Another review! This is my third one of the year and boy has it been exhausting! I'm up late at night and just found out that this came out recently with Ohio Valley History. A good chunk of the review is excerpted here, but if you want to see the full thing, you'll have to get the hard copy or have a digital description to Ohio Valley History through a library database.
Common-place: the Journal of Early American Life, has published my latest book review. This will be great for financial historians. Enjoy!
The briefest of entries here as I take a break from grading essays...I have some VERY GOOD NEWS to share with you. The University Press of Kansas has offered me a book contract!! I will have a published monograph! If everything goes according to plan, my book will come out about a year from now (the final draft is due in February). This is a wonderful honor and I am truly grateful for the opportunity to publish with a well renowned press that is notable for its strength in political history. Many of you have supported me in this endeavor, so for that I am thankful! This project has been a big part of my life for many years. It has involved a lot of toil and sacrifice and I am SO EXCITED that it will be PUBLISHED! I've got a very busy January ahead of me in terms of teaching, so making revisions to this project will occupy a lot of my time over the holidays. So no guarantees of any extensive blogging for the foreseeable future. But I'll be marching full steam ahead with a purpose!
Most academics have been immersed in their classrooms for a few weeks now. Cal Poly is on the quarter system for one more year before it officially transitions to the semester system for the 2018-2019 academic year. I am glad I had a full, three-month summer that was both relaxing and productive because next summer will be short!
As I close out the summer and get ready for my classes, here are a few thoughts related to a book I'm currently reading. The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber challenges the way we think of productivity under an exploitative, corporatized, and neoliberal academic system. Among many lessons discussed in this book, which has been reviewed by Kritika Agarwal in Perspectives on History, one that has the most potentially liberating implications for professors is the advice to work at our own pace. The sad truth is that hyper-productivity, especially in terms of the publication of peer reviewed articles and research, has little payoff in academia if you are not lucky enough to be on the tenure-track. Even then, there are significant costs to being a publication machine. Why publish fifty peer-reviewed articles, some of dubious quality, when you can feel proud of ten?
Just last night I came across a reference to an article on the subject of laptop use in the classroom. Written by Faria Sana, Tina Weston, and Nicholas Cepeda, and published in Computers and Education in 2013, the article shows how using laptops in the classroom can inhibit students' ability to learn concepts from lecture. The authors came to this conclusion because after conducing experiments, they found that students who used their laptops scored lower on tests. Even more troubling than this, laptop use, they found, doesn't just distract the user; it distracts users around them, too. I know, I'll try not to exude that smug "I told ya so" feeling, which usually doesn't go over well. But it sure does feel good to have proven research justifying my policy of prohibiting digital devices in the classroom.
The Talk (Almost) No One is Willing to Have, Part 5: Ratemyprofessors.com is a Joke and No One Should Take it Seriously
A professor I once knew at a different institution in California—not one of my current places of employment—had major disagreements with me about what makes for effective teaching. He had tenure at this place but confessed to me that this was largely because he was buddy, buddy with the dean. In many community colleges, deans, not department chairs, are the ones who assign classes to instructors and even visit your classes for evaluation. This professor, in addition to having multiple personality issues, was demanding, demeaning, argumentative, combative, and obnoxious. Multiple people I knew shared my assessment of his character. In conversation it was difficult to get a word in edgewise. He would not communicate anything lengthy with me over email and would not use Blackboard. He refused to talk to me one time for committing the cardinal sin of being on my speaker phone in the car. Keep in mind that I was, and sort of still am, a freeway flier teaching ten classes per year with an average of 50 students per class when less than half of this amount would be ideal from a pedagogical standpoint. He asked, nay, demanded, that I call him back at a time that was more convenient for him, as if his time was more important than mine and I could easily shift things around for his schedule. If I didn’t call him back at this time, he said he would write a negative review for me to the dean. He may not have used Blackboard, but he was quite adept at using blackmail.
