Thursday, July 31, 2008

Teachers Teaching Teachers

Paul Harvey, no not that Paul Harvey, teaches history at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and recently won a Teacher of the Year Award. Kelly Baker over at the Religion and American History blog--which she and Paul co-edit--posted about it.

Since I'm always eager to learn something new and hear what good teachers have to say, I'd like to highlight some important parts of Paul' interview (read the full interview here) with the Colorado Springs Record. Call it teachers teaching teachers. (Full disclosure: it was Paul's class blog in the spring of 2007 that, in part, inspired me to start blogging in my own classroom.)

CSR+: Congratulations on being awarded Teacher of the Year at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs 2007-08. It is a great honor that recognizes you an academic leader at UCCS and in the community. What has contributed to the quality of your teaching excellence?

Paul Harvey: I have compared teaching history classes to my favorite musical form: jazz. Teaching is taking a theme, making sure that theme is explored, but allowing plenty of room for improvisation, and most especially for those moments when a student conversation or insight “takes flight”, and something totally unexpected emerges. Being rigorously trained in the discipline, being clear and firm on the standards expected in the classroom, but also being open “to the moment”—all of these combined are required, I believe, for the best teaching. It requires a careful blend of discipline, structure, and spontaneity which never stays the same from one class to another. One also has to have a lot of patience and forgiveness, both for students, but also for one’s own self; every day is not going to be a shining moment of teaching brilliance, and sometimes your most valued and ostensibly impressive teaching experiments will just flat-out fail. That’s fine, as long as one always learns from the experience.
I've not quite heard teaching described that way--like jazz. I like the image that brings up and while I attempt to maintain a structured environment in the classroom, staying tuned for improvisation can make for some riveting moments of teaching and learning. And I like Paul's humility about it--everyday is an experiment in one sense, so get to work and see what happens!

CSR+: You are an international scholar. You are a great teacher as well. How do you balance your teaching and research? Would you be willing to share your secrets of success with our readers?

Paul Harvey: Work your butt off, don’t sleep . . . wait, that’s not very helpful. The key, I think, is always integrating teaching with research, so that when I’m preparing for class I’m also preparing my research, and when I think about my research I’m also in effect preparing for class. For example, the idea for my book “Religion, Race, and American Ideas of Freedom” came from my teaching – I saw again and again how the expansive ideas of religious freedom in American arose at precisely the same time as the huge explosion of slavery, racism, and genocide practiced against Native Americans, and I began to question why that was. Likewise, when I began writing my part of the book Jesus in Red, White, and Black, I constructed a course in part to help me think through ideas for the book, and also to present those ideas to students. The result was one of the most successful classes I’ve ever taught. So, I never teach classes the same way twice; I always try to bring in new ideas from my research, and that makes me more excited about research and keeps my classes fresher and more engaging, or at least I hope so.
Ed Blum said something like this in last summer's interview at baldblogger, and ever since I've thought how my own research and teaching has evolved. There can be extraordinarily rich interplay between research and teaching if one is open to it--in my case partly a result of teaching full time and working on a Ph.D. "part time."

I recently commented to this effect regarding researching/teaching Du Bois, and as I look back on the last 4 or 5 years, much of my teaching has pushed my research in new directions (e.g., religion in world history and Sudan) and the expansion of my research agenda throughout graduate school has filtered into the classroom. I hope to retain this dynamic in the future; it keeps one fresh, it prompts revising and reframing of approaches and strategies, and it makes both teaching and research more delightful, enlightening experiences.

Thanks for the inspiring thoughts, Paul, and for inspiring the foregoing thoughts--and congrats again on the teaching award!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Blogging History

My author-teacher-administrator-scholar friend and colleague Nathan Barber, who runs a blog on educational leadership, recently interviewed yours truly about the use of blogs and teaching. I'm certainly not the only one doing this, and would love to hear what my readers have to say. If you are so inclined, join the conversation here and here.

I thought Nathan asked some good questions--to which I hope I gave satisfactory answers. And his posts always give one something to think about.

And speaking of blogging and teaching, I just posted some thoughts on teaching W.E.B. Du Bois and religion over at the Religion and American History blog.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Where in the World is American Religious History?

Commenting a few weeks on one of John Fea’s latest posts over at the Religion in American history blog, Mike Pasquier commended historian Trevor Burnard’s recent article, “A Passion for Places.” And Fea recently offered his own thoughts on Burnard’s article, situating it in the context of early American history writing.

