I see teaching as a chance to offer students skills in three major areas: critical thinking, expository writing, and identity situation.
History courses offer the chance for students to learn what it means to engage a discipline where there are accepted narratives and revisionist ones, expert scholars and occasional ones, accepted methodologies and experimental ones, and a wide variety of scholars whose critical perspectives advance the questions of the entire venture. Good paper assignments force students to define a narrative within which their own argument is important, and then to explicitly define their own contribution in terms of sources, reasoning, and implication. By learning to tell established from controversial narratives, and by practicing defining themselves within such a broader conversation, students gain a flexibility and sophistication essential to successfully addressing argumentation in public culture.
History offers a chance to teach students to deal with artifacts of different media, cultures, and eras with profound sensitivity. I believe in treating the texts under discussion as artifacts to be understood. I prefer classroom experiences that bring in a wide variety of artifacts – including film, other visuals, maps, and music, giving students a chance to experience the skills of analysis required by each medium. In college courses my exposure to visual and spatial scholarship gave me a critical perspective on concepts our culture tacitly holds relative to identity, expressed through the body and the landscape. These tools were intellectually seductive to me as a young woman, gradually becoming aware of the omnipresent programming of visual programming in our culture. I’d like to offer my students some of the same tools and willingness to pry into their culture that these experiences offered me. Studying social history, and in particular the history of the visual and spatial, I believe, teaches a willingness to step aside from the most basic prejudices.
Landscape history, an important thread of my research, is essential to developing this critical awareness in our own time. It serves to remind scholars that even the logic of red states and blue states is not so much evidence of the triumph or decline of rationality in a particular place, as the result of mutually deaf cultural spheres, created over the course of historical experience as defined by geography. Becoming critically aware means a chance for students as thinkers to step outside of the typical camps of our own culture wars today, to employ a more critical and ultimately perhaps more moral perspective on the arguments of their contemporaries.
All college writing teaches the art of organizing thoughts into a coherent explication, introduced, organized, and supported appropriately; the craft of organizing sentences and paragraphs is a skill of organizing thinking no less than writing. History adds to these skills the craft of story-telling in a persuasive manner. Well-constructed historical arguments include enticing leads, seductive color, a train of evidence leading to a climax, and a final explication of the narrative’s significance. These persuasive stories are, I argue, more relevant to our culture than their equivalent terms of analysis in anthropology or sociology, for the simple reason that judicial argumention, political rhetoric, and news writing in our culture all depend upon the rhetoric of historical argument. I tell my students that they’re learning the art of persuasion: offering believable arguments of appropriate scope, well-supported by a variety of substantiated, primary evidence. I believe that mastering this craft of historical exposition positions students to be leaders in law, politics, and media.
History papers also offer students the experience of searching in the archive, learning by practice to distinguish anthologized evidence from new material. They learn the skills of following a thread deeper into the archive, comparing the results of different kinds of search tools, tracking an idea across disciplines and genres of writing, comparing and judging separate accounts, and weaving a persuasive narrative around the evidence. In an era where internet searching is omnipresent, where students have a tendency to take the first source of information they find at face value, historians’ skills at critically comparing the results of archival research are becoming increasingly relevant.
As a graduate student new to California, experiencing ethnic diversity on a new level even as my students were themselves leaving home for the first time, it was a revelation to me to see how simply telling the stories of migrants to California – Hispanic, Asian, Black, and White – made students into better listeners and more responsive citizens to people of different backgrounds, simply from having a collection of landmarks grounded in the stories of others.
British history and the history of the European tradition allow another kind of broadening conversation. Looking critically at these intellectual traditions helps students to approach the power institutions in their own culture and engage them on equal terms. Students of British history learn about the varieties of experience implicit in modern liberalism. They learn that the institutions and interpretation of common law has changed in various times and places to accommodate different ideas about what modes of governance were appropriate. Such facility with concepts and institutions generates, I believe, an attitude of historically-grounded moral critique and ready activism, capable of being deployed in a student’s life across an array of situations.
I myself had an unusually early and formative experience of academia as a tool for moral reasoning, which began early. In high school I began auditing university classes on medieval and classical history with scholars dedicated to political, theological, and social activism, who stressed university education as an opportunity to reckon with the moral tradition of western institutions, including those aspects of the tradition begging for reform. In that southern town in the 1990s, many of those faculty had themselves lived through and participated in critical revolutions, where race, gender, and class had been radically revalued. They drew commitment and relevance from their own experiences, employing tools of intellectual critique from Aristotle and Augustine to the contemporary world, even as they applied a contemporary critique to the classical tradition itself. Relevance and identity were a prime factor in these discussions, which stressed history as a tool to discerning the roots of common conceits and advocated thinking critically about identities before putting them on oneself. I’d like to convey to my students some of the political commitment and sense of the deep uses of history that those experiences offered me.
In the nineteenth century, governments successfully regulated their relationship to nature, including water pollution and air pollution. Scientists reformed the police by measuring identities and classifying different kinds of people. Utopian movements proposed salvaging the slums through the refinement of knowledge. Architects designed buildings to insure sociability.
In the midst of these science-led experiments, the limits of pollution reform gave way to the Anthropocene, that era of proliferating greenhouse gases. In the midst of democratic reform, riot and revolution erupted over each of these capitals multiple times during the course of the century. What went wrong and how can we learn, in the twenty-first centuries, from these failures of governance?
This course offers an overview of major traditions for analyzing landscape in political economy, theology, literature, and anthropology, asking how imaginary landscapes of the mind become the material realities of farm and highway.
Between 1890 and 1980, movements for freezing rents and redistributing large-scale farms transformed property law in almost every nation in the world. In the form of the Via Campesina, Ekta Parishad, global land movements constitute the most numerous political movement around the globe today. Their contentions over the relationship between justice, land ownership, housing, and water constitute one of the most coherent grounds for global governance of the environment today.
Today, questions of private ownership are again being debated within law schools and economics programs, and questions of the commons again return as we ponder climate inaction, coming water shortage, and global land-‐grabs. Can history be our guide?
In the years since the 1970s, agrarian communes have disappeared and the welfare state has been pruned. We are now more likely to observe the failures of the contemporary world than to plot for its alternatives. In national history traditions, it has become routine to hold as successful only those movements that took the nation-state as their form of intervention.
These reversals leave observers with a conundrum: have lone historical exceptions ever mattered, and are the failed and defeated movements of the past in any way still relevant?