Archive for the 'Intersectionality' Category

March 28th 2012
More on “the bloody, rich mulch of life:” Part II of my interview with The Republic of Nature author Mark Fiege

Posted under American history & book reviews & Gender & Intersectionality & the body & women's history

Today’s post is the second of a two-part interview with Mark Fiege (pronounced FEE-gee, rhymes with BeeGee), who has just published The Republic of Nature:  An Environmental History of the United States (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 2012).  Mark is a colleague of mine at Baa Ram U., and his book delivers what its sweeping subtitle suggests–a striking reinterpretation of American history as environmental history, with chapters that span the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries.  Part I of our conversation is here, if you missed it.

As I explained yesterday, The Republic of Nature is not a textbook, but rather an attempt to interpret key episodes or turning points in American history as environmental history, reconsidering them from the different angles employed by environmental historians and their extra-disciplinary colleagues.  Its nine chapters explore New England witchcraft, the Declaration of Independence, “King Cotton,” Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address, the Transcontinental Railroad, the atomic bomb, Brown v. Board of Education, and the Oil Shock of the 1970s.  (Click here to learn more about the book at its own website.)

Mark saddled up and rode out East yesterday for the start of his national book tour–see here if he’s coming to a middle-western or eastern town near you this spring.  His book will be the subject of a special session next month at the annual meeting of the Organization for American Historians in Milwaukee on Friday, April 20 at 1:30 p.m.  Be there, and you just might get an opportunity to meet Mark and his fellow panelists, Linda Gordon, Mary Beth Norton, Eric Foner, and William Cronon.  Yes, that’s where Mark’s career is heading, friends–we’ll be lucky to keep him down on the high plains desert from now on.

In today’s conversation, we talk about how Mark defines environmental history and we even talk about some women’s history and history of sexuality and the connections between our fields:

Historiann:  I love the point that “nature” and “the natural” are inherently ideological constructs—just as are classic concepts for organizing American history like “liberty,” “republicanism,” and “democracy.”  Yet historians of the past several generations have been much more interested in organizing their lectures and books on the sweep of U.S. history around those  contested political terms because of their flexibility.  Americans as different as Jefferson, DuBois, Alice Paul, and Antonin Scalia, for example, have had very different interpretations of these big ideas.  Your book shows how nature can be an organizing principle of American history, too.

I want to press you further on your definition of environmental history.  Since you are advancing an expansive view of what constitutes environmental history, where I wonder do you draw the line between environmental history and everything else?  Is there any subject or methodology you would categorically exclude, or is your habit of mind now inclined to look for an environmental hsitory angle in everything?

Mark Fiege:  A recent book that I deeply admire and that speaks to all of these issues in particular ways is Susan Klepp’s Revolutionary Conceptions, some of the insights of which I incorporated into The Republic of Nature. As an environmental historian, I like the book because Klepp takes seriously the relationships among biological processes, culture, and power in explaining the causes and consequences of the decline in fertility during the American Revolution. Her claim that “procreation is power” is marvelous and expresses precisely what environmental historians are trying to do, which is to explain that complex, interacting combination of human and non-human material factors that drive history. Continue Reading »

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March 27th 2012
“Race and nature are at the heart of the story:” Part I of my interview with The Republic of Nature author Mark Fiege

Posted under American history & book reviews & class & Intersectionality & race & the body

Today’s post is the first of a two-part interview with Mark Fiege (pronounced FEE-gee, rhymes with BeeGee), who has just published The Republic of Nature:  An Environmental History of the United States (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 2012).  Mark is a colleague of mine at Baa Ram U., and his book delivers what its sweeping subtitle suggests–a striking reinterpretation of American history as environmental history, with chapters that span the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries. 

