MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

October 22, 2014: De Lange Follows Ups: Keynote Speakers

[Last Monday and Tuesday I had the honor of being invited to attend Rice University’s De Lange Conference IX  as a Social Media Fellow, helping to create conversations about and around the conference theme (“Teaching in the University of Tomorrow”) and talks. It was a wonderful experience, and I wanted to follow it up this week with posts on a number of the issues and ideas I encountered there. Whether you attended as well, followed on Twitter, or just have thoughts on any of these topics, I’d love to hear from you!]
On three provocative questions raised by the conference’s keynote addresses (not including Ruth Simmons’, about which I blogged yesterday). To be clear, I don’t have any answers to any of today’s questions, but I wanted to make sure to highlight them here, so we can all continue to think about them!
1)      What we can learn from MOOCs?: All of Tuesday’s keynotes (by Anant Agarwal, Kevin Guthrie, Daphne Koller, and David Pritchard) focused on one or another aspect of MOOCs, the open-access online courses that have become such a central part of 21st century higher education. I’ll admit that I have considered MOOCs entirely as an alternative to, and thus competition for, traditional universities. But all of these speakers argued for versions of the opposite, that instead we can and must learn from MOOCs, find ways to make some of their work part of ours, bridge the gap between these two modes. If you’ve taken or taught a MOOC, and/or otherwise have any thoughts on whether and how we might connect these modes, I’d love to hear them!
2)      How do administrations and faculties best work together?: Many of our speakers were current or former university presidents: José Antonio Bowen, William Bowen, Nancy Cantor, George Rupp, and Ruth Simmons. So it’s probably no surprise that a frequent topic was shared governance, and more specifically the challenges that such governance (especially as it often plays out) seems to present to changing, reforming, and improving universities. It’s fair to say that all of the speakers called upon faculty to accept changes to such models in one way or another, although with greatly varied emphases (William Bowen’s the most overtly critical of faculty inaction and intransigence, for example). I understand that position, but would also emphasize the need for administrations to be equally willing to accept changes and new options. What do you think?
3)      How do we change external perceptions of higher ed?: The first two questions are about internal conversations, in one way or another; but I think it’s fair to say, as many of our speakers did (especially Nancy Cantor in her Monday lunch address), that addressing increasingly negative external perceptions of higher ed (especially its costs, but also its separation from the rest of society and other related issues) presents at least as vital a challenge for the universities of tomorrow. Cantor focuses specifically on building fuller connections to and relationships with local communities, which is an ongoing goal and passion of mine as well. But there’s no one or right answer for how we impact these perceptions and narratives, I don’t think. So I’d love to hear some of your thoughts, as with all these questions!
Next follow up tomorrow,
Ben
PS. So what do you think?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

