2013-01-11 04.20.08

This summer, I was able to travel to Italy, thanks to a generous sabbatical grant made through my school. As I sort through the many, many thoughts that are soaring around in my head, I am returning to this blog. It’s been awhile. Perhaps that is evidence that I needed a sabbatical. The intellectual luxury I am wallowing in is amazing and inspiring.  The only requirement the sabbatical makes is that I share my experiences with the school community. That is a pretty interesting challenge, since some of the people who attend our school are only three or four years old! I plan to create several presentations, and I am going to use this blog to pull my ideas together and shape them into something I hope will be useful and fun and inspiring in its own right.

With many thanks to Moorestown Friends School and the Zekavat family, here is my first installment.


I’ve been struggling to pull my thoughts together to write about my trip to Italy. Somewhere along our journey, I started to think in terms of single words that seemed to help me order at least some of my ideas.

The first word is serendipity. Serendipity is a fancy word for lucky surprises, things you might miss if you walked along with your eyes firmly fixed on a map. I’ve long felt that the ability to recognize and embrace serendipity is among those most important to historians. I’ve often found that the most compelling things are not those at the center of narratives, but the ones that creep in, not seeming to fit, but part of the story nevertheless. When I started my dissertation, I was planning to study the relationship Americans had a century or so ago with popular science. On the way, I tripped over a few short references to anthropological work, and then a photograph of a mustachioed white man, clothed only in a sort of loincloth, holding a spear and sitting astride a saddled wooden sawhorse. His name was Frank Hamilton Cushing, he led me to Zuni, and the rest is now a history book.

Serendipity played a big role in the planning of my Zekavat sabbatical. As a history teacher, I could have justified going anywhere in the world. For a long time, I didn’t apply, because I couldn’t figure out which was most important. Then I began to think about a novel I’d read, twice. It’s called Thread of Grace, and it’s by Mary Doria Russell, and I recommend it to anyone who can face a beautiful, tragic story from one of the most brutal corners of World War II. The novel, based on considerable historical research, traces the lives of a group of refugees from the Nazis. Some are Jews who had escaped from elsewhere in Europe and reached the south of France, where they were relatively safe as long as it was occupied by Italian troops. Some were Italian soldiers, who, like the Jewish refugees, fled the Nazi troops who moved in to occupy the region when the Italians withdrew, having surrendered to the Allied Forces. Some were Italians working with the Resistance to save their Jewish neighbors and their own humanity. One was a German soldier who could not forgive himself for what he’d done.

I found that I wanted to trace the footsteps of these vivid characters, and to think about how it is that quite ordinary people, putting one foot ahead of the other, became heroes in a tragedy they could not escape. And then melt into the woodwork, encumbered with the memories neither they nor the rest of the world want to live with. So I chose northern Italy, and a part of World War II that, especially in classes in the United States, often disappears behind the demanding atrocities of Germany and Japan.

That decision may have been shaped by another bit of serendipity. A number of years ago, I led a group of high school kids to the American southwest, to share with them some of my fascination with Zuni and other pueblo cultures. Having no idea how to plan such a trip, I went on line and googled around until I found an interesting travel agency, one that specialized in off-the-beaten-path tours. I zipped off a rambling email describing the ideas that were still a jumble in my mind, and that is how I met Patrizia Antonicelli, an Italian living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She twice choreographed wonderful trips for my students, and we became long-distance friends. Though Facebook, I learned that her father had been a partisan, a member of the Italian Resistance, during World War II. I also learned, later, that she had returned to Italy. So I zipped her another rambling email, describing what I had in mind for the Zekavat sabbatical. She then introduced me to an Italian travel agent who happened to live in an exquisite town just across the Alps from southern France. Annalisa took me under her wing and put together an itinerary that allowed  to visit the kinds of places that the characters in Thread of Grace had encountered. Including a stop in Torino, Turin, to visit with Patrizia, explore the Resistance museum, and learn about her father.

Serendipity shaped my Zekavat proposal. It wasn’t done with me yet! More to come.


Like many secondary schools, ours recently implemented an open gradebook. That means that about once a week we are required to post some sort of a grade for each of our students. That grade, entered in numbers, is immediately combined with existing grades into a running average, computed to two decimal points.

Math teachers seem comfortable with this. They have lots of homework assignments and quizzes consisting of problems that have single, exact answers, and often single correct sets of steps to arriving at the answers.  At least in the early years, there is relatively little ambiguity in math.

