doomed to distraction

Tag: gender (Page 1 of 2)

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.

Women’s history commonplace blog drafts

As I mentioned last week, my women’s history students are creating blogs inspired by commonplace books. This project not only requires them to produce public writing, but to make the draft stage public. To that end, they have had to put up draft versions of all the contextualized quotes they want to examine, and they are now accepting comments from their classmates, from me, and from the general public.  In a sense, they have selected sources, written a rough outline, and now have come to office hours to discuss the project and think about how to focus and refine their arguments. Except the office hours, the discussion, and the final project are public.

My request to you, dear readers, is that you look at a couple projects and maybe make a few comments. Ask them more about the sources they’ve chosen. Ask them how they compare. Ask them whether including other perspectives would be valuable.  Ask them where they see change. Even just ask them to explain things more deeply. You don’t have to do an exhaustive job, but my hope is that knowing that other eyes are on their projects will be invigorating and helpful to my students. What they have done here is risky – it’s not just public writing, it’s public drafting – and so I hope their bravery is rewarded.

Angela and John both discuss labor in women’s history.

Several students are discussing aspects of family: Jillian on the role of “wife,” and Heidi on childbirth and motherhood. Marissa talks about the history of women and sexuality.

Michael and Christine are both working on women’s voices and their calls for rights.  Relatedly, Caroline is thinking about women’s objectification and exploitation, and Clarissa is thinking about the emotional and spiritual labor of women.

Another cluster of students is examining race, ethnicity, and immigration: Julia on immigration, Nina on women and education, and Holly on women and the struggle for racial justice.

The cowardice of “no strong convictions”

Many of us in Connecticut were horrified – but not surprised – at video of a post-election gathering at which someone in Klan robes rode around a bonfire waving a Trump/Pence sign while onlookers laughed and cheered. Some, however, including the first selectman, downplayed the seriousness of this.

A town leader downplayed the vile bash. “I think it was just some young people who made a big mistake trying to get attention,” East Windsor First Selectman Bob Maynard said. “I suspect they have no strong convictions and no really racial overtones — I think they were just enjoying the moment. That’s what I suspect, but we’ll have to see what they have to say.”

Now, one reason he might do this is because to him, this sentiment isn’t that weird. And anyone from Connecticut who has an honest bone in their body would certainly agree this isn’t surprising. Many of my high school classmates proudly wore Confederate flag belt buckles; we knew school was out every day when one classmate drove out of the parking lot and blew his horn, which played “Dixie.” I had no understanding of what any of it meant, because like many rural white Americans, I knew almost no black people and my education largely failed to impress upon me anything meaningful about the painful racial history of the country, and of my own state. East Windsor police were quick to point out that this wasn’t part of a Klan rally, it wasn’t “planned,” but that shouldn’t make anyone feel better. It should instead remind us of how readily available these symbols and behaviors are. Should we feel more comfortable with the fact that someone just happened to have these robes at hand for an election celebration? Or that someone thought “Before I go out, let me get some bedsheets and whip out my Singer sewing machine.”

Town leaders claim this is someone with no strong convictions. I would reframe that analysis a little. They’re certainly a coward, but they have convictions, and we need to be honest about that. If we aren’t, we’re even worse cowards.

The other thing that seems particularly important in understanding this incident is the history of the Klan in America. Most Americans think of the Klan as an anti-black organization in the years following the Civil War. That was the first iteration, but it was not the only one. The rise of the second Klan in the 1920s was built on anti-black, anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, and anti-feminist sentiment. That Klan found support in the industrial North, and it found political legitimacy. Many people in Connecticut now hold views or belong to groups who would have been seen by the Second Klan as un-American.


Klan march in Washington, D.C., 1926. Photo taken from the archives of the Library of Congress. 

If you are interested in learning more about this, a great place to start is with the writings of Kelly Baker. You can read an interview with her about her book Gospel According to the Klan here.

But I also offer you this, something that my students in US II read. This is Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans, writing in the North American Review in 1926, in a piece called “The Klan’s Fight for Americanism.” Take some time and look at the language used here. We don’t have to see organized Klan rallies to know that the fear and anger that impelled the Klan are still an important part of social discourse today. (ETA: This great post by Graham Stinnett at the UConn archives about the Klan in CT in the 1980s.)

