The Valpo student newspaper, The Torch, is excited about a new history class I'm teaching this semester:
It’s easy to look at Robert Jeffress defending President Trump again on Fox News and wonder how the First Baptist Church of Dallas got so political.
Jeffress, the pastor of the Texas church since 2007, has supported Donald Trump without any sign of hesitation. He continues, unwavering, through scandal after scandal. His church of 12,000 even has a Trump-inspired song, a hymn to “Make America Great Again.”
But the First Baptist Church of Dallas didn’t just get political. It’s been that way for a long time.
Monday marked an anniversary for the church. It was founded on July 30, 1868, by three men and eight women. That was 150 years ago. It’s been political for almost as long.
Before Jeffress, there was W.A. Criswell. When Criswell died in 2002, his obituary from the Associated Press said the preacher “mostly eschewed politics.” But that’s not true. He ran up to politics and gave it a great big hug.
Criswell was called to the pulpit of First Baptist Church in 1944. The next year, he preached a sermon on Christian America. “How indebted we are to the Almighty God for the government under which we live,” he said. “On the personality of God our forefathers launched our great ship of state.”
Read my latest piece at Religion Dispatches.
I went to the Art Institute of Chicago, yesterday, with some out-of-town friends. Among other things, we saw the Charles White retrospective. His art is so powerful. Highly recommend.
White is maybe most famous for his mural: The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America.
White was part of Chicago’s Black Renaissance, in the 1930s and ‘40s. I would call him a Social Realist. He manages, though, with big blocky figures, to depict people as simultaneously heroic and human. They are particular. And noble types.
I didn’t know of White, despite knowing a lot about the world around him. He did work for the WPA and I just taught about the WPA. He illustrated one of Howard Fast’s novels, and I read a bunch of those as a kid. He did some art for Paul Robeson, and I’ve listened to a lot of Robeson.
It is and isn’t the right phrase, but Charles White was a fellow traveler. His works, together, tell the story of a liberationist struggle, an oppressed class becoming conscious, seizing dignity and democracy, self-determination.
What the reviews of this show fail to mention is how religious it is.
One of the first pieces is of a preacher: his thick hands grasping a tiny Bible. There are several others, as well as continual references to the Bible and gospel music. And these people he’s drawing and painting are conceived as saints.
White is weaving together black history, from Denmark Vesey and Frederick Douglass to the Civil Rights movement, with a Marxist theory of class consciousness, a small-d democratic belief in dignity and self-determination, and a deeply Christian story about deliverance. That last part is not incidental to what he’s doing, even if many miss it.
All the parts, for him, go together. It’s really something to see.
I loved the pyrotechnics.
With Tom Wolfe, of course, it’s Pyrotechnics™. That’s what everyone talks about. It’s hard not to, with Wolfe. If not a fireworks metaphor, then what? His sentences practically roman-candle on the page: ZZZZZZZZZZTch!—popop POW.
His prose goes zoom and it can take you with it.
It took me at 18, 19, 20. Wolfe’s writing—I couldn’t tell how it did what it did, but I could tell what it did. It grabbed readers by the throat like I wanted to grab readers. It made readers care about things they didn’t think they cared about. I wanted that power. His words had a thing. But what was it?
Wolfe died Monday at 88. With the news comes memorials to his prose and power with words. His style is hailed, rightly enough. But I think back to why Wolfe mattered to me—mattered so, so much to my writing—it actually wasn’t the excess of style. I learned something different.
I read The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby my first summer working at a daily paper. It was the Peninsula Daily News, in Port Angeles, Washington. I had just finished a year at the community college in town. I'd taken a few classes on journalism and picked up the rudiments of reporting at the school’s bi-weekly paper. So sometime in May I went down to the Peninsula Daily News, a warehouse-looking building on First Street within shouting distance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and I asked to talk to the publisher. The publisher was an old bureau chief for the Associated Press, retired from that to run this local paper in the Pacific North West. I asked to see him to see if he had a job for me, or maybe an internship. He laughed at me.
