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December 01, 2004

Comments

DJW

Student demand clearly leans towards these edgier classes.

Give yourself a little more credit. How about "student demand leans towards these classes more relevant to their lives?"

When I have a bit more time I'll check out the debate, but I think it's a mistake to confuse these two conversations--about the topical distribution of specialities and ideological diversity.

Furthermore, I think it's a mistake to assume a lack of Republicans means a lack of conservatives. My department contains several conservatives of various stripes, but I doubt many of them voted for Bush. Maybe, just maybe, that tells us more about the Bush administration than it does about academia?

zuzu

Every time this issue is raised, I wonder where are all the conservatives who are clamoring for academic positions. There's a lot of pissing and moaning about the lack of diversity on faculties, but I've never seen any systematic study which shows that conservatives are being turned away from Ph.D. programs or professorships they've applied for.

I also haven't heard much of a push among College Republicans or Federalist Society folks to get their members groomed for academia; they tend to go into politics, business and the professions.

Rhesa

My department contains several conservatives of various stripes, but I doubt many of them voted for Bush. Maybe, just maybe, that tells us more about the Bush administration than it does about academia?

Nah. That says more about conservatives than it says anything about Bush. I mean, I know liberals of various stripes, and some of them DID vote for Bush. So what does THAT say about the Bush administration?

I found an interesting article that talks about this topic in a broader perspective: "Faculty Clubs and Church Pews."

Rhesa

That job descriptions have been crafted to stress not a department’s curricular needs or intellectual balance but instead fields considered ideologically acceptable by the department’s majority means that the critical decisions have been made even before the search committee first sits.

Bingo. Johnson hit the nail on the head right there.

La Lubu

Exactly what do you mean by "tired old Black Athena theory"? Have you read the book? I have and did not find it racist in the least. The way you use the phrase here makes me think that you falsely believe the book to state "everything good came out of Africa, nothing came out of Europe", which is not the case.

And yes, traditional representations of Athena (and Inanna, Isis, Cybele, Astarte, etc.) present her as a black woman. People from the Mediterranean didn't tend to portray sacred personages as blue-eyed blondes.

And as to what courses are offered...isn't that also governed by what courses students are likely to take? If only one person signs up for say, British history, would the course still go on?

DJW

I don't know if you're taking requests, but I'd love to see a post about the discussion over "world history" in your curriculum. I can imagine several good arguments for and against, and I'd be very curious to see a) if I've got them right, and b)if you can persuade me the latter outweigh the former.

Rhesa, I think we're both being too snarky to call this a conversation at this point. My limited point was simple--Bush isn't much of a conservative, by any definition of conservative that doesn't include automatic support for Republicans. His utter lack of concern about skyrocketing deficits and the Iraq war are starkly at odds with conservatism by most definitions. When you conflate your ideology with your party, you can convince yourself of to go along, but academics are less likely to do that than most people in my experience, especially those who study politics or things related.

I have a larger point about this discussion, but I'll save it until I have time to read the posts.

New Kid on the Hallway

I'm a little confused by the conjunction of topics in this post - it seems to me that the addition of world history to the college curriculum is an example of *increasing* diversity, not decreasing. I do get your point about the kinds of ideologies involved and the potential problems with the "anti-white" attitude in a world history class, but if previously the school taught only Western Civ, and now it teaches Western Civ and World History, isn't that an increase in academic diversity? I recognize that my comment assumes that diversity of content = diversity of approach and you may well be talking about diversity of approach (or political orientation, I guess), but nonetheless, the shift has brought more voices to the table, not fewer.

I also understand the concern that history has moved too far in the other direction, but the creation of race, class, and gender positions is (historically) precisely BECAUSE no one looked at those topics only a couple of generations ago. It always seems to me that concerns about the dominance of these more recent fields is a little bit like the men in a formerly-men's-only club watching the first woman enter and saying, "Well, the place is just going to hell in a handbasket."

