Category Archives: Liberal Arts

My Experiment in #UnGrading

A long time ago a couple of my colleagues and I in the history department were talking with a professor in the School of Education. He worked closely with our students who sought the certification and credentialing that would allow them to teach social studies in New York schools.  He mentioned one of our students, who he said was one of the best natural teachers he ever had seen.  No one, he said, had been so effective at so young an age in conveying important historical content to secondary-schoolers with such grace and style.  When he told us who this student was, I felt some surprise.  This particular student was a nice kid, but across the board we had viewed him as at best an extremely average C+/B- student. 

Obviously, this young man took what he learned in our courses and turned it into something magical. This experience made clear to me that there is no necessary relationship between the grades we give and what students learn in our courses.

I have written about grades and grading on this blog before.  I responded to a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education by an Emory University professor who described himself as an “Easy A.” I have wondered about the relationship between grading and the challenges of student retention. And I always have been uncomfortable, at some level, with the power relationship inherent in grading student work. Giving a bad grade closes doors on students, and restricts opportunities available to them to pursue further studies.

This past semester, I undertook my first experiment in “ungrading.” I stopped scoring papers, opting instead to write lengthy comments. And I met with each student—I teach about 90 to 100 students a semester—during Finals Week for individual conferences.  They handed in their final papers, and they told me what they thought they deserved for the course.  I wanted to encourage student input into the grading process.

Those meetings are complete, and I have had a chance to reflect on the experience. I learned a lot. First, students seem to like this change.  They told me that for the most part it caused them less stress than more traditional forms of grading.  There were some exceptions to this.  First-year students, fresh from high school and a regimen of standardized tests, sometimes expressed frustration at not knowing where they stood.  

Second, the power relationship in grading is still present.  A small number of students wildly overstated, in my view, the quality of their performance in the class.  A student who came to a third of our class meetings, did not participate in our discussions, and who watched videos on his laptop thought he deserved a B when I thought he was failing the course.  What to do then? I pointed out why I thought his estimation was too high. Sometimes, I must remind myself, a student and I might not agree.  We talked about what he had learned, and it was then that he persuaded me that he took from my class more than his work and his engagement showed. I have him a D, but I felt terrible about it.

This brings me to a third, and very important, point.  Students are fair and honest about their performance in class. Sometimes they criticized themselves for things I had not noticed.  For the most part, they did not make excuses. But there are exceptions.  “Non-Traditional” students and transfer students tended to grade themselves far too harshly.  Our college is much more demanding than the community colleges our transfer students attend. It is understandable that they may feel overwhelmed by the increased workload and the higher expectations. That sense of being adrift manifested in them feeling, I suspect, that they were not doing as well as they were.  The same thing goes for students of color, who thought much less of their work than I did. But overall, students were honest about their strengths and weaknesses.  I have taught at Geneseo for twenty years, and this did not surprise me at all.

Not everything went as well as I would have liked.  I need to improve my record-keeping and communication, so I am going to begin making more use of the college’s learning management system, specifically for communicating with students on their work and offering comments, criticism, and encouragement.  I will also devote a portion of my first class meeting to collaborating with the students on drawing up a list of standards for assigning final grades. (We are required to submit final letter grades).  In this I have drawn much inspiration from Cate Denial who is light years ahead of me in her thinking about assessment and student learning. You can see something of how I envision next semester’s ungrading system in the syllabus for my course in Indigenous Law and Public Policy that I posted a couple of days ago.

I fully recognize that my approach will not work for everyone or in every field, and that my concerns about grading may not be shared by all.  But I felt little attachment to the way I customarily had graded, and felt the need to do something new.  I have not worked all the bugs out of the system, but I am glad I made the change. 

When I mentioned that I was thinking of making this change, some friends told me that I would be overwhelmed, and that every student would ask for an “A” for their final grade.  That simply was not the case.  What the system has done is eliminate some of the stress grading causes students, replace it with a system that recognizes improvement and effort. It is based upon a recognition that not all students enter my classes with the same baseline knowledge and cultural capital, and that relative growth is significant.  It allows students influence and ownership of the grading system.  Most of all, it has allowed me to experiment with a system that eliminates the Olympian pretense that in my view influences too much grading.  There is no Platonic standard, and different students excel in different ways.  It is easy in this line of work to fall into a routine, to assign the same things year after year, and recycle the same notes and materials.  It is easy to assume that my standards are correct, appropriate, and always better than those that students might propose, and to forget that grading can be imperfect, imprecise, subject to my moods and my fatigue levels.  I have much to learn as a scholar and as a teacher.  I can always do my job better. And as I continue on this journey, I am hopeful that it will benefit students.

What’s In A Grade?

Why do we give grades? Do they bear a meaningful relationship to what students have learned? Do they reflect accurately a student’s abilities in a given field, or her mastery of a given body of knowledge? 

            I understand that questions like these, for many of my fellow college professors, are answered through the “assessment” of how well students meet our stated “learning outcomes,” bulleted and bold-faced, on our course syllabi.  I am not sure we are doing our students a service with the way we grade.

            But a lot of my colleagues see value in the enterprise. They must feel this way. After all, the continue to collect essays their students write.  “This paper is an 88,” they might say. “But this one is an 86, and that one a 74.”  They may have a “rubric,” with columns and rows, which they suggest reduces their grading to a system. Not only is it objective and measurable, but beyond question, too.  “I am not in the business of negotiating grades,” a former colleague of mine writes on his syllabus.  Look at the rubric.

            They will write comments on their students’ papers, like “you need to develop your argument more fully,” or “your paper lacks a clear and coherent thesis,” or “I wish you had put more time into this assignment,” or “you need to realize you are not in high school anymore.” But you didn’t, so you get a 78.

            These are all comments I have read on student papers.  And I am hardly without blame.  I, too, used to grade like this.  I don’t anymore.

            At the opening weekend for first-year students at Loyola Marymount University, a school which my daughter thought she would attend for four years, the faculty member chosen to deliver the opening convocation address said, “at Loyola Marymount University, we don’t give grades. Students earn them” The audience went wild.

            What a load of nonsense.

            She was no Olympian, dispensing wisdom from on high. Grading is inexact. It is by its nature imprecise. We read a paper, engage with the writer’s words, and look at the argument.  Perhaps we measure what we have before us against our rubric, which this Loyola professor might view as some sort of Platonic standard of student excellence, the Form of the Good Essay.  But we are giving numerical or letter scores to something that cannot be measured precisely.

            I have written on this blog about grades and grading, and the relationship between grades and student retention. I worry that the entire enterprise of grading can do our students a disservice. It stresses them out for one thing, because of the growing tyranny of GPA in setting the metes and bounds of their future opportunities. If you determine a student has performed poorly or only adequately in your class and you give that student a “C,” it is entirely possible that you have closed more doors for that student than you and your course ever opened for them.  They may objectively be worse off, in the long run, for having taken your course.  We do not take enough responsibility for the grades we give and the unquestioned power claim to give them.