In a behavioral pattern that might be justifiably characterized as borderline abusive, this professor, who certainly did not deserve the position he had attained, took on this constant air of superiority as if each and every day of the week it was his job, and his job alone, to impart all of his precious knowledge to me about how great of a teacher he was and how much I had to learn from him. This was several years ago but even at that point I had taught at four different institutions of higher education and to say the least I resented his attitude and demeanor. Just a real unpleasant, in-your-face type of guy who got irritated and upset if you tried to engage him in debate and offer countervailing evidence to his sweeping proclamations. Oh, and he wasn’t a historian either, never finished his doctorate, and yet had the temerity to tell me that I had gotten my facts wrong in class when he evaluated me; that the subject of eugenics I had spent only about 10-20 minutes covering in lecture was a “footnote to history,” and therefore shouldn’t be covered (even though there are entire classes taught on this subject at R1 institutions). As if this wasn’t enough to stomach, he told me that the absence of white men in my classroom on that day, and that day alone, was proof that I was alienating students. This was a class of only about 20 students at a college in a heavily non-white part of California. To write about this belittling experience at the hands of a crackpot professor is almost as painful emotionally as it was to experience it in real time. Having been so troubled by the experience, I wrote down the details and am, thus, able to recall them with a fair degree of accuracy. It was deeply insulting and beyond outrageous that such a contemptible human being, so lacking in character, knowledge, and the subtle graces of interpersonal communication, would have a tenured position and be in any position of management over others.
I bring up this experience because he was one of many professors I’ve encountered over the years who cite their own reviews on ratemyprofessors.com (RMP) as incontrovertible evidence that they are, in fact, good and respectable teachers. I shake my head in disgust to even write that sentence, as if we should take these reviews at full face value, with no grain of salt. He had noticed a few negative reviews of me on RMP. It just so happens that his reviews on the site were by no means perfect, seeming to capture the very qualities I described above, so in my mind he was in no clear position to be telling me what to do. But that is besides the point. It was because of these RMP reviews and a few poor student evaluations at the college at which we were both teaching at the time that he suggested that I should not be teaching. Let me say that again because it bears repeating. Because of a few poor student evaluations, some of which were from a highly questionable website, he recommended that I should consider giving up on my chosen career path. Again, a contemptible human being I had the unfortunate experience of knowing.
I did not intend for a blog post on the interrelated phenomena of grade inflation and student evaluations to turn into a five-part series. But I came across so many articles and so many legitimate points made by professors and researchers that I had to explicate them. Because of its fairly extensive usage by students, RMP deserves its own post. For those of you who have not thought critically about RMP, here are just a few of the negative characteristics:
* it is voluntary, which will skew the sample toward students who really want to leave a review, either for good or bad
* Students and professors can manipulate it easily. Students, upset by the grade they earned, can write nasty reviews anonymously and even get their friends to do the same, regardless of the merits and veracity of the comments they write. Professors can log onto the site and promote themselves, too
* It allows reviewers to rank professors by their “hotness,” or whether they are physically attractive. This, of course, has no bearing on the intellectual worth of a class.
According to one professor, “I am rated very well on Rate My Professors. I have a colleague who is an excellent teacher but who is far stricter with her students who gets a much lower rating. It is a popularity contest.”
* There is no way to tell if the person who has left a review on RMP has actually taken the course in question
* One student can leave multiple reviews so long as they use multiple IP addresses, which can be accomplished by switching computers and other techniques
* RMP is run by the Princeton Review, which is not associated with Princeton University. It is owned by Viacom, a large media monopoly. Like any corporation today, Viacom is concerned chiefly with short-term, consistent profits that it can deliver to its shareholders in the form of dividends, not the long-term goal of an informed populace necessary for the healthy functioning of a constitutional republic.
* The “About,” “Contact Us,” and “FAQ” pages on the website present no specific information about who staffs the website or what people manage it beyond claiming, without evidence, that it is “built for college students, by college students.”
The most significant problem with RMP, and student evaluations in general, is that they promote a consumerist, anti-intellectual, non-substantive, and entertainment-driven model that is that antithesis of what pubic education ought to be. It asks professors to consider, first and foremost, whether students are pleased as customers rather than whether professors have offered the best classes they are capable of delivering and whether professors have inculcated their students with admirable values. To this precarious predicament, I say…if entertainment rather than knowledge is our chief goal, why not put a salesperson in front of the classroom? A supermodel? A motivational speaker? A Hollywood actor? If we take the steadily creeping entertainment-driven value system to its furthest logical extent, we would not at all be pleased with the outcome. I keep saying this over and over, but as tragic and catastrophic as Trump’s election was, we shouldn’t be surprised that he came to power in a cultural milieu of RMP and reality tv.
