Sleepy Hollow continues to be weird

My students asked today for a Sleepy Hollow update – which I wasn’t fully prepared to give.  After they found the Lost Colony of Roanoke (on a magic island in the Hudson Valley, no less), I had sort of given up on the show.  I caught up tonight – and it continues to be terrible, but in some rather odd ways.

For one, some officers of the British army are also demons, which takes the moralization of American history that the show has been doing all along to new and strange places.  The premise is that Washington and a band of good guys was tasked with protecting the world from evil (via the British), so perhaps its not surprising that the writers decided to literally demonize British officers.  Nevertheless, it seems like a very literal way to make the point that Americans were the good guys in this fight, and the British were the bad guys.

The second sort of bizarre thing was that Ichabod’s wife, the witch, who was burnt at the stake in 1782 (she wasn’t really killed, but not because there weren’t witch trials in the late 18th century) is first introduced to Ichabod as a Quaker nurse.  It’s not clear if she was also a witch at that point – but it struck me as odd that her Quakerness and witchyness seemed so easily integrable.  I’m not an historian of religion, but it seems like the writers might have surmised that since Quakerism today allows a fair amount of latitude in terms of religious practice, perhaps 18th century Quakerism did too.  It does, though, seem like a very marginalizing move, to cast Quakers as insufficiently religiously serious to object to one among them also being a witch.

Finally, the witches were allied with the Freemasons, which I have no way to explain.  I’m teaching the U.S. survey again next semester, and I’m trying to figure out how to use one of these episodes in class.  With popular historical perspectives this semester – in particular Ask a Slave and the soundtrack to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson – I didn’t give my students enough of a framework to talk about the sources.  They thought that Ask a Slave was funny and that Bloody Bloody was selectively accurate, and a bit vulgar, but I need to find a better way to connect the production of popular historical material to what they’re learning in class.  In the past, I’ve asked students to evaluate pop history in light of what they’ve learned in the class so far – but since we don’t get to Washington’s plantation, Andrew Jackson or the American Revolution until the middle of the course, I’m on the lookout for something that I can ask them to consider in the first few weeks, or that they can use as a jumping off point for their first set of response papers.  Perhaps the Roanoke episode of Sleepy Hollow (or, for that matter, Supernatural) might fit the bill afterall.

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Quick note on language and westward expansion

I’ve been writing/learning to write history for a bit now, but I don’t think that I’ve ever been as aware of my language as I am this semester teaching American history.  I find myself, more and more, using North America in my U.S. survey, in part because the borders of the United States shifted so quickly in the 19th century that what counted as outside of the United States one year mightn’t be the next.  But also, I think that orally centering North America reminds students that United States history does not consist of the inexorable filling of the borders we have today.  If I weren’t already worried that I too-often reference cultural products that my students can’t relate to, I might ask them to think about how this Douglas Adams quotation, which actually describes Adams’s concerns about humans’ ideas about their place in the universe, can apply to our understanding of American westward expansion:

“This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.”

It’s not a perfect metaphor, but I think that there is a tendency, especially after the American Revolution, to think about a United States shaped hole in north America that is being slowly and correctly filled by the new American nation.

Let us talk about Sleepy Hollow

I am an unabashed fan of badly realized history in books, TV and movies.  I started my U.S. survey this semester with the opening scenes from National Treasure, I legitimately enjoy Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy (though, to be fair, the history in that is spot-on, with the exception of the witches, demons and magic bits) and, predictably, I really liked the new Sleepy Hollow TV series premier.  It’s not that I think that badly done history is something that ought to be celebrated, its that a lot of the romanticized historical genre (in which historians lead dramatic and dangerous lives, or in which discovering something about the past is crucial to the advancement of the plot) seem to willfully get things wrong (again, Harkness is the exception here).  The opening of National Treasure for example, involves one Charles Carroll, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence from Maryland, as the keeper of a long-held secret clue to find a treasure originally hidden by the Freemasons (who, apparently, morphed from the Knights Templar, but I’ll leave the problems with that to a medievalist).  So quoth the film:

“It didn’t reappear for more than a thousand years when knights from the First Crusade found hidden vaults beneath the Temple of Solomon. You see, the knights who found the vaults believed that the treasure was too great for any one man, not even a king. They brought the treasure back to Europe and took the name… the Knights Templar. Over the next century, they smuggled it out of Europe and formed a new brotherhood known as the Freemasons, in honor of the builders of the Great Temple. War followed. By the time of the American Revolution, the treasure had been hidden again. By then, the Masons came to include George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere. They knew they had to make sure the treasure would never fall into the hands of the British, so they devised a series of clues and maps to its location. Over time the clues were lost or forgotten, until only one remained. And that was the secret that Charles Carroll entrusted to young Thomas Gates.”

