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Indigenous Law and Public Policy, Spring 2023

I have not taught one of my two favorite courses in person in quite a while. I was on sabbatical last spring, and I taught an online version in the Spring of 2021. I have posted the syllabus here to share recent updates to the course, but also to solicit suggestions and advice. I would like to broaden the focus, or develop a similar course that explores similar issues as they are discussed and analyzed in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Before the pandemic, I was well advanced in planning a study-abroad course for Sydney that would allow students and me to learn on the ground in Australia. Please, feel free to share your expertise. I would love to hear your thoughts. I apologize in advance for any gloopiness in the formatting: copying the Word File into this website makes for some awkward transfers some times.

History 262    Indigenous Law and Public Policy               Spring 2023

Professor: Michael Oberg

Meetings:   MW, 8:30-10:10, Welles 131

Office Hours:  Wednesday, 10:15-12:00, Doty 208

Roughly every week or so I post to my blog on matters related to the teaching and writing of Native American history.  You are welcome to follow along.

Required Readings:

Stuart Banner, How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier, (2005)

Daniel Cobb, Say We Are Nations: Documents of Politics and Protest in Indigenous America since 1887, (2015).

Sarah Deer, The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America, (2015)

Luke Lassiter, Clyde Ellis, and Ralph Kotay, The Jesus Road: Kiowas, Christianity, and Indian Hymns, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002)

Readings online.

News Articles in online news sources like indianz.com and other online sources.

Court cases and documents as per syllabus.

Recommended Podcasts and other media:

            Wind River (Motion Picture)

            This Land, Seasons 1 and 2.

            Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo.

            Stolen: Surviving St. Michael’s

            Stolen: The Search for Jermaine

            5-4: Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta

            5-4: Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl

Course Description:   This course will provide you with an overview of the concept of American Indian tribal sovereignty, nationhood, and the many ways in which discussions of sovereignty and right influence the status of American Indian nations.  We will look at the historical development and evolution of the concept of sovereignty, the understandings of sovereignty held by native peoples, and how non-Indians have confronted assertions of sovereignty from native peoples.  We will also examine current conditions in Native America, and look at the historical development of the challenges facing native peoples and native nations in the 21st century.  This course is required for the Native American Studies Minor, and counts for the following Core attributes:

                        Diversity, Equity, Inclusion

                        Diversity, Pluralism, Power

                        Humanities

A Note on Grading:  Your work this semester will consist of Participation, Journals, and a Final Paper.

1). Participation is much more than attendance. I view my courses fundamentally as extended conversations and these conversations can only succeed when each person pulls his or her share of the load.  You should plan to show up for class with the reading not just “done” but understood; you should plan not just to “talk” but to engage critically and constructively with your classmates.  Our conversations will depend on your thoughtful inquiry and respectful exchange.  We are all here to learn, and I encourage you to join in the discussion with this in mind.  Obviously, you must be present to participate. Please have all assigned readings available when we meet. The reading load in this course is quite heavy. It will challenge you to keep up. If you have trouble with the reading, please let me know.  You obviously will be able to participate in classes with the most success when you complete the reading.

2). Journals: On seven occasions during the semester I will read your journals.  I want you to think about what you are reading and I want you to write about that experience. You will submit your journals on Brightspace. You should plan on writing a minimum of 300 words a week. DO NOT SUMMARIZE OUR CLASS DISCUSSIONS.  DO NOT SUMMARIZE THE READINGS. I hope you will take this assignment as an opportunity to reflect upon what you are reading in class and in terms of current events, to discuss the things you wish that we had a chance to discuss in class, or to say what you wanted to say during one of our class meetings.  Show me that you are thinking about the material we cover in our readings and in the classroom.  Show me that you are keeping up with current events in Indian Country. Use the journals as an opportunity to educate yourself on issues in Native America that matter to you. Read the news on INDIANZ.COM,  National Native News, Native News Online, Indian Country Today, and CBC Indigenous for Canada, and the National Indigenous Times for Australia. I will also tweet out stories that I find of interest under the hashtag #HIST262MLO.  In addition, I would like you to follow news on one Native Nation.  You can set up a news alert on Google News, and stories will appear in your inbox whenever they occur. You can find a list of federally recognized Indian Nations here.  Some Indigenous nations receive more coverage than others.