Chances are likely that you or someone you know has owned or worked for a small business. Have you ever received an unfair review of your business on Yelp? If so, would you like it if one bad Yelp review plunged your business into bankruptcy? Business owners, operating under the trite cliché that “the customer is always right,” sometimes have to swallow their pride and do things that they otherwise would not do because it is too costly to potentially alienate their clientele. If this mentality is applied to higher ed, unfortunately, the lowering of standards is the inevitable result. Ratemyprofessors.com is basically the Yelp of academia. Imagine that a few bad reviews on RMP got a highly qualified professor fired. Would this be right? Can you see, then, why we should categorically reject the pro-business philosophy that has infected academia?
Let me return to Stroebe’s thoroughly-researched article in Perspectives on Psychological Science. Stroebe cites a study by Felton et al. (2008) showing that if a professor graded easily, reviewers on RMP were much more likely to view the professor favorably. What is more damning to the site is that the reviewers gave higher ratings to professors they deemed “hotter” (806). I spent a decent amount of time examining numerous studies from many articles to show that my perspective here is not some off-the-rails rant; more and more professors have come to the same conclusion about student evaluations, despite the risks and obstacles to publishing their findings. Indeed, Davidson and Prince (2009) put it nicely: “In a consumerist environment, student evaluations are not ‘good’ data. They measure how easy the instructor is, how fun, and sometimes, as in the case of the Rate My Professor website, how sexy he or she is. Such data should not be used by students or organizations to evaluate an instructor’s ability to teach.” It would be one thing if students took official, in-class evaluations seriously and used RMP to air immature grievances. Unfortunately, social scientists have found that students essentially took the same approach to both (806-807). In both instances they considered superficial qualities like “good looks” when evaluating professors. If a) studies show that RMP is flawed; and b) studies show that students take essentially the same approach toward RMP as they do for official evaluations, then it follows that c) we should be highly critical of the utility of student evaluations.
We have not descended to the point, as far as I can tell, of including RMP as part of the official evaluation of college professors. But anyone who has witnessed the steady decline in professors’ salaries and bargaining power since the 1960s will not be fully shocked if this terrible, nightmarish scenario were to occur one day. RMP may be used informally and unofficially to gather information about a job candidate a university is thinking of hiring and if this is the case, it should be discouraged at all costs. A website that dares to judge the worth of professors by their looks, and not their works, should be confined to the dustbin of history. It is garbage. And not one person should ever hold it up as justification of whether or not a professor is effective. I need to close with a specific message to my fellow educators…If this blog series has shown anything, it is that you may very well be a great teacher and if so, I commend you. But if you are truly a great teacher, it is almost certainly in spite of your student evaluations, rather than because of them.
Why have I called the title of this blog series “The Talk That (Almost) No One Is Willing to Have”? It is because grade inflation and student evaluations, both of which emanate from the pro-business model of higher education, fall under an informal, de facto gag order. It is hush, hush for most. One can also think of it as a game to which everyone is privy. I recall a Wall Street Journal op-ed written by South Carolina State psychology professor, Geoffrey L. Collier, entitled, “We Pretend to Teach, They Pretend to Learn.” A cynical title for sure, but cynicism in this realm is warranted. It seems like virtually every week the Chronicle of Higher Education publishes yet another article with depressing data showing how academia is the furthest thing from the idealistic “life of the mind” that it purports to be. Aside from the professors out there who uncritically prop up their stellar student evaluations as evidence that they are “good” teachers (and I have met these folks and am always stunned that the critical thinking skills they promote every day in the classroom are immediately thrown out the window when the make this argument), most of us know that this is a wink and a nod. I wonder if professors who make this argument are really covering for their insecurities in other aspects of their professional lives. We know it’s a game but we throw up our arms anyway and say, what can we do? We are somewhat powerless to change a system in which too many entrenched stakeholders benefit: parents (in many cases) who are footing the bill of high tuition; administrators whose interests sometimes do not align with those of faculty; politicians who promote the ostensibly laudable goal of “access” so they can say that they have created a more educated populace (regardless of whether that is truly the case), and most of all, students who clamor for the requisite A- from solid, but not exceptional, work. However much professors may protest against this game, unfortunately, it seems, they are up against too many opposing forces from powerful constituencies.