He laughed at my clothes, actually. I was wearing a $12 jean jacket and a pair of clean blue jeans. I had some big, lace-up work boots, which I wore for mowing lawns, cutting trees, killing chickens, pouring concrete, and all the other jobs I’d done before this job I really, really wanted: reporter.
The old bureau chief took one look at my be-denimed self and snorted, “what is this, wear denim day?”
I don’t remember what I said back. I stuttered something. Then he explained I didn’t have what it took to be a reporter. But how did he know? The jacket?
Like that, I was back out on First Street.
A couple of weeks later, the news editor called. Did I have a job for the summer yet? I guessed I would run the chipper for one of the local tree companies.
Did I still want to work at the newspaper? I told him there must be some misunderstanding. I already talked to the publisher.
“Some things changed," he said. "You want a job, you start tomorrow.” So I did.
When I got to the newsroom, the place was empty of reporters. There had been three, but something happened and they all quit and I had a job: general assignment reporter. It was an incredible moment, but also more than a little terrifying, how fast things could change.
So I started. A place like that, a job like that, you can write about anything. But you also have to write about everything. I wrote two, three stories a day. It’s a quick, quick pace, always in the oncoming traffic of deadlines, and pretty soon you start writing about things and getting assignments to write about things where you think, how is this a story?
A car show. A quilt show. A boat show. A jazz festival. A parade. The publisher who knew I didn’t have what it took once personally assigned me an important story, he said, about a sand-castle carving competition—that I had to write about before it happened.
I was so happy to have that job. But also, I knew they expected me to fail. I knew I could prove them right with one dumb question, one messed-up story. And there I was, in the office before anyone else, wracking my mind: How is a car show interesting? How is a car show a story? I had no idea.
Tom Wolfe had an idea.
The title piece in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby is about a car show. For Wolfe, though, the story wasn’t about cars, but the people who cared about cars. It was, even beyond that, a story about what they cared about when they cared about these cars.
“The cars mean more to these kids than architecture did in Europe’s great formal century, say, 1750 to 1850,” Wolfe wrote. “They are freedom, style, sex, power, motion, color—everything right there.”
That was the first lesson, the most important lesson I learned from Wolfe. I don’t have to care about cars. I don’t have to think a tangerine-colored paint job is important. I have to care that people care and think it’s important people think something’s important. That’s where the story is.
The second lesson was that there is more than one way to tell a story. There are choices. You should think about the different ways, and decide how you’re going to tell a story.
Other denizens of the style called “New Journalism” were probably better at this, honestly. Jimmy Breslin’s piece on the guy who dug the grave for John F. Kennedy is maybe the best example, but there are lots of examples. These writers emphasized that you might want to focus on the “wrong” person. You might do better to start with an “irrelevant” detail. A story could be better, sometimes, if it were upside down.
The point was just that you have to make choices. Everything is a choice, in writing. Novelists have long known this, the New Journalists said, and will think about whether to tell a story in first person or with an omniscient narrator, whether to start at the beginning or in medias res, and even what tense to use. Journalists should do the same.
In an interview once Wolfe talked about a biography he read when he was 7. It was about Napoleon. It was written in the present tense. That blew Wolfe away, that you could do that. You could tell the story of long-ago Napoleon like it was right now.
The truth is the truth, but the telling is constructed. Maybe everybody else always knew this about the art of narrative. It was a revelation to me.
When I read Wolfe, I felt like I was suddenly free from every rule, every convention, every “right way” of doing things. But more importantly, I felt like I knew what that freedom was for.
The third lesson was the suits. Wolfe wore white suits. They were basically his brand. His obits all mention his clothes. How often is that true, for writers? But that’s how he stood out, with wildly fancy clothes. He was so pretentious about it that asked, once, to describe his style, he said it was “neo-pretentious.” Others, digging for descriptors, frequently come up with “dandy.”
I have an impossibility low tolerance for dandyism. And I couldn’t pull off a white suit for anything. With a normal sports coat, I look like I’m going to jack a truck. In a tie, I look like I just stole a chicken. Wolfe and I couldn’t be any further apart than when it comes to clothing.
