Tough Love or Peer Review: Part 3

I just finished an anonymous journal review and feel just a bit uncomfortable.  Previous posts on this can be found here and here.  I’ve only done a few of these in the past so I am still working on developing my writing style.  I would be very interested to know how others approach these assignments, especially when faced with an essay that fails to meet even the minimum requirements for publication in an academic journal. 

As mentioned in previous posts I have been the recipient of some incredibly critical reviews of my work.  In every case, however, those criticisms were warranted and the final published product was better for it.  That said, it can be incredibly discouraging when you open that attachment and find months and sometimes years of research and/or writing thrown into question.  I guess the trick is to take the long-view of your own work.  I am finding that being on the receiving end of the criticism is much easier than doling it out to someone else.  At the end of the review I found myself trying to balance my criticisms with words of encouragement; I wonder if it comes off as sincere or as an attempt to put myself at ease. 

As I said above, I would be interested to know how others handle these assignments.  My model is based almost entirely on reviews of my work by my graduate adviser and the few critiques I’ve received regarding my own work.  This is much too small of a sample.  Any advice?

White Guilt In The Classroom

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

One of my students came to class this morning with a look of deep frustration.  When I asked if everything was alright he responded by saying that he felt guilty about being white.  He had just come from his English class where they are reading Frederick Douglass’s Autobiography and between that class and history he admitted to feeling a bit defensive about race.  I thought it was a perfect opportunity to discuss the issue as a class and I asked him if he would repeat his comment for the benefit of his fellow students, which he agreed to do.  We are currently working on a fairly detailed packet that takes students through some of the intricacies of the Constitution, but I thought this was clearly more important.

As we began the discussion I was surprised by how many students agreed with this student’s comment.  Some of the students who didn’t necessarily feel guilty did admit to a feeling of defensiveness or shame that this country could have sanctioned or permitted the horrendous acts that defined slavery, which are described so eloquently by Douglass.  For many students this is the first time that their history class has emphasized the importance of race and slavery as a central theme of American history and that can easily bring about a feeling of uneasiness and even a temptation to distance oneself from it.  I gave the students as much time as they needed to share their thoughts in their own language, and I was amazed by how carefully they listened to one another. 

Once they finished I offered to share my own perspective on this issue which the students seemed eager to hear.  I tried to make the point that their difficulties are a result of the way they’ve been taught to interpret American history.  Since most of them admitted to not having learned much about slavery or race before this year I suggested that their broad view of American history was skewed towards seeing freedom as progressively expanding within a white-only community.  Race and slavery represents a kind of external threat to their clean and tidy interpretation; more importantly, that external threat is seen as existing outside the boundaries of American history.  In short, there is an implicit assumption worked into their psychology over the years that white = American and black/slave = "foreign". 

The problem is that they don’t interpret Frederick Douglass’s story or the broader story of black America as an American story.  While it is impossible to deny the horrors of slavery there is a way to see the story of black America before emancipation and after as a story of resilience and courage in the face of the worst possible conditions imaginable.  As we’ve already discussed in class – a point that I reminded them of – was that by the 18th century the slave population through many of the colonies was beginning to increase naturally and families were becoming more stable.  A distinct African-American culture evolved and involved some of the same practices such as marriage along with many of the same hopes and dreams that we take for granted.  And all of this took place in a slave society.  I am not trying to simplify slavery or excuse it, but point out that within the strict confines of slavery people managed to live their lives with a strong sense of meaning attached to it.  Douglass’s story is the quintessential American story as his dreams involved "stealing his body" and escaping from slavery.  You simply can’t get any more American than the slavery to freedom saga. 

There is a mental shift that needs to take place when introducing this material to high school students.  They should not interpret Douglass simply as a black man, but as an American who understood – as have so many – the price and risks involved in attaining basic freedoms.  I am not surprised by their reaction and I am glad that it surfaced so early in the year.  As I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, I teach in a predominantly white school with students who are financially fairly well off.  I believe that teaching history involves taking ownership of your history and this can be done without the feelings of guilt.  The racial issues that we continue to struggle with are intimately bound up in the past.  If we are to bridge those barriers it seems that a good place to start in challenging our deep rooted assumptions about what it means to study American history should take place in the classroom. 

Review of American Civil War Center

I am planning to drive down tomorrow to Richmond to see the new Civil War museum with my wife.  The few reviews that I’ve read thus far seem to suggest that the museum does in fact offer something entirely different for the Civil War enthusiast and for those that will be introduced to the war for the first time.  Andrew Ferguson’s review of the museum in the Wall Street Journal is worth reading.  Here are a few passages:

"Heritage tourism" has become a moneymaker in states like Virginia. The $13 million center, housed in a restored Civil War-era gun foundry on the banks of the James River, will surely bring in folks from the commonwealth and beyond. But Mr. Wise cradles grander ambitions. He wants to do something here that hasn’t been done adequately in other Civil War museums — to give due credit to the war itself as a war of ideas. 

