August Links Round-Up and Welcome Back!

Erstwhile editor Caroline Grego assembles and interprets history-related news links from roughly the past month. With this post, we also welcome our readers to a new school year! Erstwhile will now be posting weekly until May.


“A December 2014 protest by Columbia grad students seeking union rights,” courtesy Inside Higher Ed

Teaching Trump to College Students by Jason Blakely

As the fall semester starts, those of us in history departments have the November presidential elections on our minds – as voters and citizens, but also as educators. How do we explain Donald Trump’s rise as the GOP’s presidential nominee to our students? Dr. Blakely, a professor of political science at Pepperdine University, provided The Atlantic with his pedagogical take on Trump. He weighs in on a popular debate, centered on a question – Is Donald Trump a fascist? – and brings it to the classroom.

Trump, Blakely argues, requires reworking not just his syllabus but also rethinking the chief framework that has guided political science theories in textbooks and on chalkboards for the past fifty years.  Originally laid out by Harvard professor Louis Hartz, the “Hartzian paradigm” categorized both political persuasions as part of a “liberal tradition” that upholds “individual rights, due process of law, and a separation of powers in the government.” According to Hartz, this dominant liberalism bound together the left and the right within the United States, diminishing their disagreements to quibbles and centering liberalism as the core ideology of both sides. Trump, because he enjoys political popularity despite open disdain for many liberal rights, upsets that paradigm – and the classroom. Without the facile Hartzian paradigm, professors, especially in political science departments, are working to find new models to explain the American political landscape to their students. They must decide how to teach controversy and address the very real differences among Americans that have spurred Trump’s bid for the presidency. This is not exactly a new idea to historians – but Blakely sets forth a potent meditation on Trump and pedagogy that is useful as we dive into the school year.

Deep in the Swamps, Archaeologists Are Finding How Fugitive Slaves Kept Their Freedom by Richard Grant

Writing for the Smithsonian Magazine, Grant features historical archaeologist and chair of American University’s anthropology department Dr. Dan Sayers. Since 2001, Sayers has studied and written about maroon communities in southeastern Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp. Grant gives an admirable description of the history of these communities, comprised of slaves who, as Sayers argues, “performed a critique of a brutal capitalistic enslavement system” by running away to the Great Dismal Swamp and there crafting their own modes of living. Sayers rightly argues that historians benefit from venturing beyond paper sources and grappling with the full variety of historical evidence – archaeology, objects, landscapes – that can inform their scholarship.

The article, however, highlights Sayers’s work to the exclusion of the historians who have written about North American maroon settlements. Published in 2014, Sayers’ book,  A Desolate Place for Defiant People, follows a handful of significant works on maroon communities by well-known and respected scholars. I think in particular of Jack Temple Kirby’s Poquosin: A Study of Rural Landscape and Society, published in 1995, which focuses on the swamplands in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina over the course of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Kirby sees this Tidewater region as a space in which American Indians, African Americans, and whites contended with the marshy landscape, a developing capitalist economy, slavery, and one another – and he includes maroons within this narrative. Given that Sayers and Kirby share the same region of study, it is curious that Kirby receives no mention in an article claiming ground-breaking contemporary work on maroon communities in North America. I think also of Timothy James Lockley’s Maroon Communities in South Carolina: A Documentary Record, published in 2009 by the University of South Carolina Press. The late, esteemed John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger in Runaway Slaves:  Rebels on the Plantation, published in 1999, also take seriously the longevity and vitality of maroon communities in the American South.  And finally, Dr. Marcus Nevius has also made maroon communities in the Great Dismal Swamp his primary subject of study. (He gave a job talk at the University of Colorado, Boulder in December 2014 on this exact topic).

As Sayers suggests, the history of maroon communities deserves further development by historians. But writing and understanding history comprise a communal project and a long process, extending beyond the work of one person and often containing a rich history of its own.

Georgetown University Plans Steps to Atone for Slave Past by Rachel L. Swarns

Knowing history and understanding its impact on the present can and should influence policy. At Georgetown University, we can see that knowledge put towards institutional change. In 1838, the university sold 272 slaves under Jesuit leadership and earned, in contemporary dollars, $3.3 million; it also profited from enslaved labor on work camps in Maryland. Last week, Georgetown president John J. DeGioia revealed a plan for attempting to atone for this history. DeGioia announced that the university administration will: rename two campus buildings, one for an enslaved African American man and another for a Jesuit African American educator; create a university institute for the study of slavery; and erect a public memorial to the slaves whose forced labor fuelled the university. DeGioia made these decisions with the assistance of a working group of academics, administrators, students, and alumni. In a 102-page report, the group summarized the university’s historical reliance on slavery and offered the previously listed strategies for acknowledging its historical culpability and its debt.

Of course these are just first steps. For example, the suggestion that Georgetown offer preferential admission for descendants of the slaves who supported the university has yet to come to fruition. One hopes, however, that Georgetown will continue to expand on these new policies and that other universities will take notice and perhaps use them as a model for their own investigations of their history. Georgetown has begun to show understanding that universities, like individuals and societies, must be responsible to their history.

For an academic treatment of this subject, see Craig Steven Wilder’s book Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. 

Why the U.S. President Needs a Council of Historians by Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson

The co-directors of Harvard’s Applied History Project, Drs. Allison and Ferguson, make a call for the establishment of a White House Council of Historical Advisers. These historians would practice “a new and rigorous ‘applied history’ — an attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analyzing precedents and historical analogues” for the benefit of the President. Allison and Ferguson suggest a wide range of uses for historians’ expertise and imagine a variety of scenarios in which they could implement their knowledge of historical events. Hindsight might be 20/20, but historians make a career of calculating that hindsight – why not use those calculations to interpret and anticipate?

This council might also be useful so that Henry Kissinger would no longer be the most famous – more properly, infamous – practitioner of this “applied history.”

Board: Student Assistants Covered by the NLRA

This is not really history news, but it will likely prove of interest to our readership, as it does our editorial board. At Columbia University, graduate students have been fighting for their right to unionize for the past few years, despite the university administration’s objections.  However, on August 23rd, the National Labor Relations Board issued a 3 – 1 decision in this case, ruling that teaching assistants – which is to say, graduate students – working at private colleges and universities are indeed employees entitled to the protections under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

Columbia University’s administration has already reacted with a new anti-unionization website, an email from provost John Coatsworth, and a statement that suggests they may appeal the NLRB’s decision. Read about them here if you can stomach condescension from university administrators getting paid exorbitant salaries.

Labor Day Greeting by Eugene V. Debs

And on that note, Jacobin Magazine reposted socialist leader Eugene V. Debs’s 1904 Labor Day Greeting. Heed Debs, and “Forget not the past on Labor Day!”

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