narrative.

Then I went to a roundtable on the future of Catholic history geared to graduate students in the field. The lineup shifted around a bit, including a good talk by Kyle Roberts on the future of Catholic history and DH.  At 3:30, I presented on Catholic controversies over reading in the aftermath of the Civil War as part of a panel on new ideas about Americanism. You can read more about the roundtable and our panel over at John Fea’s blog, where Bill Cossen (my co-panelist) wrote both up in great detail.  (I was going to report on my Saturday panels for John and then realized that I would just duplicate Bill’s post, and I don’t think we need Rashomon-inspired AHA reporting.)

In between these two things? I had crepes for lunch with Amy Kohout and it was glorious.  And that evening? I went out with all the Catholic historians and reminisced about Holy Cross with Charles Strauss despite the gentle mockery of our colleagues.

Sunday morning, I met up with Ameya Warde and we ate free AHA bagels and toured the book exhibit, where we ran into (accosted) The Tattooed Prof himself.  On a whim, Ameya and I went to one last panel: “Racial and Scientific Visions of Progress among 19th-Century US Reformers.” It touched on a lot of groovy stuff but also emphasized to me that it is good for those of us who study Catholic history and those of us who study Protestant history to talk to each other and present with each other, and to do it more than we do now. If not, we risk assuming things are “Protestant” and “Catholic” when maybe they’re just “American,” “white,” “male,” or “middle class.”

[To that end, I’m re-upping this piece that I wrote on the continued exoticization of Catholicism in the study of U.S. history, hoping it might earn a read from some new people who read this. When I first wrote it, I had a very lively conversation on Twitter…with other scholars who work with Catholicism (yeah Moxy, Monica, and Catherine!), and noticeably little with anyone else. Maybe it was just an off day, but I suspect it’s more than that. I’d love to know what those of you who do the history of non-Catholic things in America think about the claims I’m making, even if you think they’re hooey.]

You may have noticed one thing about almost all of these links to the people I met. Many of them were friends I only knew on Twitter, and this AHA meeting allowed me to meet so many of them in person, where they were as delightful as I expected. I hear lots of junk about how Twitter is a waste of time for academics (as though we aren’t adept at finding hundreds of other ways to waste time without Twitter), and that it can be a dangerous place for academics (if Stephanie McKellop can take what she does, surely I can handle the eggs who randomly tell me I’m a disgrace and should get back in the kitchen).

For me, even in this year where Twitter seems like a cesspool much of the time, it’s been an absolute blessing, and I’m glad it will keep me in contact with all of these people till the next time we can meet in too-huge conference rooms, at too-early breakfasts, on too-snowy sidewalks, and over too-many free drinks.


Enough to drive you crazy if you let it

One incessant refrain in the weeks since the election has been how Democrats – and Hillary Clinton in particular – failed to reach out to “working people” and secure their votes.1)This presumes that policy positions were the subject of media coverage in this election season, which they were not. This claim is dubious, but the narrative resonates because of specific, historic ideas we have about who is a worker. Even if we take “working people” to mean people who earn less money, Clinton won those who made less than $50,000 a year. Clearly “working people” is coded white, for white Americans, for politicians, and for the media. To understand white bodies as the laboring bodies that matter in America is unsurprising, given the continued refusal by many to recognize that our economic system was built on enslaved labor. Thankfully, some columnists and activists and many historians have tried to push back against the conflation of the white working class with the working class in general, though to little avail.2)This alone is reason enough for me to find these political and academic calls to drop “identity politics” ridiculous, and rather offensive to boot. There has been a lot of analysis of the way that racial views and nationalism shaped how people voted, even as the drumbeat of “it’s just economic anxiety!” continues. I don’t think that’s the whole story, though.

WPA poster, 1936, LoC,

There seems to be another angle that suggests itself, listening to the constant talk about how HRC couldn’t connect with working people. On paper, it seems strange. The Democratic platform was certainly pro-worker, and Clinton and her husband are far better examples than Trump of the social mobility through hard work and education at the center of the American Dream. And I don’t think we can explain it away by the fact that she became a member of the elite by working in an elite profession; both her husband and Obama did the same, but when Obama rolls up his sleeves and says “workin’ people,” lots of people buy it – or at least bought it when he campaigned, which is what counts for the purposes of this examination.

Still, Hillary Clinton talked about jobs a lot. But Hillary Clinton doesn’t look like what we imagine the American worker to look like, and she talks about American workers who don’t look like what we imagine either. I think this played a much bigger role than anyone is willing to recognize. There is a pair of ideas about women and work that dominate the narrative in America, that women’s domestic labor isn’t real work, and that women only started working outside the home “recently.” Clinton and the Democratic platform pushed back against both, but they’re incredibly hard to crack.