But history, if you separate it from the practice of having students memorize lists of names, dates and events, is all about ambiguity. Using incomplete and sometimes contradictory evidence, historians seek to interpret the meanings of things people have done in the past.  Reconstructing those events, those actions, requires both very careful attention to the details and a measure of disciplined imagination. Historians have to make lots of judgment calls. What is important, and what incidental? Does the particular wording of something change the way you interpret it? Can two similar statements actually mean different things? How do I know if a source is reliable?  The mark of a good historian is the ability to present that judgment with evidence to support it and explanations that convince people that it is, in fact, correct.

When I grade student work, I am looking for their ability to marshal historical information in the service of interpretation. I am looking to see if they can ferret out meanings that exist below the surface of what they read. I am looking to see if they can see the problems with sources as well as the possibilities. In other words, I am looking to see if they can wrestle effectively with questions that don’t have absolute right and wrong answers.

Here is how I lay out my grading system for my students, because I have to translate what I see into number grades:

95% = A

This means that you have very strong skills and the ability to think for yourself. You do more than what is strictly required for any assignment, bring interesting questions and comments to our class discussions and take an active role in whatever activities we engage in. The written work you hand in demonstrates not only that you can remember the information we’ve been studying, but that you can offer a clear, sophisticated analysis of it.

85 = B

Most of you will be in the B range. If you are a B student, you do all the homework, participate in class most of the time, and are generally a good student. In the written work you hand in, you might sometimes have trouble remembering some information and you might have trouble fully understanding and analyzing the concepts we are studying. You are not yet at the point where you can explain what you know clearly, logically and with good documentation. Or you are bright, but don’t always apply yourself to the work.

75 = C

If you get a 75 or C on an assignment, it means that you really have some work to do. This might be because your skills need extra work, in which case I urge you to come in for extra help, or that you just aren’t putting in the time and attention necessary.  It might mean that the more abstract ideas are hard for you to grasp; again, come in and talk to me – or ask me a question in class. I can often rephrase ideas in more concrete ways or give you examples to help you understand.

65 = D

If you get a 65, it is a warning signal you should take seriously. You are probably failing to complete assignments, goofing off in class or otherwise not doing what you should be doing.

Every year I revisit this policy, usually trying to figure out if there is a more precise, more transparent way to describe my system. I would love to hear from other teachers, either at the secondary or college level, who have systems that work!

This reflection may, in fact, get me in trouble with my historian friends. I am thinking this morning about the decisions I make to leave things out of the history I teach. This is always a side-effect of synthesis. I am determined to help my students get something that feels like a unified narrative, and that means leaving a good deal out. I justify this by reiterating the idea that all history is crafted by historians, and all, necessarily, leaves out some things. And that really I believe people should go on studying and restudying the topics I teach, to get a fuller and fuller picture.

Some years ago, when I taught college students how to teach history, I argued that every class they taught ought to have a thesis: a unifying idea that, at the end of the day, was what they wanted their students to remember even when they could not remember the specific details that went into explaining it. Courses, too, ought to have some unifying themes. Survey courses, which is most of what high school teachers teach, make this difficult. Textbooks that most teachers use are not organized around theses; they are far more likely to be records of what Gordon Wood used to call “one damned thing after another.” The better textbooks offer themes chapter by chapter, but there is little that holds the whole together.

I can already hear voices saying that I am suggesting some teleological view of history, or at least that history does not unfold as neatly as the narratives I would like to spin. And yet when historians write monographs, they shape them around a central premise; they make an argument about how we ought to understand their topic. Is it impossible to identify a series of themes that run through American history that, while they are not the only possible themes, are still important to what we might call an adequate education?

As an example, let me write about the way I teach the period from just before the American Revolution to Reconstruction. Though I break it down, I teach this as one unit, and that unit focuses on the tension between American slavery and American freedom. I have put slaves and slavery at the center of the story, in part because there is a quite good documentary called Slavery and the Making of America which covers this period very nicely. I add a good deal of what is more conventionally taught about this period: the battles between Federalists and Anti-Federalists, the building of the New Nation, the changes wrought by the Market Revolution and the confrontations over slavery and freedom that occupied Congress and the country in the Antebellum years.