Full disclosure: I've never taught at a comunity college, but I have taught World History and Western Civ, and much prefer world history (not b/c the west isn't unique, but b/c Western Civ seems to me too enmeshed in a triumphalist, civilizing narrative - NOT to suggest that those who teach it buy into this, I personally just find it too hard to get outside of that traditional narrative, and would rather put it in a new perspective by teaching world history instead). I say this although my research area is medieval England. And I don't think it has to be either medieval Mali OR Boudicca, the battle of Bannockburn, or Bonnie Prince Charlie; but then, those things aren't comparable. A truer opposition would be medieval Mali or medieval England. If forced to choose, I would actually rather have students know that medieval Mali existed and have some sense of its place in the world - they already know that medieval England existed (after all, they've all seen _Braveheart_!).

Hugo

They may know medieval England existed, but it would be absurd to say that medieval Mali had an equal influence on contemporary American society. I don't like world history because it invariably seems to have an ideological bias against western civ: "You've heard that X began in Europe, but actually..." is the basic refrain that gets a bit old.

Oh heavens, I did read Black Athena -- great read. Too bad that Bernal's interest in actual evidence was slight (now that is the pot calling the kettle black, I know!)

NancyP

How much description space do the course offerings get in the catalogue? A paragraph-long description of a focused course can make a big difference in attracting interest. "18th-20thC British History" vs. "Rise and Fall of the British Empire. This course will explore colonialism's effect on the British economy, civil and military services, and political scene, focusing on the West Indies and the anti-slavery debates in the 18th and 19th centuries, and on the Indian subcontinent in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the export of educated Britons to civil and military service, and the domestic debates over the costs of empire and over withdrawal from India." (OK, this may sound a bit bogus, but I am a scientist and not a history professor).

Students will choose topics of study that seem to have some applicability to current concerns, and gender studies, domestic politics of empire, area studies in "hot" areas (an history of Iraq course, for example), race/ethnic studies all have some immediacy that standard-issue survey courses may not have. I would tend to say, get the students interested, then make sure they have some contact with a general survey text for essential contextual information as well as the specialized reading forming the core of the course. But then again, maybe I am reflecting on my own training 30 years ago at a Seven Sisters school, where I majored in history (medieval and early modern concentration).

Lord knows I don't have these sorts of pedagogical problems now. I teach the same diseases, year after year.....maybe a slight shift in emphasis due to new understandings of pathophysiology, but the baby docs need to know about the same set of diseases as always.

La Lubu

Actual evidence slight? Hell, by that standard, any historical evidence from ancient times is 'slight'. I mean, the written records of Roman scholars are taken to be almost gospel, nevermind that they had a real ax to grind against the Celts...(but I digress).

What I mainly got out of it (it's been awhile, but it's still up on my bookshelf!) was how colonialism altered the way history was told...just like wars do. Maybe you'd like Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum's _Dark Mother: African Origins and Godmothers_ better. I find it quite refreshing to read and think of history as something that my ancestors were a part of too. I thrive on it!! That's not to say that I don't enjoy reading the history of others too...I do! But hell....in my grandmother's day, there wasn't any books like _Dark Mother_ or Susan Caperna Lloyd's _No Pictures In My Grave_. I pass books like that on to her now, and she reads them like she's discovered a whole new solar system....and she never read much...ever. I can't describe the feeling, other than to say it's like finding one's religion.

Pip

It seems to me that the definitions of "conservative" and "radical" within the academy -- certainly within my field, English lit -- are increasingly disconnected from their meanings in the sphere of politics, sometimes almost to the point of inversion. In academic terms, I run the risk of being labeled a conservative. That is, I teach Renaissance literature, and I hold that there is such a thing as literary value. I'm prepared to defend the proposition that Elizabethan tragedy is *better* than science fiction. In the contemporary academy, this makes me a bit of a fascist. But my literary views put me in the company of such noted conservatives as Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. In terms of my political activity, I'm on the far-leftish edge of my department. And I've noticed that on picket lines and peace marches, the colleagues I find standing shoulder to shoulder with me are most often the stodgy old "conservatives."

