by AndrewMc | 5/28/2008 11:04:00 AM
I'm supposed to be writing a couple of book reviews, but what better way to procrastinate?

I've always been a bit of a troublemaker when it comes to university administrators. Even in grad school I gave my DGS headaches by writing "white papers" criticizing departmental policies. In my current job I've served in a number of leadership roles, and my motto has always been "support them when they're right, go after them with both barrels when they're wrong."

So it was with no small sense of annoyance that I greeted a university mandate to incorporate modern, real-world links into various classes at the university. That one of the courses affected was my first-half US history survey was even more bothersome. I wasn't looking forward to having students do BSish assignments in order to bring me into compliance with the latest Ed-School trend. In my survey students are just getting the grasp of some basic concepts before they move on to upper-level classes.

Still, I had to have a go at it. This past semester we were reading Ed Countryman's How Did American Slavery Begin?, which contains a number of very good essays on slavery and its origins in Africa and the Americas, as well as Rorabaugh's Alcoholic Republic and Horowitz', Attitudes Towards Sex in Antebellum America. Countryman's work struck me as the better of the pieces for the assignment, so I asked a pretty simple question:

Compare and contrast the rise of slavery in the Americas, with the description of modern-day slavery [in several newspapers, blogs, and other online pieces I gave them].

This was a pretty straightforward assignment that would achieve a number of objectives for me. First, at three to five pages it gave them some room to construct a simple argument within a historical problem. Second, it got them thinking about a problem not many of them consider: how and why did slavery start here in the Americas. Finally, it was the first paper of the semester, which would give me an opportunity to "feel them out" as it were.

Most of the papers came back with the standard undergraduate good and bad points. However out of 35 students at least a dozen remarked that they had no idea that slavery continued to this day, even in the United States. Several of the pieces I assigned them described migrant workers forced into slavery, either in textile factories or in agricultural work.

So, there was one small victory. The other came after the semester was over. One of my better students came up to me and said that she had shown her paper to her mother, who read it. Neither knew that slavery continued to this day.

Astonishingly, both mother and daughter decided to join an international anti-slavery group and work specifically to end the enslavement of women in the sex trades worldwide.

I take no credit for this. In fact, this was an assignment forced on a reluctant instructor. I'm still not completely convinced, actually, of the efficacy of our "Quality Enhancement Plan" that foists blanket requirements on multiple disciplines without regard for the variety of those disciplines.

However, my students did remind me that there are many ways for progressives to use problems in history to understand the problems of the present, and that a good understanding of past abuses can lead people to correct modern abuses. In reminding me of this my students, perhaps more than I, scored the biggest victory.

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Blogger tenacitus on 5/28/2008 12:31 PM:

I guess I was a troublemaker too when I was in the academy.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 5/28/2008 1:55 PM:

You know I believe strongly in the need for academics to make history relevant to present-day issues and concerns. But in the classroom? I'm concerned about the ethics of that.

Nevertheless, since you were given lemons, I'm glad you were able to make lemonade.

And -- welcome aboard!


Blogger Ahistoricality on 5/28/2008 2:36 PM:

I think the best thing we can do for our students, sometimes, is point out the the "bad old days" are still here and now.

Or, as Lee Hays put it, "The future ain't what it used to be. What's more, it never was."