I know that this is not the only, or the most common way to teach this class, but I think that the issues that grew up around slavery were central to both national identity and to the way in which all the history of the United States unfolded. Those issues continue to shape what happened in the ensuing historical eras, and we are still wrestling with them today. This approach will anger those who feel that no one should graduate high school without reading from the Federalist Papers or knowing the terms of the Missouri Compromise. But it should send students to college with a fundamental understanding of one important current in American history. And with luck, they might also go to college thinking that history is something that speaks to them – and that they would like to continue to study.

Note: this post and my previous one were inspired by a conference I attended at NYU in honor of my dissertation advisor, Tom Bender, who is retiring this year. It brought together a remarkable bunch of people who also worked with Tom. It was fascinating to see how much this group of people who didn’t know each other had in common. And the discussions, over two days, of ideas that Tom has launched into the historians’ universe, have left me with lots to think about and much to say. Here is my second set of observations.

I have a class of juniors who are very unlike me. Their temperament, to put it in Myers/Briggs language, leads them to approach learning through the individual bits of information – the facts, if you will. They are comfortable with the notion that you should line up all that information step by step; once you have done that, you will, in fact, understand the larger picture. You will have created it, like a jigsaw puzzle. Unfortunately, they are still at the point that they can’t always tell when they’ve gotten to the big picture, and these days there are so very many bits and bytes of information that they can continue the process of gathering it forever.

I, on the other hand, am intuitive. I see the big picture very quickly, and sometime have to be persuaded to check it against existing information. I see the forest and they see the trees. My job as a teacher is to help them know when they have enough trees to make a forest, and to teach them how to tell which of the trees are really important, and which are just intellectual kudzu, filling in, but also obscuring, our understanding.

As a historian, I have plenty of challenges. Many students come to me hating history because it has been presented to them as a list of largely unconnected names and dates that they have to memorize. (Another bunch, my tree people, come to me loving the prospect of mastering lists like this!) What I want to teach them is not just the meaning of what has happened in the past, but the skills historians have used to get at those meanings: finding information and evaluating sources, culling what is relevant from what is not, investigating dissonance in the historical record, and ultimately weaving what they have learned into a story that makes sense to them – and to those who read what they write.

I don’t do this out of any conviction that people ought to know history. I do it out of a conviction that people ought to find history personally empowering, invigorating – and fun. As I was preparing for my panel at the conference, which had as its quarry the bridge between academic and public history, I thought about why I study history. Being, in Myers/Briggs language again, a process rather than product person, I find the process of learning from the past exhilarating. I love seeing a picture come together, and I love getting to those moments when something makes sense to me.

This may seem silly.  But consider this. I sometimes tell my students the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I do it to encourage them to challenge me (and everyone else) when things don’t add up. Because many of my students genuinely do not expect things to add up. They live in a world where they can do things without knowing how they are done, and where there are voices everywhere claiming to be disseminating facts and truth, and there is no way, on the surface, to make sense of it all.

I think students have a right to demand that people who tell them things make a solid case for what they say. And I want them to know how to make that demand, and how to evaluate the cases that are laid before them. Being able to tame the jungle of untruth and partial truth out there will give them a measure of control over their lives at a time when people seem to be reduced to tiny parts of metadata, and not individual agents at all. It is perhaps very old-fashioned to talk about agency anymore, but what the hell, I’m a historian!

At the conference, I offered the audience Wonder Woman as a metaphor for the historian. Not because I am particularly entranced by her ridiculous star-studded bustier or even her bullet-deflecting bracelets, but because her superpower is her ability to wield a lasso that makes it impossible for people caught within it to lie. Could it be that what historians offer the world is a way to find truth? Or, and I like this better, a way to evaluate the many kinds of truth that people tell and to weave together an ever more accurate understanding of why people do the things they do, what they think they are doing when they are do them, and how both understanding and misunderstanding have shaped the way power of many kinds functions in this world?

I’ve wandered a good distance from those trees and forests. Here’s the connection I see: when I am in my classroom, and I am working and reworking ways to help my students both master and question the narratives I show them, I am a genuinely happy, mostly pretty powerful-feeling person. Not many people I know can describe their job this way. So I am going to take my Wonder Woman lasso and head in among the trees and see what I can do to increase the intellectual and social power of my students.

I just spent two days in New York with several generations of historians who did their graduate work with Tom Bender. It was an exhilarating experience to roll from one conversation about history and historians to another – and rather nice to discover that I am a member of this group of interesting, interested, creative intellectuals. Guilt by association here works for me.

