Some Thoughts For the Class of 2010

This year I was honored to have been asked by the Class of 2010 to deliver the final chapel sermon on the day of graduation.  I can’t say that this was the easiest talk I’ve had to prepare, but I am fairly pleased with the final result.  The best advice I received was to write a sermon that I would have wanted to hear at my graduation.

I want to begin by thanking the Class of 2010 for this honor.  After having to listen to me in the classroom as well as other settings for the past four years I have to say that I am pleasantly surprised that you’ve chosen to give me one more opportunity to speak with you.  I hope my brief remarks prove worthy of your trust even if they stray a bit from the standard graduation day talk.

As I struggled to find a way to begin I kept coming back to that final scene in the movie, “Cast Away.”  As many of you know the movie tells the story of Chuck Noland (played by Tom Hanks), who ends up stranded on a deserted island for 4 years after his FedEx plane crashes in the ocean.  The movie follows Noland as he learns to survive both physically and psychologically on the island as well as his eventual reintegration into modern society.  My favorite scene in the movie comes at the very end after Noland delivers one of the packages that washed up on shore and perhaps served as a continual reminder of a life and career that he hoped one day to return to.  In that final scene Noland stands at the crossroads not knowing which way to go, but with the complete freedom to choose.  The camera moves in and Noland, who stares back, confronts the viewer.  It’s Noland’s expression, which I think is worth considering for a moment.  It may be tempting simply to speculate about the choice that he will make or perhaps the choice that we hope he will make.  However, the more I consider it the more I am convinced that his little smirk is meant for us.  In other words, I believe that the audience is the focus of that particular moment and not Noland.

So, what might Noland be asking of us?  Perhaps he is challenging the viewer to step back and reflect on her own life.  What questions did we ask and what decisions did we make when standing at the crossroads?  There may be a certain amount of anxiety for those of us looking back on our lives when confronted by such a challenge, but for those of you who sit in these seats for the final time with a bright-eyed optimism for the future I sometimes wonder whether you have the tough questions at hand for just these moments.

Continue reading “Some Thoughts For the Class of 2010”

Why I Use Twitter and You Should Too

The other day I posted tweet no. 3,000 and thought I might take a few minutes to talk about what I find so valuable about this particular tool.  Twitter is by far my favorite social networking site.  While I use Facebook to stay in touch with friends, and it’s a place where I can have some fun, I use Twitter overwhelmingly for professional purposes.  Admittedly, it is not easy to get started on Twitter.  In fact, it’s downright counter-intuitive.  Why exactly do I only get 140 characters to work with and what the hell am I supposed to say?  Probably like most people I initially set up my account, posted a few tweets and then forgot about it for a time.

Like I said, getting started can be frustrating, but let me suggest why it may be worth it.  The first thing you need to do is understand is why you are using it.  Twitter is much more than simply responding to the question: “What’s Happening?”  I use it primarily to share information related to historical research,  the teaching of history, and other online sites that I come across that others may find interesting.  It’s one of the most efficient ways I’ve found to share information that matters to me with individuals who have similar interests.  Who, are these folks that I am sharing information with?  Well, they are people that have chosen to “Follow” my Twitter stream.  I, in turn, follow folks who are posting information that I find relevant.  As of the date of this post I am following 153 fellow tweeters and there are currently 424 individuals who follow my stream.  There is a practice or courtesy – sometimes referred to as “Reciprocal Following – that essentially returns the favor in response to the addition of a new member of your community.  As you can see I do not make this a practice.  I am very conscious of maintaining a Twitter stream that contains information that I find valuable.  The more attention you give to who you follow determines the quality of information you receive and how much you get out of the overall experience.  What it comes down to is that I now have an additional 153 pairs of eyes that I can count on to share quality information with me, information that I probably would never have come across on my own.  Once that tweet (usually including a hyperlink) comes across my stream I can do any number of things with it, including “Retweeting” it for my readers, emailing it to a friend, saving it to my Delicious Bookmarks, etc.  Finally, I enjoy the short conversations on Twitter.  The character limit forces users to keep it brief and to the point.  That said, I am continually amazed at the quality of the dialog that is possible with the various shortcuts that you will learn in a brief period of time.

Continue reading “Why I Use Twitter and You Should Too”

Yeah, But Why Do They Have To Wear the Sheets?

Apparently, a high school history teacher in Georgia allowed her students to film themselves in Klan robes as part of their study of the organization as well as the history of race.  At one point students paraded through the school cafeteria and confronted an African American student and asked if they could reenact a lynching:

”I don’t apologize for the project, a tearful Aremmia told CBS Atlanta.  I do apologize that someone felt threatened.  I teach about United States history.  I teach about the good, the bad, and the ugly.  I would tell the students, why don’t you film that off campus on your own time. Would I tell them not to? No, because that’s part of history and to not acknowledge it is saying, that it’s OK. I’m sorry, it isn’t. It’s unacceptable.”

Student Cody Rider told reporters the incident left him ‘outraged’.  He said he wanted to fight the students when they asked his cousin, also a student at the school, if they could ‘re-enact the lynching of him for their class project’.  “My little cousin comes up and taps me on the shoulder, and there was fear in his eyes,” he said.  “He was like, he just started pointing, like he couldn’t even talk, that’s how bad it was. There was fear in his eyes, and I looked up and they are walking through the hallway in white sheets.”

The problem is that Catherine Aremmia should apologize if the story is true.  As I see it there are two problems here.  First, asking students to dress up as Klansmen has nothing to do with “teach[ing] about United States history; all I can see is students being asked to don Klan robes.  A significant gap is likely to exist between their historical understanding of the roles they are assuming and where their imaginations take them.

Continue reading “Yeah, But Why Do They Have To Wear the Sheets?”

“A Christian Land Governed By Christian Principles”

It is a sad day for the teaching of American history in Texas.  Unfortunately, we have a system that allows a dentist and others without any qualifications whatsoever to rewrite American history in a way that satisfies their own agenda.  Fortunately, they’ve been honest about that agenda from the beginning.  In the end, the state Board of Education failed to understand the difference between interpreting the crucial role that religion has played in American history and using history to advocate for a Christian world view.

No amount of prayer changes the fact that the Constitution and Bill of Rights are secular documents.  No, I didn’t arrive at that conclusion through prayer. I had to read important historical studies by such reputable historians as Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, Jack Rakove, Saul Cornell, and Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick.  I think when it comes to understanding the past I will continue to do so.