Erin Bartram

doomed to distraction

Tag: class

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.

The weight of history

This election has led to a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the state of the electorate, and I’ve seen a lot of people arguing that the voting population in the United States needs more civics education. In many ways, I agree; I don’t think most voters could explain the mechanisms of our government or the reasons those mechanisms purportedly exist, and it would be great if they could. It would be great if people had more knowledge about “how the government works,” or rather how it’s supposed to work, but I don’t think that’s the solution.

We’re in the middle of this national conversation about what kind of country we want to be. People are thinking a lot about what it means to live in a pluralistic country. They’re thinking about what their vote means to them and to others. They’re thinking about the role the government should play in the economy. They’re thinking about the appropriate balance of power between the federal government and the states. They’re thinking about the importance of civility in political discourse. They’re thinking about gender relations and sexual assault, or trying very hard not to. They’re thinking about whether our government should prioritize the will of the majority or the rights of the minority.

These can be theoretical questions, and we can talk about the general consensus drawn from the values in our founding documents, and we can talk about how we would answer them now. But we don’t have to talk about them just as abstract issues, because they aren’t. And we don’t have to only think about how we would answer them today

This election has also led to a lot of historians freaking out. We’re not freaking out because “history repeats itself” (it doesn’t) or “we should learn history so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past” (ehhhh not really), we’re freaking out because we feel the weight of history in this election so acutely. The ability to feel the weight of history in everything you do is kind of exhausting, but weight exists because of gravity, and right now, the weight of history serves as a constant reminder of the gravity of the choices we and others make.1)I don’t think historians are the only ones who feel the weight, but I think we tend to have a broader and more detailed understanding of the past than most people.

So I don’t think it’s enough to know that we have the right to vote and we should use it. I think it’s important to also know that most of us wouldn’t have had the right to vote in the past. I think it’s important to know how hard those in power have worked to keep new groups from obtaining – and then exercising – the right to vote.  Without the history of Shelby County v. Holder, the Voting Rights Act, Jim Crow, the 19th and 15th Amendments, Dred Scott, Jacksonian democracy, and dozens of other things, the importance of the right to vote is missing so much.

I don’t think it’s enough to know that the electoral college exists and that creates swing states. I think it’s important to know why the electoral college was created – and why states even exist. Without the history of colonies, of the Articles of Confederation, of the Constitutional convention, the 3/5ths clause, the direct election of senators, and the ongoing discussion about federal vs. state power – including a civil war – the importance of the electoral college can’t be fully understood.

I don’t think it’s enough to say that religious liberty is a central right in this country. I think it’s vital to know the earlier drafts of the religious freedom clause, and that non-Protestants were excluded from office holding, and that there was a political party dedicated to keeping Catholics out of power because they were seen as un-American, and that the Klan hanged Jews, and that we’ve only had one non-Protestant president, and that people wanted to burn Warren in effigy over Abington v. Schempp. Without that, it’s easy to glibly say we’re a nation founded on religious liberty; I’d prefer we were realistic about how poorly we’ve lived up to that ideal, or whether that ideal has ever really been the ideal.

It’s certainly not enough to say we’re a nation of immigrants. We are, but Franklin worried about the influence of the German population, and native-born Anglo-Americans worried about the influence of the Irish, and they harassed and killed and banned the Chinese. To say we’re a nation of immigrants and celebrate that without acknowledging Know-Nothingism, anti-colonial activists who raised the specter of Filipino immigrants, the Asiatic Barred Zone, the Johnson-Reed Act, the Klan’s hatred of Italian and Jewish immigrants, the internment of Japanese-American citizens, the bracero program…that is to pointedly ignore the fact that we may be a nation of immigrants but we’ve never really liked it.

And to say this is a landmark election because one of the candidates is a woman…well, you’d stand out, because the gravity of that fact has not been acknowledged or even comprehended. Certainly there’s been celebration of the suffragists, and some mention of Shirley Chisholm, but without an understanding of coverture, of women’s unpaid labor, of anti-suffrage, of the racist and classist divisions within the suffrage movement, of women’s exclusion from jury service, of the use of gendered language to take down male politicians…without all of that, it’s easier to brush off this moment as not that historic. And if you know the history of women in America, you understand that people brushing off women’s excitement in this moment is pretty much par for the course.