The Klan, therefore, has now come to speak for the great mass of Americans of the old pioneer stock.  We believe that it does fairly and faithfully represent them, and our proof lies in their support.  To understand the Klan, then, it is necessary to understand the character and present mind of the mass of old-stock Americans.  The mass, it must be remembered, as distinguished from the intellectually mongrelized “liberals.”

These are, in the first place, a blend of various peoples of the so-called Nordic race, the race which, with all its faults, has given the world almost the whole of modern civilization.  The Klan does not try to represent any people but these.

There is no need to recount the virtues of the American pioneers; but it is too often forgotten that in the pioneer period a selective process of intense of rigor went on.  From the first only hardy, adventurous and strong men and women dared the pioneer dangers; from among these all but the best died swiftly, so that the new Nordic blend which became the American race was bred up to a point probably the highest in history.  This remarkable race character, along with the new-won continent and the new-created  nation, made the inheritance of the old-stock Americans the richest ever given to a generation of men.

In spite of it, however, these Nordic Americans for the last generation have found themselves increasingly uncomfortable, and finally deeply distressed.  There appeared first confusion in thought and opinion, a groping and hesitancy about national affairs and private life alike, in sharp contrast to the clear, straightforward purposes of our earlier years.  There was futility in religion, too, which was in many ways even more distressing.  Presently we began to find that we were dealing with strange ideas; policies that always sounded well, but somehow always made us still more uncomfortable.

Finally came the moral breakdown that has been going on for two decades.  One by one all our traditional moral standards went by the boards, or were so disregarded that they ceased to be binding.  The sacredness of our Sabbath, of our homes, of chastity, and finally even of our right to teach our own children in our own schools fundamental facts and truths were torn away from us.  Those who maintained the old standards did so only in the face of constant ridicule.

Along with this went economic distress.  The assurance for the future of our children dwindled.  We found our great cities and the control of much of our industry and commerce taken over by strangers, who stacked the cards of success and prosperity against us.  Shortly they came to dominate our government.  The bloc system by which this was done is now familiar to all.  Every kind of inhabitant except  the Americans gathered in groups which operated as units in politics, under orders of corrupt, self-seeking and un-American leaders, who both by purchase and threat enforced their demands on politicians.  Thus it came about that the interests of Americans were always the last to be considered by either national or city governments, and that the native Americans were constantly discriminated against, in business, in legislation and in administrative government.

What seems most important here is not what a particular iteration of the Klan stood for, but the ways in which it has expressed the fear and hatred of dominant groups who feel threatened by social change. In that sense, it should not be surprising to anyone that someone might put on the white robes in this moment. If the Klan is, and has been, a way for “real Americans” to assert their dominance, this incident in East Windsor shouldn’t surprise anyone. Sadly, the weaksauce condemnation and shock of town leaders and people around Connecticut isn’t surprising either.



No one’s shocked at what happened in East Windsor. But lots of people don’t care because to care would mean self-examination. And the willingness of so many to avoid self-examination is something to be ashamed of.


Commonplacing women’s history

I wrote earlier this summer about my use of commonplace books in my women’s history class, and about how I hoped to turn that practice into a project for the class. Well…


My students have each chosen a theme to explore, and are busy selecting and contextualizing passages from primary and secondary sources. By the end of the week, there’ll be lots of blogs to read. But those blogs won’t be complete, and hopefully they can get some help from you, dear reader (readers? if I’m optimistic?)

One of the things this project is meant to do is to open up the drafting process. To that end. the posts that my students put up at the end of the week are intended to be drafts. Then, with the help of comments from me, their classmates, and any of you who’d like to chime in, they will revise their posts and write an introductory essay for the blog, all of which will be due by the end of the semester.

I’m asking them to be really brave; they’re not just creating a project for the public, they’re explicitly presenting unfinished work and opening themselves up to critique from the public. I know they’re a bit scared. I have high hopes, though.

I know it’ll be the weekend before Thanksgiving and we’ll all have a lot on our plates, but when I post the blog list later this week, if you could take a moment and look at one or two and offer some thoughts, I’d appreciate it greatly.