Final Paper: Your paper should be approximately 15 pages in length.  You will take the role of an adviser to a new President.  Your assignment is to advise this President on Indian policy.  In your paper you will do the following:

1). Identify what you see as a major problem or problems in Native America today that you believe the President should tackle during her or his administration.

2). Explain briefly the historical origins of this problem and how and why previous solutions have either failed to address it or ignored it entirely.

3. Offer a thoughtful, plausible, and realistic path towards solving this problem, and       justify it legally and constitutionally.

4. Have at least 30 sources in a thorough bibliography that includes each of the following: news articles, government documents, reports from agencies working with indigenous peoples, and works by scholars who study these issues published in academic journals and books.

5. Format the paper according to the guidelines spelled out in the Turabian Manual. Write the paper with careful attention to grammar, style and substance.     

With any of these assignments, I encourage you to visit with me during office hours if you have any questions.  You should be clear on what I expect from you before you complete an assignment.  The door is open.  If you cannot make it to my office hours, please feel free to contact me by email and we will find another time. Many questions can be answered and problems addressed more effectively in person during office hours than by email.

I will write extensive comments on your written work.  I will ask you challenging questions, offer what I hope you will view as constructive criticism, and encourage you to push yourself as a writer and a thinker. But I will not give you grades, in the traditional sense, on this work. I want you to benefit from this course. On the date of our first class meeting, we will discuss the standards for the class.  You and I will work together to arrive at a set of expectations for the sort of work that will earn a specific grade.   In your final journal, and in individual meetings scheduled during Finals Week, we will discuss how well you think you did in meeting the agreed upon standards, and what your grade for the course ought to be. A proposed grading framework can be found, below.

A Note on COVID-19: We will be working together during a continuing global pandemic. Though the pandemic has slowed considerably, there is still reason to be careful. These remain trying times.  That you may feel stressed and anxious over the course of the semester is not surprising at all.  Your health is important.  The health of the people who matter to you is important. If the pandemic is posing a challenge to you doing the assigned work, please feel free to let me know.  I encourage you to ask for help if you need it. Stay in touch.

A Note on Phones: I ask that all cellphones be stored during the entirety of our class meeting.  If you expect an important call that just cannot wait, please inform me before class. Otherwise, I expect you to refrain from using your cellphone and I expect you to keep it out of sight. Please be present in mind and body.

Discussion and Reading Schedule

25 January       Introduction to the Course

The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Banner, How, Introduction, Chapter 1; The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).    

30 January       Native Nations in the United States

                        How to Read a Supreme Court Case

Reading: Articles of Confederation, Article IX; United States Constitution; Northwest Ordinance  (1787); Federal Trade and Intercourse Act (1790); Treaty of Canandaigua (1794); Banner, How, Chapters 1-3

1 February       The Marshall Court and the Definition of Native Nations

Reading: Johnson v. McIntosh (1823); Banner, How, Chapters 4 and 5. If you are interested in a comparative perspective, I encourage you to look at Stuart Banner’s article, “Why Terra Nullius? Anthropology and Property Law in Early Australia,” Law and History Review, 23 (Spring 2005), 95-131, available on Brightspace.

6 February       The Expulsion Era

Reading: Documents on Jacksonian Indian policy (Brightspace); Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831); Samuel A. Worcester v. State of Georgia, (1832); Banner, How, Chapter 6.

Journal 1 Due.

 8 February      The Reservation System

Reading: Ex Parte Crow Dog; Major Crimes Act (1885) and US v. Kagama  (1886); Banner, How, Chapter 7.