Being back at NYU did, of course, bring me face to face with my graduate-student self mostly in ways that I am now able to laugh at. One past disposition, though, it seems I have not outgrown is the capacity to think of just the right thing to say once everyone else has moved on to a new subject. But now I have a blog, so as I replay the discussions from the conference I can still lob in my late-arriving insights

I have a bunch of them, but here’s the one I woke up with. Jack Tchen delivered an exquisite deconstruction of the essential Bender in which he said all sorts of smart things, but one in particular stayed with me. There was much made, during the conference, of the fact that Tom had played basketball in college. Jack offered the suggestion that one aspect of Tom’s intelligence was his ability to be aware of all sorts of intellectual movement around him while not losing sight of his own ideas – as a basketball player seems unconsciously to sense where his teammates are on the court, or as a dancer is aware of the dancers with whom she shares the stage.

This metaphor resonated. I’m not much of a basketball fan, but I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the different kinds of intelligence good dancers put into apparently effortless performances. It is not just that their bodies have to be both physically tuned and alert to the instructions of the mind. They must simultaneously process the language of the music and the language of the choreography, they must draw up and share powerful emotions, they have to be in the right place at the right time and in proper spatial relationship with the other dancers on stage. And they shouldn’t bump into each other.

Choreography seems to me an excellent metaphor for Tom’s intellect and his teaching, and, in fact, a good metaphor for good work in history and history teaching generally. We are not lone inventors of wholly new ideas, we are part of a long, intricate dance of ideas. Our thinking cannot exist separate from the flow of this massively complex collaborative effort.  Tom’s great strength as a teacher was his ability to invite us onto the stage and help us develop an ear for the music and an almost intuitive sense for all the other things that are happening on that stage, even the ones that seem out of place. That capacity to be central to the dance but also to support the rest of the troupe is a model for teaching that I very much like.

Galatea and Caitlyn

Posted: June 15, 2015 in Uncategorized

Galatea and Caitlyn


I woke up this morning trying to figure out why it is that I am uncomfortable with Bruce Jenner’s emergence as Caitlyn. I am a firm supporter of the idea that we should cut gender loose from sex and that people should embrace and be embraced in whatever gender identity suits them. So it really is not a knee-jerk aversion to gender shifting, though to be honest I am less comfortable with surgical reassignment, but that has more to do with the surgery than with the reassignment.

No, my discomfort comes not from the crossing of gender boundaries, but from the way in which that crossing was made: on the cover of Vanity Fair, with huge fanfare and much public comment. The image of Jenner in a pose that can only be called male-fantasy-of-perfect-female caused a certain amount of anger to boil up. This image does not match any of the women I know. It is not an image that reveals years of experience with the ups and downs of being female in our culture. It is an image that carefully airbrushes away the centuries of fighting women have done for the right to be something other than a male fantasy, for the right to stand proud of what they have done and of the way it is reflected in the bodies they wear. What Jenner has embraced – and what he has every right to be—is a stereotype of woman as sex object, woman as enjoyer of girls’ nights where one is free to talk about clothes and make up without fear of judgment. Jenner has embraced a stereotype that has nothing to do with the gender I identify with in all its complexity: woman.

And he has done it publicly on the glossy cover of Vanity Fair, which, I think, will never make as big a deal about any woman who has, all her life, sought to define her gender in her own terms, living life every day in a world that discounts her contributions and belittles her corporal form. When will Vanity Fair feature my gender choice: to be strong sometimes, but not others, to be flawed in places but have flawless moments that make me soar, to wear the signs of my experience, to be a feisty, smart, sometimes annoying, crazy, idiosyncratic, funny, authoritative, nothing-all-that-special-but-still-pretty-cool-on-her-good-days woman?

Thinking about Jenner and Vanity Fair tweaked a chord in me. I am perhaps more familiar with the story of Pygmalion and Galatea than many, since I bear the name of one of Galatea’s more recent incarnations. I found myself musing on this permutation of the myth: in this case, the roles of Pygmalion and Galatea are played by the same person. The athlete who toned his own athletic male body over time shapes it, with some surgical help, into an idealized female body, becoming the embodiment of a very particular version of femaleness. When I googled images of Galatea and stumbled over Moreau’s version, in virtually the same pose that Caitlyn holds on the magazine cover, I began to wonder if someone at Vanity Fair, perhaps Annie Liebovitz, wasn’t playing around with this idea. I like to think that she – or someone at the magazine—was slyly asking us to look critically at this brouhaha. I applaud the courage of anyone who is willing to stand up publically for the right to define their gender identity; I look forward to the time when it no longer takes great courage to do this. But I hope that, in the meantime, actions such as Jenner’s don’t act to reify a stale stereotype of femaleness that the media—and our culture—are all too willing to suggest is really what it means to be a woman.