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.



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.

Always changing, therefore never really changing

I’m teaching a chapter from Sharon Block’s Rape  and Sexual Power in Early America tomorrow in US women’s history, and I know that when we talk about it, much of the conversation will center around how shocking early American ideas about power and consent and sex are. And then, across the semester, we will come back to Block’s arguments, over and over, and I’ll have to see my students confront the fact that the discourse Block presents is not that unfamiliar to them. This paragraph, in particular, really gets to them.

This dual construction of women’s sexual role – always resisting, therefore never really resisting – had a powerful result: women could not be trusted to judge or represent their own consent. Accordingly, the discourse surrounding rape repeatedly implied that men had to determine a woman’s consent for her…Because women could not admit their true desires – they said one thing but meant another – they could not be trusted….Because women could not be trusted either to be honest or to be faithful, women’s consent had to be surrendered to men’s judgment, whether through marriage or through limitations on their claims to rape. (40)

We’ll keep coming back to this passage, and this argument, as we make our way towards the present. We’ll look at it in the last week when we’re reading Katie Roiphe. Usually I like it when my students see connections between the past and the present. In this case, I wish they saw fewer connections.


“Rules for Wives”

This list of Good Housekeeping’s 1955 “Good House Wife’s Guide” has been getting a lot of attention on ye ol’intertubes. What are those guidelines? 1.) Have dinner ready. Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal ready, on time for his return. This is a way of letting him know that you …

Source: Rules for Wives, 1955 – Lawyers, Guns & Money

A great source, and a great post about how tricky it is to use sources like this from the past. In constructing and revising my US women’s history course, I have worked hard to use a wide variety of women’s voices for my primary sources, including women telling other women what to do. I assume this Good Housekeeping guide falls into that category, though there’s no author listed. I am not opposed to prescriptive literature, but I haven’t gone out of my way to include it, especially when it was written by men.

But it can be really hard to find a good diversity of women’s voices for the earliest years of the course. There’s a lot of prescriptive literature written by men about how women can be better, and a lot of court records written/shaped by men about how women have been bad. Race, status, and a host of other things intersected to make lots of voices unrecoverable. Not everyone could write their way out of hell.

Still, these prescriptive and legal sources provide a good starting point for thinking about women’s history for the same reasons they’re problematic; having students confront, right away, that they are dealing with a society in which women’s voices largely did not matter is a useful thing. And reading against the grain of these sources is a valuable exercise in itself. Considering why people made and enforced rules helps us understand the tensions and anxieties in a given historical time and place. If the law was designed to combat something that wasn’t even really happening, it can help us learn something about what the society feared, just like similar laws being passed today reveal the anxieties over women and their bodies in American society.

There are a few male-authored primary sources on my syllabus, and I love them. Landon Carter on breast-feeding is a kick-ass source that I use in tons of classes. On the one hand, we get to see how men sought to control women’s bodies in very intimate family settings, but on the other hand, we get to see that people in the past talked about these intimate realities – perhaps more than we are comfortable doing today!

Reading this post on Good Housekeeping‘s rules made me realize, though, that I don’t have any classic male-authored prescriptive literature on my syllabus, and I wonder whether I ought to. I would be interested in hearing how other people who teach the history of women, gender, and sexuality approach prescriptive literature.

Thinking about teaching 5b: new project for Women’s History

In addition to coming up with a new term project for my survey classes, I wanted to find something new to do in U.S. Women’s history as well.  In that class last fall, I had students write two short papers, neither of which required outside research. Broadly speaking, they asked students to take the material we’d worked with and make arguments about intersectionality and change over time. Both papers worked, in a sense, but the change over time stuff was still a bit of a struggle; for many students, that conceptual framework was still rather foreign at the end of the semester, which led to the flattening of time in their papers, so to speak.*

I also think that the familiar structure of a paper can provide too much opportunity for vamping and fluffing and avoiding telling me what a given source is actually saying. This line of thought has  shaped the new assignment I’m thinking of: a small digital project that will integrate another assignment from the class that worked well and that we all liked – keeping commonplace books.