But Wolfe said the clothes were also just about being separate and knowing you are separate. The reporter is not part of the scene. The reporter is in the world, not of the world. In the crowd, but watching the crowd. The separateness is an important part of the job, because that allows you the critical distance to tell the story. So it’s OK, and maybe even a good thing, if people see you and think, that person doesn’t belong.
"I found early in the game that for me there’s no use trying to blend in," Wolfe said. "I might as well be the village information-gatherer, the man from Mars who simply wants to know."
Wolfe wasn’t, by any means, authorizing my jean-jacket-and-blue-jeans look. But I could be the man from Mars. And here was Wolfe saying my weirdness, my awkwardness, could be a powerful tool to help me know. I could embrace my out-of-placeness like an odd-duck superpower and then I could really see. Then I could really tell a story.
The end of the summer at the Peninsula Daily News, I got a crime story. By then, the paper had hired a few real reporters, with real experience, but they decided to keep me until I went back to college in the fall. I was there early, earlier than anyone, going through stacks of mail and faxes trying to find a story I could write about. A car show. Something.
The police scanner squawked a message about an arrest, a suspected bank robber, and a bar. I went to the bar. I was 18. I’d never had a beer and never been in a bar, much less at 10:30 on a weekday morning. I walked in.
I told the bartender who I was and asked if there was a bank robber arrested there. She said yeah, and she’d talk to me in a minute after the police finished taking her statement. I could wait. She gave me the beer the bank robber bought before she called the police and they came and arrested him. “He didn’t drink any,” she said. So I did.
The man had been on a bit of a bender, before that last beer he didn't drink. Released from jail a week before, he robbed a bank, lost a bunch of his stealings at a casino, got a cheap hotel, and drank all day for four, five days at the bar next door. Until they caught him.
When he robbed the bank he was wearing a cowboy hat, which the police thought was a disguise, obscuring his face, distracting eye witnesses. When he was arrested, he was wearing the same hat.
I was able to reconstruct his whole week. I got the report about the bank robbery and found one of his dealers at the casino. I talked to the clerk who checked him into the hotel. He had no luggage, she said, just a limp and a brown paper bag with money. And of course I talked to the bar tender, who told me the police said her tips were hers, even if it was stolen money.
I wrote it all up and turned it in to the editor. There were no pyrotechnics. I just tried to tell the story. It was about a man and what he wanted. I made choices, in the narrative construction, with which details to focus on and how to unfold the chronology to serve the story the best I could. And I got the story because I didn’t worry about fitting in. No question was too dumb for me. I was the man from Mars who wanted to know.
The editor read it. Didn’t say anything. He took it to the publisher and shut the door. I waited for what seemed like an interminably long time. I couldn’t think of anything to do. I just sat there. The publisher came out and growled, “this detail, how much the beer cost? How do you know how much the bank robber’s beer cost?”
I told him I got that from the bar tender.
He said, “Kid, I don’t believe anyone but you would’ve got this story.”
Wolfe’s dead now, and people are praising his pyrotechnics. I’ll admit, I loved his pyrotechnics. I wanted to write like that and tried to write like that. But when I think back to reading The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby for the first time, that wasn’t the thing. That wasn’t the important part of what Wolfe was to me. I learned something different.
Some of my freshman writing students immediately get the idea of a "destabilizing condition." It's almost intuitive. They see how the introduction of an academic paper and really the paper itself is built around a central tension, a subversion of expectations, which the intro sets up, and then the rest of the paper explains.
Others find the concept more elusive.
Even if they have a really good thesis question, they sometimes struggle to explain why the question would be of interest to anyone if it's not just self evident. They can't quite figure out how to back up from their specific, focused, research question to create an intro that might draw the reader in. They end up either starting very abruptly, as if the question arrived to the paper ex nihilo, or (horrors), starting with the most broad banalities (since the beginning of time) which they then "destabilize," but in the most boring way.
I decided, in my honors seminar on Watergate, to try a new approach to teaching introductions.