Student evaluations first came onto the scene in the 1920s. In 1953, behavioral psychologist Edwin Guthrie at the University of Washington wrote that they could provide “objective evidence of merit,” and function as at least one factor in promotion, but he also said it would be a “serious” misuse of student evaluations to accept them as the “ultimate measure of merit” (221). Unfortunately, they have only grown in importance since then. A survey of deans of private liberal arts colleges in the 1990s found that student evaluations have become the prime source of information in the evaluation of teaching and are given more weight than classroom visits or examination scores (Seldin 1998).
I spoke to a college professor I know about cell phone use in the classroom. He shared my view that it is pervasive (and I would add disrespectful to a positive learning environment), but sadly, it was because of student evaluations that he could not say what he really wanted to say to students about using their phones. This is a form of self-censorship. Implicitly we are taught that we should not rock the boat; that we should not speak truth to power. This is particularly true for those of us who are not tenured or on the tenure-track. Make no mistake…student evaluations reduce our job and our worth as professors to whether we are well liked—an artificial, subjective, and arbitrary quality that may or may not have any bearing on our expertise, knowledge, or pedagogical acumen.
If you’ve gotten this far in my blog series and still don’t believe me, here are some articles I’ve read that point to many of the same conclusions. To save the reader time, I have summarized the key arguments in bullet point form:
One of the best academic pieces on grade inflation and student evaluations was written by Wolfgang Stroebe and published recently for Perspectives on Psychological Sciences. Stroebe starts by addressing the trend that average grades have increased over time even though the time that students devote to their classes has actually decreased. Like other authors, he attributes this paradox to “grading leniency, encouraged by the practice of university administrators to base important personnel decisions on student evaluations of teaching.” Because many instructors believe that the average student prefers courses that are entertaining, require little work, and result in high grades, they feel pressure to conform to those expectations. Stroebe then affirms what seems to be the growing consensus that data do not support the notion that positive student evaluations reflect genuine student learning. If they did, we would expect students who left a positive evaluation in one course to perform well in upper division courses, but if anything, the data suggests the opposite. The example provided in this article is first-semester and second-semester calculus. Instead, the data indicate that students are not a very good judge of whether they have learned a lot and further, that students who received lower grades (and therefore rated their professors and classes more poorly in many cases) were actually better prepared for the upper division courses (801-808).
When student evaluations factor heavily into whether professors are hired or fired, as they do now, professors adjust by essentially teaching toward an arbitrary test. It standardizes and routinizes the art of teaching (and yes, teaching is an art form) and as a result, professors are constrained from basing their courses on their own individual, unique personalities and areas of expertise. It promotes a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching. When I was a college student, I always thought it was a joy to experience a diverse range of opinions, ideas, and approaches to various disciplines. In many cases I enjoyed philosophy, political science, and sociology classes as much as I did the history classes that were required for my degree. Students of American history might be familiar with Taylorism in the early-20th century—a method of regimenting employees' work habits in order to maximize efficiency and productivity. Taylorism was supposed to be scientific and rational, but it did give more power to the owners of capital rather than labor. In effect, student evaluations control professors in the same way that Taylorism controlled industrial workers. Over time factory owners discovered that they could better control their workers, and thus, maximize profits, if they cornered workers into a closed factory shop rather than allowing workers to work at leisure from the home as had been customary in the pre- and proto-industrial economies. Workers who experienced a sense of loss and alienation did not go quietly into the night: they often responded with violent strikes and destruction of property. Think of the Luddites here. I am not advocating that professors should be Luddites, but if professors are workers and managers are trying to control them, why would we expect acquiescence from them?
