Choosing Books for the U.S. Survey

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An accurate representation of my book-selection process.

I’m teaching the second half of the U.S. survey for the first time next semester and it was a challenge to figure out what books to assign. The perennial questions about teaching the survey—depth or coverage?—play out in book selection too. Do we use a textbook? Do we go for certain kinds of texts—novel, memoir, monograph, synthesis? Do we focus on a couple themes and build the book selection around that? Do we want the students to get historiography? Do we want them to get lots of primary sources? How much do we think about the social location of the authors?

I actually don’t know what the good answers are to these questions but I can report the books I ended up with after a haphazard process that tried to take account of all these questions and more.

I almost went with a textbook. Gilmore and Sugrue’s new survey, These United States, seems impressive. But in the end, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t figure out what the textbook would be for in my classroom. The general consensus seems to be that most students don’t read the textbook from week to week but might use it for exam-prep. But I’m only giving one exam, and it will be based on my lectures. Furthermore, I expect students to not only read what I assign, but, most weeks, write something about it. I’m not sure I could get good writing assignments out of a textbook reading.

Textbooks don’t seem to help much in promoting historical thinking, understanding of historiography, or analysis of primary sources. But those three things sum up most of what we do, right? So what’s the point? Textbooks fill in the gaps and give students a fall-back, but I’m not sure that’s relevant in the age of Wikipedia.

The one thing that the textbook supposedly has going for it—that it gives students a narrative structure for American history so they can place events in time and context—isn’t actually operable if students aren’t reading it anyway. My sense is that it’s more important to grab students interest, even if it makes them confused, than to try to convey an orderly historical narrative. Students who are engaged can question their way toward a synthesis. Perhaps I’m being utopian, but there’s my rant for the day.

Ok, here are the books I chose:

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland

Mine Okubo, Citizen 13660 

Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to Black Power

Eric Foner, Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History, Volume Two

The Foner collection is my concession to textbook-like features. As a collection of primary sources, it allows me to put a lot of documents in front of my students without spending a lot of time tracking down sources, scanning, uploading, linking, and so on.

The other three are each very different sorts of books. Herland is an early twentieth century utopian feminist novel, Citizen 13660 is a graphic memoir of Japanese internment, and At the Dark End of the Street is a narrative history from a professional historian. Gilman and Okubo are both short enough to read in one sitting if someone were so inclined. These books also have the considerable virtue of being cheap.

I didn’t set out to have this set of books, but what I’ve ended up with is a rather feminist group that seems relevant to our #metoo moment. Since women’s history is a weakness of mine, assigning these books is one way for me to push against that and try to become more informed.

Living and Teaching in an Age of Crisis

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We’ve hit the one year anniversary of a shameful moment in American history. Donald Trump’s election showed us, finally, that the American people have no special love for liberty or decency. We’re just like everybody else. We might have known this, if only in our heads. But gaining that self-knowledge through hard experience has changed us.

That moment a year ago has not faded away into history. It was the curtain-raiser on an age of crisis. Now we think about the country and our fellow Americans differently. We try to engage and love and persevere, but we do not do so with the illusion that our neighbors want the same future we do.

Immediately after the election, a lot of us were alarmists. Some envisioned a rapid slide into an authoritarian dystopia. If the alarmists were not entirely correct, their posture was more productive than those who wishfully believed that this is a normal political moment. Indeed, the alarmists are still needed. They may have overestimated the chances of rapid disintegration, but the rest of us are now underestimating the possibility that this is the beginning of the end for liberal democracy.

Donald Trump showed that it was possible to run against the liberal democratic American ideal—the vision that animated everyone from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama—and win. If you’re on the radical left or right and want to destroy the social order, you might be happy. Everyone else, liberal or conservative, ought to be very concerned.

We have taken too much comfort in Trump’s incompetence. We can be sure that every power-loving would-be strongman is learning the lessons of this moment. The key lesson is that many Americans—perhaps a majority—want their party to win more than anything else. They would rather win than defend abstractions like the bill of rights, democracy, and separation of powers. They’ll support all manner of racism and cruelty if it means winning one for the team. A cunning politician with a clear end-goal in sight can use this new knowledge to bring our democratic experiment to a close.