I know they’re hard to crack because women’s labor – productive and reproductive – is at the center of many of my classes, and my students are very resistant to recognizing it. The idea that women only recently began working for money outside the home is incorrect – and quite obviously incorrect if you think about it for more than 5 seconds – but that doesn’t seem to matter much. If you need examples of women’s paid, skilled labor stretching back centuries, scroll down to the bottom.* The important thing to be aware of, though, is how much and in what ways women’s paid labor – and therefore a woman who labored for pay – has been seen as “less than,” “unnecessary,” and degrading to men and their labor. Of course, this was often reframed as paid labor itself being degrading to women – so let’s let them be ladies, amirite?3)Let me be clear – I’m not saying women themselves don’t buy this argument. They do, and the ways that they do have been examined by lots of historians looking at how race, class, and gender operate together.

The issue of women’s domestic labor being a valuable economic contribution is also a difficult one for people to wrap their heads around, given our contemporary understanding that work is a thing you do for wages. I often fall back on the line: “If you’d have to pay someone else to do it for you, it’s work.” It’s why it’s so hard for students to see the economic drawbacks in the shift to wage labor for women, particularly for black women in domestic service, whose skills in the domestic arts were simultaneously impugned and sought out. I always have to prompt students to think about what those wages have to pay for – childcare, in particular – and what is left to do when one gets home. Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for that other work that society frames as duty rather than labor!

Since women’s labor, in and out of the home, still remains excluded from political discussions, for the most part, it’s actually important that we stop and recognize this year’s campaign for who they talked about when they talked about workers.4)Lean In does not count. Let’s be real here. Instead of talking about nostalgia for the white, male, industrial laborer who dominates the narrative (if not ever the actual economy), Clinton talked a lot about people in service work, which dominates our economy, but is often excluded from the narrative. The policies she advocated – paid family leave, affordable childcare – would help men and women alike, in all sectors and fields.

Because women have continued to do most of the housework even as they’ve increasingly shouldered the burden of bringing home the bacon, these policies read as “women’s issues” rather than “economic issues.” These policies could only be read that way because we have yet to reckon with women’s labor, paid and unpaid. That they came from a candidate who was vilified for taking pride in her paid labor and scorned for rejecting the kind of domesticity demanded of her as First Lady seems sadly appropriate.5)Over the summer, in a column written in support of her, Nick Kristof still singled her out for wanting to make money, a characteristic he saw as “unseemly.” No, I can’t give you the citation because I’ve used up all my NYT articles for the month!

For all Clinton reminded us that women’s rights were human rights, it seems clear that we’ve yet to recognize that women’s rights are labor rights too. If we as a culture saw women’s work as economically valuable, equal to the labor done by the men on WPA posters, when a woman talked about affordable childcare policies, she could be seen and understood as a worker advocating for workers, not just a woman talking about “niche” issues. I don’t think it was Clinton’s money or her lack of work experience in heavy manufacturing that prevented her economic policies from “exciting the base.” I think it was that she didn’t “look like a worker,” and that she dared to promote policies that dignified women’s paid and unpaid labor.6)What about Elizabeth Warren, I hear you saying. First, I think if she ran for president on these policies, she’d face a similar backlash. She hasn’t made a name fighting for affordable childcare, though; she rails against banks, the enemy of the working man. I think that makes a big difference. Mary Lease was given a platform to criticize banks and railroads, after all, and she couldn’t even vote.

So many election post-mortems have told us that “working people” just saw Donald Trump as more authentic and in touch with the values of workers, and that the people who rejected Hillary would have voted for Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders or some other mythical candidate who always looks pretty much the same, funnily enough. If we’re going to buy that argument, let’s at least be honest with ourselves about what we’re saying.


*In the earliest weeks of U.S. women’s history, we read about women who ran inns and pubs, women who were midwives (who were working to bring home the bacon even when their husbands ended up in debtors’ prison!), women working as paid servants, and women who were being held in bondage, valued for their productive and reproductive capabilities. We see women being paid a pittance to work in textile mills, watching one of their major economic contributions – cloth production – be industrialized and their work “deskilled” in the course of a generation, even as they are explicitly sought out by employers for their expertise. We see these same women taking to the streets for decent wages. We see women working as teachers and tutors, taking in laundry and boarders, and working in munitions factories in the Civil War. Sweatshop labor on the Lower East Side, prostitution, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Rosie the Riveter, flight attendants, pink collar workers, Norma Rae, 9 to 5, and the constant, hidden force of domestic labor. The litany is endless.


References   [ + ]

1. This presumes that policy positions were the subject of media coverage in this election season, which they were not.
2. This alone is reason enough for me to find these political and academic calls to drop “identity politics” ridiculous, and rather offensive to boot.
3. Let me be clear – I’m not saying women themselves don’t buy this argument. They do, and the ways that they do have been examined by lots of historians looking at how race, class, and gender operate together.
4. Lean In does not count. Let’s be real here.
5. Over the summer, in a column written in support of her, Nick Kristof still singled her out for wanting to make money, a characteristic he saw as “unseemly.” No, I can’t give you the citation because I’ve used up all my NYT articles for the month!
6. What about Elizabeth Warren, I hear you saying. First, I think if she ran for president on these policies, she’d face a similar backlash. She hasn’t made a name fighting for affordable childcare, though; she rails against banks, the enemy of the working man. I think that makes a big difference. Mary Lease was given a platform to criticize banks and railroads, after all, and she couldn’t even vote.

