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.
Most of you know that among many of the hats I wear, one of my favorites is director of the Fort Negley Descendants Project, a digital humanities archive of oral histories from the descendants of the enslaved and free blacks who built and defended Nashville’s Civil War Fort Negley. My team of three films the interviews, researches their testimony to find additional resources, edits the footage, uploads it, creates content, and maintains/updates the website which gives you more information about the interviews, as well as information pertaining to the UNESCO Slave Route site of Fort Negley, and its unique role in shaping our nation’s history. We also occasionally put on events and screenings of the videos for the public.
It’s a ton of work, and I love doing this, and feel grateful to be able to do it alongside my job as postdoctoral fellow for Vanderbilt’s school of Arts & Sciences. It’s been humbling to be trusted with people’s family histories, and to hear their pain, share their triumphs, and help amplify their voices in a city whose demographics are rapidly shifting as gentrification pushes black people to its peripheries.
Analyzing the stakes others have in this project has been useful for keeping our team on track and developing its mission. For us, it is has always been most important to collect the histories of people who have gone digging for their own and are ready to share their findings with the world. We want to film and edit these videos in the highest quality, and offer the videos alongside supporting primary sources, secondary reading, and family histories. We want to create lesson plans that expand upon the important historical themes touched on in the videos. We want to preserve all this information, and keep it available for free to everyone.
Often our goals dovetail with the goals and stakes of others. For example, Fort Negley and the Friends of Fort Negley benefit from the project giving human faces and voices to a physical site. Vanderbilt University benefits from increased visibility and interaction with the wider community through my team and I. Some people have politically benefited from descendant voices being amplified in local politics, while others may have had their plans and aspirations thwarted by this same amplification.
To each of them, I would say the same thing: We are here to record, disseminate, and amplify the voices of a group of under-documented and under-heard people whose incredibly rich family histories have shaped our nation. Who do we work for? We work for history and its preservation. We work for a future in which everyone is equally heard, and in which everyone’s history holds equal value to this nation.
Nothing more, and nothing less.
How would you articulate the mission of your Digital Humanities project?
In addition to chemotherapy and radiation, self-care has been an important part of my cancer treatment. Self-care can be difficult for many of us, despite how important it is, because of the expectation that we stay busy on productive, worthwhile activities. Thus, for me, self-care often means exercise and reading-both useful and relaxing. However, another soothing activity is watching television…way too much television. Needless to say, I am at odds with this habit. With access to Netflix, Hulu, AmazonPrime, HBO-GO, etc. it’s rare that I can’t find something to distract and entertain at any given moment. However, while in graduate school a beloved professor/mentor likened watching television during the day to drinking before 5pm. As someone who does most of their work at home, this slightly nagging inner voice prevented me from diversions that would have interfered with work.
However, does watching tv and doing something valuable have to be mutually exclusive? After a particularly difficult day of doctor appointments, and after having already binged the new episodes of “The Great British Baking Show” on Netflix, I happened upon a show entitled “Fake or Fortune”. “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. From the start I was hooked, not only because I’m an art historian but also because the art mysteries were hugely entertaining. However, the more I watched, the more I saw the value in the series also as a teaching tool.
Bruce and Mould, along with historians, curators, art historians, scientists, gallery owners, cultural institutions, and librarians, show the lengthy and laborious process of research. What a gift this could be to students who struggle with exactly that. The hosts, and hosts of scholars who help them along, rely on interviews with collectors, connoisseurs, and curators. They dig through insurance inventories, gallery archives, and sales receipts. They travel to local libraries, foreign countries, and scientific labs to find clues in the unlikeliest of places. Perhaps most important in its accessibility to the viewer is the way they present research as a fun, and important, investigation.
Again, the more episodes I watched, the more I saw how I could use this in the classroom and how it could help my students in their approach to historical research. Although I have passed shied away from the use of videos in the classroom, and certainly pop culture programs such as this one, I plan to show my students an episode in the next few weeks. I’ll have to leave this post on a bit of a cliff-hanger (the value is currently in its theory stage), but my theory is that viewing research through this new lens will help them in their own projects. At the least, they will get a fuller sense of what goes into the research process; it’s just not lonely hours in a library with mountains of monographs. Research is also talking to people, reading journals, watching documentaries, looking at photographs, collaborating people in and outside your field, and confronting preconceived notions and hopes.
I’ve been taking a break from my own personal research projects during treatment, but watching tv has me getting excited about them again. Wait…did I just tun my only self-care guilty pleasure into work? Oh well.
Good books are the ones you can’t get off your mind.
You continue to think about them, mull over the plot lines and character development, try to discern the ending’s “meaning”––especially when the novel is a “tough read,” one that takes you out of your comfort zone and causes you to see people and places in a new light.
I just finished Ananda Devi’s Ève de ses décombres (Gallimard, 2006), and it is what I classify as a “good book.” When I fell asleep, and the moment I woke up, the novel was on my mind. And luckily for you, it’s available in English as Eve Out of Her Ruins (Deep Vellum, 2016). (J. M. G. Le Clézio, who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote the forward to the novel’s English translation; I haven’t read it yet, but I’m dying to.)