            I have been reading lately the work of professors, like the fantastic Cate Denial, who are altering their approach to grading (I have not met Cate face to face, but I am looking forward to meeting her when she comes to Geneseo in March).  I have found this work inspiring, and after far too long, I have decided to start making some significant and fundamental changes to how I engage with my students. I have to enter grades at the end of the semester.  There is no changing that. But I can transform that process in ways that I believe will serve students better. I want them to learn, I want them to enjoy history as much as I do.  And I want them to see its importance.  And like the forced worship that, to Roger Williams, must “stinketh in God’s nostrils,” I do not believe I can coerce students into learning through quizzes and the external motivation of a letter grade.

            This semester I decided to move away from scoring papers.  I ask my students to submit their papers and journals to me electronically as a document.  As I read, I make extensive comments on the argument, evidence, and style.  I also try to use these marginal comments to offer instruction in those areas where I feel the student has room for improvement. It is easy to tell students not to do this or that; it is much more challenging to show them how to do things right.

            In the past, when I read these papers, I might start thinking of scores and grades.  I might have felt conflicted in the past about whether a paper deserved a B, or a B+, or an A-, or what amount of points I might give to an essay.

            I realize that these may be my own idiosyncrasies, and that what I am proposing will not work for everyone.  There are many, many, many excellent professors who inspire students, change their lives for the better, and teach them effectively using conventional grading methods. What I am proposing, furthermore, I recognize will probably not work well in every subject. Still, half way through the semester, and I find that the students appreciate what it is that I am trying to do.

            Students receive back their papers with detailed commentary.  I mention what I thought they did well, where they need to improve, and how I think they might best do that.  I am honest. When I feel that a paper included careless errors, or that the student may not have proofread his or her paper, I point it out and give reasons why I feel that way.  I tell that them that people who read what they write, now and in the future, may judge them harshly for their misspellings and grammatical errors. Some students have been poorly prepared for college writing. They were not taught the importance of editing, proofreading, and writing multiple drafts.  Some have not been asked to read widely.  For some of them, then, weak writing is not their fault, so the emphasis is always on getting better.

            By the end of the semester, I will have folders on each student, containing all their written work, along with my comments.  The students and I have this material in front of us when we meet during finals week to discuss their final grade.  At our meeting, I ask the students to come prepared to discuss the following questions:

  • What did you learn this semester in this course? What new information did you find most surprising?
  • In what ways did you grow and develop as a scholar and a Historian?
  • What do you think of the work you did this semester? Were you satisfied with its quality? Are there things you might have done better?
  • What grade do you believe you deserve for the course and why?

We will discuss these questions and, I hope, arrive at some sort of agreement.

            I have been warned by friends that I will face endless arguments, that the “grade grubbers” will wheedle and whine until they get the “A” they want.   Others, who have actually tried something like this, find that students are harsh in their assessment of their own work.  I do not know for certain what is going to happen.  But I would find this job very difficult to do if I did not believe that students are honest, that they want to learn, and that I can learn much from them.  And, what’s more, I believe this: It costs me nothing to grade generously, to listen to students, to constantly reassess my own standards, and to take seriously the students’ own assessment of what they have taken from my classes.

What Is Yours Is Ours

I have visited the British Museum in London many times. The first time was in 1988, a couple of months after I completed my undergraduate degree. I had taken two courses in Ancient History, another in Medieval Europe, as we called it back then, and I was was eager to see the museum’s “treasures.” I was an uncritical consumer, excited to see things that I had read about but could see nowhere else.

That was over thirty years ago. Now I am a more critical consumer of museums, so much so, that my family has to tell me to lighten up whenever we visit one. I am teaching my college’s Western Humanities course in England now, and we are based as a class in Oxford’s Lincoln College. Western Humanities, required of all students at Geneseo, began as a “Great Books” course taught over two semesters by a significant percentage of the faculty. Recently we pared that requirement down to one course, and faculty are slowly modifying the original menu of works they might assign.

I think the course is one of great value. And to understand more deeply what they are reading: Sophocles, Thucydides, Plato, Cicero, the Bible, Augustine, Aquinas, More, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we have arranged a number of excursions. On Friday we took in a performance of Measure for Measure by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. I sent the students on their own to the Ashmolean, a minature version of the British Museum here in Oxford. And a week from Friday we will visit the British Museum in London.

I want the students to think critically about what they see there. I had no guidance when I went, but I would like them to explore how and why it was that they came to see these objects in London, and what, really, we can learn from them. I want the students to look at the museum’s collections and decide if they can see past the artifact to the actual people behind it. In the statuary, the religious items, the decorative arts, and the household objects on display, can the students arrive at a sense of what these people valued. From these items, collected and displayed, can the students arrive at an understanding of what these people considered good and bad, beautiful and loathsome, funny or boring? What did they view as heroic? Cowardly? What frightened them, or kept them up at night? What values did they see as worthy of emulation?

It is easy, I worry, for students to view a trip to the museum as an assignment where they are required to look at stuff, often for some vague set of reasons: because this is something that you should do, or because these are an important part of the students’ cultural inheritance, with which all the heirs of that tradition ought to be familiar. I agree with these statements, I suppose–how could I not–but there is more to it than that. Look for the people who made these things, who attempted to communicate or to evoke some feeling or response in those who saw their work. If history is the study of continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions, and cultures, the student’s human connection to those people far removed from them spatially and chronologically is an important part of the understanding we want to encourage. As I watched the thousands of people milling about, moving through the uncomfortably warm exhibit rooms, looking at everything a bit, I wonder what really do the hordes of tourists get out of this.

I want the students to think, as well, about why these objects are considered classic and significant. Who gets to decide? The British Museum’s “collections,” a word they use a lot, have a fraught history, to put it politely. The British Museum, in my view, has not adequately addressed how it came to amass such a large collection. Take, for instance, the famous “Elgin Marbles,” looted, according to some sources, from the Acropolis in Athens.

Other items, from other parts of the world, appear in displays with little information on how these objects arrived in London and what the descendants of those people whose culture is represented feel about this. How might various people talk back to the interpretive signs and displays that museum visitors see?

For instance, the British Museum has an “Enlightenment Gallery” that might just as well be called the “Colonialism and Empire” Gallery. As a history student, this room seduced me. I loved it. Old books like the shelves surrounding the room. Artifacts are placed on these shelves and in case around the room. Little remarked upon is the significance of these objects. What did they mean to the people to whom they originally belonged. Some of them were looted from graves, from collections around the world. There is no museum in Cairo or Athens where so large a collection of English treasures are housed. The English took these objects, and their curators will tell us what they mean. And if that requires presenting funerary objects and other items of sacred significance, it matters little.

It is unstated, but so clear when you think about it. What was yours, the British Museum says, is now ours, and we will decide what it means and its value. The Museum still says that whatever one thinks of Lord Elgin, his decision to snatch a large chunk of Athens’ cultural patrimony saved it from destruction, loss, and damage. We know better than you how to collect.