Because we have had conversations on this blog about many of the issues Mark addresses in his book, I believe that many of you will want to learn more about The Republic of Nature.  Those of you who are training graduate students in history and who are looking for ways to bring environmental history into your survey and upper-division lectures and readings will find this book indispensible.  American historians will learn something new, and non-U.S. historians will behold a model for using environmental history in telling a national story.  Furthermore, all readers who enjoys brisk prose and surprising insights into stories you thought you already knew will be rewarded with discoveries on nearly every page. 

The Republic of Nature is not a textbook, but rather an attempt to interpret key episodes or turning points in American history as environmental history, reconsidering them from the different angles employed by environmental historians and their extra-disciplinary colleagues.  Its nine chapters explore New England witchcraft, the Declaration of Independence, “King Cotton,” Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address, the Transcontinental Railroad, the atomic bomb, Brown v. Board of Education, and the energy crisis of the 1970s.  (Click here to learn more about the book at its own website.)

In today’s conversation, we talk about nature, race, and their central roles in American history:

Historiann:  Abraham Lincoln and race are emotionally and actually at the center of your book:  Lincoln’s profile at Mt. Rushmore greets us on the dust jacket of your book.  Your introduction opens with a fascinating meditation on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.  Chapters 3 through 5 focus respectively on slavery and cotton production, the mythic and actual biographies of Abraham Lincoln, and the Battle and Address of Gettysburg.  And finally, your interest in race and the color line in American history are evident again in your choice to focus on Brown v. Board of Education in chapter 8.  What is it about Abraham Lincoln and America’s record on race that attracted your interest as an environmental historian?  I can’t help but perceive a rebuke to environmental historians who perhaps have not attended to this aspect of the American historical landscape–or is that an unwarranted assumption?

Mark Fiege:  Researching and writing this book has convinced me that race and the black freedom struggle are central to American history, perhaps even its defining elements. But I’m an environmental historian, and another part of me recognizes that all social struggles unfold in the material medium generally known as nature. So I felt that I had to explain how race and nature are at the heart of the story.

While working on the book, I came across “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the national anthem composed in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson. I had never heard it performed, so the ethnomusicologist Deborah Wong gave me a version of it on a CD. It is profoundly moving, as great as any of the other national anthems. In it, people wander across an awesome providential landscape until they come to a place where they can live in God’s sheltering grace. It presents a kind of alternative Manifest Destiny that is about redemption, not conquest. It captures perfectly the sense that the struggle is centered in a landscape and involves a people’s special relationship to nature. 

So I think my focus on race is less a rebuke to anyone than an embrace of what I take to be the truth of the matter–that this is what American history, at its core, is really about.        Continue Reading »

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January 19th 2012
Teaching the history of sexuality: more men but less rape, please?

Posted under American history & Gender & GLBTQ & Intersectionality & race & students & the body & unhappy endings & women's history

Yesterday, I read the comments on the teaching evaluation forms my students filled out last semester for the pilot course in the History of Sexuality in America class I co-taught with a colleague.  (We covered just about 1492-2011.)  The comments were overwhelmingly positive with only a few outliers.  Even people who liked the course complained that there was too much reading, but I and my co-instructor always get that on our teaching evaluations.  (Here’s an easy solution:  read through the syllabus on the first day of class, and drop the class if you don’t want to read all that!  It’s win-win for everyone that way.)

We had one suggestion–and only one–from a student who suggested that next time we might consider offering the course with one man and one woman professor, instead of two women.  Right–because our male colleagues are just lining up to teach this course, and it will be soothing and more objective if a male professor is in the room.  Continue Reading »

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January 9th 2012
The limited (and queer?) vision of American historical reenacting

Posted under American history & Gender & GLBTQ & Intersectionality & race

Fort Number Four, Charlestown, NH

Nick Kowalczk offers us a detailed look at historical re-enacting in “Embedded with the Reenactors,”  in which he ponders the fascination that some Americans have with reliving the bloody, imperialistic wars of the past.  I thought this article was noteworthy too because 1) they’re not Civil War reenactors, they’re  reenactors of the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), and 2) the Seven Years’ War guys (and yes, they’re mostly middle-aged guys, according to Kowalczk’s reporting and my own observations of all kinds of reenactors over the years) have been enjoying their 250th anniversary moment in the spotlight for the past few years. 