These are the stakes for the nation. Don’t even get me started on the Church. I care much more about the church than I do about the nation, and am much more grieved about it. I hope in it like I hope in Jesus himself—with a faith that doesn’t yield to the whims of circumstance. The church will continue. But those who seek to follow Jesus will do so in communities of faith beyond the white nationalist and prosperity heresies that have overrun much of American Christianity.

So how do we live in this age of crisis? How do we teach? For me, these are really thorny questions.

Before Trump’s rise, it never occurred to me that many people I know and love could support such an awful person. How do I conduct myself on the other side of that knowledge? How do I live with this knowledge that I desperately don’t want to have? What do love, humility, and patience look like in this moment? How do I deal with the resentment and bitterness I harbor so that I can approach people openly and in love?

Normally, we have several strategies that help us be respectful toward people with whom we disagree. We remind ourselves that we all have different experiences, different social contexts, different bases of knowledge. We remind ourselves of our own fallenness and limited perspective. We seek to learn from perspectives we find disagreeable. But in the age of Trump, the overt celebration of evil and cruelty often make these strategies seem hollow. Those of us who are Christians may find more meaning in how Jesus instructed us to love our enemies. We do not need to pretend that we have common ground. But we are commanded to love.

Part of the reality of living in the Trump era is feeling profoundly affected by it and then feeling guilty and silly for how much it’s affecting you. Endless cycle. But it does affect us. Continuing to feel that, though exhausting, is an important part of maintaining our integrity.

I’ve also found that teaching history in this moment is a bit disorienting. How does, or should, a moment of crisis affect our teaching of the past? I don’t have an answer for that. I’ve mostly tried to steer clear of the present, but whichever path I take I keep wondering if I’m doing my students a disservice.

On the one hand, making the current moment a big presence in the classroom can distort the past and encourage bad habits of mind in students. Our inclination is to read everything in light of the present moment and that’s exactly what we as historians are positioned to resist. On the other hand, it seems odd to not explain, as best we can, how the past led to our current age of crisis. If students leave the course not knowing that this political moment is unique, why didn’t I bother to make the class more relevant to them?

These pedagogical questions would be easier to grapple with if I could do so dispassionately. But the reality is I can’t. While it might be nice in theory to have a class discussion about putting Trump in historical context, I’m not confident in my ability to lead that discussion productively, especially if a student strongly defends Trump.

To talk about Trump in the classroom is to talk about someone whose politics are an existential threat to some of the students in the room. That makes it a loaded conversation, and I can’t hide that my sympathies are with those students.

Perhaps there aren’t any good answers for life and teaching in this age of crisis. But let’s try to lean on each other and support each other. Shout out especially to those who feel isolated in pro-Trump communities. Keep up the good fight!

Notes from the Classroom: Teaching Evangelicalism at Temple

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What happens when you try to teach the history of evangelicalism in a Temple University GenEd class made up of mostly freshman with majors from all over the university? This month I found out.

As we came to the end of our unit on evangelicalism Friday, I asked the students how their view of evangelicalism differs from a month ago. Here are a few paraphrased responses:

I knew that it was around but I didn’t know it was such a big deal.

I had no idea it was so big and influential or had such a large effect on American politics.

I thought it was an old-timey religion and didn’t realize it was something still going on today.

I had never heard of it before.

I had never thought about how religion connects to history.

My favorite response came from another student who said she told her friend she was learning about evangelicalism and he said, “Oh yeah, they’re all assholes, right?” While she may not have a favorable opinion of evangelicals, her first instinct was to complicate her friend’s breezy assumption. She now knows there is a much longer, more diverse, and more complicated story than she had realized.

If I do something like this again, I will take more time and be more explicit in laying a theoretical foundation to explain to the students why we’re studying religion in a history class. The course is called “The Making of American Society.” They intuitively understood why we would study immigration under that heading. And civil rights? Of course. But evangelicalism? That needed some justification.

The telling comment came from the student who said she hadn’t thought about how religion connects to history. In other words, even at the end of the unit she was thinking of religion as something separate from history instead of something that occurs inside history.

