On Friday afternoon, I went on a student-led campus tour of Fisk University with Mame-Fatou Niang (Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University), Roxane Pajoul (Assistant Professor at Tennessee State University), and Cara Wilson (Postdoctoral Scholar at Vanderbilt University).
The tour ended at Fisk’s Carl Van Vechten Art Gallery where Jordan Wright, the current gallery fellow, led us to the primary exhibit, “Artists in Residence 1888-Present: Fisk Faculty & Alumni Show.” When I stepped into the gallery, my eyes immediately graced the printing plates of W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. The feeling of looking at these plates and the boxes in which they are cased—which still bear his home address—is indescribable. This book altered American (literary) history by articulating the “problem of the color-line,” and here we were, standing in a building that Du Bois had funded at his own alma mater, looking at the plates that printed and distributed his legacy.
As we stepped into the exhibit, Jordan began to read a textual excerpt that was inscribed on the gallery wall. While he read these words that articulated the inspiration of music to Du Bois’ text, one of the undergraduate tour guides (who is also a Jubilee Singer) softly sang a spiritual in the background. Mame-Fatou was filming the event (and also on the phone with a collaborating artist), while Roxane, Cara, and I stood in awe of an interaction that we had—at least in part—helped to foster. I can’t do justice to the depth of this moment. But I imagine that the connection in that room was (in small part) generated as a result of the trust that was built in the small-group discussion that had preceded the tour. After several days of talking about Dr. Mame-Fatou Niang’s documentary, Mariannes Noires, and her contribution to Black French Studies, we were collectively inspired by Du Bois’ text and the talent and engagement of the students and staff of Fisk University, in which he was deeply invested.
A couple posts ago I wrote about a fabulous show I’d found on Netflix and the excitement it inspired in me to use television in the classroom, something I rarely do. I’ve noticed, as I examine my approach to teaching (and its evolution over the past 15 years) that I often need to fight against the traditional way my own collegiate education was administered. During undergrad and graduate school my professors followed a very teacher centered pedagogy in which the instructor was in control of the communication of knowledge. Lectures were the primary, and often the only, class format. While this had (and has) its merits, I’ve found that this approach works less and less the longer I teach. Although lecturing still has a place in my classroom, active student-centered learning makes up the majority of my class. Large and small group discussions in which students are asked to lead has been incredibly successful this semester largely due to the stellar group of intelligent and talkative students I’m working with. Despite my evolution in how I structure my class, and despite the wonderful new material available, I have remained hesitant to incorporate film, television, podcasts, and the like, into my curriculum.
Luckily, this old salt has learned much from her contemporaries and acknowledges that the types of educational materials my professors would have spurned are valuable sources to take advantage of, especially with all the new technology available in the lecture hall. Thus, when I came across an art history related program on Netflix I knew it was finally time to give it a try. To recap, briefly, from my previous post “Fake or Fortune is a BBC program hosted by journalist, Fiona Bruce and art dealer, Philip Mould. The two come together, along with various researching side-kicks, to investigate the style, material, and provenance of art works in order to determine their authenticity.” Last week I finally had the opportunity to test this show in the classroom, and I am happy to report that it was huge success.
So, here I am to give you the update, just in case you also need an excuse to let your students watch tv in the classroom. First, and I think this was extremely important, I explained the reason I was excited for them to watch. I often do this when discussing what we do in class, or when discussing what requirements I’ve included in the syllabus. Showing this show wasn’t to give me a break or to fill up time. I discussed the merits of the show and how it would reveal to them the various ways in which art historians come up with and research a topic. This was especially timely since we had just discussed their final research project.
Next, as we were watching I utilized the wipe board and wrote down the research process as we saw it unfold. The show is very compelling so it would be easy to get caught up in the “history mystery” and forget how these researchers were uncovering information. I was able to pinpoint how these researchers developed a topics, how they came up with the questions they wanted answered, when and where they found clues, how they followed that up with research into primary and secondary sources, and how those questions and answers changed as more information was uncovered. My students were able to see how the show arrived at its “thesis statement” and, again, how they were able to uncover appropriate information that could support, or shift, the main idea. I have to admit that deconstructing the show helped my students, and myself, rediscover the important process that goes into quality research and writing, setbacks included.
After the conclusion, we not only discussed the content of the show, but also the process that they had seen. We talked about what surprised them, what confused them, and what excited them about both the research and the outcome. All in all, I would say that it was a huge success and it made me realize that I had been remiss in overlooking television and film as an important part of the learning process. While reading a research paper (examples of which I provide each semester) is great at conveying your expectations of the product, being able to see people research conveys important lessons on how that research project actually came together. As we continued to talk about their ideas I saw that my students seemed more excited and more confident about how they were to go forward.