I do not follow the museum world as closely as I should, but I certainly am aware of a growing movement to “decolonize the museum.” If the British Museum is any indication, we have a long way to go.

Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Revisited

Peter Feinman does important work promoting the study of New York history. It is important to give him his due. That said, a number of recent posts on his blog touching upon subjects relevant to Native American history struck me as particularly disappointing.

Over the past couple of weeks, Feinman has offered his thoughts on the Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day controversy. As many readers will no doubt recognize, a growing number of states, municipalities, and other organizations have replaced their celebration of Columbus Day with recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Drawing upon the language used in newspaper coverage, Feinman sees this process as insufficiently respectful. Columbus Day has not been replaced by Indigenous Peoples’ Day. No. It has been “dumped” and “ditched.” In the second installment, posted on May 30 and available here, Feinman describes the origins of America’s reverence for Columbus in myth, memory, and history. There is some useful information here. Feinman argues that “the issue of Columbus is very much connected to the culture wars that are currently dividing America.”

You almost get the impression that if Columbus had not sailed the ocean blue in 1492 that Europeans, smallpox, and genocide would never have occurred and that the United States would not even exist as a country, since there would have been no one here to declare independence from England.

There is in Feinman’s post the familiar expression of concerns about matters “politically correct.” For instance, Feinman writes that “just as it is now illegal to dance to the music of Michael Jackson, laugh at a joke by Woody Allen, or watch anything involving a #MeToo person,” so “Columbus is to be cleansed from our midst.” The message these efforts send, Feinman says, is that “it is incumbent on Americans to purify the country of its sins and the stains on the social fabric.” If you read my blog with any regularity, you know I find these arguments unpersuasive. To call something “politically correct,” it seems to me, is the intellectual equivalent of calling someone a Communist in the 1950s. It is an indication that you are not interested in debate and, too often, that you are uninterested in talking about the historical experience of peoples on the margins.

In the third installment, Feinman objects to uncritical use of the word “indigenous,” which he believes has conveyed “the message that there is a global people called Indigenous as if they are a single people.”

When I was growing up I don’t recall hearing the word ‘indigenous’ often. Peoples usually had real names. Sometimes they were their own names, sometimes they were the names other applied to them–Indians, Asians, Egyptians, etc. Now these Eurocentric names are to be banished from polite conversation. People are to be referred to as indigenous no matter where they are in the world. The word “Indigenous” has been weaponized by some white Americans in the culture wars against other white Americans, and imposed on people who had names for themselves and never used the word “Indigenous.” The result is a simpleminded, superficial, bogus term that produces strange results when removed from the American context that created it. Why did the politically correct unleash this weapon?

Uncritical language use is maddening. But I do not believe that this is as big a problem as Feinman says it is. “Indigenous:” the word is commonly used, as Feinman says, but its application is hardly mysterious and hardly mystifying. Its application to native peoples countering “settler colonialism” or good ol’ fashioned imperialism is a salutary development. And look at the language in Feinman’s post. There is talk of weapons unleashed, of prohibition and proscription, of banishment and censorship. I disagree with a lot of this. This is the language of a culture war, indeed. But as a white guy who has taught Native American history for a quarter-century, I have never felt the limitations that seem to run through what Feinman has to say here. I have had debates with many, arguments with others. But that is part of the game. The past is contested, and that includes the language we use to describe it. It is not a war. It is what we do.

I have written about Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the past. As I wrote back in October of 2017, “in Native American history, there are lots of guilty parties, but Christopher Columbus is guiltier than most.” Columbus gets both more credit and more criticism than he deserves as an individual. That said, “there is absolutely nothing edifying in this story of avarice, violence, and religious bigotry, save for the native peoples who at times and places survived the carnage,” and “the continued celebration of Columbus Day does a historical injustice to the native peoples of two continents and the Caribbean.” Nothing Feinman wrote convinced me to change my mind on this matter.

Feinman says much of value about the origins of Columbus Day. He is absolutely correct in pointing out Americans’ uncritical reverence for Columbus, and he provides some interesting examples. Columbus always has been a symbol. He remain a symbol today. The Columbian Encounter, so-called, is the beginning of a horror story for the native peoples of the Americas, North, South, and Central, as well as the indigenous population of the Caribbean, who were quickly destroyed as autonomous peoples by the Spanish newcomers.  Columbus, his supporters might argue, gets too much of the blame.  He did nothing to native peoples in North America because he never set foot on the North American continent.  This much is true, but Columbus has become, and perhaps always has been, a symbol standing in for the “fundamental violence of discovery,” as I class it in the second chapter of Native America. Between the first and second editions of the textbook, one of the many books I read as I worked on revising was Andres Resendez’s excellent The Other Slavery which, among other things, described in detail the centrality of slavery in Columbus’s enterprise.  Columbus carried slaves back to Spain on each of his voyages, and promised the Crown “as many slaves as Their Majesties orders to make.”

Holidays come, and holidays go. Ask any historian. She will tell you that. Commemorating Indigenous Peoples’ Day does not belittle or demean the western tradition.  What it does do is allow us to pay attention to the experience of those native peoples whose losses were Europeans’ gain, and who have endured and survived through five centuries of discrimination, dispossession, and slaughter. If, after all, any number of people in our nation’s history had had their way, native peoples would be gone: They would have been wiped out by warfare and epidemic and chronic disease; or they would have been “removed” to make way for the “settlers” who championed the rise of Andrew Jackson in the first few decades of the nineteenth century; or confined on tiny reservations until the missionaries and teachers and government farmers wiped away any trace of their identity as native peoples; or assimilated into the American body politic; or “terminated” in the middle decades of the twentieth century, with the reality of their native nations erased by congressional statute.  Indians were supposed to disappear. If any number of people had their way, Native American people would not be here to call for an Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Columbus Day found its origins in discrimination against Italian-American immigrants. We were here from the beginning, Italian-Americans said, and we have as great a claim to this continent as any other group.  The holiday has seldom encouraged any significant and honest discussion of the consequences of the Columbian Encounter, a process which was, as historian Alfred Crosby showed a long time ago, much bigger than Christopher Columbus.  It is time for the bad history and the myth associated with this day to go away, and if recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day helps I am all for it.  Let’s talk about Columbus, to be sure, and the European invasion of America, but let’s do so with our eyes firmly upon those native peoples whose losses were Europeans’ gain, and who have endured and survived through five centuries of discrimination, dispossession, and slaughter.

This Is Not A Lament

We all know that we live in tough times. A number of small, private, liberal arts colleges have gone belly up, a product of mismanagement, declining enrollment, or a combination of the two.  Funding for public higher education is either flat or falling, and some schools have dramatically cut back on programs.  Western Kentucky University, for instance, recently announced an end to 101 academic programs. Faculty members do more with less. 

Demographic changes, meanwhile, have made their impact felt, as colleges compete for a declining number of prospective first-year students.  Institutions with deep pockets and strong reputations are able to offer generous packages of financial assistance, while state colleges and smaller private institutions struggle to keep up.  Adjunct faculty do an increasing amount of the actual teaching at institutions across the spectrum, and universities seldom replace departed faculty members in uncertain times. I may be part of the last generation of tenured professors.