Their thoughts, and Burnard's essay, inspired some thinking of my own.

Despite an overuse of words like “trajectories” Burnard's provocative and enlightening essay asks, “Why are early Americanists so obsessed with region—with geography, in short—rather than with chronology?” He discusses many books in the article, and notes as well that recent trends in early American historiogroapy—the middle ground and the Atlantic world—as well as borderlands studies—privilege geography. But Burnard also documents a trend in which early Americanists are reading in other fields. About this trend Burnard writes:

What does this mean for practicing early American historians? It mostly means reading more history about other parts of the world. The most noticeable feature of the geographical turn in early American history has been a greater than normal involvement with the work of other historians in cognate fields. It has expanded our horizons, extending our historical geographical reach, and narrowed our focus: the time we spend reading other histories is time we are not spending catching up with developments in other disciplines. Maybe I am speaking only for myself, but I find I am increasingly absorbed in trying to master the historical literatures of many parts of the world, from Europe to Asia to the Americas, and sometimes even of the world itself."

Burnard implicitly criticizes narrowly-focused scholarship and tiny (i.e., geographical) research agendas that fixate on the triumphal development of the nation-state in the context of offering a very telling confession, “I need to try and connect my area of expertise with what was happening elsewhere in the world at the same time."

Finally, Burnard goes on to suggest that early Americanists would do well to "make more of an effort to interrogate their assumptions about space. They might find what geographers have to say about space and place useful starting points for reflections upon the unceasing desire of early Americanists to expand the spatial frontiers or boundaries of their subjects."

I really like Burnard’s article—it prompts me to (re)think all of my assumptions about geography and chronology in my dissertation on church conflict and pastoral dismissal in eighteenth century New England, even as it nudges me to think differently about another project currently underway—notions of space and place in the religious musings of W.E.B. Du Bois.

Yet, Burnard’s article, for all of its challenging insights and helpful suggestions, makes no mention of the field of world history—what I read to be the real foundation of Burnard’s keen reflections on notions of space. And what’s more, Burnard fails even to mention the work of Thomas Bender, one of the leading lights in the global transformation of the study and practice of American history. Here I’m reminded of some of Bender’s more important observations from his book A Nation Among Nations: "If historians want to educate students and the public as true citizens, they must think more profoundly about the way they frame national histories…in ways that reveal commonalities and interconnections..." and "If we begin to think about American history as a local instance of a general history, as one history among others, not only will historical knowledge be improved, but the cultural foundations of a needed cosmopolitanism will be enhanced.”

Even with my quibble over Burnard’s fine article, I see hope on the horizon for what he suggests. The theme of the 2009 AHA meeting, “globalizing historiogrpahies,” is sure to play host to many intriguing and engaging discussions, and the 2009 WHA meeting with the theme of merchants and missionaries in world history will no doubt consider the place of America and American history in its formulations of the past—particularly since the meeting is to be held in, of all places, Salem, Massachusetts.

So I end with some questions, none of which I have definitive answers to, but if there’s interest would love to discuss with the blogging community.

What would early American history look like framed in global perspective—even beyond the Atlantic framework (which I think allows for something of a segway into global history)? What writing exists to this effect already? More specifically, I wonder what the field of (early) American religious history (and other periods too) would look like framed in a global perspective? What kinds of amazing conversations about theory, practice, and teaching could historians of American religion and world historians have?

Let the conversations begin....

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Words (to the) Wise

One of the foremost antiracist authors, activists, and speakers, Tim Wise, reports on his website that there are two new DVDs available, one about white privilege and its deconstruction and one titled "The Audacity of Truth: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama."

There are also two new books, one titled Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections from an Angry White Male, a "best of" collection of essays, and he's at work on a book about the politics of race and the emergence of Barack Obama. Here's the note from his blog:

Just a note to let folks know: City Lights has agreed to publish my next book, tentatively titled, "Between Barack and a Hard Place: Race and Whiteness in the Age of Obama." The long-form essay, which is to be published in early Spring 2009 will examine how the political rise of Barack Obama (regardless of outcome in November) will influence notions of race in the U.S., especially in terms of the way "whiteness" is lived and understood. What does Obama's success say about racism and white privilege in America, and what does it not say? How will the presence of a black presidential contender, and perhaps president, affect white racial attitudes and behaviors? Will Obama's success lead to an increase in white racial resentment, a reinforcing of white denial (as in, "Obama proves racism isn't a big deal anymore"), a newfound faith in aspirational color-blindness, with all the problems that could entail (overlooking real inequities that are still rooted in color, for instance), or the beginnings of an honest dialogue on the nation's history of racial division? These are among the questions to be explored in the book...which now I need to begin writing! So, off to work I go...