I tried to think of other ways I could could talk about this subversion of expectations without using phrases like "subversion of expectations" or "internal contradiction" or "destabilization." I wanted to find alternatives, where they actually already knew what I was talking about, but just didn't know the terms or that that was what they were supposed to do in a good academic intro paragraph.
I came up with three:
1. There's an old journalist saying, for when something is news. They say, "when a dog bites a man, that's not news. But when a man bites a dog, that's news."
I asked the students, "why?" One of them answered immediately, “When a man bites a man we're surprised; it’s surprising.” Exactly.
2. These freshman all read Antigone last semester, and in my class at least we talked about the form of the Greek tragedy, what made it tragic, and what the play was saying about human nature with its sense of tragedy. I asked them to remember back and tell me what Greek tragedy was about--what makes a Greek tragedy a Greek tragedy, specifically.
One student said: Because bad stuff happens and everyone dies.
I said, "Well not exactly. Here's a story about Dave. Dave is walking down the street, like a person. And then a meteor falls out of the sky. Splat. Dave is dead." I asked, "Is that a Greek tragedy?"
Two other students answer, no, and then gave me two variations of the answer that a Greek tragedy is where people are doomed because of their stubborn commitment to a particular virtue. It's the good thing they love to an extreme that gets them into trouble.
I re-told the story of Dave: Dave is very cautious. Number one issue for Dave is safety. He's so safe, he never leaves his house. Meteor falls, hits his house, how ironic.
The class agreed there was a real difference between the two stories, and the second one was better because it had more "tension."
3. At this point, the students could basically see where this was going, but one more example made sure we all really got it: jokes. A joke, in its most basic form, is a set up (stable condition) and a punch line (destabilizing the stable condition).
I told a joke about Freudian slips. This works doubly, because Freudian slips are also about subverted expectations, and those expectations are pretty explicitly stated, unlike, say, chicken-crossing-the-road jokes. The joke I used goes: Two psychologists are talking about Freudian slips and how awkward they can be. The one says, "I know, I was having dinner with my mother and I meant to say 'please pass the hot buns,' but instead I said, 'you have hot buns.' It was so embarrassing." The other says, "I know. It's so awkward. I was having dinner with my mother and I meant to say 'pass the salt' but instead I said 'you horrible woman you ruined my life!'"
The students who have drifted off are brought back by a joke. I then quickly retell it, marking the parts verbally as I go:
Two psychologists are talking about Freudian slips and how awkward they can be (expectation). The one says, "I know, I was having dinner with my mother and I meant to say 'please pass the hot buns' (expectation) but instead I said, 'you have hot buns'" (subverted expectation). The other says, "I know. It's so awkward (repetition re-building expectation). I was having dinner with my mother and I meant to say 'pass the salt' (expectation doubled) but instead I said 'you horrible woman you ruined my life!'" (subversion doubled).
At this point, they all have a firm grasp of destabilization, but I want to do one more thing, before I send them back to their intros. I want to talk about "ledes."
Students, even when they have a good idea of how destabilization works, are often so focused on their thesis and getting to their thesis, that they forget they know how to communicate information. They can be freed from this fixation, I think, by considering non-academic (and perhaps less threatening) approaches to introducing a story. I use examples from journalism.
Journalists, I tell them, have two basic ways of starting stories. The first is called the straight lede (misspelled to distinguish it from the metal lead). There, you write a single sentence that contains all the basic information of a story: who, what, where, when, why, and how. 5 Ws and an H.
Example: Local man Dave (who) was killed (what) walking down the street (where) Tuesday (when) when a meteor randomly fell out of the sky (why) and struck him on the head (how).
Example: President Donald Trump (who) vowed to build an even bigger wall (what) on the U.S.-Mexican border (where), Tweeting this morning (when) that Congress needs to act (how) to stop this "plague on America" (why).
I point out the 5 Ws and an H don't always have to come in the same order, and sometimes it's better to do this in two sentences, or even three, but in principle you should be able to write a straight lede in a single sentence. The straight lede is the whole story, in its simplest form. The BLUF: Botton Line Up Front.