At a place like Temple, it seems that students who may be right there with you when discussing complicated and fraught questions of race, gender, and politics are suddenly adrift when the conversation turns to religion. This dynamic alone shows how dramatically the country has changed and how many students live in a secular environment or one where religion is so privatized they have difficulty understanding basic features of the American past and present.

I did talk to them briefly during the unit about Robert Orsi’s work, but in the future I need to be much more direct and careful in laying a foundation for discussion and understanding. If students subconsciously think religion is outside history, then studying it can seem not only confusing but inappropriate or irrelevant.

This is only one variation on the constant challenge that is at the heart of what we do: provoking students into trying to understand people and worlds unlike their own. Even if everything goes pretty well, the result feels incomplete. But if the student’s world seems more complex than it did a month ago, that’s a partial victory to take home and try to build on next time.

What’s in a Name? When It Comes to the History of American Slavery, the Stakes Are High

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Enslaved people in Georgia, 1850s.

Last week in my lectures on evangelicalism in the nineteenth century, I never used the word “plantation.” Inspired by Edward Baptist and this recent article from the Smithsonian Magazine, I relentlessly referred to “slave labor camps.” For example: “Many enslavers built churches at their slave labor camps to promote a theology of submission to authority.”

In my lectures, “masters” did not “own slaves” who worked on “plantations.” Instead, they enslaved people and compelled them to work in brutal conditions.

Now here’s the interesting thing: I made this interpretive move unannounced and did not draw attention to it. None of my students commented on it or asked any questions about it. Indeed, it’s not even clear to me that they understood I was talking about plantations.

Now, it seems to me we need to have a debrief about last week’s lectures. We need a conversation about how language shapes historical interpretation and our remembrance of the past. I think I need to ask my students directly what words I might have used instead of “slave labor camp,” and ask them why they think I used the words I did. Perhaps I could ask them what words or images or associations the word “plantation” brings to their minds, and then ask the same of the phrase “slave labor camp.”

Depending on how they answer those questions, I may ask them to think about whose perspective is foregrounded depending on which phrase we use. Neither phrase is neutral.

I don’t know how this little debrief will go, but one possible point of conclusion is to take this in the direction of memory and culture through the lens of something like Gone with the Wind. My concluding point of emphasis is that only in a white supremacist society could something as awful and barbaric as the 19th century southern plantation become encrusted in layers of nostalgia and romance.

Because of white supremacist memory, “plantation” no longer actually signifies that to which it refers. A place of inhumanity has become a symbol of a lost world of southern gentility. I intend to keep using “slave labor camp” instead, but I’m very curious to hear my students’ thoughts about it tomorrow.

Notes from the Classroom: Week 1

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Well, the first week of a new semester is behind us. How did it go? What new strategies did you try in the classroom? How did you try to get the students engaged and as excited about the material as you are? What was important for them to know in week one?

I’m still at the stage where I have to step back now and then and think about how bizarre it seems that I am teaching college students. This is higher education today: undergraduates pay more, and in return receive their instruction from less qualified teachers. Great!

My course, The Making of American Society, is a GenEd class in the history department. 50 students, two sections, majority freshman, and a grand total of two history majors. When we came into class at 9am on Monday morning, for some students in the room it was literally their first college class ever. So it was important to me to try to put them at ease and cover some basics first. Last semester I began with a very interactive opening class, with mixed results.

This time, instead of asking nervous freshman to talk right away, I gave them two short questions to answer on paper. I wanted to know where they think they’ve learned history—the classroom, parents, movies? And I wanted to know what their experience with history instruction in high school was like. (By the way, 20% said family was the most formative influence on their historical views, and half a dozen students specifically said their fathers talk to them about history. No one mentioned their mothers. Not sure what that means but it’s interesting!)

I devoted most of the first class to introducing the 5 C’s of historical thinking, a framework that will guide the class throughout the semester. As we grapple with difficult issues, these five concepts can help students to think more deeply about the material.

On Wednesday I jumped right into a heavy lecture. I emphasized that the very last thing they ought to do in response to the lecture is to assume that they now know “the history” of x. The 5 C’s of historical thinking invite us to think about the central role of interpretation in historical narratives. Rather than giving them “just the facts” I am constructing an interpretive narrative to make sense of the past. They ought to scrutinize that narrative and see if they find it convincing.