13 February     The Policy of Allotment

Reading: Cobb, Nations, pp. 19-49; Banner, How, Chapter 8;Talton v. Mayes (1896); Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903); United States v. Celestine (1909)

15 February     The Indian New Deal

Reading: Reading: Cobb, Nations, pp. 54-93; Banner,  How, (finish book) and the Indian Reorganization Act,  1934.

20 February     The Termination Era

Reading: Cobb, Nations, pp. 97-106, 115-123; HCR 108; Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States (1955).

Journal 2 Due

22 February     Williams v. Lee and the Modern Era of American Indian Tribal Sovereignty

Reading: Williams v. Lee (1959); Native American Church v. Navajo Tribal  Council (1959).

27 February     The Era of Self-Determination

Reading: McClanahan v. Arizona Tax Commission, (1973); Morton v. Mancari (1974).

 1 March          Red Power

Reading: Cobb, Nations, 124-188

 6 March          The Supreme Court’s 1978 Term, Congress and Tribal Sovereignty

Reading: US. v. Wheeler (1978); Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez (1978); Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe (1978); Legislative Packet (Brightspace)

Journal 3 Due.

8 March           The Power of Tribal Governments

Reading: Merrion v. Jicarilla Apache Tribe (1982); Duro v. Reina, (1990); Atkinson Trading Company v. Shirley (2001); US v. Lara (2004)

20 March         The War on Native American Children and Families

Reading:  Adoptive Couple v Baby Girl (2013) (this was a messy case, with two concurring and two dissenting opinions); 5-4 Podcast on the Adoptive Couple case; Margaret Jacobs, “Remembering the ‘Forgotten Child’: The American Indian Child Welfare Crisis of the 1960s and 1970s,” American Indian Quarterly 37 (Winter/Spring 2013), 136-159 (Brightspace); Olivia Stefanovich, “2023 Will Be a Pivotal Year for Indigenous Child Welfare on Both Sides of the Border,” CBC News, 2 January 2023. The Cherokee Phoenix produced its own 42-minute long breakdown of the case, if you are interested in Native American reactions to Brackeen.

This would be a good time to listen to Season 2 of the “This Land” podcast hosted by Rebecca Nagel

Journal 4 Due

22 March         Jurisdiction and Sovereignty in the 21st Century

Reading: McGirt v. Oklahoma (2020); Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, (2022). Listen to 5-4 Podcast episode on the Castro-Huerta decision.

27 March         Sexual Violence in Indian Country

Reading: Deer, Rape.  We will discuss the book in its entirety.  You will want to begin reading

29 March         #MMIW #MMIWG

Reading:  Watch this advertisement from the Native Women’s Wilderness, and this one from the United States Office of Justice Programs/Office for Victims of Crimes; Absorb as much of the following as you can: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls, (Seattle: Urban Indian Health Institute, 2017); a PBS NewsHour report featuring Abigail HenHawk, who oversaw the Urban Indian Health Institute report; National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.  (Explore the website, read the summary of the 2019 Final Report); the report from the Trump Administration’s “Operation Lady Justice”; and President Biden’s Executive Order 14053 from November of 2021.

Search on Twitter using the hashtags #MMIW and #MMIWG.  The podcast on the disappearance of Jermain Charlo would fit well here. Give it a listen.

3 April              Issues in American Indian Religion: Christianity in Indian Country

Reading: Lassiter, Ellis and Kotay, The Jesus Road, (entire book).

5 April             Issues in American Indian Religion 

Reading: Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (1990); Lyng v. Northwest Cemetery Protective Association (1988).  Please watch on your own “The Silence,” a PBS documentary on one small Catholic Church in Alaska.