October 21, 2014: De Lange Follows Ups: Ruth Simmons

[Last Monday and Tuesday I had the honor of being invited to attend Rice University’s De Lange Conference IX  as a Social Media Fellow, helping to create conversations about and around the conference theme (“Teaching in the University of Tomorrow”) and talks. It was a wonderful experience, and I wanted to follow it up this week with posts on a number of the issues and ideas I encountered there. Whether you attended as well, followed on Twitter, or just have thoughts on any of these topics, I’d love to hear from you!]
On two vital conference contributions from the most inspiring keynote speaker.
As I’ll note in tomorrow’s post, each of the conference’s speakers offered provocative contributions to our ongoing conversations; but one presentation definitely stood out, to me and it seemed to many of the attendees: Thursday’s pre-lunch keynote address by Dr. Ruth Simmons. I’ll admit that my initial knowledge of Simmons was based mostly on one problematic fact: that during her long and successful tenure as President of Brown University, she vocally opposed the efforts of Brown’s graduate students to unionize. While it’s certainly important not to forget those kinds of labor issues and realities—as the conference speakers too often did, on which more later this week—Simmons is of course defined by much more than that fact; and in her keynote address, she used a couple other complex aspects of her life and story to add crucial contributions to our conversations.
For one thing, Simmons connected the conference to our Houston setting in potent and provocative ways. Like most elite private universities, Rice exists in many ways separate from the city in which it is located, or at least it is easy to perceive the two settings as separate. Yet as Simmons talked about her experiences growing up in and then subsequently returning to Houston’s segregrated Fifth Ward—known, for obvious but still complex historical and social reasons, as the “bloody Fifth” or “bloody nickel”—she reminded us, forcefully, not only of the presence and interconnection of multiple communities within any American city and space, but also of the vital need to consider our more impoverished and threatened communities in any conversations about higher education, education in general, and the American future. For example, Simmons remarked on a painful perception of hers as she returned to the Fifth Ward in recent years—that not only do its young people have no more options (educational or otherwise) than did she and her peers half a century ago, but in many ways they seem to have fewer such possible paths.
Such significant, sobering perspectives were not all that Simmons contributed to our conversations, however. She also made the case for higher education’s transformative potential, its ability in particular to broader and deepen our perspectives (individual and communal) of other communities and cultures, other stories and histories, our fellow citizens of America and the world. And she did so in inspiring ways through her own story—of her arrival at New Orleans’ Dillard University as a young woman defined in part by both understandable anger and a concurrent, circumscribed worldview (both natural results of a childhood in the segregrated South); and of the ways in which her educational experiences, beginning with those undergraduate years and continuing into her graduate studies at Harvard University and the rest of her academic career, effected sea-changes in those perspectives. Simmons used current events such as those in Ferguson, Missouri to make an entirely convincing case that it is education—and perhaps only education—which can help change our historical, cultural, and communal understandings, just as it broadened and strengthened her own. I can’t think of a more important goal for the future of American higher education.
Next follow up tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think?

Monday, October 20, 2014

October 20, 2014: De Lange Follows Ups: The Rice CTE

[Last Monday and Tuesday I had the honor of being invited to attend Rice University’s De Lange Conference IX  as a Social Media Fellow, helping to create conversations about and around the conference theme (“Teaching in the University of Tomorrow”) and talks. It was a wonderful experience, and I wanted to follow it up this week with posts on a number of the issues and ideas I encountered there. Whether you attended as well, followed on Twitter, or just have thoughts on any of these topics, I’d love to hear from you!]
On the impressive and important work being done at Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence.
I attended the De Lange Conference because of an invitation from Dr. Joshua Eyler, the Director of Rice’s new Center for Teaching Excellence. The CTE, through Eyler’s voice and presence along with those of his colleagues Dr. Robin Paige and Dr. Elizabeth Barre, was literally everywhere at the conference: sharing their work in a poster in the events hall, leading thought-provoking breakout sessions on pedagogy (on which more later this week), participating actively and critically in the backchannel conversations on Twitter (ditto), and much more. In all those ways, Eyler and his CTE colleagues illustrated not just the colleagiality and support, but also the ground-breaking research in teaching and learning, that an organization like the CTE can provide and produce.
My ten years at Fitchburg State have corresponded almost exactly with the development of our own Center for Teaching & Learning, from its initial creation by Dr. Sean Goodlett through its many faculty directors since, up to its current leadership by my English Studies colleague Dr. Kisha Tracy. The FSU CTL has truly exemplified the aforementioned kinds of collegiality and support that such institutions can offer, on every level: from the more informal (providing a comfortable space for faculty to gather, celebrating faculty publications and successes) to the more structured (an annual summer institute offering talks and workshops on teaching and learning, year-long series of talks, workshops, and reading groups on such issues). But because our CTL has not (at least not yet) been able to employ an administrative staff outside of our academic departments—that is, our faculty directors to date have maintained their roles and much of their teaching and service responsibilities within their home departments—it does not quite allow for the kinds of in-depth research projects and work that Rice’s CTE features.
There are understandable and perhaps inevitable factors at FSU (financial, contractual, institutional) that make it unlikely that our CTL would ever be able to employ a full-time director and two associate directors like Eyler, Paige, and Barre at Rice’s CTE. But throughout the De Lange Conference, Eyler and many other presenters made a compelling case for why faculty need to engage more consistently with the research and scholarship of teaching and learning, for the vital benefits that such engagement can provide for not just our individual or departmental efforts but for the future of higher education in America. And while the FSU CTL’s efforts certainly allow for such engagement for those individual faculty who attend and participate, there’s simply no substitute for an institution like the CTE, one that provides sufficient space, resources, and opportunity for more sustained and in-depth research and engagement with these issues. Not every college and university will be able to support such an institution, of course—indeed, most will not—but that just means that we all should be paying close attention to, and learning as much as we can from, the efforts at Rice’s CTE.
Next follow up tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

October 18-19, 2014: My Own Current Projects!