I gave all of my students notebooks at the start of the semester that they used for copying over and commenting on passages from our primary and secondary readings. In addition to helping students think about what constituted a “meaningful” quote, they also were a great way to think-pair-share and start discussion in general.  Many of my students liked the process, and most of them said they noticed themselves getting better at picking out the good stuff. They loved it when they discovered that a bunch of other students picked the same quote.

I had considered digital commonplacing using Tumblr, but ended up going with the hard copy, and I will stick with that, but given the good things I’ve heard about public writing, I want to do something with that in the digital realm. My thought is that students could each use WordPress to curate (ugh, that word) a set of excerpts drawn from the class materials, with accompanying analysis/contextualization, beginning around the midpoint of the semester. They would then have to comment on each other’s posts, and as the final “paper,” produce a sort of introductory essay post that would guide the reader through the selections. It’s not much of a deconstruction of form, but it might work? I think I need to ponder a bit more.

I know there’s a strain of thought that says things like blogging take away from formal writing (i.e. essays) and that we can’t “let students off the hook.” I don’t think I’d be doing that. I don’t know that the stakes are very high for an essay, no matter how “formal” it is, that students know will only ever be read by me. Moreover, in our webinar on annotations, we discussed the merits of public versus private annotation, and Jeff McClurken argued that he finds that student writing is more careful and considered when it’s public.

Is writing for the public a thing they’re going to have to do in their adult lives? Absolutely! If it is, we should be teaching it and having students do it. Frankly, if not doing it right can get you fired someday, it’s as least as important as the five paragraph essay. I suspect some of them will find it challenging to write for the public like this – after all, when they write for me, they’re writing for an “expert.” It’s challenging to write about a complicated thing for a non-expert audience. I also suspect this form, with appropriate guidance and comments from peers, might also help strip away so much of the extraneous material we find in papers. Wishful thinking? Perhaps. In need of more thinking? Certainly! I’d love thoughts

*Side note: Teachers of history need to talk about this and think about this more. Chronology and causality are so important to us and function as second nature, and we assume they function the same way for students, but I can’t be the only one who has to explicitly say that history papers showing change over time should, for the most part, be in chronological order. I don’t think students turn in papers that go all over the map chronologically because they’re lazy, I think that chronology just isn’t as  innate as we hope it is. I talked about this so much in one class they bough me a Tardis travel mug.


Thinking about teaching 4: History of Women/History of Sexuality

In addition to my U.S. survey classes, which I examined in earlier posts, I also taught 200-level courses on the history of women in the U.S. in the fall and history of sexuality in the U.S in the spring of this past academic year. I’ll be teaching history of women again this fall, which is reason enough to revisit it, but the two courses proceeded so differently as to be worth some reflection and examination.

I taught history of women as a one night, 2 hour and 20 minute class, and history of sexuality as a two day a week, 75 minute class, but the basic goals and structures of the courses were the same. Rather than lecturing, which I don’t do, I had my students students read one journal article/book chapter each week as well as 2-8 pages of primary sources I curated. The classes were entirely discussion based.

In women’s history, I had students keep commonplace books to keep them accountable for the reading, to give them a resource for paper writing, but primarily to encourage reflection and careful reading. In history of sexuality, I had them do brief reading reviews for everything they read instead, trying to answer the questions historians ask of secondary and primary sources as preparation for class. Again, this was mostly to encourage them to think about the readings rather than skim them, as a way to encourage better discussions. Both classes had two short but broad papers where they got to examine themes of their choice, and in both classes students had to pick extra articles to read and present on in class.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but women’s history was broadly a successful class, and history of sexuality was…not. Women’s history made me feel like I was a great professor and history of sexuality made me feel like a Grade A failure. But I think it’s important to note that the course design was very similar, a fact which led me to ponder, all throughout spring semester, what the heck was making the difference. Things that I think impacted the success, or lack thereof, of these two courses.

