Genovese is Draining

My two AP sections are at the end of the day and on Mondays I teach all my classes.  Today the two classes discussed a short selection from Eugene Genovese’s seminal work, Roll, Jordan, Roll.  This is not the first time that I’ve used Genovese, but I am always surprised by how much the students actually enjoy reading it.  Anyone familiar with it knows that Genovese’s interpretation is highly analytical and at times difficult to follow.  Today was no exception, but we did manage to make some sense of it.  A number of my students were deeply engaged in the discussion.  I started off by asking what picture of slavery Genovese may have been responding to in the years leading up to the publication of the book in 1974.  They nailed it by referring to both the "Moon and Magnolias" version of slavery as benign as well as the idea that slavery can simply be characterized as brutal along the lines of a Concentration Camp.  One of my students actually referred to Concentration Camps and this allowed me to set up a bit of historiography between the work of Phillips and Dunning along with Stanley Elkins.  They seem to think that Genovese was shooting for something in between which I think is quite impressive.

It was slow going at times, but they picked up on the broad interpretive structure that explains – according to Genovese – how the respective identities of slaves and slaveowners depended on one another.  They thought that was kind of interesting though not all agreed that the paternalism of the slaveowner explained everything.  A couple students argued that his explanation was too broad, that it did not do justice to time nor space.  Though they didn’t couch it in these terms a couple students concluded that Genovese’s analysis did not do justice to the various regions of the South.  Others thought that he was too broad and did not connect his analysis closely enough to shifts over time.  I think they picked up on this from Foner’s textbook.  Either way their teacher is very pleased that they are thinking critically.

As much as I enjoy talking about this stuff, two classes in a row of Genovese is incredibly draining. 

4 comments… add one
  • Quite coincidently, I’m about to head to class where we will be discussing this book. We’ll probably have the same conclusions. I’m reviewing by reading this 2001 retrospective…

    http://www.common-place.org/vol-01/no-04/reviews/johnson.shtml

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  • Mind sharing some of the practical matters of how you teach high schoolers historiography? The idea of interpretation in history is one of the things that drew me in to the field, but I doubt any of my high school history teachers ever even knew what historiography meant, let alone taught it–and as a teacher, I hope give more than I received. Would be very interested to get your thoughts on this.

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  • Before reading this post it had never occurred to me that one could teach Roll, Jordan, Roll to h.s. students. Wow. It’s been ten years since I read the book, but I’ll have to review it and assess this possibility.

    Kevin, it’s nice to hear what they got right, but what did they miss? What were the glaring problems that your students had with the book? – TL

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  • Tim, — A couple of years ago I decided to give it a shot and was pleasantly surprised. I think the students find it to be very engaging and creative. Right now they are reading the Frederick Douglass’s Narrative and my students are pushing the teachers to talk about paternalism, which is absolutely hilarious to me.

    If I were to pick the toughest concept to grasp from their perspective it was the distinction between class and race that Genovese makes. Keep in mind that we only read about 10 pages. It’s not that the students couldn’t maintain the difference, but that the way Genovese introduces it adds a great deal to the conceptual structure. In other words, the text is very dense. I hope that answers your question.

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