[It had been a while since I spent a week highlighting the amazing work done by my fellow AmericanStudies scholars, so for this week’s series I highlighted five recent books by scholars with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working on the NEASA Council. This special addendum to that series is an update on some of my own ongoing writing projects!]
The updated on my latest book project that I promised yesterday isn’t quite ready to be shared yet, although I’m hoping for news soon and you’ll be among the first to know if and when it comes! In the meantime, I wanted to highlight three other spaces in which I have shared or will soon share my writing and ideas:
1)      The Good Men Project: Thanks to my colleague and friend Steve Edwards, I’ve had a chance to write four pieces to date for this important website and project. I hadn’t shared them before because they’re not AmericanStudying so much as, well, ParentingStudying and DivorceStudying. But there’s a reason why I’ve had that pic of my boys atop this blog since day one—part of public scholarship is, to my mind, recognizing how much our own identities and lives are tied to our work and analyses. So I’m happy to share the GMP pieces here, and would love to hear your thoughts on them, as ever.
2)      We’re History: This brand spankin’ new online history magazine is the brainchild of Heather Richardson, and promises to be a wonderful resource for public history-writing. My first piece, on attacks on the White House in American pop culture and history, has just appeared, and I look forwad to contributing a lot more to—and reading even more of others’ contributions on—this equal parts historical and 21st century resource and community. Make sure to check out all the great current content on the site, and to keep an eye on it as more is launched soon.
3)      The Conversation: This great British and Australian site is about to launch an American version, and I’m excited to be a contributor to that new site, with my first piece (on alliances across and between oppressed communities, both historical and contemporary) forthcoming soon. I’ll make sure to share it here when it appears, and will be exploring the new American Conversation in the weeks to come—as should you!
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. Other projects, books, or scholars you’d share, including your own work? I’d love to hear about them!

Friday, October 17, 2014

October 17, 2014: New NEASA Books: A History of Spiritualism and the Occult in Salem

[It’s been a while since I spent a week highlighting the amazing work done by my fellow AmericanStudies scholars. So for this week’s series I thought I’d highlight five recent books by scholars with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working on the NEASA Council. I’d love to hear in comments about books and scholars, recent or otherwise, that have inspired you!]
On the great book about a great topic by a great AmericanStudier.
I’ve written a good deal in this space about Salem, and for good reason: it’s my favorite public, historical space in Massachusetts (and perhaps in America—sorry native Virginia!), features my single favorite memorial/piece of public art, is full of complex and evocative American histories and stories, represents some of the worst yet also some of the best of what we have been and can be in America. I think there’s a great deal more for us to say and think about Salem than we have yet, and I can’t imagine a better person to help us continue to say and think about the city than Maggi Smith-Dalton.
I’ve also featured Maggi a fair amount in this space: not only in that above linked post, but also in this post on her performance with her husband Jim Dalton at the 2012 NEASA Colloquium; and these posts on my pieces for the Salem History Time series that Maggi edits. In her writing and editing, as well as those musical and educational performances and programs with Jim, Maggi exemplifies public AmericanStudying to me, and is just as closely linked in my mind to her home city of Salem. And one of her latest contributions to the AmericanStudying of that city is her recent book, A History of Spiritualism and the Occult in Salem: The Rise of Witch City (The History Press, 2012).
I could write another paragraph here about History of Spiritualism, but I’ll just say this: it’s only 10 bucks on the Kindle (and 20 in paperback)! All of the books I’ve featured in this week’s series are well worth your time and investment, and will more than pay you back in what they can add to your sense of American culture, history, literature, and society. Check ‘em out, and please share your thoughts on them here if you do (as well as any other books or authors you’d share)!
An update on my own next book this weekend,
Ben
PS. Books or scholars you'd share? I'd love to hear about them!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