I then tell them about the second kind of lede: the anecdotal lede. Here, I tell them, you "bury the lede." Before you tell the readers who, what, where, when, why and how, you tell them a short pop of a story. The story is tiny, maybe incidental. It's not THE story, but a stray bit of bit of a thing, which illustrates the larger point. It's a helps people understand the theme, often by focusing on a minor detail.
So, your man bit a dog, but before you say that, you say:
"Jim was surprised to find that dog fur is pretty salty. He hadn't expected that. He hadn't expected anything, actually. Jim wants to be very clear this is not something he thought about ahead of time, planned in any way, or imagined like some kind of fantasy.
“‘Not in a million years,’ Jim says.
“He didnâ’t wake up that morning thinking, ‘Today’s the day I bite that dog.’
“But it was that day. Jim Little bit his neighbor’s beagle on Oak Avenue, Monday.â€
The lede, with the who, what, where, and when (but not the why or how, here, because those can be deferred) is still in this version of the intro. It’s just at the end, buried, transitioning the reader from this anecdote to the larger story about a man biting a dog.
At this point, I think, the students are ready to start. I give them their intro assignments:
1. Write the straight lede to your research paper.
2. Write what is “man bites dog” about your story.
3. Write an anecdotal lede to your research paper.
4. Explain the “Greek tragedy” of your research paper.
5. Write a traditional academic introduction, with the four elements, a) the stable condition, b) the destabilization, c) the “so what?” explanation of the larger importance, and d) your main claim/thesis statement, BUT, incorporate any part of what you wrote for assignments 1, 2, 3, and 4, as it helps you articulate your point and connect with your readers.
I won't really know if this works until I try it a few more times. But the immediate feedback seems pretty good. The intros I'm getting aren't as clunky. The students are finding ways to draw the reader in. They're crafting intros that show why their research problem is a problem, getting at the central tension in a more intuitive way than they might of, if I had just explained "destabilizing condition" two or three more times.
When Calls the Heart doesn’t look like a theology of suffering. The Hallmark Channel show is a sweet and sentimental drama, telling the story of a cultured young woman who takes a job as school teacher on the Canadian frontier in 1910. She faces challenges. She learns lessons. She finds love, inner strength, and a supportive community.
The show is finishing its fifth season this month. And it’s a big hit. More than 2.5 million viewers are expected to tune in for the finale on Sunday, April 22. The show has already been renewed for a sixth season, and the first four seasons are available on Netflix. Online, the show has an active fan community, including a “Hearties” Facebook group with more than 60,000 members.
“It’s feel-good TV,” The Washington Post reported, explaining the appeal. “The main characters do the right thing. The problems get worked out. The guy and girl . . . always end up together.”
The story, though, with all its sweetness and light, is built on a real reckoning with tragedy. It comes out of an evangelical tradition that addressed itself to the burdened and brokenhearted.
Read my latest piece at Evangelical History.
First day of my new class on Watergate--an honors freshman writing-and-research seminar at Valpo--I had students read transcripts of Nixon's secret White House recording, looking at how he talked and related to people in those unguarded moments, and then come up with words to describe Nixon as a person.
Overlaid with a picture from my PowerPoint presentation. The blackboard at the end of the first day looked like this:
The syllabus for the class can be found here.
I'm excited to be teaching a new course at Valparaiso in the fall. Here's the description:
Mass Media and the U.S. Presidency
Instructor: Daniel Silliman
Class time: M-W-F 9 to 9:50 a.m.
Classroom: Mueller Hall 114
William McKinley won the 1896 presidential campaign without ever leaving his home. Crowds came to Canton, Ohio, and he stood on his front porch and delivered carefully crafted speeches. But there were signs America was changing: McKinley’s campaign spent unprecedented millions on media and advertising, even producing the first-ever campaign film, while a newly powerful press determined the issues of the day.
Since then, mass media and the American presidency have grown inexorably intertwined. Media shapes the presidency. Media makes the president. Or is it the other way around?