I found Kowalczk’s article fascinating, although it’s written in a more “new journalism” style that includes him as both participant and observer, and I kept wishing he would go deeper into some of the questions he raises about reenactors based on his participation in a battle of the Siege of Fort Niagara:

It’s not every 4th of July you get to be around nearly 3,000 people inhabiting an amalgam of time, and especially in a place as lovely as Fort Niagara State Park. The water in Lake Ontario actually was blue. And the fortification, now known as Old Fort Niagara, has been well-preserved even though it was built by the French in 1726 and took a 19-day pummeling in July 1759, when a few thousand British and Indians out-maneuvered 600 Frenchman sitting pretty in a big castle protected by cannons and stone walls.

But being on the battlefield exactly 250 years later, I couldn’t help but imagine the 348 people who died and the many others who were injured or suffered. When they trembled for their lives could they ever have imagined that a bloodless, G-rated recreation of their deaths eventually would become someone’s hobby?   Continue Reading »

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October 11th 2011
20th anniversary of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the Clarence Thomas SCOTUS nomination

Posted under American history & bad language & Gender & Intersectionality & jobs & race & the body & unhappy endings & wankers & women's history

Nina Totenberg, who broke the story of Anita Hill’s allegations about Thomas, has an interesting retrospective of the Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings.  I was just starting my second year in graduate school in 1991.  Sexual trauma was big in the news of 1991:  that summer had already featured the ugly smearing of a high-profile rape victim in the trial (and acquittal) of William Kennedy Smith.  The Thomas hearings had us all riveted–on the one hand, it was remarkable to see a young, black woman’s testimony about sexual harassment entered into the public record.  On the other, the all-too-predictable reactions of the U.S. Senators who treated Anita Hill with such smarmy condescention or prurient personal attacks (Snarlin’ Arlen Specter and Orrin Hatch in particular) were almost too much to bear. 

Senator Ted Kennedy was of course notably silent through these hearings, because he had been a witness called at his nephew’s rape trial the previous summer. (That’s what Snarlin’ Arlen meant to imply when he said towards the end of the clip above, “Mr. Chairman I object to that. I object to that vociferously. . . If Senator Kennedy has anything to say, let him participate in this hearing.”)

Anita Hill looks so young and without defenses or allies in these old clips. She was unimaginably brave to endure this in public. Deborah Gray White suggests the powerful historical currents that Hill swam against 20 years ago in Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower (2008):
Continue Reading »

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September 27th 2011
Harris-Perry to Joan Walsh: we are so not friends!

Posted under American history & Gender & Intersectionality & jobs & race & women's history

Via RealClearPolitics, Melissa Harris-Perry has responded to Joan Walsh’s response (“Are white liberals abandoning the president?”) to her “Black President, Double Standard:  Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama,” which we discussed here last weekend.  (H/t to thefrogprincess, who originally alerted me to the Joan Walsh response in the comments on that post.) 

Harris-Perry makes some really good points about the ways in which black scholars and pundits are challenged about their ideas when they dare to talk about racism.  In “The Epistemology of Race Talk,” she notes that (white) interlocutors meet conversations about racism with charges to “Prove it! . . .The implication is if one cannot produce irrefutable evidence of clear, blatant and intentional bias, then racism must be banned as a possibility,” and questions about her authority and expertise (“Who made you an expert? . . . It is as though my very identity as an African-American woman makes me unqualified to speak on issues of race and gender; as though I could only be arguing out of personal interest or opinion rather than from decades of research, publication and university teaching.”)  I’m very sympathetic to both of these issues, as they’re textbook ways to derail a blog conversation, as many of you probably already know!