The problem?  Charles Carroll was a Catholic – the richest Catholic in Maryland, in fact.  He would not have been a Freemason.  It’s not like there weren’t myriad other ways to start the story in National Treasure.  The hoarded gold could have been taken from Spanish privateers, or (as in the sequel) some kind of Aztec treasure.  So, my friends and colleagues have asked, what?  Bad movies, bad TV shows are made all the time with less than plausible premises.  But I think that the willful manipulation of history – what seems to be the intentional getting-it-wrong, is often quite revealing.  In setting up National Treasure the way they did, the writers were implicitly making an argument about the long, noble and storied history of the United States – tying American liberty to the glory of the crusades to the nobility of the Templars to the antimonarchicalism of the Freemasons.  Much of this is just flat-out wrong, but it’s wrongness serves a rhetorical purpose, and stakes a particular claim about America’s place among other glorious causes.

The visual pun in this poster is also fantastic.

So, when I came across Sleepy Hollow yesterday, I was quite taken with the myriad things that show got wrong, and wonder what that wrongness means about the kind of American myth the writers are trying to tell.  (As a totally un-ironic and genuine aside, I’m thrilled that the main character is a woman of color – and that her superiors are, respectively, an African-American and Latino man – and that none of this is treated as surprising or weird within the world of the show.  It’s sad that having a diverse cast is a cause for celebration, but there it is)  Perhaps the biggest error from an historical perspective is that Ichabod Crane’s wife is (a) a real witch, (b) was apparently burned for witchcraft in 1782 and then (c) buried in a church graveyard with a notice to the effect of her witchery on her tombstone.

The witch trials at Salem took place about 100 years earlier, and while people accused of witchcraft were still being killed in Europe in the 1740s, formal trials in America had ceased by the beginning of the 18th century.  On top of that, people who were excommunicate, which I’m fairly sure being convicted of witchcraft would have made Crane’s wife, didn’t tend to get church burials.  Ultimately, this piece of anachronism is sort-of solved by the fact that Crane’s wife isn’t really dead, but trapped in a witchy forest, and in her grave is the horseman’s skull, which must be kept from him at all costs.

But, by creating a world in which witch burnings continued into the early republic, the show’s writers seem to be suggesting two things.  The first, is that the world of early America was less rational than we tend to think, and that the Hudson River Valley was particularly irrational.  The second, is that the problems of Colonial America persisted at least until after the Revolution, and with the re-awakening of the Headless Horseman in 2013, into the present day.  Or maybe they just thought being accurate wouldn’t make such a good story – but I still think that these inaccuracies, willful or no, paint a very interesting picture of Colonial/Revolutionary America, and tell us something interesting about American historical memory.

(Live(ish))blogging the survey

First, a long digression:

I got to sit down with reps from Gale today for about five hours to talk about all of the tools they have for teaching.  Among some other fun things, we were able to test drive Artemis, which will eventually aggregate some? many? of Gale’s primary sources (or, what Gale markets as primary sources – a lot of things that aren’t sold as primary sources, like literary criticism, could still be useful in 20th century U.S. history classrooms, for instance), and what they’re calling “term clusters,” which is basically an interactive pie graph that shows the frequency of words that abut your search term.  It looks like it will be a pretty useful and robust search engine once everything is integrated, though like any archive it’s limited by what Gale’s editors acquire, how they subject index what they have, and (particular to digital archives) how well it’s been OCRed.

We were challenged to think about how we’d use Gale resources in the classroom, and there was a lot of talk about how having a not-infinite-but-still-pretty-vast universe of possible primary sources would challenge students to think more creatively about their topics, and how the analytic tools like term cluster will help students identify trends that they might not otherwise have seen.

Two thoughts:

1) Sometimes an infinite, or seemingly infinite universe can be a great thing.  When a student is working on a year-long senior thesis, having millions of pages of documents to draw from could be really productive.  But, there’s also something to be said for well curated small collections of primary sources, especially for introductory courses, where students aren’t sure how to even approach analyzing a primary source, let alone picking one about which they can make an argument that will sustain them throughout the paper writing process.