Perhaps predictably, this sorry state of affairs has produced some soul-searching. Some commentators or critics have explained that the current crisis is the fault of the academy itself.  The demographic trends could have been visible to anyone who looked, they argue. At the same time, professors, more interested in pursuing their overly-narrow research interests, do not put adequate time into their teaching.  This hyper-specialization spills over into the classes they offer. Quite simply, colleges are not offering classes that students want to take. Try to find a military or diplomatic history course, they say, and you will search for a long time. Maybe professors would be better off teaching relevant courses for their students than dunking on buffoons like Dinesh D’Souza.


Can we give it a rest?

Of course, there are serious problems in higher education. I do not want to dismiss the seriousness of the crisis.

But let’s not blame the liberal arts or their practitioners, and let’s not look to their alteration, diminution, or elimination as a solution to the deep structural problems afflicting the academy. At SUNY-Geneseo, where I teach, the number of majors in our history program has increased in each of the last three years. Our liberal arts programs are healthy and vibrant.

There are a couple of reasons for this. We have outstanding teachers in our department, and we encourage faculty to pursue their interests, to share their passions with their students. Instead of requiring old-school survey courses in United States history and Western Civilization, a tired model if ever there was one, we emphasize the discipline of history. We study continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions and cultures.  We teach students to formulate questions, to answer them in a manner that is honest, thorough, and disciplined, and to write with grace and style.  We offer no courses in military history, it is true, but we offer courses that our students find relevant and important and that teach students the skills of the historical discipline. They learn to work with facts, evidence and explanation. They study the history of everyday life, histories written from the “bottom-up,” and histories of groups traditionally underrepresented in other historical accounts. They want histories shorn of the patriotism and myth that they see as characterizing parts of their high school experience. But they study as well the classics.  They read widely and they read deeply. 

            Many of us are active researchers still, and our scholarship informs our teaching. Some of us focus on topics that are narrower than others, but we are working, exploring, asking questions, and examining our own assumptions as we examine the evidence.  We bring this research into the classroom. We deploy a variety of teaching styles. Some of us lecture. Some emphasize discussion and form our students into groups to analyze the reading. Most of us do both. Over the years, I have sat in on discussion classes where little has been accomplished, and others where the resulting conversations were so stimulating that my mind raced for the rest of the day. I have sat in on lecture courses as a student that bored me to tears. And I attended lectures that changed my life.

            If you were young once, you might remember how an idea could turn you on, how a topic about which you knew nothing could consume you, and inspire you to dig deeply for more knowledge. Students hunger for knowledge. They want to think big thoughts, ask and answer important questions, examine the contours of their own existence.  They want to learn the skills of their particular discipline, yes, but many also want to talk about meaningful citizenship. They want to understand the world they live in and the people in it, and how to make their world a better place.

            There are scholars who write on “narrow” topics, to be sure.  Some publish and present their work to small groups of like-minded scholars. There are writers in the liberal arts whose writing is difficult and jargon-filled.  But there are others whose work is accessible, urgent, and available. They write about subjects of immense importance, and they do so with energy and style.  Their work sheds light on the human condition, and they share their work widely with readers and with their students.  They may not write about war, politics, or diplomacy, but they explore what it is to be human, to live in community with others, and how we got here.  Those who read their work find it powerful and important.

            Students love their courses in history. 

In our current political climate, however, they hear from politicians and policy-makers that to be educated is to have a job, and that little else matters.  The president, his party, and their propagandists dismiss the value of the life of the mind. They dismiss the liberal arts as elitist, or as dominated by topics that are “politically correct,” largely because they distrust the democratizing potential of free inquiry, and resent the calls for justice that lie at its core.  Professors should teach the facts, they say, and they should not indoctrinate their students.  They express that fear frequently.  They worry about freedom of expression and freedom of speech on college campuses, but what they really fear is open debate and the discussion of topics that challenge their assumptions. When we ask students to consider the meanings of freedom, equality, and power, to explore the inconsistent relationship between law and justice, and to examine the yawning gap between our reality and our ideals, between the way things are and the way things ought to be, they see a threat.  They fail to understand how it is essential to a thriving republic for citizens to ask these deep, probing questions.  They fear the questions and those who ask them.

We who teach these subjects must push back against this style of thought.  We can talk about how liberal arts students will find work, about how they make decent money, and how students need to be adaptable because today’s students will likely be doing many jobs that do not even exist.  Many have made the point about the economic value of the liberal arts.  But there is a larger, cultural force against which we contend.  Anti-intellectualism and resentment against the privilege that colleges and universities seem to represent are powerful forces. It will not be easy, but it is essential, that we engage those who hold these views.  We are, after all, educators. And our most important job, in addition to teaching the students in front of us, may be to explain to a skeptical public the importance of the work we do, and how wrestling with big ideas is necessary not only for meaningful citizenship, but for a richer life.

Everything is Beautiful

I have completed all of my grading for the fall semester, made it through the stress and hustle of the holidays.  Some time to reflect, before the next semester begins in a couple of weeks.  The final essays written by students in my Western Humanities course inspired me. We can read so many laments about “kids these days,” so many ill-informed condemnations of “campus climate.”  God knows, there is a lot to worry about in this world, but these kids are all right.

            I have written about Geneseo’s Western Humanities requirement on this blog before.  In my version of the course, the students begin by reading three works from Ancient Greece: Antigone, Thucydides, and Plato’s Republic.  They then read Cicero’s Republic and Virgil’s Aeneid.  After the Greeks and Romans, we move into the Judeo-Christian tradition: Genesis, much of Exodus, the first and most of the second book of Samuel, a good chunk of Isaiah, the Gospel of Matthew, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and the passion narratives in the other three gospels. We spend the next three meetings on the first nine books of Augustine’s Confessions. Followed by Aquinas’s Treatise on Law, More’s Utopia, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  It is a heavy reading load for a single semester.  We wrap up with three short readings: Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Jack Gilbert’s poem “A Brief for the Defense,” and Roger Rosenblatt’s 2016 essay for The Atlantic called “The World is a Thriving Slaughterhouse.”

            If you read this blog, you will know my affection for Rosenblatt’s essay.  Going through an attic full of photographs, notes, and clippings documenting his long career as a war correspondent in some of the late 20th century’s most brutal combat zones, Rosenblatt told the story of the people he met—in Israel, Palestine, the Sudan, Cambodia, Rwanda.  He closed the essay with the story of Khu:     

Here are notes on a conversation with Khu, a 15-year-old boy who fled Vietnam to Hong Kong after the war. His parents are dead. He had nothing in Vietnam, so one night he jumped aboard a boat in Haiphong, headed up the South China Sea to Hong Kong. After some time, the people on the boat ran out of food. The captain, or “boat master,” assigned one man to knock Khu unconscious with a hammer and another to cut his throat, so the others could eat him. When the crew members saw the tears on Khu’s face, they let him live. But the next day, the adults killed the man with the hammer and cut up his body. “Everyone was issued a piece of meat, about two fingers wide.” Khu holds up a hand to indicate the size of the portion. He says he understands their actions. They were starving. Would you do the same?, I ask him. No, he says, I would not kill in order to live.