Ananda Devi is both a scholar and novelist. Born in Trois-Boutiques, Mauritius, she earned a doctorate in social anthropology from the School for Oriental and African Studies in London. After spending time in Congo-Brazzaville, she moved to Switzerland. Devi has published more than a dozen novels and also writes poetry and short stories. She writes in French, but incorporates Mauritian Creole into her texts; much of her work is set in the island of Mauritius, which is located off the eastern coast of Africa. The French government named Devi a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 2010. In 2006, the author won the Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie for Ève de ses décombres.
For my academic work, I veer towards novels written in poetic prose. These are the texts that make me want to write and attempt to untangle various layers of meaning and discern the literary devices that create meaning. The novel’s polyvocality is one of the poetic aspects that drew me in. It is told through the voices of 4 young adults––Sad, Ève, Savita, and Clélio––who disturb the reader’s desire to make quick assumptions by following a singular narrative. The poetic style illustrates the characters’ exploration of the complex and difficult psychological development of youth. There is also a nameless narrator whose thoughts appear in italicized font, noting their non-physical existence in the text’s setting.
The characters live in the city of Troumaron, which might be a wordplay on the familiar word for “sewer” in French trou and the color “brown,” marron, a name that disrupts the stereotype of Mauritius as a tourist destination with sandy beaches and palm trees.The young people in this novel are at a grave disadvantage: they suffer from being a neglected group on a small island with few few role models and resources they need to succeed. The only teacher we meet in the novel is ineffective (an extreme understatement) and their parents are worn down by economic struggles and harmful gender dynamics. The text’s violence is certainly tied to Mauritius’ postcolonial history, which I do not fully understand but am interested in knowing more about. In the novel, the volcano that created the island becomes a metaphor for the violence in their own lives. While Savita feels herself being swallowed by the disaster
“My feet are sinking in lava. Soon I won’t be able to move anymore. The volcano will tear me to pieces.” (73)
Sad feels he might have the chance to escape it
“I don’t want to be one of those waking up the volcano. This island was born from a volcano. One eruption is enough.” (126)
Other scholars have written on the inexpressibility of pain, such as that which is experienced by the characters, particularly the young women, in Ève de ses décombres. I’ve also been thinking about how poetic language serves as a possible, and perhaps ethical, way to narrate stories of extreme violence and trauma, which we might call correlates of “pain.” Devi’s poetic language imbues the fear, confusion, and identity disruption that often results from these situations.
Ève de ses décombres, (like Devi’s other novels) also caught my attention because of its subject matter. The novel closely examines the “construction and confinement of femininity” through the main character, Ève, who struggles with disembodiment. Ève uses her body as a source of power to get what she wants. And yet these endless sexual encounters in exchange for material objects comes with a price as she slowly loses her sense of self. Because of the themes it tackles, Devi claims that this story extends outside the borders of Mauritius:
“I am not only talking about Mauritius in my books, I am talking about human beings who happen to live in Mauritius and who could be from anywhere in the world. This is particularly so for Ève, whose four young people could be from anywhere — a Parisian suburb or a South American city.” (Devi cited in a LARB interview with the translator, Jeffrey Zuckerman)
I have a feeling that my relationship with Devi’s texts will be a long one. Her 2018 novel Manger l’autre (Eating the Other) is now on my bedside table, and I’m already wondering how it will figure into my next book project on consumption.
Part 3 in an ongoing series about Tanya’s fall elective on American women’s history. See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
It’s September, which must mean that my course is ACTUALLY under way. Yippee!
We started the school year two weeks ago, and as expected, it’s been a good – but intense – two weeks of getting to know my students, getting my first lesson plans out the door, and, unexpectedly, getting hit with a massive head cold (on the second day of school, no less).
When I last talked to you, I pulled the veil back on my initial course planning efforts for my one-trimester Intro to American Women’s History. But a month ago, I didn’t know how many students I’d end up with, or who they were, or what they would want to do.
I’ve now solved 2 of those three problems, and reader, it’s about get interesting.
History is a relatively solitary field. The vast number of articles and books written have just one author, and many historians go their whole careers publishing alone. I don’t mind doing that, but have found the Atlantic World projects I’m most interested in generally require more than one person’s worth of expertise to do well. No one person can cover the scope of the Atlantic World: 4 continents over 4 centuries with primary sources in dozens of languages. So when I find opportunities to collaborate, I jump on them.
I’m pleased to announce that The Historical Journal is going to publish the results of one of these collaborations. It’s a co-authored article entitled “Projections of Desire and Design in Early Modern Caribbean Maps.” This article came out of a collaborative map analysis project funded by the John Carter Brown library’s relatively new Collaborative Cluster fellowship that allowed my partner and I to meet up for two weeks in Providence to analyze maps and plot out an article. After the two weeks, he and I finished the writing together electronically, and we learned a lot about workflow when it comes to collaborative writing and co-authoring in the humanities.