But in our current political dispensation, it is perhaps just as important to help students understand that there are irreducible facts about the past. While President Trump promotes a nihilistic attitude toward truth—acting as if the veracity of our words does not matter—historians work hard to be as accurate as possible. Interpretation and reinterpretation are the lifeblood of historical work, but we’re working with raw materials that have tangible reality to them. We don’t get to make stuff up. In this era of information overload at our fingertips, I think students are very confused about the relationship between facts and interpretation, and how to evaluate whether or not a source is credible.

Today, for our last class of the week, we simply had group discussion about the readings I assigned. I posted on blackboard a reading and discussion guide with lots of questions on it so students would know in advance what we would be talking about. I think this improved the quality of the discussion. It seemed that most students had already begun to think through the issues before they arrived in the classroom.

The discussion was about national identity and national myths, and what we want to get out of learning history. I tried something I haven’t done before: an in-class poll. It worked well and I expect to use it again. Here’s the result from section 2:

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I was surprised by how lopsided the results were. In the first section it was 96% to 4% in favor of A. In the future I will have to try to craft questions that produce less consensus. In light of these results, I challenged the class with the reading that emphasized the perspective of answer B. Why might someone feel that a patriotic narrative is more important than an accurate one? Are there costs to answer A? The students raised a lot of thoughtful points and produced a good discussion.

If this poll were run nationally, I wonder if the results would be much more evenly split.

Notes from the Classroom: Using Fiction to Teach History

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This is a help wanted post! As a new teacher I want to experiment and try different strategies to reach my students. This fall I’m going to assign two works of fiction for my course The Making of American Society. I’ve never really taught fiction aside from leading TA discussions on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, so I frankly don’t know what I’m doing.

Got any tips? Suggestions? Things you wish you knew before you tried to teach a novel?

That I don’t know what I’m doing doesn’t mean I don’t have reasons for turning to fiction for this course. As I mentioned before, nearly a third of this class will be a study of evangelicalism. Most of the students will probably know evangelicalism, if at all, as a political phenomenon. The textures and nuances of evangelicalism are likely to be opaque to many of them.

I really want to give students a window into the interior lives of evangelicals, and that seems to warrant using fiction. I want students to grapple with people who really believe in their bones that Jesus is coming back, that there’s a final judgment, that there really is a lake of fire to which they might go in the end. It would be easy enough for many students to see such people as objects of curiosity or ridicule. I want to confront them with a view from the inside. I want to give them an experience of stepping into a world where these beliefs are not propositions to accept or reject, but simply what is so—“Thus saith the Lord”—the ground of reality itself.

At the same time, it’s important that the text have artistic merit and historical significance. Unfortunately, these considerations probably eliminate the vast majority of fiction written by evangelicals. And a lot of books written about evangelicals don’t capture their interior life. I read The Damnation of Theron Ware, which nicely captures some of the challenges to evangelical faith—like higher criticism—arising in the late nineteenth century. But I felt like I was still only seeing evangelicals second-hand. The central character, the young pastor Theron Ware, seems to be going through the motions from the start. The animating impulses of evangelicalism may be present in his congregation, but they don’t move him.

I haven’t even read Elmer Gantry yet, which seems to be another obvious candidate. But my sense is that its scathing and satirical tone would work against what I’m trying to accomplish.

All of this leads me to James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain. More than any other serious work of literature I can think of, Baldwin’s story allows the reader to glimpse the inside of this religious world. And since it’s about black Pentecostals, it also raises interesting teaching questions about how we think about evangelicalism and define its boundaries.

Though Baldwin had some scathing words for religion during his life, the text of Go Tell It On The Mountain is, as I read it, wonderfully ambivalent. Baldwin writes from the inside as one who has experienced the all-consuming religious world that he portrays. The result, I think, is open to a lot of interpretations. The book is full of guilt, shame, and repressed sexuality. One might conclude that this religion is an oppressive force. On the other hand, there are notes of longing and understanding and hope that might lead one to conclude that this religion is liberating, especially for poor black southerners caught up in the Great Migration. Whether Baldwin describes the religion of his youth as a force for good or evil, he undoubtedly describes it with extraordinary understanding and without condescension. That makes it worthwhile.