October 16, 2014: New NEASA Books: American Blood

[It’s been a while since I spent a week highlighting the amazing work done by my fellow AmericanStudies scholars. So for this week’s series I thought I’d highlight five recent books by scholars with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working on the NEASA Council. I’d love to hear in comments about books and scholars, recent or otherwise, that have inspired you!]
On the challenging book that illustrates how constructed and contested even the seemingly simplest American concepts are.
I’ve been eagerly following Holly Jackson’s evolving work on family, race, and blood in late 19th century American literature, culture, and society since 2005, when I heard her give a NEASA talk on her discoveries about the identity of novelist Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins. That work has culminated (although I’m sure not concluded) in her book American Blood: The Ends of the Family in American Literature, 1850-1900 (Oxford UP, 2013). American Blood is the densest and most theoretically driven of the works I’ve highlighted this week, making it more what I’d call academic than public scholarship (which isn’t in any way a critique, just a categorization). But it also offers an incredibly important public AmericanStudies lesson.
I’ve blogged many times before, such as in this 2012 election post, about the subtle but crucial importance of contesting our collective use and definition of “American.” So much of the time it seems as if we assume that the word has a stable or fixed meaning, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Recognizing and analyzing the constructed, contested nature of the term is thus an important project, and one that would of course affect all Americans. But even this AmericanStudier has to admit that there are other terms that are both even more fundamental and more generally treated as stable and simple than “American,” and toward the top of that list would have to be “family.” Yet as Jackson’s book convincingly demonstrates, family has been just as constructed and contested a concept in American culture and society as any.
It’s particularly significant that Jackson highlights and traces such constructions and contestations throughout the 19th century. It’d be hard for anyone to argue that family doesn’t have diverse meanings and narratives associated with it in our 21st century moment, or that they haven’t been developing throughout much of the last half-century. But indeed, many arguments about those contemporary meanings—perhaps even our dominant shared take on them—see them precisely as changes, shifts away from more stable or agreed-upon prior visions of family. So Jackson’s book might be more dense and theoretical than what I’d generally categorize as public scholarship, but I can’t imagine a more important public scholarly takeaway than what she has to contribute to our collective understanding of the foundational but far from simple concept of family.
Last NEASA book tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Books or scholars you'd share? I'd love to hear about them!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

October 15, 2014: New NEASA Books: Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life

[It’s been a while since I spent a week highlighting the amazing work done by my fellow AmericanStudies scholars. So for this week’s series I thought I’d highlight five recent books by scholars with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working on the NEASA Council. I’d love to hear in comments about books and scholars, recent or otherwise, that have inspired you!]
On the biography that exemplifies, and also transcends, that genre.
I’ve written twice previously in this space about Marion “Clover” Hooper Adams—once in the context of her husband Henry, who partly modeled his fictional heroine Esther on his wife; and once in a post on sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose moving Washington, DC sculpture “Grief” was created as a tribute to Clover after her 1885 suicide. But Clover’s brief, tragic, complex, and rich life is more than deserving of its own post and a lot more, as illustrated by Natalie Dykstra’s thorough, groundbreaking, and compulsively readable biography Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).
Dykstra’s book does everything that you’d want a historical biography to do. She delineates the specific elements of Clover’s identity very effectively, helping readers to feel that they truly know this complex woman (as well as we can know anyone who died 130 years ago, at least); but she also locates Clover within the social, historical, and cultural contexts of late 19th century America very successfully, making clear how much her place, time, and world influenced those individual elements. She doesn’t shy away at all from uncertain and controversial topics, including not only Clover’s suicide but also her inspiring yet troubled marriage to Henry; yet the biography never strays into gossip territory, remaining serious and scholarly despite Dykstra’s engaging and accessible attention to such intriguing and universal topics.
So a great and highly recommended historical biography—but Clover Adams is also something more. Through her extended and groundbreaking attention to and close readings of Clover’s photographs—Clover spent a good deal of her final years of experimenting with the new technology and art form—Dykstra becomes an analytical detective, developing convincing takes on Clover’s perspective, life, and experiences as a result. Many biographies rely on primary and archival sources, of course—but Dykstra’s work with the photos involves more than just recovering or engaging with such sources. She weds the skills of close reading and aesthetic analysis to her biographical project, enriching both that project and our collective understanding of Clover as a result. Want to see what new ideas those photographic analyses produced? Read the book!
Next NEASA book tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Books or scholars you'd share? I'd love to hear about them!