                        Journal 5 Due

10 April           Issues in American Indian Education: Boarding Schools and their Legacy

Reading:  Gord Downie, “The Secret Path.”  I would also like you to go to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School online project.  You can find the website here.  Your assignment is, first, to read Louise NoHeart’s student file (Brightspace) and then to read a minimum of at least 5 student files from the Indigenous Nation you have been following this semester (or a related Nation)(Ask for help if you are not clear on how to do this!) In general, for each student there is an information card and a student file. Read both of those and search for the student’s name in the newspapers and other documents.  What do you learn about those students’ experiences at Carlisle? Be prepared to discuss what you found.

Please spend some time as well with the ArcGIS project from the University of Windsor looking at Canadian Residential Schools and this nine-minute report by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!

12 April           Mascots and Other Forms of Appropriation

Reading: Materials on the Andrea Smith case; Russell Cobb, “Why Do So Many People Pretend to be Native American,” This Land Press, (August 2014), available here; Audra Simpson, “Indigenous Identity Theft Must Stop,” Boston Globe, November 17, 2022.

17 April           Economic Development and Poverty in Indian Country

 Reading: California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians (1987); National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) website.

                        Journal 6 Due

19 April           The Land and its Loss: The Consequences of Dispossession and Environmental Degradation

Reading: City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation (2005); Stephanie H. Barclay and Michalyn Steele, “Rethinking Protections for Indigenous Sacred Sites,” Harvard Law Review, (forthcoming, on Brightspace).

24 April           Resistance: IDLA to Red Lives Matter, Idle No More

Reading: Watch Film: “You Are On Indian Land;” Cobb, Nations, 203-250;

Lakota Law Project, Native Lives Matter; Jonah Raskin, “Red Lives Matter,” Tablet Magazine, October 10, 2021. You can also read my report about the death or Reynold High Pine in 1972; Jason Pero in Wisconsin and Colten Boushie in 2018; Please also look at the Idle No More website and read about this Canadian movement.

26 April           GREAT DAY—NO CLASSES: Possible Guest Will Visit our Campus and Our Class.

1 May              Health and Well-Being in Native America

Reading: Indian Health Service, “Disparities,” Updated October 2019; Linda Poon, “How ‘Indian Relocation’ Created a Public Health Crisis,” Citylab, 2 December 2019; Mohan B. Kumar and Michael Tjepkema, “Suicide Among First Nations people, Métis and Inuit, 2011-2016),” Statistics Canada, 28 June 2019; Rural Tribal Health Overview, May 2022; Prabir Mandal and Jarett E. Raade, “Major Health Issues of American Indians,” 28 June 2018

3 May              What Is To Be Done?

Reading: Read the Preface, Introduction, and Calls to Action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report from Canada, 2015, entitled Honouring the Past, Reconciling for the Future (read only the introduction, and whatever else interests you, in Brightspace) and “Calls to Action and Accountability: A Status Update on Reconciliation” by Eva Jewell and Ian Mosby of the Yellowhead Institute, (2019). 

Final Paper Due

8 May           What is to be Done? (Continued)

 Reading: Harold Napoleon, Yuuyarq: The Way of the Human Being, (Fairbanks: Alaska Native Knowledge Network, 1996).

                      Journal 7 Due

10 May            Final Class Meeting

17 May            Final Exam Period, 8:00-11:20: Individual Discussions to consider your final grade.

Maybe, Just Maybe

I am hearing it again and it really bothers me. It is the end of the semester. I am tired, and so are my students. Yet I listen too often to laments from faculty members talking about how the quality of our students has declined. They are not doing the reading. They have no work ethic. They are just not prepared for college work. And they could not write their way out of a paper bag.

But maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with the global pandemic we are struggling through. I have been hearing the same laments from the same instructors for a long time, so it has to be more than that. Maybe, just maybe, as students worry about the dicked-up world our generation has bequeathed to them, we have failed to inspire them to do the work. Maybe they do not do the work because they really cannot get to it right now. Maybe they can’t get to that work because you and I have failed to convince them that this work is important and that it matters more than all the other stuff they are dealing with. Maybe, just maybe, they do not care about the work because, frankly, we have not given them reason to care about what we do and why we think it is important.