I've regularly read Wise's work (a great place to start is his memoir White Like Me), and he's a perceptive, cogent, and prophetic writer (although I wish he'd discuss the religious investments of whiteness more).

I look forward to more of his work. For more books to read on the topic, here's another good list.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Spending the Summer with Du Bois, Again, Part 2

While this post by no means ends mention or discussion of Du Bois here at Baldblogger, it does conclude my follow-up interview with Professor Blum.

I can't thank Ed enough for giving his time and thoughts to multiple (and many!) questions about Du Bois and other matters related to American religious history here at Baldblogger. So thanks again, Ed!

Baldblogger (BB): Last year’s interview at Baldblogger discussed your thoughts about teaching Du Bois. As a result of your research, did you teach Du Bois differently this year? As you’ve corresponded with people about Du Bois and religion since your book’s publication, what is your sense of how others are teaching Du Bois and religion in high schools, colleges, and seminaries?

Ed Blum (EB): The biggest change to my teaching is that I no longer worry about “disproving” the notion that Du Bois was irreligious or anti-religious. While some people have heard of Du Bois as an agnostic or atheist, most individuals I have encountered seem to know intuitively that there was more to him than that. So now I just jump right into what he has to show us. I also pay a lot of attention now in my teaching to the religious importance of his fight against greed. I think the evils of capitalism were so invidious to him – and invidious in a social gospel way – that we can only understand his overarching religious critique of western world with a focus on his approach to money, gain, and wealth.

BB: A two-part question: Regarding the aim and argument of W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet, and its distillations in your lectures and presentations, what part of Du Bois’s religious life do you find resonates with those who see or hear a new Du Bois? What is your sense about what impacts those who come to Du Bois for the first time through the pages of your work? To put it another way, what are the main parts of your book that readers most readily “get,” and what part of your interpretation do readers miss or continue to resist?

Second, your bold historiographical arguments in the book claim that Du Bois’s reflections on religion mark the genesis of liberation theology, womanist theology, the sociology of religion. You also maintain that Du Bois is an abiding, enduring, and central figure in American religious history, and that his life and witness testify to the remarkable religious past(s) of those on the left—and in this sense you call him a “religious modernist” (p. 160). I wonder if you could elaborate on Du Bois as a religious modernist?

EB: By religious modernist, I meant that Du Bois did not put faith in any one belief (like Christianity, for instance) because of its claims to sacred intervention. Thus, he paid little attention to the “miraculous” of any particular religious faith (God parting the Nile; Jesus healing hemorrhaging women; a divine presence destroying the world and rebuilding it). It was not that Du Bois claimed that these events were impossible; he never took the atheist position that there was no God, no sacred, no divine. Rather, Du Bois recognized that human beings could not rely on such intervention or else it led to an immoral passivity. Thus, he looked to the ethics and morals of religious traditions for guidance on how to live, how to change society, how to interact with people and nations. That said, Du Bois over and over acknowledged the role, power, and possibility of God in the past, present and future.

People seem most to get that Du Bois had a righteous rage against racism, racial discrimination, misogyny, economic inequality, and needless war. I think that resonates with people because they themselves believe those to be immoral or wrong. Some readers seem to resist the idea that a person could be on the left politically (so liberal or radical) and be connected to and concerned with issues of religion and the spiritual. Our society fundamentally misunderstands the concept of openness when it comes to religious faith. Du Bois was not only open to many faiths as their own entities, but he was open to bringing them together, having them speak to one another ... all with the hope of creating a more just world.

BB: Other interpretive dimensions of American religion include religious pluralism and popular or lived religion. Without slipping into anachronistic interpretation, I wonder about Du Bois’s thinking regarding religious pluralism, or perhaps even popular or lived religion in America? To what extent was does his work on religion engage with or reflect such interpretive concerns? Was he a leading interpreter in these fields as well?