What’s the state of our nation?

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I was fortunate enough to see Hamilton (thanks, Corinne!), and it absolutely lived up to expectations. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve made my peace with the musical, despite some quibbles with the interpretation of the period it presents, and thought about how it might impact my scholarship and my teaching. I thought I was done processing Hamilton,  But then I saw it in the Age of Trump, and I hope you’ll indulge me in what is a rather naive and self-indulgent examination of the feelings it provoked.

To have (black) George Washington pointing at us all while singing “history has its eyes on you” was chilling in a way I did not expect. Lately, it’s felt like everyone in the U.S. is conscious of this, whether they think history will look on this as a moment of triumph or tragedy. I thought that I might see history with the election of the first female president, something I now doubt I’ll see in my lifetime, but since the election, the gravity of this historical moment has weighed on me in a way I couldn’t have imagined before November 8. When I can summon up black humor, I joke that I’ll change the subtitle of US II to “Laws and programs that are currently being repealed.”  But it doesn’t feel like a moment for humor, no matter how black.

Instead, we’ve all been doing what we can, and one of the things I can do is teach. The problem is…my teaching has seemed exceptionally flat, even futile, since the election, and I’ve been trying to get a handle on why. Certainly I think that much of my teaching serves to complicate narratives of progress and perpetual freedom that many of my students come in with. I think it’s important to show students just how hard fought certain freedoms have been, and how much resistance there has been (and continues to be) to rights that many of us take for granted.  I still think that’s an important part of teaching United States history and I will continue to do it.

Since the election, though, I have realized on a much deeper level how fragile and susceptible the “American experiment” was and is. We know this intellectually, and as an early Americanist, I suppose I’m really supposed to know it. I think I always knew it on an intellectual level in my teaching life as well, since I’ve often had students arguing that Japanese internment was a good thing, or that there must have been a way to reform slavery without ending it that would have made it “okay” for black Americans, or that it would be better for all women to stay home since they were the natural caregivers, or that we should reintroduce literacy tests.1)This last point is made all the more fascinating by the fact that some argue this even after they’ve failed a sample literacy test from the 1960s.

In response to this, I’ve tried to teach about historical contests over civil rights, and human rights, and the equality of individuals before the law. I’ve hoped that showing students how the “other” is a shifting category might give them pause, especially when they realize their immigrant ancestors were considered “other,” even as they are now considered “American.”

It doesn’t feel like enough right now. Or maybe it doesn’t feel like the right approach. Before the election, I argued that we needed history, not just civics, but in this moment, I don’t quite know how to go forward in the classroom. Despite a full awareness that much has been broken in our country’s past – often much more severely than at this moment – it feels like something just broke and I didn’t know how much I counted on it till it did.2)Shout-out to the two people who got this allusion to another political musical, revival edition.

This feeling of brokenness made me realize that in teaching all the ways the U.S. hasn’t lived up to its stated ideals, I may not ever have been clear enough  with my students – or myself – exactly what those ideals have meant to people, and what they’ve created when they worked.  But I don’t mean the ideal of individual liberty, something my students spend a lot of time thinking about. Instead, I’ve been thinking about whether my teaching really examines ideals like “the common good,” “the public interest,” “accountability,” and “public service.”

These are all concepts shaped by specific historical forces, and have often been deployed in ways that served to divide, rather than unite, but they are important concepts nonetheless, even if the specific terms aren’t in our founding documents. Some would argue they’ve never been true ideals, or not consistently held to, or have often been held up as ideals merely as cover for larger foreign policy goals, and I might agree somewhat. But I would argue they’ve been ideals, and that hewing to them even somewhat has been an important part of maintaining the norms that have sustained the experiment.

In talking to friends who’ve seen Hamilton, there’s always a discussion of the points at which everyone cried during the performance. I didn’t cry at Laurens’ death, but I did cry throughout “It’s Quiet Uptown,” along with the rest of the theater, because how can you not. I can’t even listen to that on the cast recording without crying. And I cried when Eliza told us about the orphanage. What caught me off guard, though, was my reaction to a line in a song that’s never really resonated with me before.

When Laurens walked downstage, with his pint held high, and sang “Raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away,” a completely unexpected sob caught in my throat. In that moment, instead of understanding that as a paean to individual liberty, I felt deeply how precarious freedom is without the norms of civil society – or even the most modest commitment to the common good – to support and sustain it.

References   [ + ]

1. This last point is made all the more fascinating by the fact that some argue this even after they’ve failed a sample literacy test from the 1960s.
2. Shout-out to the two people who got this allusion to another political musical, revival edition.
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