  • Time of year. I don’t think we can say that fall or spring courses are inherently “better,” but I think spring courses that are primarily upperclassmen have challenges that fall courses do not. I also was able to spend more devoted time prepping women’s history in the summer.
  • Size of the class. History of women leveled off at 12 people; it was capped at 15, and filled, but some people dropped. History of sexuality had a cap of 20, which I over-enrolled because demand was so high, but by the end of the semester it had leveled off at 17.  I have obviously run hundreds of discussions with 25, 28, and 40-person classes, but perhaps the five person difference in this class made a difference.
  • Assignments: Women’s history loved the commonplace books, and I’m looking to do something digital with them this fall. History of sexuality loathed having to write down scope/argument/sources and author/audience/form/argument every week. I suspect that might have also been the case had I assigned women’s history to do the same.
  • Composition of the class I: Women’s history had five history majors in it, sexuality had two. The majors didn’t necessarily have any content knowledge, but they knew how historians thought and what their goals were, and that is helpful.
  • Composition of the class II: Women’s history had history majors and a blend of students majoring in English, sociology, psychology, and even musical theater. History of sexuality was dominated by students majoring in psychology and sociology. Many of them told me flat out that reading for an argument was unfamiliar to them – they were used to looking for terms – and they did not like having to read primary sources at all.  (I don’t buy the idea that they’d never been asked to read for argument before, but that’s how they understood their college experience and it shaped our interactions.)
  • Composition of the class III: Women’s history was all women. History of sexuality was about evenly divided. Imagine the ways that that divide might shape the dynamic in these two courses as taught by me, a 33 year old woman in her first year at this university and the only woman in the history department. Everything you are imagining is correct. I had expected some of this, especially having read Historiann’s post on her own history of sexuality class, which I read in preparation for teaching this course. While my students didn’t complain too much about the amount of rape, the class discussions of childbirth, nursing, menstruation, and tampons had a distinctly different feel to them.
  • Expectations: For women’s history, what students expected they’d learn in the class was pretty close to what they got, if a bit longer in duration. In history of sexuality, the expectations were not at all matched by my course, a fact which was clear to me immediately. But I couldn’t change it, and wouldn’t have, and here’s why.

I think the biggest difference in the classes, the thing that shaped the tone of the discussion in the long-term and confounded expectations, was the argument I was making and how students felt about that argument.

In women’s history, most students expected to start either in the mid-19th century, or more commonly, with suffrage, because “women couldn’t really do anything before then, right?” Starting, instead, with colonialism – with Kathleen Brown talking about gender and race and Nina Dayton talking about abortion in colonial Connecticut – was very disruptive, but the class seemed to like it. They were amazed and interested to find out this history that had been “hidden” from them, something that went doubly for the non-white members of the class, who were surprised to see race emphasized so much in the course.

There were still dominant narratives that we struggled against all semester – most notably the idea that there was a point at which women “started to work” – but for the most part, they were receptive to the complicated narrative I present about the experiences of being a woman in the U.S. Sure, they complained in the evaluations about the level of reading, but discussions were lively and engaged, they knew each other’s names, and in general, I think we all looked forward to class each week.

The first indication I had that expectations were mismatched in history of sexuality was when a student said, at the start of the first class, “So, this isn’t the class where we go to a strip club?” Some had clearly taken the course thinking it was human sexual behavior or the like. My activity for the first day – building a word cloud of the things we might talk about in a class on the history of sexuality – helped me see that they had a very limited sense of what the history of sexuality meant.  They expected the class to start in the mid-20th century somewhere, “when the sexual revolution happened,” and that many of them thought it would primarily focus on gay Americans. Once I realized that second part was really causing some students difficulty getting on board with the class, I was able to work in a lot of discussions about how just as men have a gender and white people have a race, straight people have a sexuality, and in fact the construction of the idea of sexual orientation was part of the story we were telling.  I think I did make some inroads there.

