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My New Book!
My New Book!

Monday, August 31, 2020

August 31, 2020: Fall Semester Previews: A Policy of Care


[This week I start what is unquestionably the most distinct and strange semester of my 20+ year teaching career. So for my annual Fall previews, I’ll be discussing some of the ways that my classes will and won’t be different this time around. I’d love to share some of what you’ve got going on in a crowd-sourced Fall 2020 weekend post!]

On the most important paragraph I’ve ever written in a syllabus.

I’ve always tried to make clear to students that my most consistent policy, the one that both underlies and takes precedence over any and all other class policies, is for them to keep me updated on things so I can be fair and responsive to what’s going on with them and in their (very busy and complicated) lives. But while I have always meant that and have tried to honor it on each and every occasion where it applied, my syllabi have nonetheless featured other policies as well, basic class expectations and rules for issues like attendance, late papers, and the like. I’ve gone back and forth over my 15 years at Fitchburg State and 20+ of teaching overall on whether to keep including policies for each of those issues, but have tended to feel that they are necessary both to make my classes fair for all students and to help students maximize their experience and success in the class.

Not for Fall 2020, though. For all five of this semester’s undergrad course syllabi I replaced my usual Policies spiel with this short and sweet paragraph: “This is normally the place where I write about attendance and late paper policies and the like. I’m not going to do that this semester, though, because I really only have two such policies: be safe and take care of yourselves first and foremost; and keep me updated on everything so I can help make the class and semester as successful and productive for you.” That new paragraph builds on my aforementioned underlying policy of open communication and flexibility, but takes it a significant step further: doing away with any set policies or rules for things like attendance and late papers, making each and every case by default one where the student and I will figure out together what makes sense and works, what is necessary and helpful, what will help them not just stay safe and healthy this semester (although of course) but also have the most meaningful experience possible.

Adding that explicit statement into my syllabi has made me think more about expressing and communicating such a policy of care even in less overtly fraught times. Of course caring about students has always been my #1 priority, as I hope that underlying policy has made clear and as is the baseline of my student-centered pedagogy. But I don’t know whether that priority, that emphasis on care, has been quite present enough—and certainly it has not been quite clear enough—in my syllabi. Perhaps that’s not an issue for in-person classes, where I can start communicating it clearly from the first day on; I now worry that it has been somewhat of an issue for online classes, and will work to address that in particular moving forward. But even for in-person classes, many students look at syllabi before a semester starts, they sit with them for at least a few minutes before the first class begins, and of course they return to them (we hope, anyway!) across the semester, often at times when we are not together as a class. So working to express and communicate that policy of care more fully and thoughtfully in my syllabi will be I believe a meaningful goal in every type of class, and one this most unusual semester has helped me identify.

Next Fall preview tomorrow,


PS. What are you teaching or working on this Fall? Let me know for the weekend post!

Saturday, August 29, 2020

August 29-30, 2020: August 2020 Recap


[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]

August 3: Military Massacres: Wounded Knee: For the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, a massacre series starts with three attempts to raise awareness of a horrific event.

August 4: Military Massacres: The Pullman Strike: The series continues with how 1890s anti-labor violence parallels Wounded Knee, and a key difference.

August 5: Military Massacres: Balangiga: Why it matters how we refer to a 1901 event, and how to get beyond that question in any case.

August 6: Military Massacres: Hiroshima: On that 75th anniversary, an unanswerable question and a vital reframing.

August 7: Military Massacres: My Lai: The series concludes with three complex, flawed, and powerful engagements with one of our more recent military massacres.

August 8: Birthday Bests: 2010-2011: The annual birthday series of blog highlights!

August 9: Birthday Bests: 2011-2012

August 10: Birthday Bests: 2012-2013

August 11: Birthday Bests: 2013-2014

August 12: Birthday Bests: 2014-2015

August 13: Birthday Bests: 2015-2016

August 14: Birthday Bests: 2016-2017

August 15: Birthday Bests: 2017-2018

August 16: Birthday Bests: 2018-2019

August 17: Birthday Bests: 2019-2020: And the newest addition to the series, 43 favorite posts from the past (10th!) year on the blog.

August 18: Virginia Histories: Bacon’s Rebellion: My annual Cville/Virginia series begins with myths and realities of a famous 17th century uprising.