Some technophiles in Silicon Valley and libertarian circles—the same types of folks who would largely ignore the pitfalls of Taylorism—often fall into the “inevitability” fallacy. We’re operating on a 19th-century model, they say, that does not provide “skills” for 21st-century students. There are faulty assumptions at work here, embedded in a neoliberal discourse. Funny how the argument of inevitability only points in one direction: toward greater “consumer choice,” “free markets,” privatization, and deregulation. Proponents of this discourse seem to care little that professors are deskilled and stripped of their once proud authority, or that students are burdened with debt. This bottom-line mentality has no place in public education. If we must have student evaluations, and one of the larger points of this blog series is to argue that they should be relegated to the very bottom of all the criteria we use to judge professors, then we should train students on how to write them. I have taken this idea from a fellow conference-goer. At the end of the day, save for the select few of us who are lucky enough to work at R-I institutions, the fickle opinions of students can have a large impact on our career paths. Therefore, put the following directions in the questionnaire…do not comment on the professor’s appearance, race, clothing, gender, personality, or age. Instead, answer this question: did I learn a lot in this class? This would make things a whole lot easier for everyone.
Link to the next installment in this series.
Remember, if current trends of grade inflation continue, the average GPA will be 3.8 by 2050. This cannot come to pass. We don’t want to establish a system where students essentially pay thousands of dollars for a certain grade. To me this sounds little different from bribery or the selling of indulgences by Catholic priests in early modern Europe—a practice that fueled the Protestant Reformation. I start with a basic question: if grade inflation has been widely documented and reported on for several decades, why do we still have it? The articles discussed below should help us understand why.
Sadly, there is not a lengthy academic literature on grade inflation, which is surprising considering that one would think that this would be an important topic to discuss among educators. The few articles that have been published in academic journals are often written by social scientists employing complex statistical methods that may be difficult to comprehend for those like myself who are accustomed to the humanities. In his 2009 article in Educational Research Review, Anton Oleinik notes that from 1993 to 2008, only 56 texts presented the findings of original research and theories on grade inflation. And yet, newspapers and magazines over the same period had 989 articles. The natural question is why? Any professor knows that talking about—let alone publishing on—student evaluations threatens to open up a can of worms. Oleinik ponders whether academic rigor has been compromised by corruption in the academic system, and more specifically, the corruption of market forces. If academia was fully autonomous, Oleinik believes, then the pursuit of truth would be its overriding goal. But “[w]hen the university is run as a business enterprise, the imperative of the search for truth appears less relevant than financial soundness and profit-maximization” (160). Capitalism, if taken to its furthest logical extent, can be quite detrimental to truth and knowledge. Those who have studied the so-called “debate” about human-caused climate change, with all of the financial resources of the fossil fuel industry wickedly deployed to poison our public discourse and obfuscate and distract from the truth, know this already. University departments with the highest enrollments get the highest percentage of the university budget (160). If some departments want a greater share of that university budget, they are incentivized to lower standards in order to attract higher enrollments. And what better way than grade inflation to boost enrollment?
Grade inflation, as I discussed in a previous post in this series, is also a consequence of the increased vulnerability of faculty in terms of job security. It is no coincidence that grade inflation, higher tuition, and the shift to a much higher proportion of part-time instructors in the classroom have occurred in roughly the same decades. Jack Kostal, Nathan Kuncle, and Paul Sackett captured the deleterious implications of the student-as-customer mentality when they wrote, “As the costs of running colleges have increased, rising tuition and pressure on instructors to maintain student satisfaction has led to an environment where students are viewed as customers rather than apprentices to be trained” (13). If the percentage of non-tenured faculty—contingent, lecturers, VAPs, adjuncts, freeway fliers—increases, we would expect an increase in average grades. As William Abbott writes in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, “[f]or non-tenure-track faculty, how they grade can affect whether their courses fills and hence whether they will keep their jobs” (33). This describes a moral hazard. It is equivalent to a police department arresting more people arbitrarily just to “get the numbers up” because some politician has a contract with the private prison industry and wants to establish a reputation for being “tough on crime,” regardless of the actual urgency and danger of crime (See the Comstat system covered by David Simon’s The Wire) It is equivalent to a pharmaceutical company in the 1990s lying to the public about the addictive features of prescription opioids so they can profit more. It is equivalent to managers for Wells Fargo opening up fake bank accounts to artificially inflate profits or Volkswagen circumventing emissions standards. In each case, the profit motive corrupts the intent of the occupation. Abbott adds that studies by Brenda Sonner, Boualem Kezin, Susan Pariseau, and Francis Quinn suggest that faculty who are less secure generally grade higher (33). The most damning part mentioned in Abbott’s article is how the distribution of grades relates to the disciplinary consequences for faculty coming from above. Administrators will punish faculty members for being too harsh in terms of grades—in one case trying to get a professor removed—while Jonathan Knight of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) commented that he was not familiar with any case in which a professor had suffered an economic loss due to grading too easily (34-35).