The larger issue, however, was this issue of when the history of sexuality “starts,” which was very much wrapped up in ideas of repression and liberation. We started the course by reading the three introductions to D’Emilio and Freedman’s Intimate Matters to get a sense of how the field had changed, and I made explicit that repression to liberation was not the argument this class was making. That really bothered some students. They thought it was wrong to study anything before some indeterminate point at which things became “liberated,” and if they were going to have to read about “backwards” views, the only appropriate form of analysis was to stand in judgment of those people. When confronted with secondary and primary sources that contradicted the previously-held narrative, a small subsection of the class was fascinated, but most of them were annoyed, and almost offended. I vastly underestimated how important it would be to some students to feel like they were of the post-60s period that “invented” liberated sexuality.  And when you already Know the Truth of the past, like many of them did, you read that Truth into everything you read.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, female students seemed to give up the “liberation” narrative much more easily, and I think that was as much a result of hearing male peers talk about sexuality in and out of the classroom as it was any specific content they learned. But I think that for many in the class, the point of looking at sexuality through a historical lens was utterly lost.  I know that I emphasized how important and central that was at the start of the class; many of them just rejected my reality and substituted their own. I had no way to respond to that.

The one common issue in both classes was that while they were both mid-level history courses, most of the students had not had any history since high school. In re-thinking women’s history for the fall, I need to think more about how to teach historical thinking skills in the course. I spend so much time on them in my intro classes, but in a situation where those aren’t pre-requisites, I have to figure out some other way of teaching them better alongside the content and argument of the course.  I think that with a greater understanding historical thinking, students in history of sexuality would feel more comfortable letting go of dominant narratives.


Thoughts on Continuity

I wonder if progressive historians tend to be more favorable to “change over time” than “continuity” when studying the past.

Source: Do Historians Privilege “Change Over Time” Over “Continuity?” | the way of improvement leads home

John Fea’s great piece and the comments on it have crystallized something for me that I think is important to reflect on, both for teaching and living. Fea asks the pointed question quoted above, relating it to a recent debate over whether or not Jefferson was a Christian, which he admits brings a theological rubric into a historical space. He wonders whether

the progressivism of many in the historical profession also functions as a type of theological or ideological view of the world that shapes their approach to the evidence.

The comment that really resonated with me came from Ann Little, who noted that historians of women, gender, and sexuality often emphasize continuity over change.  Fea noted that the same could be said for historians of race.

The reason all of this struck a chord with me is my recent experience teaching history of sexuality in the U.S. for the first time. I’ll do a longer post on that class and its issues at some point this summer, but I think it’s fair to say issues of continuity and change were at the heart of it, not just by design, but by the assumptions student brought to the class.  Again, I’m going to expand upon this as I rethink both that class and my history of women class, but I think that it’s important to note a realization that many people (particularly women) had as they got to the end of the semester in history of sexuality.

Everyone coming to the class had assumed a narrative of “progress,” which I’d work to disrupt, as Little suggests, by pointing out continuities and explicitly rejecting the “repression to liberation” model in the structure of the course readings. For many students, who’d come to the class thinking it would pretty much cover the 1960s to the present, when progress happened, studying “backwards” periods was deeply frustrating. Many came to see continuities across time, or at least moderated their ideas of how much “progress” had been made.

The one thing many students came to argue, by the end of the semester, was that the most important continuity across time was the idea that women were inherently untrustworthy – to the point of that they could generally be assumed to be liars – and could especially not be trusted to know or admit to their own desires. Early on, my students read a chapter from Sharon Block’s Rape and Sexual Power in Early America, and there was the universal uproar over how horrible and backwards the 17th and 18th century conception of rape was. Reading primary sources from Ephraim Wheeler’s rape trial didn’t do much to change that view. But as the semester proceeded, students noted that they kept finding the assertion’s of Block’s subjects brought up over and over again – that women were manipulators, that they secretly wanted it, that women of certain classes and racial backgrounds really can’t be raped, that if a given woman hadn’t wanted it she would have fought harder or killed herself rather than be raped.

Not everyone in the class gave the same weight to this continuity. The women in the class, for the most part, attended to the discourse around rape and, more fundamentally, women’s inherent (un)trustworthiness, and men, for the most part, pointed to the changing laws surrounding rape as an indication that American society now saw rape as a serious crime and was willing to believe women and prosecute men.

For the students who saw this continuity, it helped them understand so much about their own lives and the conversations they hear about women in public life. Often, people say history helps us understand how we got to where we are, a statement which seems to suggest that change is what historians seek to understand. For my students, realization of this continuity, and the weight it seemed to place on so many of them, helped them understand how we got to where we are in a very different way.


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