This semester, I’ve had a lot of great conversations with students, in and out of class, about how coming to understand how people like them in the past were treated has led to a greater understanding of their place in America today. A Catholic student realizing people like her weren’t always considered American. A black student realizing the contradictions within the idea of paternalistic slaveholding, and the way that myth shapes discussions today. A class full of women realizing the level of physical and emotional violence and exploitation that was visited on women in Early America, and coming to the sickening realization that the way rape was framed at the turn of the 19th century is not too different from the discourse they know.  Almost all of my students realizing that they would have been excluded from voting until 1972, even though they were paying taxes and going to war.

Civics education is good, and we should have more of it.2)Though we should also acknowledge that many who are citizens historically would have been excluded from citizenship, and that many never wanted to be citizens in the first place. It helps you understand how and why – theoretically – the government is set up as it is, and how it’s supposed to function today. History helps you understand how and why – historically – the government has been set up as it has, and how it was supposed to function. But it also tells us who it was supposed to function for, and who it was supposed to exclude, and how liberty and justice have never been for all, and how lots of people liked it that way.

I can admire the theoretical construction of our government, and think “the Founders” were really smart dudes, but I can’t escape the fact that when I go into the voting booth, I am doing something that they couldn’t have dreamed of, something that they would have seen as wrong – not “more perfect” at all. Others can enter the voting booth knowing that people like them have been killed for the right to vote. And many of us should enter the voting booth knowing that people like us have killed to prevent other groups from voting. That is what history provides – an understanding of the weight of the past we’ve been carrying with us, often unknowingly. Perhaps if more of us could feel the weight of history, in time, the burdens would be lighter for us all.

Tl;dr Support history education so Kevin Kruse’s fingers don’t fall off contextualizing everything for us on Twitter.

 

References   [ + ]

1. I don’t think historians are the only ones who feel the weight, but I think we tend to have a broader and more detailed understanding of the past than most people.
2. Though we should also acknowledge that many who are citizens historically would have been excluded from citizenship, and that many never wanted to be citizens in the first place.

Resonance

Sister Mary Frances Clare is a very prolific writer, and at the rate she goes on, will, in a few years, furnish us quite a library. She possesses considerable intellectual powers, which must have been carefully cultivated ; she writes with vivacity and vigor, with earnestness and power; but in those of her writings which we have read, we miss that meek and subdued spirit, that sweetness and unction, that we naturally expect in a daughter of St. Clare. We miss in them the spiritual refinement and ascetic culture we look for in a religious, and their general tone strikes us as somewhat harsh and bitter, sarcastic and exaggerated.

~ Orestes Brownson in “Religious Novels, and Woman versus Man,” BQR, January 1873

I’m working on an article this summer that requires me to read a lot of Orestes Brownson. I have said before that I think he’d be a really insufferable friend, but I also think he’s about the most useful writer to read for understanding the 19th century. That being said, reading his thoughts on class, race, gender, and intellectual ability, I’m amazed at how contemporary the themes are.

The way he talks about the waning of masculine intellectual and political habits, the danger this lack of manly vigor poses not only to the nation but to civilization itself, the way he condemns women’s writing because of its emasculating sentimentality while also condemning women like Sister Mary Frances Clare for being too aggressive and harsh in their writing…all of it is very resonant with the contemporary social and political climate in 2016.

In particular, I want to highlight the way that women simply cannot win with Brownson, and he doesn’t care, because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. They are simultaneously too this and too that. Historical empathy and detachment be damned, sometimes I really want to reach back into the past and give him a good shake. But that’s because it’s an easier thing to do – have an imaginary shouting match with a dead guy – than to go out into the world, every day, and live this stuff and teach this stuff and beat my head against the wall. Even if I could yell at him, though, it wouldn’t do much good, so I’ll have to keep living and teaching and writing.

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