I am happy to say I am a changed woman and I think my students, present and future, will be equally happy about this. So, now I’m curious to what else I’ve been missing all these years. What films, shows, podcasts, etc. do you use in the classroom? How have you found them helpful? I would love to learn more from you, dear reader.
I have never been the most athletic person. The only marathons I’ve ever participated in have involved reading books or watching screens for hours on end. Give me a choice, and I’d always choose a story over playing outside (much to my sister’s chagrin). As a kid, I didn’t try sports until middle school; my resume includes a couple of seasons of basketball at the Y, a little bit of soccer, and one brief foray into softball. In high school, I moved to martial arts, which is where I not only earned my black belt, but also got my first teaching experience and participated in a world championship weapons competition.
That was a long time ago.
In graduate school, I flirted with the gym on and off. I don’t think it was until my third year of grad school that I really got consistent, but in the second half of grad school, working out became an almost-daily activity. I completed The New Rules of Lifting for Women, Couch to 5K, and generally spent an hour each day working out to stay in shape.
By the time I finished my PhD in 2011, I was in the best physical shape of my life. And then I started teaching full time.
There’s a type of generosity that exists, that causes me to
tear up when I see it. It’s the type of generosity of spirit that is so magnanimous
that it doesn’t require recognition because it simply is pure generosity for
its own sake, and there is no other way it could be described.
To understand what this means, consider Franklin, TN for a moment. It is in Williamson County, the third-largest slaveholding county in the state. Residents of Williamson County enslaved more people than that of Davidson County, home to the state’s capitol, Nashville. It still is the wealthiest county in the state, and was in the top 10 richest counties in America. Most of that money is old money. Much of it is slave money.
The Masonic Hall itself, alongside most of Franklin’s
downtown, was built by the enslaved. You can still see their fingerprints that
are impressed in the bricks and mortar if you look closely. For hundreds of
years, white masons gathered there to network and increase their wealth. Now,
it has become a site of learning about history, dedicated to the stories of
black Franklin, which have been kept from the public for so long.
Part of this mission, is reconciliation.
In our current political climate, this is a purposeful and
Aging and birthdays are usually not a big deal to me which, now that I really think about it, likely stems from childhood. Having a summer birthday meant I missed bringing treats to school and birthday parties were useless when everyone was out of town. Thus, I’ve long been accustomed to marking my journeys around the sun with minimal celebration even at major milestones. This was the same with turning 40, which I did in August. While my lovely friends made sure I celebrated properly later, I spent that actual day taking a 7 hour road trip from an indoor water-park hell-scape to home. The day itself may have felt lackluster, but the anticipation of this monumental number did inspire me to make some challenges for myself months prior. On New Year’s Day I was making plans for my 40th year. I had planned to run my 6th marathon and a total of 2019 miles in the year, had planned to take a big trip, for fun and for research, and I had planned to read 40 books. While life shenanigans interfered with the first few, I am happy to announce that I am on schedule to celebrate my 40th year with 40, completed and contemplated, books.
I am also happy to announce that most of the books I’ve read this year (currently working on numbers 33 and 34) have been wonderful. I decided to be choosey about the titles so I would not get derailed from my goal, which can often happen since I am stubborn and hate to give up on any book, no matter how terrible. In addition, even though cancer treatment made exercise and travel almost impossible, it did afford me some uninterrupted time for reading. The hours spent in cars, waiting rooms, infusion chairs, on radiation tables were given to memoirs, biographies, historical fictions, historical non-fictions, true crime, poetry, etc., etc., etc. They provided much needed escape, and I must take a moment here, dear reader, to assure you that I didn’t just choose short stories to help reach my goal. In fact, one of the more enjoyable of the books was The Goldfinch by Donna Tart, a 771 page journey detailing lost lives, lost art, and lost souls. The story centers around a lost painting and equally lost young man, and although it was not without its faults, it was worth the effort.
The Goldfinch was recommended to me by many because of its connection to art history. I usually shy away from these types of books because of my background, but I gave it a chance, and I’m glad I did. I have to admit that it was fun to think about art in a new way. Contrary to my expectations, the visual details of the painting and its history amounted to only about 2 pages of the more than 700. The Goldfinch (aka Het Puttertje) is an actual painting Donna Tart saw during a visit to the Mauritshuis museum at the heart of the Hague. Measuring little bigger than a sheet of paper, and depicting an even smaller, chained, pet bird by the little known artist Carel Fabrutus, the reader might initially question the value of a work such as this, especially when it enters the narrative amidst Vermeers, Hals, Rembrandts, and other master works of the Dutch Golden Age. However, our understanding of the value of this work is established on a personal level as it anchors itself to times, places, and people that mean so much to the main character.