Robert E. Wright and John C. Palmer, using a data set of 119 students, consider whether high student evaluations result from faculty handing out higher grades (3). One wonders whether students really take into account their own intellectual enrichment, or the knowledge, background, and expertise of the professor, when they rate a class, or whether evaluations are mere proxies for irrelevant, unquantifiable, and un-useful qualities like personality, gender, and physical attraction. If student evaluations didn’t really matter, this wouldn't be an issue for educators. But they are often a key determinant in decisions regarding tenure and promotion. This may not be the case at Research 1 universities, but they certainly are at state universities, which tend to be more teaching oriented. Conceivably we could imagine situations where professors without any substantive rigor or intellectual standards in their courses get promoted, though any fair decision should consider not the just quantitative student evaluations, but the type of assignments a professor offers, peer evaluation, the syllabus, whether they are active in the field, etc. (And to be clear, I am not speaking of problems at either of my places of employment, but what I see as a troubling trend in universities nationwide).
After surveying the literature, Wright and Palmer concluded that if students expect to receive a higher grade, they will rate the instructors more highly (4). This is problematic. It throws into question whether professors who receive high marks on their student evaluations are actually good teachers—something that is admittedly subjective—rather than merely being generous graders or having good looks or appealing personalities. Ellis et al. found that the average student grade given in a course was a significant predictor of average student ratings of instructional quality. If high grades are correlated with higher teaching evaluations, they are a flawed metric for assessing teacher performance.
Once the skewed incentive of grade inflation is set in motion, it is very difficult to reverse. Students, under the illusion that “choice” and “competition” lead to the best outcomes, will choose the professor and class that gives them the greatest possible return (a grade) for the least amount of effort. This is one of the many corrosive effects of adopting a pro-business philosophy in public education. Giving people more choices, as I often say to libertarians, does not necessarily lead to better outcomes. Allowing students the "choice" of dropping a class halfway through the term merely to protect their GPA is technically a choice, but it can also contribute to grade inflation. Rather than push themselves to improve their skills, students have the option of taking the easy way out. When I was complaining about the evaluation process with another educator—a K-12 teacher I very much respect by the way—he said to me, “You realize you’re selling a product, right?” I was stunned and I don’t remember what exactly my response was. But it should have been, “No! Absolutely not! That is the worst way to think about education and I would have never made all those sacrifices to get a PhD in my subject if I thought I was selling a product!!” Keep in mind that this whole trite mantra of “let’s run a public good like a business” and the “let’s let the CEO run our government” is the same contorted mentality that led to the catastrophic “election” of president* Trump.
To the student who protests, “I pay x amount of dollars for this class and therefore I should get… [choose your concession on the part of the professor that makes it easier for the student],” my response is this: I question your entire premise. You pay a lot of money for the course because the state doesn’t send its tax dollars to public universities as much as it used to (I'm talking as a percentage, not nominal dollar amounts). Instead, a significant portion of tax money and tuition is diverted toward administrative hiring, athletics departments, and flashy dorms; ya know, anywhere except teaching, which used to be considered the fundamental mission of any university. I know, strange to think that a university would be about learning, right? Under a fairer and just system, the state would make higher education free, thus eliminating the customer mentality. You wouldn’t feel pressure to go into debt for your education and I wouldn’t feel pressure to compromise rigor and intellectual standards. Each side—student and professor—wins when education is not a business.
What matters the most is whether learning is taking place in the classroom. This should be our utmost priority and everything else should be secondary. Student evaluations may measure whether learning takes place, but any teacher with the slightest bit of skepticism realizes that this isn’t often the case. And the studies mentioned above should cast doubt on that very notion. Wright and Palmer add the caveat that positive evaluations could result from student perceptions that they are learning more, and that the instructor may be facilitating this learning. But if students are learning less precisely because professors are lowering standards for the shallow pursuit of winning glorified popularity contests, then we have a major, societal, and systemic problem on our hands.