But, I feel like Harris-Perry was unfair to Joan Walsh when in the same response she accused Walsh of using the “I have black friends” claim. Continue Reading »

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September 19th 2011
How we teach history? Thoughts on the work of professional historians.

Posted under American history & book reviews & class & Gender & GLBTQ & Intersectionality & jobs & race & students & women's history

Joshua Kim writes at the Technology and Learning blog at Inside Higher Ed that he’s reading and really enjoying Charles Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.  Then, unfortunately, Kim makes a whole lot of questionable assumptions about the ways in which history is currently taught or should be taught in university classrooms.

The last time I learned about the Columbian Exchange was in high school. Learning dates and the sequence of events, and getting familiar with maps and geography, was central to my high school history experience. As a history major in college the emphasis on maps, dates, and events diminished, as the work in primary sources came to the forefront.

I can’t imagine 1493will be much required in college history courses, as this type of historical narrative for a popular audience (written by a journalist and not a historian) probably does not conform to how postsecondary history is taught. This is perhaps too bad, as I just did not know most of the history of Columbian Exchange described in 1493.

Learning how to “do history”, to work like historians, is probably not a bad thing. But most history undergraduate students will not go on to graduate school. A book like 1493, a book with strong opinions and lots of dates, geography, people and events, might be an example of the kind of works we should make room for in our history courses.

Kim is probably right that a synthetic work aimed at a popular audience probably won’t be on a whole lot of college and university syllabi.  But why should books aimed at a general audience be taught by professional historians, when students might instead read a more challenging book with a professor on hand to guide them through it?  Students are perfectly free at any point of their college or post-collegiate lives to pick up a book like 1493 and read and enjoy it, just as Kim did.

Quite frankly, I don’t think I need to show my students how to read a book like 1493 or celebratory biographies of the so-called “Founding Fathers” by David McCullough.  Continue Reading »

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August 18th 2011
White women’s political work: still impulsive, never strategic

Posted under American history & Gender & Intersectionality & race & women's history

UPDATED, 10:21 MDT

One feature of Ryan Lizza’s very good intellectual biography of Michele Bachmann from The New Yorker last week contains this curious explanation of her development as a politician:

For many years, Bachmann has said that she showed up at the convention on a whim and nominated herself at the urging of some friends. She was, she suggests, an accidental candidate. This version of history has become central to her political biography and is repeated in most profiles of her. A 2009 column by George F. Will, for example, says that “on the spur of the moment” some Bachmann allies suggested nominating her.

But she already had a long history of political activism—the Carter and Reagan campaigns, her anti-abortion and education activism, her school-board race—and she had been targeting [former Minnesota State Senator Gary] Laidig for a year.According to an article in the Stillwater Gazette,on October 6, 1999, Bachmann was talking about running against Laidig months before she went to the convention. “I tried to present information to Senator Laidig on Profile of Learning, he was not interested,” she said. “And I told him that if he’s not willing to be more responsive to the citizens, that I may have to run for his seat.” She told the St. Paul Pioneer Pressthat she had decided to run against Laidig a year earlier.

Once again, we have white women’s political activism cast as a “whim” or “spur of the moment” decision, rather than the result of careful planning and strategic thinking:  “Oh my heck, I don’t know nothin’ ’bout politics!  I just care so deeply about the children that I had to get involved!”  Very cannily, Bachmann’s signature issue in Minnesota state politics was activism on behalf of home schoolers and charter schools–in other words, as a concerned mother.  She is smart to rewrite her biography this way, and I’m sure Will grasps that it just wouldn’t do to have a female presidential candidate who looked at all ambitious, or even scheming–even though she threatened Laidig with a primary several times:  According to Lizza, “Laidig defended the education laws in the State Senate, which made him a target for Bachmann. “Michele came to me on several occasions and to my face said, ‘If you don’t vote to get rid of School to Work and Profiles, I will run against you,’ ” he said.”