Maybe, just maybe, some of us college professors ought to look at what high school and elementary school teachers go through. Their students, they say, are often not prepared for classwork. They have lots of things going on in their young lives that cause them to view school as less important than other things on their list of concerns. And you know what? Those teachers still have to teach. Their jobs depend on it. They do not get to blame the students. They have to meet certain standards, whatever we might think about those standards, or they can face penalties. The good teachers find ways to inspire their students to work and to learn.

When I look at my Zoom screen, I see a small number of black boxes. Because the students are at home, I do not feel comfortable asking them to turn on their cameras if they do not want to–I have no idea what might be going on in their homes, and if they feel a need for privacy, I feel bound to respect it. I wish their cameras were on, but I am not willing to make an issue out of this. Some of my students, I know, are not doing all the reading. I tell them to do their best. I firmly believe that if they are interested, at some point they will come back to this subject if they miss it now. I suspect that one of the reasons why their journals (300 words a week) are coming in late is because some of them, rather than writing each week, waited until the last possible second to do the work. I know that two of my students have buried a parent, and that a half dozen or so have either been sick themselves or in quarantine for Covid exposure. I do not blame the students for any of this. If the students in your classes are not reading, if they are not participating in your class discussions as much as you would like, if they seem uninterested, it might be more productive to look in the mirror before you start beating down students.

Maybe, just maybe, you will have to adjust your standards, or make fundamental changes to the way you teach. I think here of people like Kevin Gannon, Cate Denial, and Thomas LeCaque, who have helped to inspire me to rethink how I approach my classes. If the students truly “are not as strong as they used to be,” then you may need to change your approach. You may have to reconsider how you teach. I firmly believe this, and it is a hill I will die on: if our students are failing to learn what we are trying to teach them, then you and I are failing as teachers. And if this is something you would rather whine about than fix, perhaps you can find something else to do with your life. Maybe, just maybe.

As this semester approaches its end, I can admit to my students that I am exhausted. We are approaching Christmas, with all the busy-ness that entails. I had Covid in early November and, three weeks after being cleared by the County Health Department, I still do not feel like I have fully recovered. My tank is nearly empty. But I have no papers to write, no final exams to study for, no all-nighters that I need to pull. All that is left for me this semester as a (virtual) classroom teacher is to read what my beleaguered, stressed-out, sometimes careless and sloppy, but always interesting students have to say. And I feel fortunate to be here for that. Maybe, just maybe, we can make a resolution for the New Year: No more bitching and moaning about students.

Stay safe out there.

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.

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.

We Are Teachers

Many years ago I served on a search committee for a position in the history of American Foreign Policy. For many reasons it was an odd search, and we ultimately did not succeed in hiring anyone for the opening.  We interviewed one candidate over the phone, with an exceptional record of publication, and a strong, Ivy League academic pedigree. He was doing a post-doc at some thinktank somewhere and, when asked about teaching said that, yes, he did enjoy it, and that it was for him a “nice break in the day.”  He would not have been a good fit for us. I teach in a department, and at a college, with a great number of very fine teachers, where teaching is Job One, and where we take great pride in the accomplishments of our undergraduates.

Don’t Be This Guy

I have served on many search committees since that time. It consistently strikes me how poorly served are many job candidates who come from elite research institutions.  The letters of recommendation, even when they are signed and printed on letter-head, are so long, with detailed and esoteric discussions of the significance of a candidate’s research.  In my view, they contain more detail than is necessary and, all too often, say little about teaching beyond expressing the belief that the candidate, based upon their personality, might be good at it.

Do not get me wrong. Research is important.  It makes you a better historian and, when done with eyes open, it makes for better teaching. It

…or this guy

forces you to remain engaged with the scholarship and to keep abreast of the developments in your field. Even at a college like ours, it is something that you are required to do in order to achieve tenure and promotion.