Writing to find out what I think sometimes surprises me.  Yesterday I wrote quite a lot about an approach I thought might work for teaching ninth graders next year.  But several paragraphs in, as I followed my thoughts around and about, I realized that I had already done that, and knew why I’d stopped.  And began to see another way of making sense of the themes that are at the core of the curriculum the other ninth grade teachers have developed.  Not so surprising: the approach that came to me is historical.  I am fundamentally a history teacher.

The problem I was trying to solve was how to reconcile two different things: the course attempts to introduce students to some basic social institutions—government, economics, culture—at the same time it teaches them some of the parts of early modern European history that are really useful to know about if you want to understand how the world came to be what it is.  In the latter category, the curriculum highlights the Enlightenment and the French and Haitian Revolutions.  As I wrote about teaching the former, I began to realize that there was another event that, though implied, was not articulated: the invention of capitalism, which is the event from which, in my humble Marxist opinion, the others flow.

I also teach United States History, and each year I spend a fair amount of time teaching the Market Revolution, going back to European developments to make it make sense – the American colonies were, after all, part of Europe’s market revolution.  What I am thinking now is that ninth grade could focus on the emergence of capitalism and the changes in government and culture that came with it, as well as the early steps toward a globally connected world.  So the syllabus would look something like this:

First Quarter: a look at the traditional economic/social system of medieval Europe (referring back to our 6th grade curriculum) and the forces that led to the development of markets and eventually to full-fledged capitalism.  Exploration, the slave trade and early colonization would fit into this unit, as would the distinction I make when I teach about World War I between the old empires and the new ones focused on resources and markets. This would incorporate a basic introduction to economics, but in a historical context.

Second Quarter: the Enlightenment as an intellectual paradigm growing out of the economic and social changes of the market revolution.  The emergence of the middle class in   Europe changed assumptions about political legitimacy. A comparison of Great Britain and France might be useful here, and I might also include the American Revolution with the French and Haitian ones.

Third Quarter: an investigation into the profound cultural changes that accompanied the emergence of capitalism.  When I teach the market revolution to sophomores, I ask them to think about the forces that shaped identity in pre-modern society, and then to look at how capitalism changed the very foundations of identity.  We could look at artisans, for example, and at what happened as pre-modern farmers became wage-laborers.

Fourth Quarter: how capitalism led to globalization.  We could focus on colonization between 1500 and 1800, thus leaving discussion of industrialization to sophomore year, or we could include the industrial revolution.  I think I lean in the latter direction, though chronologically it takes us well into the period covered in 10th grade.


One of the things this approach would do is allow us to start 10th grade United States History with a quick look at the Revolution, and then focus more on how the market revolution played out in the US and on the battle over slavery that led to the Civil War.  I have already been trying to move in this direction.

There are things the course would lose if we/I moved to this Early Modern approach to ninth grade.  The big one is inclusion of non-western cultures.  But we do a pretty good job with that in 11th grade 20th Century World History, and our senior electives include courses on non-western regions.  And though I have not taught ninth grade in years, my experience with tenth graders suggests to me that a relatively narrow focus might allow us to explore complex concepts with more concrete and coherent examples.

This is just the beginning of my thinking, and I welcome suggestions!


A funny thing happened on the final exam.  I have been working all year trying to teach my students to think analytically about history and to explain their thinking in well-organized essays. They make lots of noise about it, we do lots of work in class, and I am frequently disappointed in the papers they ultimately hand in.

So I assigned them an essay for their final exam.  I gave them the question ahead of time, let them talk about it in class, offered extra help, and let them bring in a 3×5 card with information on it.  They were jazzed as they awaited the exam, then settled in and wrote for an hour or more, by hand.  And their exams were really quite good.  Better, on the whole, than anything I got earlier in the year, that they wrote at home, on their computers.

Why?  Why would they write better under exam conditions than otherwise?