It is evening, and Khu and the translator are sitting with me, looking over the dazzling Hong Kong harbor. We watch the junks move among the little islands. The mountain of the city rises like a Christmas tree. I ask Khu what he’s thinking about. The lights, he says. They are beautiful. And the boats. I ask what he thinks about the boats. He says they are also beautiful. What else is beautiful?, I ask him. He says everything is beautiful.

I asked the students to write an essay reflecting on Khu’s last statement, drawing as they did so upon any four of the pieces we read over the course of the semester. 

            Because to me and to them, I know, it does not always seem beautiful. The suffering in Syria or Yemen or Afghanistan, or the violent persecution of minorities on a global scale, or the callousness shown to the millions of people displaced around the world, so many of whom flee victimization only to become victims once again. Two children, fleeing the hell on earth that is their homeland, died in the custody of American law enforcement.

            The students acknowledged this suffering. I encouraged them to follow the news, and many did so. They wrote movingly about these global injustices, placing this ugliness in the context of their understanding of Plato’s forms, or the call in Testaments Old and New to extend grace, compassion, and kindness to those on the margins, and Augustine’s urgent determination to find an explanation for the reality of evil that did not leave him wrecked and wretched.  They used Sophocles and Aquinas to make the case that a higher law exists—somewhere—against which the deeds of even the most confident despot will be measured. And Hamlet: in that grief-shattered young man, aware fully of the rottenness surrounding him, the students drew the lesson that as long as you are alive, you might find the chance to look past the despair, a lesson Hamlet himself could not learn. They understood well, as Ethan Hawke’s character in the film “First Reformed” put it, that balancing despair and hope is a struggle at the center of the human condition, even if Hawke’s character succumbed to that despair as well.

            So many of the students went beyond the news, the world at large, to write about their own moments of darkness.  They wrote with feeling, and I am grateful to them for sharing their stories with me. They were so personal, and so certain am I that they have not shared these stories widely on campus, that I do not feel that I can share them here in any detailed manner.  They wrote of the trauma and pain they carry, for example, from their parents’ acrimonious divorce. They wrote of their first encounters with death: of high school classmates to accidents, overdose, or homicide; of the adults in their lives, to cancer, accident, and suicide.  They wrote of people who died young, and their loss left these kids with their first taste of grief.  They identified with Augustine, who saw in his own struggles with grief a sign that he was not well, that his heart was unquiet.  They chronicled their struggles with breathtaking frankness. They spoke of their own mistakes, and the hard lessons they have learned.  They understood their own shortcomings, the steps they need to take in places to make themselves whole. 

            Spend four months talking with these students. Read their writing.  If you had the chance to do so, you would worry less about the future generation.  The students, at their best, wrote essays in which they examined big questions: the experience of evil, the suffering in the world and in their own lives, their place in a cosmos that at times seems close to shattering.  They looked out at the world, took its measure to the best of their ability, and they saw the beauty in it all.  They were not naïve, to my mind. They understood that there is so much injustice, so much that is so seriously screwed up.  But if they did not have a ready solution for the problems they so clearly could see—problems that great thinkers have thought about for millennia—most of them believed firmly that it did not have to be that way. 

            I find the Humanities course a challenge to teach. I was not around long ago when my colleagues assembled the original reading list, a menu from which faculty are allowed to make selections in a number of categories.  We have some freedom to substitute and innovate, but at the end, we have a long list of books that discuss all sorts of things. Finding unifying themes, I found difficult when I first taught the course.  After eight years of teaching it, the themes are more apparent.  Have no fear, I tell the students.  If there is one thing the books that they read share it is this: an awareness of the need to be not afraid, to be willing to ask difficult questions, to demand evidence, to express their dissent.  As we watch a political system presided over by the Travesty-in-Chief, aided and abetted by the tens of millions of Americans who still support him, and political leaders who know better but refuse to speak up, that courage is more necessary than ever.

            These students expressed, each in their own way, their optimism that their generation was up to the task.  They expressed their openness to the possibility that the world does not need to be the way it is.  They agreed with Khu.  That faith, in a country where somehow that smash-and-grab operation that is the Trump Administration managed to come to power, buoys me and, I suspect, many of those of us who teach. 

Here’s to hoping 2019 is better than 2018. I wish you peace in the new year.

Easy A

Over the break, while sitting in the airport in Las Vegas, I took a few minutes to read Gary Landerman’s essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Why I’m Easy: On Giving Lots of A’s.”

Landerman correctly notes that many of our students experience enormous amounts of stress in college.  Grades, he correctly argues, wield enormous influence in determining the sorts of opportunities a graduate will enjoy.  Part of Landerman’s plan, then, “is to try to show love and empathy rather than contempt and derision, as some of my colleagues do.  Hell, students already have enough stress and uncertainty in their lives, as they adjust to living on their own, making new friends, feeding themselves, and taking crazy-making courses” in other fields.

Landerman seems to teach a significant number of general education courses on a variety of topics in his field of Religious Studies.  Some of these courses are quite large, enrolling more than two hundred students.  Landerman wants the content in these courses “to go down easily and smoothly, to be both entertaining and effortless—a nice break from their other courses, which are sober, regimented, and demanding.”

There are some obvious counter-arguments.  Not all required courses for majors are “crazy-making,” “sober,” and “demanding.”  A professor can maintain high standards in courses covering difficult subject matter in a manner that is not contemptuous and derisive.  I have many colleagues who show a great deal of empathy and love to their students while forcing them to work their way through challenging assignments.  If you have taught for as long as I have, you will learn that it is not uncommon for students to love professors who made them work their asses off.  And Landerman, it seems to me, seems to underestimate just how “stimulating” and “entertaining” the demanding courses that majors take can be.

There was a time when concerns such as these would have led me to dismiss Landerman’s essay entirely, to be so annoyed by his claim that he can get away with what he does because he is tenured that I would completely tune him out.  The students he sees seem more fragile, less able to handle hardship and adversity than those I have known, and far less willing to tackle difficult work.

Landerman teaches large classes, he tells us.  In a class with two hundred students, it is obviously impossible to engage every student in discussions. It is difficult to develop assessments for classes that large that measure the students’ grasp of abstract concepts.  Landerman, indeed, tells us that his exams are easy, and multiple choice.  He does not have to spend a lot of time grading, and jokes that only idiots struggle to receive an A or a B in his classes.

Still, Landerman raises an issue about which I do not hear enough discussion.  “Why,” Landerman asks, “should I assign a grade to an effort at human growth?”  Setting aside the obvious answer that in efforts at human growth, some students work harder and are more successful improving themselves than others, maybe it would be better to ask different questions: what do I want students to get out of my classes, and what is the relationship between the grades I give and actual learning?