It’s been a while. Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but I have. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to sit down and put my thoughts to paper and today I do so for release. Writing functions as such an important catharsis for me, which is why I was so desperate to get back to the page after a very long, and unexpected, writing hiatus.
I wish I could say it was for exciting reasons, but alas, it was not. As you read in my last post, 2019 started out much the same as it always has, but it did not maintain its mundanity. The next post I had planned to write was going to feature the professional conference I attended in February. Instead, directly after that conference, I was confronted with a life changing diagnosis; Colorectal Cancer, Stage IV.
I tried crying about it for about a week, contemplating my demise, but it didn’t suit me. Neither did eating my feelings instead of writing them down (although mindfully eating a bag of Doritos does have its merits). So here I am, doing something I usually loathe, making my personal life public. I’ve gone back and forth about this post, and about extending my hiatus, but then I remembered that “the personal is political”, and felt empowered by idea that one’s personal experience can help political or social discourse. Perhaps that is what I’m supposed to do with this experience.
I finished my 8th and final round of chemo at the end of July and today I start radiation as I also begin another semester teaching art history at 2 community colleges. My doctors and I have high expectations for remission, but it will be a long road until then. I remain my optimistic self and fortunately, the nature of my job has allowed me to use the summer to focus on my health and my family. I was also fortunate that, despite a demanding schedule of chemo, radiation, and surgery, I was, and continue to be, able to work, semi-normally, with the help of my family, friends, and colleagues. It truly does take a village.
Now let me pause for a moment right here, dear reader, to assure you that this isn’t intended to be a traditional cancer post. I’m not ready to detail my treatment or any deep insights I may have gained from this humbling experience. I may never have insights. I still change the cat litter and my daughter still steals my phone to use the toilet. I guess at the the least I’ve learned to be thankful that everyone else in this house has a colon functioning better than I. In addition, I have yet to fully face the fears that come with this disease. Not yet. I need space from it and time to figure out what my relationship with cancer will be.
However, fighting cancer has heightened the lens through which I view the world and my own life. Detailing my journey (thus far) to close family and friends, I quickly noticed my over-use of the word “lucky”. Lucky that I had doctors who took me seriously when I told them my pain was unusual. Lucky that those doctors sprung to action. Lucky my co-workers stepped in to teach the classes I was unable to attend and help me finish my spring semester so I didn’t lose the already tenuous hold I have on my contingent faculty position. Lucky that my husband has good insurance and kind co-workers as well. Lucky that I’m surrounded by family that are friends and friends that are family who have come to help take care of me, my child, my house, my cooking and cleaning, because considering hiring help on an adjunct salary is laughable.
As a long-term, career, adjunct professor, I’ve always kept up with information about the status of contingent faculty experiences, but that attention is now focused even more with one question: what if this happens to someone else who isn’t so “lucky”. The answer to that question isn’t hard to find since my story is not unique. The death of Margaret Mary Vojtko sparked much debate about the treatment of adjuncts as did the death of Thea Hunter. Both women had done everything right, in terms of securing degrees and accolades, which should have garnered them success in their respective fields. Instead, they both died in poverty. In addition, there are myriad articles detailing the realities of life as a contingent employee, including data on low pay and the need to secure additional jobs to make ends meet, which is easier said than done.
Reflecting on my mortality, and how expendable I seem to be to the field I’ve devoted myself to for decades, has made me realize just how integral I am. I have been teaching part-time at community colleges and universities in the DMV for about 15 years. At the onset, I felt as many in my position probably have: adjunct work was the consolation prize. I took the abuse about failure and not being good enough to be full time or tenured because I thought I deserved it.
Luckily, I’ve stopped thinking of my position in these terms. I am great at what I do: I’m invested in my students, I’m committed to my field, I attend (on my own dime) conferences, symposia, and local lectures that keep me up to date on research and pedagogy, and perhaps most importantly, I fulfill a need in the system. That’s something that seems to be lost in this: I’m not the desperate one. The adjunct, the graduate student, the post-doc, the non-tenured are not disposable. Not only is it common decency to provide a living wage and a safety net for any worker, this respect should be given to those upon who we so desperately rely. Instead, so many of us are left to rely on luck.
Despite our part-time status, we are not contingent humans. The problem now resides in a system that has not evolved to understand our power and our worth. Academia is not doing me a favor. It’s the other way around
Again, I survive the system purely because of luck, but many others do not have the same support system. Thus, we need to come together within the profession. It’s time for us to collectively bargain for rights we deserve. We didn’t lose the game, we didn’t fail, the job system changed, so our approach to it needs to change as well. I know people will balk at the idea of unionization and detail the varied reasons it won’t fix the problem. However, at this point we’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas. (There really is a Simpsons reference for every occasion).
Luckily, I know I will survive both cancer and a life as an adjunct professor, but I’d like colleagues in a position like mine to have the same outlook.
In addition to writing publicly about this very personal struggle, my cancer diagnosis caused me to do something else uncharacteristic: I purchased a book of encouraging quotes.