I have several thoughts.  There are some real problems with the way students write with computers. The obvious one is that being connected to the web is likely to fragment your attention. But beyond that, the experience most students have with computers involves something more like making collages than crafting something original. I actually think there may be a difference in the physiological response to writing by hand.  When my students write in their journals, by hand, they have to connect with what they already know; they have no illusion that the answer to the question lies a link away, though they constantly ask me if they can look at their notes.  I constantly say no.

When they came into the exam, there was an extra physiological boost: their adrenaline was flowing.  In test mode, their attention is focused in a way that is difficult to replicate.  They sat down and wrote non-stop for over an hour.  I did let them have a note card so that they didn’t feel they had to memorize a bunch of stuff.  But they sat there and wrote essays that were, almost across the board, well-organized, full of evidence and fun to read.  The topic was the kind of broad analysis they generally complain about: I asked them to follow the phrase “all men are created equal” across a span of 238 years.

But they had done their best to learn the material before they started to write.  I think that is a huge difference.  When they sit down to write an essay (or even a paragraph) at home, they start to write before they have consciously confronted the material, before they have considered what the answer might be.  In general, I am an advocate of using the process of writing to figure out what you have to say. That is the logic behind journal assignments.  But students are not using their initial time at the computer to figure out what they think; they simply write stuff they can think of until they reach the page requirement.  Even quite bright students give me essays that contain tons of information, much of it irrelevant and all of it badly organized.  They do not seem to understand how, as thinkers and writers, they can use information as the raw material in the creation of their own argument.

I can’t replicate the final exam experience artificially in class, but I can continue to insist that students write by hand without notes.  I am trying to think of a way to teach them that writing is a creative process, even in (especially in?) history.  It is not a mystical process.  It is something you do with the metaphoric muscles in your brain, finding information that you’ve already learned and organizing it into ideas that you can put down on paper.

I love computers.  I write on one. They are great for research and for checking facts.  I use them in class to have students create music videos and documentaries and even quilt squares.  But next year, I am going to use class time to teach students how to write by hand about the history I want them to know.  I will ask them to write their essays in class rather than at home.  I’ll find them something else for them to do at home.

I’m trying hard not to sound like a Luddite.  But I think we need to think about how we teach thinking in the digital age.  The physiological processes of our brains may be changing because we are using them differently.  In many ways, this may be really cool. But we should consider older modes of thinking and analysis.  Are they fading, not because we think them unimportant, but because we are doing other things, all the time, with our brains?

Teaching My Mother

Posted: May 10, 2014 in History, On Teaching

I have spent the last couple of weeks helping my students to understand the odd trajectory of women’s roles as they moved from Rosie the Riveter through the Feminine Mystique to the women’s movement.  Somewhere in the middle, I realized I was teaching my mother.

My mother was born in 1932.  She graduated from Smith in 1953, after spending her senior year as a newly-wed at Barnard.  She and my father lived in an apartment on the Upper East Side. He worked for First National City Bank; she had three children before she was 25 and spent her days traveling to and from the park behind my brother on his kiddie-car.  At some point I can’t remember, we moved out to Old Greenwich, Connecticut, to a ranch house.  My father took the train into New York every day.  I don’t know what my mother did all day, but she was out in the burbs with three kids under the age of 7.  I’m guessing she was busy.

In 1961 or thereabouts, my father got tired of the bank and started graduate school.  He wanted to be a historian.  We moved into graduate student housing not far from the whale-shaped hockey rink at Yale.  I was in kindergarten; my sister was four.  My brother had outgrown his kiddie car, but not by much.  My mother was still busy.

We moved out of graduate student housing and into the first floor of a two-family house on Goffe Terrace and then into what now seems to me a huge house around the corner on Norton Parkway.  We went to elementary school.  My mother did all the stuff she usually did, and she worked as a typist for an author who lived down the street.  He wrote a book about Jimmy Durante, which is why I know Mrs. Calabash, and another about the National Biscuit Company.  I thought Uneeda Biscuit was one of the funniest cracker names I’d ever heard.

I still can’t figure out how my father finished his PhD by (if my memory is correct, which it probably isn’t) the time I was in fourth grade.  Somewhere in there, my mother, who had probably had it with the whole housewife thing, went to graduate school herself, wrote a thesis about William Morris, whom she called a “ Typographical Adventurer,” and got a job with the New Haven Historical Society.  She brought home stories, like the one about the docent who told visitors about the saddlebags Noah Webster used when he went out to collect words.  She shared her vision of Webster grabbing words and shoving them into the saddlebags.