I have a colleague, for example, who assigns her students a handful of short papers, ten or so, over the course of the semester.  This she does in lieu of exams.  The paper assignments require students to confront weighty topics.  It is demanding work.  And students must complete all the papers.  So, let’s say, a student completes nine of the ten essays, and earns an “A” on each paper.  Some situation, however, whether a family emergency, an illness, a breakup, or a simple mistake in keeping track of assignments and due dates, keeps the student from turning in the tenth paper.  That student would fail my colleague’s course.

Where is the justice in that?  The policy strikes me as punitive and pedantic. There is no relationship between that student’s failing grade and what she learned over the course of the semester.

I understand that some professors believe students should be “responsible.”  Good training for the real world, they say.  They want to teach students that deadlines matter.  Most of their students, I believe, understand that perfectly well from high school, and if you know a historian who has never missed a deadline, I hope you will introduce me to that sparkly unicorn.  We may not be the people best suited to provide lessons on the subject, “Deadlines Matter.”

This is an extreme example, but there have been many occasions where I have wondered about the relationship between an assignment, the grade, and student learning.  I know that I have made mistakes, and that I have given assignments that did not necessarily measure well the student’s learning.  I still feel like there is a lot I can learn. As a result, I have become more flexible, and that flexibility has led me to be more lenient in my grading. I still require a lot of work but, like Professor Landerman, I have become a generous grader.

Like him, I want my students to think about complex issues.  I want them to engage with important and challenging ideas.  Students in my classes have written essays of such grace, beauty, and intelligence that they have moved me to tears.  Other students write with not nearly that much ease. They struggle to express themselves. They come into my class less well-prepared, or with fewer academic or educational resources than their “Straight A” classmates, but they may have travelled father to get there.  They may have learned more.  They may have been more affected by what they read or, I hope,  by what we talked about in class, than students who perform better in terms of standard measures of student learning and achievement.  Like Professor Landerman, I want to help in a small way to expand these kids’ horizons. I feel fortunate that I can remember how easy it is to be turned on by something I learned in class, that I remember how an idea can change your life.

Just this morning, at the opening convocation at Loyola Marymount University, I listened to the faculty member chosen to address the students and their parents say that at LMU, “Faculty don’t give students’ grades; at LMU, students earn their grades.”  The line received a good deal of applause, but it struck me as completely inane.  This speaker had given a talk that, it seemed to me, revealed a contemptuous attitude toward her students.  You need an alarm clock to succeed, she said, because you do not want to oversleep.  Do your homework. Read the syllabus.  Give me a break.  I hate statements like these that so underestimate students.  As for the grading part of her speech, she seemed to remove her own biases and beliefs and values from the equation.  The students do the work. I decide what they have earned.  But of course she is giving grades, and if she is not careful and conscious and thoughtful, she may enter scores and marks that reflect more what she expected from the students than what they actually learned.  As the parent of a freshman sitting in that audience, I found that a chilling and depressing thought.

The Liberal Arts in Trying Times

Those of us who teach the liberal arts at times feel under siege. Too often we reply to those who challenge our enterprise with arguments that students who major in the liberal arts do well after they graduate, that they have skills that are indeed employable, and that they will make as much money as students in other academic fields.  I agree with all these points, but I believe that in a way, they concede too much to those who criticize what we do, who view historical knowledge in much the same way climate change deniers view climate science.

For we live in strange times.  The President delivered up a word salad in Great Falls, Montana, last week that made him sound positively incoherent. One of his most visibly corrupt cabinet members has resigned, finally, though much of the swamp remains undrained.  In recent weeks, the administration has defended a policy intended to deter immigrants by separating asylum-seeking parents from their small children, some of them still in diapers.  And the President has recently announced his new nominee for the Supreme Court, creating an unbreakable majority capable of rolling back the social advances of the last fifty years.  There is little that is truly conservative in any of this: we are, it seems, facing an unprecedented assault on long-established norms and values, and the republic as we know it is in peril.

I think about all of this as I prepare my syllabus, once again, for the course in Western Humanities I regularly teach here at Geneseo, a course that seems more important now than ever before.

Western Humanities at Geneseo is a “great books” course, divided into two halves.  We used to require that students take both halves, but changing fashions and declining resources have resulted in the difficult decision to pare that requirement down to one course.  My students will read, in this order, the following:

Sophocles, Antigone

Thucydides, The Peloponessian War

Plato, The Republic

Cicero, The Republic

Virgil, The Aeneid

The Holy Bible, (Genesis, Exodus, Samuel, Isaiah, Matthew, and Paul’s Letter to the Romans)

Augustine, Confessions

Aquinas, Treatise on Law

More, Utopia

and Shakespeare, Hamlet.


“Classic” books, all of them.  They are weighty and important.  They speak to our current crisis. I cannot help but teach the course with that crisis in mind.  You see, I don’t teach HUMN I as a history course, even though I am a historian.  Rather, I hope to encourage the students to take what they read from these classics and engage with the present.  These writers asked difficult questions about law, society, justice, and how we are to live with one another.  We struggle with these questions still.

When Antigone, speaking truth to power, tells her uncle Creon, the tyrant, that there is a law higher than that of kings, I encourage students to consider their own experiences in the face of injustice.  What must one do?  What can one do? Aquinas, of course, wrestled with the question of whether an unjust law is law, and how and when one might oppose it.  The Attorney-General of the United States, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, has, like his slave-holding and segregationist forebears, trotted out Paul’s letter to the Romans to urge obedience to authority, a passage in the Bible that has been used by the apostles of injustice to quiet discontent for centuries.  Students will read these passages, but also the rest of Paul’s letter, the words Mr. Sessions chooses to ignore.  Justice, Power, and Human Nature: that is the subtitle to the edition of Thucydides I use in class.  Those three concepts run through all of the readings, weaving them together.  But also compassion and love for all–that’s there too, an ideal expressed most clearly when the students get to the readings from the Christian tradition.

It is hard to see much justice in the country today.  The men and women who lead the government too often fail to use their power to do good.  We have seen in the President’s conduct some of the worst of human nature, a man out of balance, and dominated, in Plato’s conception, by the appetitive part of his soul.  He unapologetically uses the highest office in the land to enrich himself and his children.  And with the president’s violent fantasies, his disturbing admiration for vicious dictators, not to mention more open and virulent expressions of racism than we have seen in years, and the caging of immigrant children and their separation from the adults in their lives, compassion seems in short supply.  The Republicans dismiss their critics as “snowflakes,” but all that really means is that they have no understanding or appreciation of empathy.

I can imagine what some of you reading this might say. Stick to the texts.  No reason to politicize these works.  It is not your job to indoctrinate students, especially with leftist propaganda. I suggest that you read these books, honestly and with an open mind, before you say that.  The students understand quite quickly that these books raise fundamental questions about justice, about how we are to live meaningful lives in community with others, which we still struggle to answer.  These texts are inherently political.  Read  in Thucydides his descriptions of the viciousness of civil war:  students see clearly the danger of propaganda, or what can follow from words losing their meaning.  The Greek authors the students read each spoke out in their own way against tyrants and demagogues, but also against the ordinary people who enabled tyrants to seize power or who allowed themselves to be seduced by the demagogue’s empty but angry rhetoric. When the President tells us how much he admires the North Korean dictator, and how he would love to receive the same respect from his people, the relevance of these texts is clear.

