Ann DeWitt Responds (well, sort of)

I was surprised to find a brief reference to this site over at Ann DeWitt’s black Confederate website (scroll down to bottom of page).  I’ve written quite a bit about the interpretive problems on her site as well as the complete lack of any reference to her qualifications to discuss this subject given her requests for money and hopes that the site will eventually be used by teachers and students.  This is her own understanding of her qualifications:

I believe being an American Citizen is credibility enough to create a website with links to the sources of Civil War documents and historian accounts.  Who owns American History?  We, The People.

Unfortunately, I have no idea what this vague reference is supposed to mean and it is apparent to me that Ms. DeWitt will continue to ignore legitimate questions about the content of her site that I have posted as well as others.  That’s fine.  I will continue to monitor the site and continue to point out the obvious problems.  Yes, everyone has the right to contribute to the Web, but responsibility for what you choose to post follows.

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What Does Your Classroom’s Seating Arrangement Reflect?

I finally finished my last writing assignment for the summer and am ready to think about the new school year.  Due to the amount of construction taking place on our two campuses we have an extra week before classes begin in September.  This year I’ve decided to reevaluate the seating arrangements in my classroom.  In the past I’ve had my desks set up in a semi-circle, which promotes discussion between students without losing the focus on the teacher at the center of the room.  This arrangement has worked well for me in the past, but it is time for a change.  In addition to my AP US History and Civil War courses I will be taking part in a pilot program in American Studies.  The course will run two periods over four days.  The first hour will be spent in a lecture hall setting where all 32 students can come together for joint instruction followed by break out sessions of much smaller groups (pic #1).  The focus of the course will make it possible to connect readings in American literature with more traditional sources found in the history survey course.  It’s going to be an exciting year for me.  What I like is that the smaller sessions will take place around a large table (pic #2), which resembles the Harkness Table and philosophy employed at Phillips Exeter Academy.

This brings me back to my own classroom, where I’ve decided to follow suit and rearrange my desks (pic #3).  I am hoping that this will create an even more intimate environment and promote mature dialog among my students.  It will also allow me to move more easily away from the center of attention when necessary.  All of my classes are designed as student-centered with a strong emphasis on debate and discussion.  That said, it is clear that we are going to have to introduce and train students for this kind of setting.  It does, after all, welcome distraction.  I am looking forward to it.

All the best to those of you who have already started or who are getting ready to head back into the classroom.

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“Ground Zero,” Civil War Memory, and Contested Landscapes

Like many of you I’ve been closely following the heated controversy surrounding the plans to locate the Cordoba Institute within a few blocks of “Ground Zero” in Manhattan.  While I have an opinion about this I’ve tried my best to maintain a safe distance from the debate in order to take in the broader picture.  Admittedly, such a step is difficult for me to maintain since I lost my cousin on 9-11.  Alisha Levin was 34 yrs. old and worked as a Human Resources manager for Fuji Bank in the South Tower.  She left a message on her parent’s answering machine to say that she was safe just after the first tower was hit.

For those of us interested in the emotion that often accompanies questions about how to commemorate historical landscapes this recent debate is instructive.  The lines between different historical memories are already well entrenched.  The many interest groups who lay claim to the site of 9-11 are also easily delineated.  Various stakeholders in this contest have already voiced positions on the architecture of the proposed new complex as well as a planned memorial for the site.  That an Islamic Center located 2-blocks from Ground Zer0 – as opposed to the schlock that has been sold on the actual site for some time – can generate such a response is also instructive.  It should come as no surprise that the debate has been defined by such passion given the nature of the attack, the scale of the destruction, and the death toll.  In my view every American has a stake in how the landscape is shaped in the coming years regardless of the legal and constitutional questions involved.

At the same time it is clear that the strong passions of those who claim ownership of this site are a function of different factors.  The families are moved by the memories and loss of loved ones; others are clearly using this issue for political purposes; and, a third group is driven as much by fear of Islam as they are by a sense of national loss and a desire to assign blame.  Of course, the spectrum of interested parties is much broader.  How our collective memory of this site will shift in the coming decades is anyone’s guess.  After all, it was probably difficult to imagine reunions between Japanese and American veterans of Pearl Harbor in 1941.  The passage of time shifts our focus as subsequent generations become more removed from the emotions of those who lived through the event.  With time we are able to explore aspects of a remembered past in a way that cushions still latent emotions.  At some point those emotions are more a result of choice than a direct connection to the generation that directly experienced some aspect of the event.  Even for those who experienced the event itself or as an extension of one of the victims the passage of time leaves the rememberer in a very different place.

This controversy has also reinforced my own understanding of the way in which certain people lay claim to our Civil War past.  You don’t have to look far for the passions that stir our personal and intellectual connections to the Civil War in reference to a public space or document.  I experience it first hand on this blog in the form of comments and private emails that express bitterness over something I’ve written.  Of course, I do my best to parse out the content from the emotion, and while I am interested in both I give much more attention to the former.  It would be a mistake to judge the emotion as right or wrong, but I do question its legitimacy.  I don’t believe that the emotion attached to people’s Civil War memory today ought to be understood as a moral claim on the historical event in the way that competing memories of 9-11 continue to do so.  The difference for me is the relative remoteness of the rememberer.  I find it difficult to pinpoint the psychological difference between the two examples, but I have a sense of what is going on here.  On the one hand the events of 9-11 are part of our lived history.  It’s a history that for many of us has left a void in the structure of our immediate families; even for those removed from the personal tragedy of the story it continues to give meaning to our lives and to the way we view the nation and rest of the world.  I simply fail to see how such a dynamic holds for descendants of Civil War soldiers (Union and Confederate) and the rest of the general population.  We may feel connected to some aspect of the war, but the overly moralistic tone and claims to an exclusive ownership of the past or even some aspect of the past is in my view completely unjustified. It’s what I understand when I hear: “Get over it.”  Perhaps a better way of putting it is: “Get over yourself.”

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“Hurrah! for Massa Linkum”

This cartoon was published in Harper’s Weekly on November 4, 1864.  Click here for additional information about this particular cartoon.

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Digging for the Truth

Update: Here is Hennessy’s concluding post on Jackson’s arm.

Just returned from an overnight trip with Michaela to Fredericksburg, where we dined with very good friends, who I consider to be the town’s power couple in the local history profession.  On our way back we stopped at Elliewood to check out the improvements to the house.  Michaela caught me digging up…umm…I mean tending to the ground around the spot that supposedly contains Jackson’s arm.  All kidding aside, check out John Hennessy’s two-part post [Part 1 and Part 2] on the history of this particular site.  The final installment may include the final word as to whether the arm is actually there.

I also recommend checking out the view from Hazel Grove to the Chancellor House.  The NPS has recently cut the trees around Fairview, which offers visitors a much better view of what the battlefield would have looked like in 1863.  That area offers the best opportunity to interpret the battle in a way that moves beyond the traditional climax of the story which is centered on Jackson’s wounding.  I also noticed that the trees around Salem Church have been cut down along Rt. 3.

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