I don’t know when my mother became a feminist.  But when I am trying to get high school sophomores to understand how social cognitive dissonance can result in paradigm shift, it helps to teach about my mother.  You see, she was just one year off the cohort of Smith graduates who helped Betty Friedan put her finger on the feminine mystique and that troublesome “problem that had no name.”  I rather suspect my mother knows its name.  In 1962, when The Feminine Mystique was published, she had a college education, a very good mind, three little kids and experience at the edge of academia.  By the end of the 60s, when campuses were up in arms, she was working full time – and still had three kids, a house, a husband and a dog.  When, in 1969, armed men stood in my father’s classroom as he taught the history he hoped would undo the racism those men were armed against, my mother kept us in the house.  If all hell broke loose, which was likely, she was going to be the one who saw us through.  I, of course, had no idea at the time just how scary it was, though I should have guessed.  My mother is not easily rattled.

And this, I think, is the key to the women’s movement.  Women like my mother sized up the feminine mystique from ground level, not because they were feminists but because they were smart, capable women who handled what came along – because they could, and because no one else was going to do it for them.  They were smart enough to understand all the things the culture of the feminine mystique claimed were too complicated for their pretty little heads.

My mother taught me a lot of things.  She taught me to bake bread (I still use the recipe she cut out of Woman’s Day), she taught me to sew my own clothes and to knit, and she taught me that if something came up and I could do it, I had an obligation to give it a try.  Somehow, learning from her, it turned out I was obligated to try quite a lot.

Several years ago my own daughter told me something that made me smile.  She told me that she had learned all the stereotypical women’s crafts from the woman who taught her to be a feminist.  I think I did too.

Learning to Listen

Posted: May 8, 2014 in History, On Teaching, Thinking

I have begun four separate attempts to write something reflective about my trip to New Mexico a month ago, and I keep running into a wall.  Part of the problem is, as with most writers’ block, that I don’t know what I want to say.  But I think that is intensified by the fact that what I am thinking about comes out sounding like a new-age cliché even when it’s still confined to my brain.

I loved my trip to the Southwest in part because I love teaching, and the trip gave me a chance to share a line of information and analysis that I rarely get to share in school.  That I once wrote a book about anthropologists and their interest in the culture of the Zuni people is irrelevant to much of the work I do as a high school teacher.  I have to guide my sophomores through two centuries’ worth of what I think they should understand about United States History in about 35 weeks, which doesn’t leave much time for side journeys.  The itinerary I worked out for our week-long exploration of New Mexico allows me to talk with students about a landscape that is new to them, about semi-sovereign cultures that still exist within the borders of the United States, and about how the people of those cultures have negotiated, in the past and at present, their relationship with the juggernaut of a nation that surrounds them.  That I can do this as they hike in canyons, peer at petroglyphs and learn to harvest yucca makes their learning and my teaching more a part of the atmosphere than like school.

But I am drawn to New Mexico, I have to admit, by some of the same things that drew the anthropologists I sometimes scoff at.  It is the tourist’s dilemma.  Tourism at its best allows you to do more than gaze at the scenery and stalk artifacts in museums. I don’t want to be just a tourist; I want to be a participant, to talk to the people who live in this place that I am visiting, to see the place they inhabit through their eyes.  Anthropology allowed early practitioners a framework within which to join the societies they studied.  They did this on their own terms, to be sure, insinuating if not outright forcing themselves into private and sacred spaces.  But their professional status and the social power of belonging to the country’s dominant culture allowed them to become something like insiders.

My book was concerned with trying to understand the motives of three early anthropologists who made reputations out of studies of Native American culture.  I was interested in why people who thoroughly embraced the constructs and capabilities of a modern industrial capitalist society were so enthralled with the pre-modern culture they visited in Zuni.  My own quarry was urban Americans, not native ones.  But in my skepticism about their methods and their prejudices, I may have sold them a bit short.  I, too, come from urban America (or suburban America, but it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference), and I, too, find myself wanting to experience, if not to capture, something that exists in New Mexico that does not exist in the same way in my world of New Jersey.