My students, like students before them, struggle with Plato. They find The Republic a difficult read.  I get that. Many of them find Plato’s ideas repellent, and for good reason.  Sometimes students can’t get past their revulsion.  At a minimum, then, I tell them to look at Socrates, through whom Plato speaks. Look at his style of thought and dialogue, I tell them.  He speaks. He asks questions. He listens and he responds.  He engages in a dialogue.  And out of that process of questioning emerges understanding and wisdom.  It is a beautiful thing that students do not see modeled enough.  It can be tough to ask questions, to challenge authority. But these texts, as well, ask us to overcome our fears, and state quite clearly at times that our only hope is to engage, to ask questions, to be relentless.  We need to hold the powerful to account.  We must always remember that tyrants give up nothing voluntarily, that we must confront injustice in every instance, and that our rulers are fallible human beings.  When they show cowardice, or an unwillingness to do what is needed, we have not only the right but the obligation to hold them to account.  It is our job as scholars and students.  It is our job as informed citizens.

We are told not to politicize our teaching.  Present the facts, but do not present left wing propaganda.  If you are in my line of work, you will hear it again and again. We need to push back against this. The classics force us to look at the gap between the way things are and the way things ought to be.  The solutions they offer might seem worse than the cure (I’m looking at you, Plato) or impractical, as in the Utopian model of eliminating money, but the authors of these texts knew that their ideas were provocative.  They wrote to challenge their audiences, to challenge us.  What do you owe your fellow citizens?  What do you believe is important, they asked us, and why? What are your ideals? If you see a gap between your ideals and your reality, what do you propose to do about it?  How will you, in Isaiah’s words, “Learn to practice what is good; seek justice, alleviate oppression, defend orphans in court, and plead the widow’s case”?  What will you do for the poor, the anguished, the caged child? What, to you, is worth fighting for?

Western Humanities teaches students that citizenship is active, not passive, and it places demands upon them to act in an informed manner, in their own interest to be sure, but also for the good of the whole.  We who teach in this field need to make that point clear.  We need to stop apologizing for the liberal arts, or play our opponents’ game by asserting that students with liberal arts degrees are indeed employable.  The liberal arts, becoming wise and becoming informed–all of this is essential for meaningful and effective citizenship, and it is the strength and quality of citizens upon which the republic most relies.



The Stories We Ought to Tell

I have always loved Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Her reflections on the historical enterprise in which we all are engaged inform in ways great and small what I try to do in much of my teaching and writing.  “History,” she writes, “is like weather, not like checkers.”  A board game comes to an end, but the weather, “in its complexity, in its shifts, in the way something triggers its opposite, just as a heat wave sucks the fog off the ocean and makes my town gray and clammy after a few days of baking, weather in its moods, in its slowness, it its suddenness,” never does.  “We never did save the whales, though we might have prevented them from becoming extinct. We will have to continue to prevent that as long as they continue not to be extinct, unless we become extinct first.” Past, present, and future, all connected, inseparable.  The past never ends.

Solnit understands so well the work of the historian.  “Writing is lonely,” she notes.  “It’s an intimate talk with the dead, with the unborn, with the absent, with strangers, with the readers who may never come to be and who, even if they do read you, will do so weeks, years, decades later.  An essay, a book, is one statement in a long conversation you could call culture or history; you are answering something or questioning something that may have fallen silent long ago, and the response to your words may come long after you’re gone and never reach your ears—if anyone hears you in the first place.”  It is a beautiful reflection on writing, a solitary enterprise, Solnit claims, that “is a model for how indirect effect can be, how delayed, how invisible; no one is more hopeful than a writer, no one is a bigger gambler.”

And in her most recent essay, with the title “Whose Story (and Country) Is This?” she challenges the media, and indeed all of us, to think about the stories we tell.

The common denominator of so many of the strange and troubling cultural narratives coming our way is a set of assumptions about who matters, whose story it is, who deserves the pity and the treats and the presumptions of innocence, the kid gloves and the red carpet, and ultimately the kingdom, the power, and the glory. You already know who. It’s white people in general and white men in particular, and especially white Protestant men, some of whom are apparently dismayed to find out that there is going to be, as your mom might have put it, sharing. The history of this country has been written as their story, and the news sometimes still tells it this way—one of the battles of our time is about who the story is about, who matters and who decides.

More Americans work in museums, Solnit points out, than work in coal mines, but “no one is talking about their jobs as a totem of our national identity.”   Too many of us are missing the important stories.

We are as a culture moving on to a future with more people and more voices and more possibilities. Some people are being left behind, not because the future is intolerant of them but because they are intolerant of this future. White men, Protestants from the dominant culture are welcome, but as Chris Evans noted, the story isn’t going to be about them all the time, and they won’t always be the ones telling it. It’s about all of us. White Protestants are already a minority and non-white people will become a voting majority in a few decades. This country has room for everybody who believes that there’s room for everybody. For those who don’t—well, that’s partly a battle about who controls the narrative and who it’s about.

We who write about the past, and teach history, whether in K-12 or in colleges—most of us recognize this.  We who work in the face of a testing regime that turns history education into rote memorization, and a college environment tripping over itself in a race to embrace STEM fields at the expense of the humanities and civics, face blowback when we broaden the base, and attempt to include the voices of those who traditionally have been excluded.  If we look around, however, and see the kids marching against the NRA, and the #MeToo and the “#TimesUp” movements, and the assertions that Black Lives Matter, and the growing attention to the enormous numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women and children throughout North America, it is clear that the ground is shifting beneath our feet.  We work alone, and it is often a solitary pursuit.  But the effort to be inclusive, to tell the stories of the powerless and the marginalized, is as important now as it has ever been.   

My Imposter Story: Some Thoughts on Ralph Ketcham

A couple of weeks ago I attended a memorial service for one of my graduate school professors, Ralph Ketcham, who had died last spring.  A great and productive scholar and teacher, active up until the end.  A lot to admire.

I wanted to finish Ralph’s final book, Public Spirited Citizenship: Leadership and Good Government in the United States, before I wrote more about my experience with him.  As in so much of Ralph’s scholarship, James Madison’s political writings, and Madison’s quest for a “republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government,” weighs heavily on this book.  But Ralph covers much more ground than that, from Plato to Cicero, to Erasmus and Swift and Pope and Jefferson and, of course, Publius. Ralph said that the authors of the Federalist spoke enough with one voice that they should be considered as one, even if I never quite believed that.