I can remember being taught two novels outside of english/literature classes in my undergraduate years: The Jungle and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland. In both cases it was a really positive experience. The books gave me characters and ideas to latch on to and connect to broader themes about feminism, muckraking, progressivisim, immigration, and so on. Long after I had forgotten lecture content, the immersive world of the novels gave me some (hopefully accurate) sense of what American society was like in the early twentieth century. Hopefully my students will be able to say the same!

White Evangelicalism’s Politics of Nostalgia

Assuming enrollment holds up, next semester I’ll be teaching a GenEd history class called “The Making of American Society.” It’s vague enough for me to turn it into almost whatever I want. I’m going to organize the class around three or four thematic units. One of them will be evangelicalism.

One lecture I already have on the calendar is, “Make America Christian Again: The Evangelical Politics of Nostalgia.” I know exactly how I want to start this class: with the music video to Carman’s 1993 song, “America Again” (embedded below).

In my last post I mentioned the prevalence of national declension narratives in white evangelicalism. This song captures that sensibility with eerie precision. Some of you are going to be gobsmacked by this video, so let me insist at the outset: I didn’t go out and find an obscure example of evangelical nostalgia. This is mainstream. Carman was one of the most popular Christian artists of the 1990s, and this song was a chart-topper (I can’t seem to find the exact numbers anywhere).

Though the video contains no explicit reference to partisanship, an evangelical who imbibed its message would have no trouble knowing for whom to vote come election time. The overlap between the song’s title and Trump’s campaign slogan a generation later is more than just a suggestive coincidence.

Notes from the Classroom: Contextualizing Racism in Immigration History

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Emma Goldman. Anarchist, immigrant, radical.

In the immigration class I’m teaching this semester I’m wrestling with how to contextualize events for my students. I’m often quite uncertain about how I should frame various events and forces. But that uncertainty reminds me to try to convey the deeper critical thinking lesson to my students: that the contextualizing choices I end up making are really historical arguments in themselves. I’m not giving them “the history” that they can safely tuck away with the confidence that they now know what happened. I’m giving them arguments that they should question and probe with counterarguments, using historical evidence.

As we approach the nativist reaction of the 1920s, I’m wrestling with how to contextualize the racism of that decade. The problem is that the racism is so obvious and deplorable that I’m not sure students can take it seriously. Establishing the racist intent of the Johnson-Reed Act is like shooting fish in a barrel. And students don’t need to be convinced that a resurgent Ku Klux Klan with millions of members was not a good thing, or that whiteness as a condition for naturalization is offensive. It’s all so over the top, almost cartoonishly awful, that students are likely to be tempted to separate themselves from white Americans of that period. With surprising frequency, students reach for the comforting assumption that contemporary people are somehow more advanced.

In an effort to ward off those assumptions, on Wednesday I gave a lecture about immigrant radicalism in the early 20th century, with special focus on the anarchist movement. I gave a lot of attention to Emma Goldman’s radical views, and described several episodes of anarchist violence culminating in the Wall Street bombing of 1920.  Though the perpetrators were never caught, the bombing was most likely the work of Italian immigrant anarchists. It came on the heels of the 1919 mail bombings and the attacks on the homes of prominent government officials, including U.S. Attorney General Palmer.

So, whatever else it was, the famous Red Scare of 1919-1920 was in part a response to a campaign of terrorism on U.S. soil. The people implicated in these activities were disproportionately immigrants. As the American public was inundated with newspaper headlines linking immigrant groups with political radicalism and violence, it is not surprising that fear, and even hysteria, grew.

We should point out, as I did to my students, that there were many millions of immigrants and only a handful of violent anarchists. But that’s not exactly the point. The point is the quintessentially human overreaction of fear and bigotry on the part of the U.S. public and American policymakers. In other words, the people of the 1920s were like us.

The point of this framing is to help students grapple with the real problems policymakers at the time faced, to see how scary the future looked, and to wrestle with plausible alternatives. Were there alternatives to Johnson-Reed? What would have happened in a world without that legislation?  Students might prefer not to face uncomfortable scenarios, such as the possibility that this racist legislation both caused human suffering around the world and reduced future political violence in the United States.