Our trip this time was awesome in ways I would love to take credit for, but can’t.  In truth, I liked the balance of activities this time, especially the various outdoor climbing trips we did.  Museums are great (one student actually suggested more museums next time!), but essentially passive.  Hiking up the Puye Cliffs or down the Rio Grande Gorge opened the kids up, both physically and intellectually.  I think they understand some things about both the area and themselves that they did not understand before.  The combination of hard work and face-time with Forest the wolf was equally valuable.  But the key to the success of this journey was the people we met: our hiking guide, the man from Santa Clara who shared the story of the cliff dwellers with us, Bobby Silas and Tim Edaakie, the potters who worked with us in Zuni, the director of the Zuni Fish and Wildlife agency who took time to teach us about eagles, and especially our more-than-bus driver, Neil Smith.

For me, the thing that made the trip so special was a challenge I faced that was not unlike those first uncertain steps down the steep path into the river gorge.  I began to learn how to listen, and to do that I had to learn to block out the clutter of thoughts that are my constant companions.

I come from a culture in which fast thinking (and possibly faster talking) is a mark of success.  I love how quickly my mind can work.  But in the presence of people like Neil, our storytelling Apache bus drive, guide and guru, I began to practice thinking at a different, slower pace.  I have a bad habit of finishing other people’s sentences.  As soon as I think I know where they are going, I jump ahead.  Neil’s stories were slow and full of pauses.  His delivery was quiet – and mostly made while he was driving, so I had to sit forward to hear.  Under his tutelage, I felt my thinking slow down, my east coast impatience dissipate.  This was hard for me.  As the leader of this group, some part of my consciousness was always jumping ahead in time to what I needed to do, behind me in space to how my students were doing, and in every direction as my mind met Neil’s stories with stories and insights of my own.  It took discipline to do nothing but listen.

I think that somewhere in that listening is the key to moving from being a tourist to being a participant.  I love telling people what I know, but they don’t all need to hear it.  And I did need to hear the voices of south westerners and to take in the sights and sounds of the landscape without constantly translating them through analogies to things with which I am more familiar.  At the risk of sounding like a New Ager, I needed to stay put in the present so that I could not just see but feel this different place I was in.

On our final morning in Albuquerque, after we’d packed our suitcases into the bus, and before the sun rose, Neil asked us to stand outside, facing the dawn, and he offered us a blessing in his native Apache.  He stood in front of me and for perhaps 30 seconds he focused his undivided attention on the prayer he invoked for me.  He did the same for others in the group.  Albuquerque was not yet awake; his voice, though quiet, was all I heard.  I am a rationalist, a skeptic and an atheist, and yet, in those moments when he stood before me I could feel his concern for me as a physical force.  It was a fleeting feeling, but it was powerful and it was real.  And I would have missed it if I had allowed myself to worry about getting to the airport or whether  I’d left anything behind in the hotel.

The ability to inhabit a moment of connection with the earth and the sky and a culture that values connections and continuities was what drew the anthropologists I wrote about to New Mexico and to Zuni.  That they encountered Zuni with the consciousness of modern consumers and salvage ethnologists led them to misunderstand a good deal and to do real harm to the culture and the people they understood themselves to be saving from evolutionary oblivion. But they lived in a culture that was losing connections and continuities, and in Zuni they sought a way to experience something emotional and real that they could no longer find at home.

I like to think that I have avoided their mistakes, but my stance is the stance of the tourist, the consumer of cultural differences.  The Zunis and Acomas I encountered on this trip have come to depend on consumers like me; tourism is a mainstay of their economic survival.  Between us there is a sort of compact that encourages them to act as tourists want them to act in return for purchases of guided tours, works of art and souvenirs.  But around the edges of this consumer relationship there is, I think, a space for something less mercenary and more valuable, at least for me.  What transformed my latest trip was focusing on the landscape, not merely from the windows of the bus, but in climbing down into the Rio Grande Gorge, up to the Puye Cliff dwellings, out to the foot of the mesa in Zuni.  And while rooted, however temporarily, in this landscape, listening to the voices of the people who inhabit it.  The stories they tell about their ancestors and themselves can’t be collected, they have to be heard.  They will change every time they are told, and it is important that they do so.  The stories live as the culture lives.  To pin them down, to create an authoritative version caught between bindings of a book, is to strip them of their life and their truth.

For a moment here and there, I was fortunate enough to step into the stream of a culture very unlike my own.  The pictures and souvenirs I brought back cannot contain the experience.  Even this writing only evokes it.  But it has become a part of who I am.  I carry it with me, pleased to have it even if I can’t explain it.