Ralph lamented in this final book the loss of public spirited-ness, a common theme in the works of the political writers he spent his career studying. He lamented how the factionalism which Madison sought to control had broken the republic into a menagerie of competing “interest” and “identity” groups, each pursuing their own tribal interest.  This tribalism placed, and places, little value on far-sighted leadership and, importantly, it asks little of citizens other than that they register to vote for this cause or another, and that they mobilize and join with others of like mind and devotion to the same cause to protect their partial interests.  The notion of a public good had shriveled in the heat of this factional competition, stoked by leaders who looked only to their next election.

I had not seen Ralph in the several years before he died, and I wonder how hopeful he was for the future. Not after the electoral college placed in the Oval Office a corrupt and unlettered brute free of the tiniest ounce of public-spiritedness and bearing nothing more than a narcissistic devotion to his own reputation, image, and desiccated sense of honor.  If one wanted evidence that “the people” had failed, that the system had not worked, the election of a man so clearly devoid of all but the most minimal qualifications for the office and whose fitness for the job has been openly questioned by members of his own party, seemed abundant proof.  Trump’s election seemed to make the case that perhaps the “citizens” are not up to the fulfilling the vital duties of citizenship.

“What is needed to attain good self-government, then,” Ralph writes in the closing pages of Public-Spirited Citizenship, “is broad and deep, as well as clear and simple.”  What we need are “citizens and leaders who are in some degree knowledgeable, wise and public-spirited.” Easier said than done, perhaps.  But Ralph expressed faith that the citizens of this republic were equipped or could be equipped once again to develop the “habits of the heart–that give them not only such perception of the public good but a passion to seek it in the polity.”

Such a growth and development is an essential part of the change needed in the ‘bewildering and disconcerting,’ even dysfunctional, group pressure and conflict-of-interest politics now dominant in the United States. The potentially present moral and emotional qualities of human beings, of citizens, though, need earnest, careful, widespread nurture and teaching to fulfill a genuinely public-spirited citizenship. That, in fact, is a crucial part of overcoming the present political culture to achieve one closer, again, to that of the Athenian Oath: ‘We will strive increasingly to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty; thus in all these ways we will transmit this city, not only not less, but greater and more beautiful than it has been transmitted to us.”

When I went back to Syracuse for Ralph’s service, I spent some time in the University Archives. I am working on a book on the history of the Onondaga Nation, and one of the university’s early chancellors was at the center of a number of unsuccessful efforts to break up the Onondaga reservation and allot its lands to individual Indians.  I spent some time there, then ate at one of the few places that remained on Marshall Street from when I was a student there more than twenty five years ago, and then walked up to Maxwell Hall, where I saw in the lobby the statue of George Washington, framed by the Oath of the Athenian City State. I went to Ralph’s service at Hendricks Chapel, listened to the stories Ralph’s colleagues and former students told, and what I heard there informed how I taught Cicero when I got back to Geneseo the next day.  I felt very fortunate to have known Ralph, and to have had him as a teacher.  A lot of good memories.

And I remembered very clearly that I owed Ralph a lot.  When I got to Syracuse in 1990, with a generous fellowship, I had imposter syndrome. Big Time.  I had the Maxwell School’s most prestigious fellowship, and at my first class every class meeting at Syracuse, in Ralph’s class–man, some of those people were so smart.  It was a history of early American political thought and it drew students from the history department but also from philosophy, political science, public administration, and cultural foundations of education.  I found these other students intimidatingly bright, so well-spoken, so confident.  But the class was too large for good discussions, Ralph thought, so he broke it into two groups, and I went with the historians.  I was doing all right here, I guess, but not well enough to know that I was going to make it in graduate school.

Our first paper assignment involved analyzing the works of a number of Puritan writers, some in England like William Ames and the Lord Saye and Sele, and others in America like Roger Williams.  John Winthrop factored largely in my paper, and I still use bits of what I wrote when I teach the early history of New England. I cannot recall all of the works we read, but I remember benefiting greatly from working through them.  I did the paper, my first in graduate school at Syracuse, and waited apprehensively for the result. Professor Ketcham, if I remember it right, said that both halves of the class would meet as one, a committee of the whole, at his house a short distance from campus that evening. Something had gone wrong, or bothered him about the papers. I cannot remember if this was a conclusion I drew myself, or one that emerged from the usual worried scuttlebutt that ran through the graduate students’ hangout, a bar on the South Campus called the Inn Complete.

Professor Ketcham let us have it–gently, but unmistakably so. He mentioned that history or political science of whichever field we were serving our apprenticeships in was, at the end of the day, about writing. He might have said something about stories, but I am not sure. He certainly mentioned the importance of clarity and style as essential ingredients in a persuasive and effective paper. I wish I still had my marked up copy of that paper, but it did not manage to make the trip during one of my many moves since I left Syracuse in 1994.

Ralph told us all this, and then he began reading.  He said that he wanted to provide an example of an effectively written paper. He began to read mine.

I knew that I still did not feel very accomplished, or as if I had just beaten the world.  Self-doubt would continue to plague me, as I suspect it does many students of history.  But I did feel like I imagine a baseball player feels like after he hits a groundball single in his first at bat. No great accomplishment by itself. Need to keep working, and keep improving.  But, still, I can do this.

Graduate school in many ways for my cohort of students seemed to generate lots of feelings of inadequacy, of self-doubt, of imposter syndrome.  We worried if we would ever find academic jobs, though nearly all of those who finished were lucky enough to do so.  I am not sure how typical my program was. At the time, there were some very, very fine historians at Syracuse. One of my classmates, who came to Syracuse via an Ivy League undergraduate program, quipped that Syracuse’s history department had an inferiority complex that we all paid for with a very heavy workload. It came up between beers, wings, and fries at the Inn Complete. I actually liked my time in school, self-doubt aside, and liked doing the reading.

No big deal.  The paper was read. I got a good grade.  But I was grateful for that. It helped me through a trying first year at Syracuse.  I was a Southern Californian who had never seen snow fall before in my life, and here I was living three thousand miles away in a city known for its foul weather.  For that first class I have always been grateful to Ralph. He was always interested in my work. I know, from our interactions over my four years on campus, and from the times I saw him when I went back, that Ralph thought highly of me and my work.  His support was one small piece of the puzzle of how I managed to succeed as a graduate student and an academic historian in my own right.

I will be teaching the History of the Early Republic in the spring.  I have not taught it since my last year at MSU-Billings, which was twenty years ago.  I have always had a fondness for the field–originally I went to Syracuse to study that period.  Other things came up along the way and I followed a different path, but I moved back into the field when I researched and wrote my books on Canandaigua and on Eleazer Williams. I have started working through the broader scholarship again, refreshing my memory, making note of what is new.  I revisited Ralph’s edition of Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention, which he paired with a nice selection of Anti-Federalist writings.  I looked again at his Presidents Above Party and his massive and authoritative biography of James Madison.  If if were not so huge I would consider using it class.

We who succeed in this field are the products of a lot of hard work to be sure, but also of the efforts of those with whom we study. My interpretations of this or that were framed during discussions and debates in reading seminars and my teaching style, I am sure, though it has changed much over the years, still bears traces of Ralph and the other folks who I watched teach, and from whom I learned so much.