EB: Du Bois was amazingly pluralistic in his own writing. He regularly fused – in fiction and nonfiction – examples from Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. And to this, he broad a religious approach to political and economic systems – like liberalism, capitalism, socialism and communism. In our modern world of such pluralism, Du Bois would be amazingly helpful because his breadth and depth of religious knowledge was so terrific. There are so many layers to understanding his religious insights that certainly more work can be done to examine Du Bois’s approach to religious pluralism. I would say that he lived and studied Diana Eck’s Pluralism Project (of Harvard University) long before anyone else had that kind of idea.

BB: As you’ve had time to think and reflect over the past year about how you approached (and approach) Du Bois as a subject in American religious history, what is the best thing about composing a religious biography, and what are some of the limiting aspects or the most pressing difficulties of this genre? Could you see yourself attempting such a project again?

EB: I would definitely like to write another religious biography. The only drawback is that sometimes readers become too concerned with the individual belief of the individual, and miss the important points about religion in society and culture that I am trying to make. I’m just not sure of whom the subject would be. I considered Langston Hughes, but Wallace Best of Princeton University is already well into a study of that nature; I considered William Jennings Bryan, but Michael Kazin of Georgetown University has already done that so well. Perhaps Richard Nixon; perhaps Mark Twain. I definitely hope to write another religious biography to seek to illuminate elements of American religious history (and I would probably get involved with issues of the physical body – weight, obesity, sexuality – and with something about race, gender, and class). I’m just not sure who to write about.

BB: Any concluding thoughts?......

EB: My only final thoughts are to thank you – the Baldblogger – for your support of the project and if any readers would like to contact me about the book, please feel free to. I would love to discuss issues of race, religion, American nationalism and imperialism, and/or W. E. B. Du Bois with you.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Blogging Bonanza

Recently, I put together yet another blog: One Nation, Many Faiths. It is a class blog for my upper-level U.S. religious history class at the University of Houston. Stop by and feel free to join the conversations. Let me know what you think, too.

I've also been reading the new blogs of several folks I know. The former dean of students at Second Baptist School (now of Parkview Baptist School), a close friend, consistent confidante, and prolific author Nathan Barber just started a blog about educational leadership in the 21st century. The conversation is really good there.

Jim Brown, one of my new colleagues in the history department at Second Baptist School (and frequent guest over at The Proletarian), is blogging over at The Agora. I look forward to getting to know Jim better, and reading his great thoughts.

A former student of mine is doing a college-for-high-schoolers program at the University of Mississippi and is blogging about it. It is great to see such a deep desire for learning.

And, as I indicated in a previous post, John Fea, my friend and co-editor at Religion in American History, has started a blog about his first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home. The posts have been, much like John, witty, insightful, funny, and informative.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Spending the Summer with Du Bois, Again, Part I

It has been a calendar year since the release of Edward J. Blum's W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet.

Within that time, Blum's book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, a Grawemeyer Award in Religion, and received Honorable Mention last December at the Gustavus Myers Center Outstanding Book Awards. (His first book also received honorable mention from the Gustavus Myers Center.) Blum also lectured on Du Bois at Rice University, the University of Houston, Morehouse College, University of Rochester, the University of Chicago, and UC-Riverside, among other venues. Blum also presented a paper on Du Bois at the American Historical Association annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

He’s continued to publish on Du Bois, with reflections in the journals Fides et Historia (Winter/Spring 2008) and The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (Autumn 2007). He’s been interviewed on 3 blogs about Du Bois (interviews here, here, and a 7-part interview: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, consulted about contemporary matters of race and religion with Newsweek, and of course the scholarly reviews are starting to pour in: JAH, AHR, Progressive Historians, Fides et Historia, H-AmStdy, Church History, and Christian Century, among others. Blum also has edited a collection of essays on Du Bois and religion, due out next year with Mercer University Press.

Given the attention Du Bois has received on this blog, I thought it would be fun, interesting, and intriguing to conduct a follow up interview with Ed Blum. Thanks Ed, yet again, for your time.

This is the first of two posts.

Baldblogger (BB): It sounds like it has been a whirlwind year, but also a time of considerable attention to the understudied and overlooked aspects of Du Bois and religion. With regard to this, can you briefly summarize your thoughts on the year?