Not very ladylike!  Continue Reading »

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August 17th 2011
Grad students of color and white faculty FAIL

Posted under Gender & GLBTQ & Intersectionality & jobs & race & students

Via Inside Higher Ed, Karen Kelsky at The Professor Is In has a riveting post about the challenges facing graduate students of color and in overwhelmingly white departments, which is to say, the vast majority of academic departments in any discipline you can think of in the United States and Canada.  She’s been affiliated with three public research university Anthropology departments, and she details the ways in which the faculty in two of the three failed to respond effectively to the questions that graduate students of color posed to them, their discipline, and to their way of conducting business. 

The whole thing is worth a considered read, especially if you serve as a professor or advisor of graduate students and/or if you’re interested in dysfunctional departmental dynamics.  (Like most of us, she’s like a neurologist:  more certain on the diagnosis than on ideas towards a cure.)  While it won’t be a surprise to any nonwhite readers, perhaps some white readers will be taken aback by her frankness in discussing white privilege among so-called “white allies:”

Here’s what I want to say. I learned through these interactions that the vast majority of white people in the academy are absolutely clueless when it comes to race. Not race as some abstract category of analysis “out there,” but race as it is manifested daily in their/our own subject position and actions.

One archaeology colleague remarked to me at a cocktail party, . . . “Too bad for you cultural anthropologists. You should be like us in archaeology. We don’t have any race problems. Because all of our students are white!” I gamely tried to explain to this colleague that the absence of students of color in her program was actually a more profound sign of a “race problem” than any visible conflict could be, but she was unmoveable. Continue Reading »

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June 25th 2011
Gender and performance in grad school

Posted under Gender & GLBTQ & Intersectionality & jobs & race & students

Via Canada-Supporting Women in Geography, I found this article by Duke University Literature Professor Toril Moi, “Discussion or Aggression? Arrogance and Despair in Graduate School.”  In it she writes about speech, authority, and power dynamics in the graduate seminar, specifically about the gendered nature of these dynamics:

Every year some female graduate students tell me that they feel overlooked, marginalized, silenced in some seminars. They paint a picture of classrooms where the alpha males—so-called “theory boys”—are encouraged to hold forth in impossibly obscure language, but where their own interventions elicit no response. These women, in short, say that they are not listened to, that they are not taken seriously, and that they get the impression that their perceptions of the matter at hand are of no interest to anyone else. 

Such experiences tend to reproduce a particularly clichéd ideology in which theory and abstract thought are thought to belong to men and masculinity, and women are imagined to be the bearers of emotional, personal, practical concerns. In a system that grants far more symbolic capital, far more intellectual power, to abstract theorizing than to, say, concrete investigations of particular cases, these women lose out in the battle for symbolic capital. This is bad for their relationship to the field they love, and it is bad for their careers in and out of graduate school. This is sexism, and all this goes to show that sexist effects often arise from the interactions of people who have no sexist intentions at all.

But there is another side to this. Sometimes I have a conversation with someone who has been described to me as a theory boy. Then I invariably discover that the theory boy doesn’t at all sound like an intellectual terrorist. He is, simply, profoundly and passionately interested in ideas. He loves theory and precisely because he loves it, he has strong theoretical views.

Moi concludes that faculty play a critical role in encouraging dialogic conversation rather than monologic performance, and that “[s]ome of us—professors and graduate students—need to learn to stop being so touchy, vain and self-regarding, so that we can listen to well-founded criticism without becoming defensive. Others need to learn to become more assertive and how to stand their ground when their views come under pressure. We all need to care more about formulating our thought precisely and less about the impression we make on others.”  But the point about faculty leadership is key, I think–it’s fun to engage in a lively discussion with passionate students, but we need to consider why some may not want to engage in the conversation, and how we can ensure that the ideas of those students get a full and fair hearing.

Moi’s article struck me as relevant because I’ve had a few interesting conversations recently that suggest that faculty play a role in perpetuating this division by using different language and different standards in evaluating their women versus men graduate students.  Continue Reading »

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