This led me to thinking about the possibly for fictional tales centered on factual events and objects. History and its imagery is filled with a wealth of possibility for invented stories and a basic Google search on making the transition from non-fiction to fiction brings up a wealth of sites with advice and success stories. Would it be worthwhile to approach my own research topics similarly and could these histories be told in new ways? Or, perhaps more importantly, should they? I don’t know the answer to these questions yet, but the thought of this type of experimentation with research and writing excites me.
I have been dealing with a bit of a writing dry spell, particularly in regard to my academic research. However, the possibility of using what I’ve learned to create a new, imagined story provides the kind of inspiration I’ve been needing. Writing community, I would love to hear if you’ve tried something similar! Please comment or tweet your advice, tips, or experiences! My own updates to come…
I have recently recruited 6 students to work on a digital archival exhibit at my university. In this post, I’m going to share how the team grew to that size, how the students and I decided what their role would be on the project, and offer some general advice on student collaboration on DH projects.
“Women of Rosenwald: Curating Social Justice 1928-1948” started as a result of my postdoctoral fellowship at Fisk University. I began researching the project in Fall 2018 based on the suggestions of the Special Collections librarian and the Dean of the John Hope And Aurelia E. Franklin Library at Fisk. The exhibit focuses on the narratives of ten African-American female Rosenwald Fellows who broke professional barriers and gave back to their communities in the fields of music, fashion, literature, sculpture, painting, and dance. (You can read more about the project in the document below.)
Working independently on the first part of this project was a necessary step. I needed the time to decide on the format (an exhibit), platform (Omeka), and organization before making the move to train students in archival research and digital curation. By the time the Spring 2019 semester arrived, I felt confident enough to start inviting student collaborators.
The first two students joined the project somewhat organically. I was lucky enough to have a couple of staff and faculty members who were excited enough about the project to share it with students. One student caught wind of the Rosenwald exhibit and became interested enough to co-curate one of the 10 sub-exhibits with me. After working through a portion of the exhibit together, she is now spearheading a section of her own based on her research interests in the overlaps of song and poetry in the Black Power movement in the US. Another student joined after I heard her impressive work on a student research panel of which I was the judge (Fisk holds an annual research symposium). As a panelist, she presented her work on the history of HBCUs with a focus on the era that encompassed the dates of the Rosenwald project. I spoke with her about the project after the panel and she expressed interest in joining the exhibit team. Now, she is researching the relationship between the Julius Rosenwald Fund and Dr. Charles S. Johnson, the first African-American president of Fisk University, as her Honors project at Fisk. Her work will feature as a page of the final website that explores the history between Fisk University and the Rosenwald Fund. Continue reading “Working with Students on DH Projects”→
Note: I’m taking a brief break from my recent series on the women’s history course I’m teaching. I’ll provide a final update on the course next time I write here, but today I want to talk about teaching something else: the history of slavery in the United States.
Do you remember when and how you first learned about slavery? I don’t. I wish I could say I remember, but I have no memory of when I first read descriptions of slavery and enslavement, nor how I felt about it. I suspect this is not uncommon for white people like myself who grew up after the Civil Rights Movement seemed to end, and as school bussing began declining in the late 1980s and 1990s. There was also the matter of geography: my parents knew few black people, having grown up in Southern California (dad) and Northern Iowa (mom), and until I was 15, we lived in places that tended to be majority white or Latinx.
I can count on one hand the number of African American people I knew before I started college, including a friend when I was six or seven, and a youth minister when I was 15. Even my reading was pretty whitewashed: I know I read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cryand its sequels, but I have more vivid memories of Nancy Drew books and my obsession with British books (Secret Garden, A Little Princess…). I didn’t encounter A Raisin in the Sun until college. Probably the only thing I can tell you for sure is that I did somehow learn that slavery caused the Civil War, although I spent more time visiting battlefields than reading about the causes of the war. I know my historical knowledge expanded in undergrad, where I first encountered the concepts of analyzing race, gender, and class, and certainly graduate school deepened my knowledge and understanding much further.
Last year, I returned to teaching US History after several years of teaching only world history. Coming back to my specialty area was exciting, but also thought-provoking, as I worked to develop a new honors-level US history course that would spin off of AP US History (the class prepares students for that exam, while not being specifically an AP class). Over and over again, I found myself disappointed in how poorly I was teaching my students about the history of slavery. I could blame the AP curriculum, on the one hand, because there was so much to go through that it didn’t seem like it could be helped on the one hand, but on the other hand – that’s not the right place to direct the blame. As a result of this, I started a personal effort to better understand and teach the history of slavery to my students. It began with a lot of reading, beyond what I’d studied in grad school, to look more deeply at what I thought I knew, and how I’ve approached that in the classroom.