Anyone who has slogged through contemporary museums will see how radical Mr. Wise’s ambition is. Notwithstanding the success of heritage tourism, these are difficult times for history museums. As attendance flatlines or falls, curators have forced themselves to compete with theme parks and TV for the attention of tourists and locals alike. Many museums are tricked out in an aesthetic borrowed from Best Buy: cavernous spaces jumping with video screens and echoing with disembodied voices from hidden speakers, a riot of sound and color in which the transmission of knowledge takes a secondary role to the task of keeping busloads of schoolchildren entertained, through exhibits that are — charmed words! — "immersive" and "interactive."

Whether we like it or not Wise’s "grander ambitions" may end up being dictated by the all-mighty dollar.  As Ferguson points out, attendance is down at many museums which puts site managers in a position of having to "sex-up" the place.  The relationship between education and entertainment need not necessarily be in conflict as long as Wise and others do not take their focus off of educational programs geared to school kids as well as more knowledgeable visitors.  Last year I spent a few hours at the new Constitution Center in Philadelphia while attending the AHA and I was blown away by the ways in which technology is used.  It is geared to school kids and is both highly entertaining and incredibly informative. The creative use of technology can not only enhance the historical content, but introduce it in a way that is more likely to bring about serious critical reflection following the visit.

The displays are organized around the three main ideas over which — according to Mr. Wise and his historians — the war was fought: "Union," whose preservation inspired the North; "Home," whose defense motivated the Confederacy; and "Liberty," the goal for both North and South but also for the African-American slaves and freedmen.

If the tripartite scheme sounds artificial on the page, it’s seamless in the execution. The center is a model of curatorial taste, judgment and skill. Among Civil War buffs, the emphasis on the African-American experience has caused the most comment, but even more striking is the evenhandedness with which the three perspectives — North, Confederate and African-American — are explained.

I would actually like to see evidence of any concerns surrounding the African-American theme from those who have actually visited the museum.  My hope is that the emphasis on the black experience will in fact bring more African Americans to the museum and to a point where they can appreciate that the Civil War is as much their war as it is the descendants of "Johnny Reb" and "Billy Yank."  In fact, if we ever get to the point where we see the war as the death blow to slavery than the black experience will be indispensable to understanding why. 

That’s it for now.  Hopefully I will have a review of the museum up some time next week.

Gay-Straight Alliance on Campus

Not too long ago I commented on homophobia on high school campuses and my own thoughts about how to approach the issue on my own campus.  Well, I am pleased to report that this morning I attended the second meeting of the St. Anne’s – Belfield chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance.  We had ten students and four faculty members in attendance.  The group has already crafted a mission statement and even better, we are working on two programs.   The group is organizing sessions for Middle School students about the language of homophobia and the consequences of its use on campus.  In the Upper School we are planning to use one of our school forums (which take place on Thursdays to discuss issues related to school and world news) to discuss homophobia and the purpose of this new student-led group.

I felt energized sitting there with the students and teachers listening to their concerns and plans for the group.  I view homophobia as on par with the same kind of ignorance and hatred that define racism and working with these young people gives me hope that change is possible. 

One Of Those Nice Surprises

One of the benefits of living and teaching in Charlottesville, Virginia is the contact with people who have a family connection to the Civil War.  Here at my school we have direct descendants of both Generals Robert Rodes and Stephen Dodson Ramseur.  Although Rodes is notorious owing to the burning of his letters by his wife, I was able to spend a few weeks looking through a large scrapbook that was compiled by his sister during and after the war. 

A couple of days ago one of my students in the Civil War class commented that her family had an ancestor who fought with the Army of Northern Virginia, and would I like to see what they have.  I think it’s safe to say that every serious Civil War historian lives to hear those few words.  It conjures up images of untapped primary source material and the possibility that something truly important may be revealed.  Well, yesterday she brought the material in and while it is not going to shake-up the Civil War community it is a nice find nonetheless.  The packet included the muster and parole papers for Private John Y. Reily of Company K, 16th Mississippi Regiment, Harris’s Brigade.  He was wounded three times during the war at Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, and Drewry’s Bluff before being taken prisoner on April 2, 1865. 

In the 1880′s Reily wrote a wonderful account of the Confederate defense of Fort Gregg outside of Petersburg.  The language is vintage Lost Cause:

Of the 250 men of all arms in the fort, less than fifty lined up as prisoners, and only five of those men unwounded.  Talk of Sebastopol, Thermopylae, and Gettysburg, while all were glorious and sublime, yet their luster is paled when compared with the inconceivable courage displayed in the last bloody defense of Fort Gregg.  The proudest heritage that I can hope to leave to my posterity is that I am a Confederate Veteran of the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by the immortal Robert E. Lee, and that I was one of the few defenders of Fort Gregg.

In addition to his memoir and papers, Reily left a very short autobiographical account written one year before his death in 1925 and there is a lengthy obituary from a Louisiana newspaper.  I also have a 20-page account of Fort Gregg that Reily’s grandson researched.  All in all a nice find and a worthwhile addition to my own growing collection of primary sources.