2) I’m always struck by the ways in which online databases or search engines try to replicate the functionality of a physical library.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that looking in the metadata for a book’s subject, and then looking for the subject headings that immediately follow and precede the one you’re interested in is like browsing the shelves at a library.  I’ve heard similar things about the serindip-o-matic tool, as a way to replicate the lucky happenstance of coming across an unforeseen or mis-filed document in a brick and mortar archive.  I love the serindop-o-matic, and I’ve been doing the proximity subject searches since college, so I’m not saying that these are bad tools or workflows, but I wonder about how effective it is to try to replicate the research experience of a library online.  On the other hand, we know how to research in libraries and archives, and it doesn’t seem so wise to reinvent the research wheel if we don’t have to – but browsing by proximate subject heading, or looking for high frequencies of words that cluster around any given search term will never the same as browsing the stacks.  Finding a document through serindip-o-matic (which I love, by the way – I think that it’s a fantastic tool, and I’m not sure that it’s makers would characterize it as replicating the eureka in the archive experience, I’ve just seen it described that way) will never be the same as coming across a mis-filed pouch of heroin, say – or perhaps more likely, an archivist who knows you’ve been pulling stuff on one subject getting you something related that you hadn’t thought to ask for.

At any rate, I’m not sure if, or how I’m going to be using Gale’s, or anyone else’s online databases for teaching in the future.  For this imminent semester, I’ve settled on the Major Problems in American History reader, because I really like the interpretive essays, and find the transcription and gobbeting of documents by experts in the field, of say, colonial American history, to be far superior to anything I might do on my own, even drawing from a near-infinite corpus.

But as to the point of this post, I’ve been thinking that it might be a useful exercise in my own pedagogical development, and possibly a useful contribution to the conversation started on the Junto blog last week about teaching the survey, to periodically check in about this, my first time teaching U.S. to 1877 on my own.  Consider this the first post of that project, and if I’m really systematic perhaps I’ll go the digital document reader route next semester and compare notes.

One more opinion on open sourcing history

I’ve just recently gotten on twitter, and I’m mostly using it to track what other history/digital humanities people are saying about the world.  It’s not surprising (though new to me) that there’s a lot of great linking and sharing about history going on through twitter, nor that a lot of people who are inclined to be “twitterstorians” are also interested in the relationship between history and digital humanities, so that’s a lot of what’s been cycling through my reader recently.

Something that’s come up with fair regularity is how historians might go about open sourcing their work.  I first came across this idea via Timothy Burke’s project to collect and make public his reading notes but within the last month there’s been some more discussion about exactly how we might go about open sourcing our notes, as people in the sciences are starting to do.  Caleb McDaniel outlined some of the possibilities, as well as the pitfalls of making our notes available, as I think some scholars are already using blogs to do – to quote Tim Hitchcock, quoted in another recent twitter discovery, his Historyonics blog is there to “upload bits and pieces that he would not otherwise publish in any other form.”  While what those bits and pieces are certainly changes over the life of a project, in the early stages – for me at least – I tend to post random things I find in archives that tickle me, or seem odd, or just interesting.  As the project progresses, I try out ideas, or illustrations, or maps, and by the end, I usually feel up to talking about the process.  Rinse.  Repeat.  So ultimately for me, this space is basically a commonplace book.  Other bloggers’ mileage may vary.

I think that McDaniel is right that open sourcing the kind of work we do on projects is very different from open sourcing scientific work.  For one thing, much of the legwork – perhaps akin to collecting experimental data in terms of place-in-process and time – is finding archives and transcribing information.  While some people work from readily available and widely known archives, others work painstakingly to track a story or character across different manuscript collections, and sharing that work feels a bit like giving away the whole ballgame.  I’m sure that at least some of this anxiety comes of being a junior scholar with limited publications, and from the many horror stories I’ve recently heard about work being “scooped” from Proquest-published dissertations or conference papers, but I also know that it’s an anxiety I share

Because of these reservations, I was excited to read Kris Schaffer’s suggestion that sharing platforms might be used for pedagogy as well as research notes. The world of syllabi  already seems to be a very sharey one – facilitated by H-net lists as well as colleges and universities that post syllabi online – but one where attribution is tricky.  If, for example, colleague A were borrow a semester structure wholesale from colleague B who’s posted theirs online, there’s been no way for A to let B know that their syllabus is being used, to share changes A has made, or feedback on how certain things worked or didn’t work.  Perhaps more importantly, there’s no way for B to know that A has appropriated their intellectual property for their own uses.  There’s no way for them to report back that something didn’t work, or that they made vital changes.  I love the idea of using something like GitHub to share this kind of pedagogical stuff, because it seems to give us a way to do better what some are doing already.