What, then, are the best solutions to the problems I’ve described? Crafting the right policy details would probably entail an entirely separate blog post, so I’ll have to settle on sketching some broad strokes. Here is what I propose:
Here is the next post in this series.
The briefest of updates here as I was working on my website. What have I been up to these last few months? Well aside from my daily routine of petting my kitty kat, Malcolm, who is actually my neighbor's cat, I've have:
* worked on my book manuscript
* visited friends and family in northern California
* enjoyed some fleeting and intermittent moments of joy on social media
* submitted an article manuscript to a journal
* completed two book reviews with one more to follow
* tried not to lose my mind each day when I follow the news
* taken lots of naps
Plenty of topics to cover in future blog posts. I tend to think of them more like essays rather than blogs in that I like to gather and organize my thoughts a bit before I write, and to include helpful hyperlinks, so this is why I sometimes take my time between posts.
I've been dealing a lot with primary sources lately in my online and face-to-face classes and I thought it might be kinda cool to have my students analyze a letter I've transcribed from the Nicholas Biddle Papers. What you'll see below is not contained in any edited volume and with the exception, perhaps, of a handful of folks on the East Coast, no one has transcribed this letter. A lot of letters from this era contain handwriting that is very difficult to read, but like many bankers in this era, this guy had excellent penmanship. I've even written an italicized introduction in the style of what you'll find in primary source readers.
As I argued in my article in American Nineteenth Century History, a letter like this, which among scholars of Jacksonian era politics seems to have passed below the radar--understandable for a manuscript collection stored on 51 reels of microfilm--is valuable because it underscores Biddle's ability to use the peculiar institutional makeup of the Bank's system of branches to engage in interregional networking; to communicate with financiers about appropriate monetary policy; to gauge public opinion on the Bank before proceeding with the recharter effort. All of this made for a very early attempt, perhaps one of the earliest attempts, at constructing a nationwide public relations campaign.
I have neither the time, nor the energy, nor the mental capacity, nor the patience, nor the endurance to follow and rebut every ill conceived, juvenile, simplistic, distraction-prone, random assemblage of words uttered from the pampered child that currently occupies the White House. But as the latest act of foolishness and ignorance concerns the topic of historical knowledge, and the historical profession writ large, I'll address this by excerpting articles from History News Network and other venues. It is also worth commenting here because it is a topic in which I have developed some expertise.
For those who don't know, the mantra "ignorance is strength" comes from Orwell's 1984, still one of my favorite books from my senior year of high school. Notice that the overwhelming majority of academic, scholarly historians are in agreement: this was a terribly misinformed, ignorant statement put forth by the President* Trump, something that occurs on pretty much a semi-daily frequency. I have a connection, however tenuous, with every historian cited in these stories. Yale historian David Blight's reaction, shown below, is particularly on point in my view. His classic, Race and Reunion, sits on my bookshelf and is standard reading in graduate school. I met Blight briefly at the Huntington Library in Pasadena. His arguments on memory, race, and the "Lost Cause" appear in my lecture on Reconstruction. Meachem's book, American Lion, sits on my shelf, I took one of Rauchway's classes (where we read his Murdering McKinley) while an undergraduate at UC Davis, and have followed--and interacted briefly with--the omnipresent Nicole Hemmer on Twitter.
This is from Yahoo! News, May 1, 2017: Historians Monday valiantly tried, and mostly failed, to understand and interpret President Trump’s remarks about President Andrew Jackson. Among other comments, Trump seemed to assert that Jackson, who died in 1845, could have prevented the Civil War, which began in 1861, and that the causes of the bloodiest conflict in the nation’s history have not been addressed or discussed.
“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War,” said Trump in an interview with the Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito. “He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart, and he was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’ People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question. But why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”
The comments, published Monday morning and broadcast on SiriusXM Radio, led to confusion over Trump’s understanding of Jackson’s beliefs and general American history.
“First of all, historians have actually talked about the reasons for the Civil War quite a bit,” said Kevin Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton, in an email to Yahoo News. “Second, there’s an overwhelming consensus among historians that the Civil War came about because of slavery. Simply put, the war came because the southern states seceded, and they seceded — as they quite clearly said themselves at the time, over and over again — because of slavery. Mississippi’s secession declaration, to take just one, is quite direct here: ‘Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.’”