Ed Blum (EB): It has been a crazy year; I spent so much time reading on airplanes that I started blogging with recommendations for air travel. Just about everywhere, the audiences have been tremendous. At Rochester, a young Buddhist student immediately went off and searched for poetry by Du Bois and Langston Hughes about religion; at Houston, several students wanted to know so much more about race and religion that they trekked over to the library to get my book and others. It’s been a fun time, and I’ve been so honored by the attention to the book. It confirms what I knew was the case: that if we opened ourselves to Du Bois’s religious teachings, we would learn so much, have new questions and insights, and feel like we understood our spiritual, sacred, and religious worlds better.

BB: As you look back on the laborious period of researching and writing W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet, and now a year after its publication, what is most gratifying for you?

EB: Most gratifying has been the notes I’ve received from random individuals who talk about how their minister mentioned the book or that they heard Cornel West talk about it on Tavis Smiley. These folks usually write to say just how much Du Bois has helped them at this moment spiritually, especially with all that has happened with Barack Obama, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Hilary Clinton, and the politics of the moment. It has been so gratifying to know that my work on Du Bois has helped some people make sense of this trying time and as we try so desperately to believe in hope.

BB: In a recent interview, you discussed the audiences for whom you wrote. Scholars and researchers will read the reviews in academic journals, so I wonder if you can give us a glimpse (to the extent that you can) into the reception W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet has received by popular audiences?

EB: It is apparent to me that a number of ministers have either mentioned the book during their Sunday sermons or in church bulletins, because I’ve received a bunch of email where the individual referenced their minister or church. Also, a number of people wrote to me after reading about the book on a blog. It’s been fun to interact with moms and dads, with church elders and high school seniors – all whom seem touched and moved by the book.

BB: If you had to choose, what is your favorite chapter in the book? Why? Is there a chapter you’d like to rewrite? If so, why?

EB: My favorite chapter by far is the fourth chapter on Du Bois’s approach to violence, religion, and the story of Jesus Christ. I think it is so hard to come to religious grips with the levels of human violence in this world, especially when we consider racial violence. Du Bois’s ability to weave together the story of Jesus with that of embattled African Americans I find so inspiring on so many levels. I also think that is the chapter that is written the most elegantly.

But chapter 4 is also the one that I would change. It is too long, I think, and probably should have been divided into two separate chapters. Thank goodness that there are section breaks!

BB: In a previous interview you discussed some of the material you had to leave out. I wonder if you might elaborate on some of this—perhaps Du Bois’s funeral and the “spiritual love” for his children—and discuss how it would further establish Du Bois as an “American Prophet,” or more clearly unveil Du Bois’s religious selves?

EB: I wish that I had spent more time on Du Bois’s personal life and his religious belief. There, we would have encountered not a perfect individual (he most certainly had marital affairs that he never told his spouse about), but his love for his children seemed rooted in a religious belief. I think we would have found him to be again so similar to older prophets – not perfect, but nonetheless believing that he was speaking holy words.

BB: Regarding the subject of Du Bois and religion, if you could ask him one question, or make a statement to which he’d respond, what would it be? Why?

EB: First, I would tell him that I and we miss him; that I wish he were still here, that I wish he were still walking physically on this earth to interrogate and to teach. We need him, I believe. Then I would just thank him; thank him for all that he did and all that he was. My question would be simply, what shall we do to be saved?

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Remembering the Revolution

There are always interesting news items and stories about history that show up on July 4 every year. My friend and fellow contributing editor at the Religion in American History blog John Fea, history professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvnia and author of the recently published biography on Philip Vickers Fithian (buy this good book here), points to several in a nice list of op-eds on his newly created book blog.

I'd like to add one to the list--an editorial on Benedict Arnold, the famous Patriot-turned-Loyalist, or as some have it, Patriot-turned-Traitor, during the American Revolution. My Ph.D. advisor James Kirby Martin, author of one of the leading biographies of Arnold, offers his perspective in the article. [Update: see Martin in "Why the Patriots Really Fought."]

Says Martin: "This was a man who began in 1775 as the most ardent of patriots, but he grew to feel that turning back to England would be the best course for the country."

"Virtue is a key concept in the Revolution, and Congress repeatedly insulted Arnold's virtue."

"The only sensible course, in Arnold's mind, was to return his political loyalty to the British parent nation before everything was lost."

"[George] Washington knew that they had to destroy this guy top, bottom, and sideways, and forever associate him with treason."

"The tragedy of Benedict Arnold is that his incredible acts on behalf of the cause of liberty have been washed away and basically forgotten."