Rhesa

Rhesa, I think we're both being too snarky to call this a conversation at this point.

Agreed. But I got your point, even if I slightly disagree with it. I won't steer the current conversation in a political direction, though, for the sake of discussion.

annika

This is just anecdotal, but regardigng student demand, when i was a history major, i noticed that my peers generally opted for the multiculturalist history courses because they had the reputation for being less rigorous than the traditional Western Civ courses. i'm not sure that was true, since i took both types and it all depended on the teacher. But i do think that many students shied away from traditional course descriptions because the newer courses sounded more like "cake."

The Angry Clam

I don't know if I'd necessarily say that, DJW- there's a reason that essentially all (with the exception of UCLA, and that might be changing) UC schools, for example, force "race and culture" classes down their students' throats with a "diversity" requirement.

New Kid on the Hallway

Medieval England may have had more influence on contemporary American society, but I think students need to understand their place in a global society as well, which does require understanding things like medieval Mali, which had a huge influence on the patterns of economics and politics that shape global trends. (My feeling is that to understand contemporary American society, they should take US history...but that's a slightly different argument.)

And world history seems to have an ideological bias against western civ because western civ has an ideological bias against world history. It's not like the one is ideological and the other's not - any construction of a grand narrative is based in ideology. Personally I'm very suspicious of a lens that only wants to look at historical developments as they impact/lead up to "the West," which is a modern construction. It can be a perfectly useful enterprise, but it's not any less ideologically constructed than world history.

I suppose some of this is a question of the way the people teach world history and the tone they take...ideally it's something more than a litany of "inventions" that the west has claimed that actually came from somewhere else. Nonetheless, I think a little minimizing of or counter-balancing to the grand MARCH OF THE WEST narrative is a valuable thing. (I am also thinking primarily of early world history, in which immensely sophisticated civilizations in east Asia and what becomes the Muslim world could wipe their boots with Europe - this gets much more complicated when you get into the modern era, colonialism, etc., where there is frequently a "blame the West" tone.)

But I suppose my greater point is still that adding world history to the curriculum simply adds diversity. Why does it have to be either/or?

(I should add, since I haven't really commented here before, that I enjoy your posts and I offer this in the spirit of conversation, not combat. Just in case the internet obscures that!)

Shannon

One thing that bears thinking about is that maybe histories of places that aren't Europe or aren't (white) America don't really get covered in high school. So you want to learn something new. I mean, all through your k-12 education, it is totally centered on whites, whites, whites, with maybe 2 lines from MLK and slavery.

And I got the good history teacher who actually tried to talk about different things- god forbid you get the coach! So when you might gravitate to something you might not have heard about before.

And, Hugo, not to be rude, but the 'anti white' thing may just be free floating white hysteria, much like the hysteria that causes people to think that not having everyone pray one prayer at the beginning of the school day is religous oppression. Dominant groups often believe themselves to be oppressed, and under siege.

La Lubu

Thank you, Shannon. That was how I felt in school....from k-12 we had Pilgrims, Puritans and pioneers crammed up our backsides. There was literally one paragraph concerning the history of my people in the U.S.....it always went something like, "Oh yeah, there was a bunch of southern and eastern European swarthy unwashed masses who came through Ellis Island looking for streets of gold" with the requisite picture of dark-haired olive-skinned folks standing on the docks. And that was it.

British and Anglo-American history has always been presented in its rich diversity; the diversity of various WASPs. The rest of us have been left wanting. Is it really so bad for us to want to reach beyond those boundaries as adults, pursuing our own higher education? To hear our story told in the classroom, usually for the first time?

New Kid on the Hallway

I completely agree with Shannon and La Lubu (who say what I kind of wanted to say much better than I did).

NancyP

Teaching institutional history tends to lead towards the teaching of WASP history. It is useful to know about the history of law, of political institutions, but these aren't the whole picture.

zuzu

I would have been thrilled in high school if my US History class got into 20th Century history, but instead we got the same tired rehash of deSoto and Ponce de Leon and the Revolution. Yeah. I got it. Teach me about Vietnam.