August 19: Virginia Histories: Mr. Jefferson’s University: The series continues with the instructive early struggles of an educational pioneer.

August 20: Virginia Histories: Loving v. Virginia: Two under-remembered contexts for the ground-breaking Supreme Court decision and what they add to the conversation.

August 21: Virginia Histories: The Virginia Tech Shooting: The series concludes with two ways in which AmericanStudies can provide contexts for a devastating recent tragedy.

August 22-23: Charlottesville in 2020: A special weekend post on where my hometown stands in 2020, from statue debates to inspiring activists.

August 24: Katrina at 15: Nature or Nurture?: For Katrina’s 15th anniversary, a series kicks off with two distinct ways to frame a disaster, and what our current crisis helps us understand.

August 25: Katrina at 15: The Aftermaths: The series continues with what we still don’t talk about enough from it comes to Katrina’s aftermaths, and what we really don’t talk about at all.

August 26: Katrina at 15: Treme: Five telling characters from my favorite TV show, as the series rolls on.

August 27: Katrina at 15: Three Hurricanes: How three other historic storms help us contextualize and understand Katrina.

August 28: Katrina at 15: New Orleans and America: The series concludes on a optimistic note, why I’d call New Orleans the most American of our major cities.

Fall preview series starts Monday,


PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, August 28, 2020

August 28, 2020: Katrina at 15: New Orleans and America

[I can’t quite believe it, but this week marks the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating landfall in New Orleans. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the hurricane, its even more devastating aftermaths, and a few other contexts for this tragic and telling 21st century story.]
On why I’d call New Orleans the most American of our major cities.
I’ve written a good bit about New Orleans in this space: from this early city-centric post inspired by Mardi Gras and my first visit to the city; to this one from the same blog era on one of my favorite American novels and a book that’s as much about New Orleans as it is about its huge, multi-generational cast of characters, George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes (1881). Those posts illustrate a few of the many reasons why I believe New Orleans is so distinctly and powerfully American, as I hope have this week’s posts in their own ways, despite the specific focus on Katrina. And indeed, the responses to and aftermaths of that horrific storm likewise reveal some of the worst as well as the best of American history, society, culture, and art; on that final note, I should highlight one more time a text I could definitely have featured in the week’s series and one of my favorite 21st century American novels, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (2011).
To say much more eloquently than I ever could a bit more about why I’d define New Orleans as so deeply American, here’s one of the central characters from Treme that I didn’t get to analyze in Wednesday’s post, Steve Zahn’s DJ Davis McAlary. As a radio DJ, and a highly opinionated person to boot, Davis is often ranting, much of it about the best and worst of his beloved New Orleans (and all of it a combination of communal and self-aggrandizing, convincing and frustrating). But my favorite Davis monologue, in the opening scene of the Season 4 episode “Dippermouth Blues,” is far quieter and more thoughtful. Coming out of playing a hugely cross-cultural song, Davis calls it, “A stellar example of McAlary’s theory of creolization. Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, the Great American Songbook meet African American musical genius. And that’s what America’s all about…‘Basin Street, is the street, where all the dark and light folks meet.’ That’s how culture gets made in this country. That’s how we do. We’re a Creole nation, whether you like it or not. And in three weeks, America inaugurates its first Creole president. Get used to it.”
Those of us who loved that aspect of Obama and even called him “the first American president” as a result didn’t have to “get used to” anything, of course. And as for those whom Davis is addressing more directly in those closing lines, well to say that they seem not to have gotten used to it is to significantly understate the case (which of course David Simon and his co-creators knew all too well, as that final-season episode of Treme may have been set around New Year’s 2008 but was made and aired in late 2013). Indeed, when I’ve been asked by audiences during my book talks for We the People about why we’ve seen such an upsurge in exclusionary rhetoric and violence over the last decade, I’ve frequently argued that backlash to Obama—as a representation of so many perceived national “changes”—has been a central cause. Which is to say, it’s not just that we need to “get over” the reality of our creolized history, culture, and identity—first the we who love those elements need to do a better job making the case for them, both as valuable and as foundationally American. There’s no place and no community through which we can do so more potently than New Orleans.
August Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other Katrina histories or contexts you’d highlight?