In that spirit, I’m going to try and provide a running commentary here on my experiences teaching the U.S. survey for the first time this fall – what’s worked, what hasn’t, what I’ll be doing differently when I teach it again in the spring.  It’s a terrifying prospect to lay bare my possible future pedagogical failures, but it seems like a good exercise in both practicing what I preach, and in being really mindful of that teaching.

NARA does online gaming

I’m a little late to the game with this, but I was really happy to find that in 2012, the US National Archives moved into the online gaming world and into the itunes store, with apps like DocsTeach (online here). DocsTeach is, on the face of it, a fantastic idea.  It centers the idea that a considerable part of historical learning comes through the analysis of primary sources, and seems to try to build activities that would be accessible to students with different learning styles.  Many of the activities are tactile, insofar as you’re asked to move documents around, though some are more well-developed than others. For the activity on suffrage, for example the task is to arrange documents in the order in which they were produced – a fine way to teach reading skills, but not so much specific to women’s suffrage in America.

Lewis and Clark screenshot. This is featured prominently on the itunesU site for the app, and seems to be one of the better-realized activities.

The Lewis & Clark expedition activity, on the other hand, requires a little more critical thinking, as well as some sounder pedagogy.  Given a map of the United States and a bunch of documents, students are told:

“In 1803 the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France.  President Jackson sent co-captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore west of the Mississippi River in 1804.  Their route west is shown in green.  Although this territory was unknown to some, to others it was very familiar.

Examine the documents related to the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  Determine where different groups were involved and use the hints to place the documents on the X’s on the map.”

The documents include Lewis’s speech to the Otto Indians (August, 1804), “List of Indian Presents Purchased by Meriwether Lewis in Preparation for the Expedition to the West” (1803), and the “Proclamation to the People of New Orleans” announcing the Louisiana Purchase.  Having placed the documents on the map, students are asked to make a list of all of the powers at play in the region, and come to class prepared to share with classmates.  Though some of the language in the app, especially in the instructions elides native agency (things happen to, or are given to Indians – there’s no sense that Indians were active players in this at all), and only hints at the extent to which the United States was a young, untried, and anxious nation, it’s not a bad game overall. I’m happy that the National Archives is thinking pedagogically, and that there’s an initiative to digitize documents that students might not otherwise ever be able to see.

 

Unlikely confluences

Project Runway is a guilty pleasure of mine – I’m not generally a huge fan of the reality tv genre, but I do love shows that showcase expertise (Julia Child on The French Chef is my tv chicken soup when I’m sick.)  This season, a native woman, Patricia Michaels, made it to the final round of the show, and was quite vocal about the importance of “a native woman showing in her own country.”

Today, I had the pleasure of attending the Rethinking Land and Language symposium at Columbia.  Through two round tables – one on the idea of land, and one on the idea of language in native studies – panelists discussed the current state of indigenous studies.  I’m a latecomer to the field – most of my familiarity with indigenous studies has been born of the article I’m finishing on the Cherokee and Choctaw donations to Irish famine relief – so I spent most of the day scribbling down references for things I must read, and must do, before this article gets sent out.  Even so, one of the most significant moments for me was J. Kēhaulani Kauanui talking about the ways in which the historical profession sometimes treats colonialism, and particularly the colonization of native peoples, as an historical, rather than a present phenomenon.  The audience was challenged to think about why scholars who write about native peoples don’t engage with theories of indigeneity, and why early modern Americanists in particular seem reluctant to present at native studies conferences.  There’s a lot to think about coming out of this symposium, but I was happy to see, when I got home to watch Project Runway, the presence of native voices on popular television, and not just native voices, but a native woman, and not just a native woman, but a native woman critiquing settler colonialism. 

Games and pedagogy (part n)

A good friend tipped me off to Entry Denied an online game? exercise? demonstration? that contrasts the immigration stories that some of us grew up with, with US immigration policy today.  The overabundance of question marks in the previous sentence is because the interface looks like a game, or a choose your own adventure book, but the overall message – that my great great grandfather, E.M. Waldron (who ended up being the contractor for Newark’s city hall and cathedral, and driver for Eamon DeValera when he visited New Jersey) would be denied entry under today’s immigration guidelines – is a decidedly policy one.  Moreover, it’s a policy lesson designed to teach the user a lesson – that current immigration policies are unfair, or at least wildly limited in light of historical ones.

So, does this count as a game? As pedagogy?  I think it might as both, but I’d be really interested in a broader discussion of games masquerading as teaching tools masquerading as policy tools.