And even at a school like mine, with its heavy teaching load and limited travel funds, it is my view something that you are ethically bound to do. Were I to resign my position, and if my college was able to scare up the money to replace me and conduct a tenure-track search for a historian in Early American or Native American history, I would expect that at least a hundred people would apply for the job.  Many of these people would be fantastically qualified. Many of them would have published much more by the time they went out on the job market than my peers and I did back in the middle of the 1990s.

But, let’s face it, many of them will never land tenure-track teaching positions.  Because colleges increasingly rely on adjuncts to carry the weight of their college’s teaching obligations, or because public systems are strapped for cash and positions are not necessarily replaced, many of these outstanding young historians will never get the chance to do what I have done.  It is an unjust system, and no meritocracy.  Those of us with good jobs need to appreciate how privileged we are. We need to publish, and if we cannot, we should get the hell out of the way for those who can.  We cannot justly take up space.  Other people, were they so fortunate, would produce high quality work and in quantity if they could.  Many of them will never get that chance.

Many of those who apply for position after position and never find secure academic employment would make fantastic college teachers as well.  So those of us fortunate enough to have jobs have the obligation to put our best efforts forward, to realize that we speak to more students on any given teaching day than will likely ever read an article we publish or listen to a paper we give at this or that conference. We should realize that we can devastate a student with an unkind word or with criticism that is indelicate or overly harsh.

We should recognize as well that with words of confidence and encouragement we can change a young person’s life.  A student will remember us, and what we have said, perhaps long after we have forgotten that student’s name.  And to have that sort of positive impact as a teacher requires great effort and commitment and consciousness.  I once had a colleague when I taught in Montana who told me during my campus visit that being a college professor was “the best part-time job in the world.” He published shit, a bibliography here, a stupid article there.  He taught unimaginatively–presidents and scantrons in American history.  To do well requires an enormous amount of energy and sensitivity.  Teaching is the most important thing we do.

I have had many great teachers as colleagues.  Bill Cook, my medievalist colleague who retired a few years back, and who was adored by generations of students, told me that he reminded himself that every student he taught was the most important person in somebody’s life, and that they were entitled to the utmost courtesy, care, and respect.  His office for many years was across from mine, and I was always impressed by how much time he took with students, how much interest he showed in them.  It was a good lesson for me.

I had this student who took a couple of my classes–my Native American survey course and my course in American Indian Law. She wrote one of the finest research projects I had ever read. Her short papers were brilliantly insightful. They were well-researched and extremely well-written. They were theoretically sophisticated.  She was not a history major, but was the best student in each of the classes she took.  As she prepared to leave campus, having completed her last semester, she stopped by my office. She thanked me for the semester. I told her that I have been at this teaching thing a while.  I told her that I had a good idea of what it takes to succeed in graduate school and academia, and I told her that I am highly selective in who I recommend for graduate school–it is a tough job market, after all, and to succeed you need to be a hard worker, talented, and imaginative.  I told her that I did not know what her plans were after school but that I had every confidence that she could succeed in any endeavor she chose to pursue, and that I would be delighted to write a letter of recommendation for her.  She was visibly moved by this.

A couple of weeks later, I was talking to a colleague in her home department. I was sharing how talented I thought this student was, and thanked my colleague for sending her over to my department.  He said that she was a C student, that she did not seem that interested or motivated.  Damn.  That transcript.  Those grades.  Wouldn’t work for graduate school.  It was a conversation that left me deeply disappointed, and I feel it still, a couple of years later.  Was she really uninterested, or was he uninspired or ill-advised?  I wish I had the chance to meet this student earlier in her Geneseo career.  I have a feeling that I may have been the only professor she had who really let her know how exceptional and talented she was.

We teach. Sometimes, we get lucky, and we meet students who have such breath-taking talent that we learn more from them than they from us.  Sometimes students disappoint us, frustrate us, inspire us, and make us proud.  Sometimes they do not live up to what we believe is their potential.  But once in a while, you will change their life for the better, and, once in a while, they will make yours much better, too.