Hugo

I don't disagree that we need to move out of a triumphalist tradition in teaching Western Civ. But NO ONE IS TEACHING THE MAGNA CARTA AT ALL.

I dislike world history because, of necessity, it tries to do too much -- too much overview of forest, too few trees. It's hard enough to narrow things down in Western Civ -- I've seen what world civ does, and it simply bites off more than can be chewed...

zuzu

But NO ONE IS TEACHING THE MAGNA CARTA AT ALL.

See, that would fit in well with a legal-history kind of course, with everything from the Code of Hammurabi to the Magna Carta to the Constitution. Perhaps history at the college level should be taught thematically rather than geographically.

I had a great time reading Salt, a history of salt. It took one commodity (the same author, whose name I believe is Mark Kurlansky (I lent the book out), did the same treatment to cod) and showed how it affected various civilizations, and how they collected, valued, used and traded it. It was a sharper focus to history than what I was used to, but highly relatable.

aj

I was an undergrad at Berkeley from 1995-8 and I actually thought the way the history department structured their major was quite clever in this respect. Though Berkeley has no Western Civ requirement (but you could still take Western Civ if you wanted to - unlike other schools that have abolished it altogether) all history majors had to take History 5: Europe from 1400 to the present. (We also had to take courses from outside of European and American history, as well as a pre-modern course, but more than one course could satisfy those requirements.) The result was that there were certain skills and concepts you could be sure every major would learn.

I've met people from other UC's who have complained about Berkeley's eurocentrism - yes, you read that correctly - in this respect but I much preferred it to taking some uneven world history course that had no chance of covering everything adequately. Besides, what often gets left out of the World History/Western Civ conversation is how much history-writing in non-European fields actually assumes a basic level of familiarity with concepts and ideas that came out of the study of European history, but which have gained a broader applicability.

I'm all for world/global/transnational/comparative history as a scholarly/research endeavor, or as an advanced course offering, but I just don't see how you can expect students to get all of that down in an introductory survey course. How well can you really teach Mali's "influence on the patterns of economics and politics that shape global trends" to students who don't yet understand that patterns of economics and politics shape global trends? I tend to think that you'd have more success laying the conceptual framework in a more familiar area that would then allow them to put Mali into perspective. I guess for students who will take only one history course it's a tough choice.

As for The Angry Clam's comments about how the UC's

"force "race and culture" classes down their students' throats with a "diversity" requirement"

I assume you mean the "American cultures" requirement? I'm not sure that these courses are so bad - though I don't doubt that some are, just as there are bad courses everywhere. At least I can't say that I had a bad experience. I took a linguistics course - essentially an intro to linguistics for nonmajors focusing on American dialects and languages - and while it had a certain tolerance of all dialects slant (and what's wrong with tolerance?) there was no ebonics craziness or anything like that. It was pretty clear that Standard English was something everyone would benefit from knowing. Nobody gave me dirty looks when I criticized the inflated rhetoric of a (polemical) book we were assigned that defended bilingual education. And among our guest lecturers was John McWhorter (whose lecture on pidgins and creoles was so good I wished he had come in more often).

So I can't say I ran into hostility to real debate - but that was 1995, in today's climate, who knows? Maybe I'd have found myself branded (inaccurately) a conservative. But I don't think so. For all the overblown rhetoric on the postmodern left about the failure of "objectivity" my experience has been that many ordinary people - and non-superstar academics - still hold a common sense understanding of empirical evidence. (If they didn't, how could we still have a jury system?) It's when people appeal to partisan beliefs rather than evidence (or in order to discredit evidence) that things start getting bitter.

djw

Hugo, don't be so sure about the magna carta. I've tought it (albeit not as thoroughly or well as historians do) in several poli sci classes. Most social science classes contain a fair amount of stuff about the past as well; historians don't have to do everything.

Hugo

I'm sorry, DJW, I didn't catch that? You mean those of us who openly serve Clio do not have a monopoly on the teaching of the past?

This is worse than imagining Snoop in a chinchilla coat.

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