“The question of why the Civil War should have happened is not only central to the study of U.S. history but to our entire national mythology,” said Eric Rauchway, a professor of history at UC Davis, in an interview with Yahoo News, “and Lincoln’s answer to that question is literally chiseled on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial about a mile’s walk from the White House.”
“Historians of the U.S. were surprised to learn that nobody asks why the Civil War happened, as it’s one of the central questions of American history,” said Nicole Hemmer, assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, to Yahoo News. “It’s even featured on the test for American citizenship. But when Donald Trump marvels at the ignorance or incuriosity of the masses, what he’s really doing is expressing his own ignorance and incuriosity. He’s saying that he’s never asked about the origins of the Civil War.”
Jon Meacham, author of “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House,” attempted to parse Trump’s historical commentary.
“The president seems to be conflating two things,” said Meacham in an email to Yahoo News. “The first is Andrew Jackson’s determined stand for the Union against South Carolina nullifiers in 1832-33; Old Hickory believed in the primacy of his federal government and faced down John C. Calhoun and others over the supremacy of federal law. The second is Trump’s thought — one he first expressed to me in an interview for Time last year — that perhaps a deal of some kind could have averted the Civil War.”
“The problem with the latter,” added Meacham, “is that any accommodation with the South would have to have ratified the continued existence of slavery in the old slaveholding states — which, to be fair, was a mainstream possibility in the prewar days. What finally drove secession was Lincoln’s refusal to allow the expansion of slavery westward. All fascinating, complicated stuff — but one has to wonder why the 45th president, who has plenty to do, is blithely relitigating what Shelby Foote called ‘the crossroads of our being.'”
Rauchway also suggested that Trump might have been thinking about Jackson’s actions against former Vice President Calhoun.
“To give the president the benefit of the doubt,” said Rauchway, “I imagine he is thinking there of the Nullification Crisis where Jackson faced down John C. Calhoun over the South Carolinian attempts to nullify a federal tariff law and that therefore Jackson is sometimes referred to as being a strong Unionist, which I suppose is fair enough. But at that point the issue of slavery wasn’t directly at issue or its expansion wasn’t directly an issue, and I don’t think Jackson would have been effective in dealing with that issue in any way.”
There was also pushback against Trump’s musings that Jackson could have prevented the Civil War and his suggestion that the seventh president — whose Indian Removal Act essentially legalized genocide — had a “big heart.”
“Andrew Jackson himself was a slaveholder and the Jacksonians were slaveholders and they despised the abolitionists,” said Rauchway, “so it’s hard for me to believe that they would have been able to prevent the Civil War. And actually it was Jacksonian policies – particularly those of James K. Polk, who styled himself as Young Hickory, as a direct heir to Andrew Jackson – which precipitated the Civil War. That’s entirely wrong in every respect.”
“Jackson had a big heart for white farmers,” said Hemmer, “Less so for the American Indians he slaughtered and the African-Americans he enslaved. Given Trump’s own focus on white Americans over nonwhite Americans, it’s not surprising that he would fail to see the limits of Jackson’s big-heartedness.”
What needs to be emphasized every single day in this nightmarish, hellish "presidency" (or regime?) in which we find ourselves is that hateful, bigoted, ignorant, low-information voters "elected" a hateful, bigoted, ignorant, low-information "president" through the anti-democratic electoral college, not the popular vote. Will any conservative and/or Trump voter, beyond just a few handful, have the intellectual credibility to admit that we were right? That they deeply regret their vote? That they were scammed, hoodwinked, and bamboozled by a used car salesman? I doubt it. They couldn't admit we were right about Iraq; about financial deregulation; about tax cuts; about the ACA; about climate change, so why would they suddenly wise up now? When the stakes are this high, it's more important to be right than it is to be nice. As I've been saying for many months and years now, we're way past the point of having thoughtful, reasonable debate with thoughtful, reasonable people. In no way shape or form can this end well. Who better to evaluate presidents than historians? It's sad that Trump supporters are so brainwashed that they don't care what we think.
Disclaimer: This is my personal blog. While I do my best to offer reasonable conclusions based on verifiable, peer reviewed evidence, I neither speak for my employers, nor do I require my students to read or agree with the thoughts expressed here. Opinions are my own.