Category Archives: Posts

Culling a Life

carolyn

Her HS graduation photo

Last week I had the unenviable task of culling the life of my mother-in-law, aged 81. In some ways I was the perfect person for this task, because in my sister-in-law’s garage there were 32 banker’s boxes of files that needed to be sorted through in just under 72 hours, because we were relocating her from Colorado to Virginia on short notice. Who better than a historian to do the work of pulling the significant items out and saving them?

Because she was the keeper of the family history, several of those boxes were filled with scrapbooks, photographs dating back to at least 1870, documents from a relative’s Civil War service in the Army of Northern Virginia, hundreds of more recent snapshots, an edited set of letters sent home from the American campaign in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy in 1943-44, a series of photographs from my mother-in-laws years as a student at Sweet Briar College in the mid-1950s, and love letters exchanged with her second husband (to whom she was married for more than 30 years).

Plenty of the documents were easy to identity, but almost all of those easily identified were texts. The photos, not so much. Some had scrawled notes on the back, but most did not. I would ask my mother-in-law, but she has dementia and has a difficult enough time remembering me, much less who is who in a photograph that is more than 100 years old.

ernestMy wife was at least a little help. She could identify her grandfather in this photograph from his undergraduate years at the University of Virginia.  I happen to know a little bit about his life, but almost all of it in the last two decades before he died. I do know he attended UVa and went on to the Harvard Medical School. After that he returned to his native Lynchburg, Virginia, where he practiced medicine until he retired. And I can pick him out in this photograph, because he looks so much like my brother-in-law. But beyond identifying him and knowing that this was an undergraduate fraternity of some sort, I don’t have a clue about anything else in the image.

And so I’m left to cull her life down to one banker’s box of texts and images, most of them identified, but many not. The rest, well, they’ve entered the dustbin of history. In the end I’m left wondering if it is easier or more difficult to cull the record of someone’s life when you are a historian.

Today, anyway, it feels a lot more difficult.

It’s Not All About Me

“Our students come first.”

That’s what it says on page five of George Mason University’s Strategic Plan. As one of the authors of that document back in 2014, I’m always happy when this simple sentence is deployed to explain a new policy or rule. And I’m equally unhappy when we, too often in my view, make rules and policies that are grounded in the revenue needs of our various academic units rather than what’s good for our students.

Because the internal contest for revenue that drives so much of our decision making makes me crazy, it’s useful to be reminded, by students, that they come first. They are under such pressure and face so many problems–excessive debt, an unpredictable job market, political disunity at home, a looming climate disaster everywhere. We owe them more than just an excellent course. What we do as educators transcends the syllabus.

And it’s good to be reminded, by students, that it’s not all about me.

Those who know me know that I’m a person of very strong political opinions and that I’m very passionate, and sometimes even a little intolerant (if I’m honest), on certain issues relating to individual rights, climate change, and the twinned issues of equity in access, not just in higher education, but in our society generally.

My students will tell you, I hope, that I also keep all of those opinions to myself in the classroom. This is an issue with lots of strong feelings on both sides — professors shouldn’t be afraid to express their political and social views in class/professors should keep those views to themselves. I get why some of my colleagues bring their views into the classroom and I don’t condemn them for that. I just don’t teach that way. That’s just me.

But I still have those strong opinions and the events of the past 12 months have just made me even more committed to what I believe.

When one of my former students came to see me back in late November to ask for letters of recommendation for graduate school, I asked the obvious question: “What have you been doing since you graduated two years ago?” As it turns out, he had been very engaged in the recent election, working for a congressional candidate who I had really, really hoped would lose (she didn’t). A part of me wanted to scream, “How could you possibly work for someone like her?”

Fortunately, I remembered, it’s not all about me.

So, I wrote him glowing letters — he was, after all, an excellent student and a nice person — and I’m happy to say he was admitted to several excellent graduate programs.

Just today I received a phone call from the executive director of a local NGO seeking a reference on a former student — one of my favorite students of the past several years. She began the call by explaining the mission of her organization and it was clear immediately that their goals and beliefs are antithetical to mine. Really antithetical. A part of me wanted to call my student right away and scream, “How could you possibly work for such an organization?”

Fortunately, I remembered, it’s not all about me.

So, I gave her the excellent recommendation she deserved — she is, after all, a wonderful person and was one of the best students I’ve taught in the past several years. I suspect, given the tenor of the call, that she’s their first choice and I hope she gets the job.

These two students have done exactly what we hope our students will do. Get a good education, and then apply what they’ve learned to launch themselves onto career paths that they’ve chosen for themselves. In short, the system worked. I’m proud of them both, even if I might wish they had political or social views aligned with mine.

As we head into tomorrow’s change of presidential administrations, I’m going to try hard to remember the lessons I’ve learned from these students, namely, that just because I disagree with your position on issues I care passionately about, the odds are really good that you are a fine person, doing the right thing according to your own lights. We just don’t agree.

If we can all remember that it’s about all of us, then maybe, just maybe, it won’t be quite as I fear it will be. And so, on his last day in office, I’ll let President Obama have the last word:

“Sometimes I get mad and frustrated like everybody else does, but at my core, I think we’re going to be OK.”

Trails, Paths, and Digital Literacy

Yesterday I had the good fortune to be the keynote speaker at the Winter Symposium on Digital Literacy in Higher Education at the University of Rhode Island. It was incredibly energizing to spend a day and a half with a diverse group of educators across disciplines, all of them committed to the idea that improving our students’ (and our colleagues’) digital literacy.