The moral purpose of complicating the story is not to absolve people in the past of their racism, but to implicate ourselves. How might our fears cloud moral clarity and enable inhumanity to our fellow human beings? Take the question to its most extreme example. The profile of a genocide participant is not necessarily monstrous. Just as likely, it’s an ordinary person who is very afraid.

Notes from the Classroom: Telling Transnational Stories

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Because my class is about immigration, I thought the statue of liberty deserved its own lecture this week. It was a story that took us from French abolitionists and the conceiving of a monument to emancipation, to pogroms in the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, to the hapless fundraising efforts of a committee in New York, to the life of Emma Lazarus and her obscure poem that would later become indelibly linked to the immigrant story and American identity.

It was also a chronologically expansive story that raised questions about memory and the shifting meanings we attach to symbols. When the statue of liberty was dedicated in 1886, none of the speakers mentioned immigrants. As everyone knew, that’s not what the statue was about. At the 50th anniversary ceremony in 1936, President Roosevelt spoke about nothing but immigration. As everyone knew, that’s what the statue was about. In many ways, it was the immigrants themselves who had made it so. As I tell my students, whatever the American Dream was, it was not only made in America.

Then on Wednesday we went from Fiddler on the Roof to the massacre at Wounded Knee. While the Russian Empire made life increasingly difficult for Jews—and while the statue of liberty was being dedicated—the American Empire was wrapping up its counterinsurgency campaigns in the West. In the U.S., it was only in this period in the decades after the Civil War that the state was actually able to exert effective control over all the territory it claimed. In the process, it increasingly claimed the right to tell minority populations where they could live, what they could do, and even the religious practices they could engage in. State violence against despised minorities was crucial to the turn of the century mass migration that formed modern America. While Russian violence made immigrants and refugees, American violence paved the way for their arrival and transformed immigrants into settlers.

I argued that this claim is not an abstraction or a metaphor, but a tangible reality on the ground. Take Pennington County, South Dakota, for example. It is home to Rapid City, and adjacent to the Pine Ridge Reservation where the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred. It is built entirely on land guaranteed to Native Americans by federal treaty. In 1890, less than two decades after its founding, 18% of its population was foreign born. They came from Canada and Germany, Ireland and Sweden, England and Norway. By 1910, there was a small contingent of Russian Jews too. Their opportunity was inseparable from the dispossession of others.

There are probably very few historians being trained now who would argue against the importance of telling transnational stories. But it’s easier said than done. When we tell transnational stories, it usually means there are a lot of balls to keep in the air. Sometimes they don’t all stay up. On Monday, I said meanwhile and suddenly we lurched from New York to Ukraine. These transitions were abrupt enough to be comical. After the lecture, a student emailed me to ask me what the point was. That makes it sound more disastrous than it probably was. The student was quite engaged and had incisive questions. But one of my main points had lacked clarity and she wanted more information. Good for her!

When we tell transnational stories, the contexts we need to be familiar with multiply quickly. This is one reason we might shy away from attempting it in the first place. I am not a historian of Russia; what errors might I introduce in my brief characterization of the 1881 pogroms? Will this broader story aid student understanding, or will my own imbalanced knowledge—heavy on U.S. national history—only confuse the story?

But the payoffs can be substantial, perhaps especially in the case of immigration history. Most immigration is by its nature a transnational act with connections to multiple countries. It doesn’t make historical sense to only focus on the destination country. This is one reason I’ve assigned Tara Zahra’s new book.

There are also broader benefits to be gained. I’ll note just one. There is no adequate way to deal with questions of American exceptionalism while teaching only an American national story. Transnational history helps us to engage more productively with notions of national identity and the meaning of America. If we’re only telling a national story and students hear about the millions of people who came here seeking opportunity, they may be inclined to think the United States is exceptionally good. But then when they hear about the discrimination and violence aimed at these immigrants, they may think the United States is exceptionally bad. But if we come to class thinking the U.S. is the best and leave thinking it’s the worst, we’re just as myopic and American-centric as when we started.