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Of course, there are few more amorphous topics than digital literacy, which made my task as keynote speaker challenging, to say the least. A quick survey of the literature yields almost as many definitions of the concept as there are authors who write about it.

Do we mean the ability to use digital technologies to accomplish a particular task? Or does it mean just being able to navigate the wilds of the Internet without being taken in by the false information floating around out there? Or does it mean being able to create digital objects, code something useful, or develop visualizations of large corpora of texts?

To help those assembled to try to find a way forward, I drew on my experiences on the Appalachian Trail, America’s oldest and still most iconic long distance hiking trail. Of late I’ve been mesmerized by Robert Moor’s On Trails (2016). Moor writes in ways I can only dream about, and in his first pages I found the quotation that I think helps us make our way through the echoing vastness of the Internet.

To put it as simply as possible, a path is a way of making sense of the world. There are infinite ways to cross a landscape; the options are overwhelming, and pitfalls abound. The function of a path is to reduce this teeming chaos into an intelligible line.” (14)

If we think about digital literacy more as choosing a path through the mountains and less like trying to sail across the open ocean, then I think we have a chance to find a way forward as educators and as scholars.

Of course, paths impose their own tyranny. Early into their hikes, long distance hikers find themselves less and less willing to leave the path marked out for them by others. Ask anyone who has through hiked the Appalachian Trail and they’ll tell you that “Blue Blazer” is a term of derision, because it connotes that long distance hiker who leaves the white blazes of the AT for side trail short cuts with blue blazes on the trees and rocks.

Despite the risk of being labeled a Blue Blazer, I think we have to admit that there are too many options, too many platforms, too many apps, too many new ways to navigate the Internet. If we accept this premise, then instead of trying to define or to teach something called “digital literacy,” we can instead decide “I’ll just do this,” or, “I’ll just teach my students that.” And not anything else.

Do we do them or ourselves a disservice by ignoring so much? My answer is no. Too often we forget that our students are with us for only a short time in what we (and they) hope are long and productive lives. Instead of teaching them everything they need to know about things digital, it strikes me as more than enough to teach them a few useful skills, a few useful ways of knowing. We need to give them the tools to find their own paths, and we need to model the willingness to reject the notion that to be competent means always being able to do more and more. Sometimes enough is plenty.

Just a little over 100 years ago, Benton MacKaye stood in a fire tower in Vermont and gazed out over the beauty of the Green Mountains. It was there that he first dreamed up a thing he later christened the Appalachian Trail. MacKaye’s mantra for those hiking on the trail he created was “Walk, see, and see what you see.” To put it another way, stop, look around, what can I see/learn here.

Stopping is a risk, because in doing so, the Internet will swoosh past us. But that’s ok. Really.

Making History Matter Again

I was very pleased to see AHA Teaching Division Vice President Elizabeth Lehfeldt take on the issue of declining enrollments in undergraduate history programs in the October edition of Perspectives. Anyone who reads this blog with regularity knows that enrollment issues have figured prominently among the topics I cover, most recently here and here.

The decline in history enrollments around the country isn’t news to anyone teaching at the post-secondary level and the AHA has done a thorough job of documenting some of the parameters of the decline. What’s lacking in this whole discussion is solid data on exactly why students have moved away from history and into other fields. We have lots of reasonable propositions, and I have offered my own suggestions in the posts linked above, but all of us are, to a degree, shooting in the dark because we don’t have actual data from students.

One obvious place to look for such data would be from our campus enrollment officers. Admissions offices, enrollment management consultants, and research centers like the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA have reams of data on student preferences, predispositions, demographic characteristics, and other factors that could be plugged into the kind of regressions that might just tell us a lot about what’s going on. At a minimum, these data would add richness to our anecdotal or surface studies of the problem. I hope the AHA will consider investing in some of this sort of analysis so that we get beyond just asking department chairs what they think is happening.

A second issue I have with what Lehfeldt writes in her essay is the assumption that doubling down on the History Discipline Core of the Tuning Project is going to be a solution to our enrollment problems. I completely agree with Lehfeldt that, as she writes, the Tuning project has “created a common, broadly accessible vocabulary about the value of majoring in history.” But to assert that “Tuning has helped allay students’ and parents’ concerns about ‘what to do with a major in history’,” based on no data to support such an assertion is really troubling. If such data exist, I’d love to see them.

So, yes, Tuning is a good step forward. But, no, I don’t see any evidence cited by anyone that adopting the framework and goals of the Tuning project has either allayed concerns in the market about the value of a history degree, or that the adoption of Tuning has helped change the enrollment trajectories of those departments who have signed on.

In previous posts on Tuning, I’ve been very critical of the fact that, at least to my mind, the Discipline Core is neither forward looking, nor aligned with the world our students live in. As evidence for my contentions, I would offer the fact that in the entire Discipline Core document the digital world our students (and we) live in shows up exactly once…toward the end, where one of the competencies students might gain is the ability to build a website on a historical topic.

Once.

Doubling down on Tuning as the solution to our enrollment problems strikes me as saying that if we just keep doing what we’re doing, but do it more, and do a better job of explaining to students why doing it the way we’ve always done it really, really is good, everything will turn out fine in the end.

The last time I checked, Professor Pangloss was teaching in a different department.