A broader framework upsets both assumptions, allowing students to see that millions of people were also immigrating to other places in search of opportunity, and that they faced hardship and discrimination both in their home countries and in their new destinations. It enables us to see a more nuanced and complicated story about how opportunity and oppression moved alongside each other, and about the millions of immigrants who came to America with the dream not of becoming Americans, but of returning to their homelands as soon as they could.

Notes from the Classroom: The Stickiness of National Myth

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Arthur Boyd. Persecuted Lovers. 1957. Australia. A painting rich in settler colonial themes.

How is my settler colonialism experiment going? The results in the first two weeks of class have been intriguing. My students who have been in the U.S. for any length of time came into the classroom with some intuitive familiarity with the nation of immigrants story. And I don’t think it was hard for them to understand that the story functions as more than a statement of historical fact—that it is also a statement of national identity and exceptionalism. So what would happen if I begin the class by bombarding them for two weeks with a completely different story? What if the United States was and is a colonial state whose foundations are in the conquest and dispossession of indigenous people?

I even had them read Mahmood Mamdani on settler colonialism this week (it was too hard for most of them and maybe I shouldn’t have assigned it). Mamdani confronts the question of American exceptionalism head on and argues that what makes the U.S. exceptional is that it is the first modern settler colonial state and it still hasn’t decolonized. So the students had, on the one hand, a traditional immigrant story of national identity. On the other hand, they had been exposed to a settler colonial narrative, culminating in Mamdani’s forceful critique of traditional exceptionalist narratives. Before breaking into small groups I gave them one more argument: what if the settler colonial story is historically sound, but civically destructive? What if it doesn’t produce good citizens? What if it harms the civic fabric? What if it doesn’t promote patriotism? (I don’t agree with this argument but I didn’t tell them that).

With these narratives and arguments swirling around, the students broke into groups to discuss whether or not the nation of immigrants narrative should still be used as the (or a) defining American story. If so, why? If not, what would they replace it with? After all, we’re going to tell ourselves stories about the past. You don’t get to rip up one narrative and offer nothing in return.

What surprised me—though it probably shouldn’t have—was that the large majority of students, especially in the first section, very much wanted to retain the nation of immigrants story. To be clear, I was not bothered by the conclusion. I was concerned that many students were disagreeing with Mamdani without realizing that they were doing so, or knowing why. I was pleased with their disagreement, but I hoped it came with awareness. Did students consider various angles on the question and adopt a deliberate perspective? Or did two weeks of alternative narratives just bounce off? Of course, all of this is shaped by my own failures of teaching. Their lack of understanding is my lack of communicating. I’m learning a lot. I only hope many of the students can say the same.

As students in the first section fought to retain the nation of immigrants narrative, I was struck by how often they spoke of it as inclusive and inspiring, only to quickly hedge their statement with “well” or “but” or “except.” Native Americans don’t exactly fit in this story, they admitted. Most African Americans didn’t come here willingly, they pointed out. But they wanted the narrative anyway. This led me to two takeaways:

First, isn’t history controversial precisely because we want to use it for very different things? Nations want it to establish identity and destiny and patriotism. Individuals want it to affirm their ancestors. Historians may want it to drive an ideological agenda in the present (yes, busted, it’s true!). But more importantly, historians’ desire to understand what happened and why is an agenda in its own right that puts us at odds with other uses of the past. Are the basic assumptions and desires of historians subversive to nation-states? Perhaps.

Second, we come back around to settler colonial theory. From a settler colonial framework, of course we’re having trouble finding a story that is at once inclusive, inspiring, and accurate. These are stories of national identity. And the whole point is that there are other nations within U.S. borders that claim their sovereignty and assert that their relationship to the United States is a colonial one. Why would they want to be conscripted into another nation’s identity myth? They have their own.

This basic recognition in American public life would go part way toward the decolonization Mamdani is talking about. If you’re still wondering what the big deal is, here’s a really nice piece from a Christian historian explaining why he doesn’t say “we’re a nation of immigrants” anymore. My goal was not to bring my students to a predetermined outcome of discarding the immigrant narrative. Rather, if they choose to embrace that narrative, I hope they do so with greater awareness of its implications and the arguments against it. But if I take seriously the notion that these stories are narrations of our own identities, then it’s hardly surprising that they have enormous staying power.