From McKinley’s relation to the “yellow journalism” to Nixon’s experiences on TV, from Woodrow Wilson’s press conference to Donald Trump’s Twitter, the relationship between mass media and the American presidency is complicated, co-dependent, and ever evolving. This course will examine the relationship as it changes over time, considering the historic role of the commercial press in our democracy.
In the process, students will learn the historian’s craft. They will learn to do original research, reading and interpreting a variety of historical documents. They will learn to construct compelling and factual narratives that grapple with the complexity of human experience. Assignments will include creative story telling and a final research paper.
Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. All the President’s Men. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1974.
Timothy Crouse. The Boys on the Bus. New York: Random House, 1973.
David Greenberg. Republic of Spin. New York: W.W. Norton: 2016.
David R. Spencer. The Yellow Journalism: The Press and America’s Emergence as a World Power. Evanston, Illinois: Northwest University Press, 2007.
A digital subscription to either the New York Times of the Washington Post.
Valparaiso's student newspaper, The Torch, did a write-up on my Great Depression and World War II history students' creative project:
Billy Graham was the most famous Christian preacher in the world for more than half a century. He was so famous, people felt like they had to have an opinion about him.
Graham died last week at 99. The evangelist lay in state at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday, and the country is debating his legacy.
Was he “America’s pastor”? Should we think of him as the last bipartisan evangelical or a tool of partisan politics? Was he critical to the success of the civil rights movement or a white nationalist? Was he on the “wrong side of history”? Did he focus just on Jesus, or was Graham preaching a “hyper-nationalistic, militaristic and xenophobic” gospel?
Graham is a cultural inkblot. Different people see different things. In death, as in life, he is the kind of famous figure who people define themselves by how they feel about him.
This was never clearer than in Graham’s crusades in Cold War Germany. The Germans even invented a word for “someone who likes Billy Graham.”
Read my latest piece at the Washington Post.
A former student wrote me this week to tell me she still has a few of my books.
In Germany, I loaned my books to students a lot. I was teaching American religious history and the libraries didn't have the books I did about American pentecostalism, apocalypticism, evangelical publishing, megachurches, the Klan, New Religious Movements, atheism, etc., etc.
Most of the time, the students were very conscientious about returning my books in good condition. I once had a student wrap my book in linen to protect it. Not a super rare book, just a history monograph.
Sometimes, though, a book would go missing.
I decided, early on, to not worry about this. It's important to me that I'm on the same side as students, supporting them generously and without reservation. If that means I lose a few books, I'm OK with that.
So this student writes me after several years, to say she has not returned several books on pentecostal history. I helped her with her BA thesis on the Catholic Charismatic movement--though I couldn't "supervise" it because I was still working on my doctorate--and she used some of my books. Which she realized she still had.
She realized this because she was going through her books, getting ready to move. She is moving because she's going to join a convent.
My former student is now a nun.
You really never know where your students are going to end up.
It's easy to fall into the thinking that successful teaching leads to students doing what I do. Teachers beget teachers. Historians train future historians.
But I like being surprised by my students. And I think the practice of history and historical thinking is useful in lots of different ways, for all sorts of careers, and just in life.
My student who became a nun could have been a good historian. But I'm pretty sure she's going to be an amazing nun.
So I'm really happy for her and wholeheartedly support her, like I support my former student who runs a theater, and the one who works in international human rights, the one who's at a bank, and the ones who've gone to grad school.
I think I'm lucky: I get to support them.
But it also reminds me of the challenge every semester: how do you plan a history class so that, someday, it will help a nun be a better nun, an account a better accountant, a homemaker a better homemaker, a lawyer a better lawyer, a physician's assistant, etc., etc.
That's the challenge, I think, of wholeheartedly supporting my students.
Also you lose a few books.
The worst lecture I ever sat through as an undergraduate was a fill-in-the-blanks lecture. The professor would a drop key phrase from every other sentence or so and say, "Anyone? Anyone?" Pause. Then say the phrase.
"So in 1963," he would say, "Martin Luther King planned __________________. Anyone? Anyone? The March on Washington. This was a major step for the civil rights movement. It was a march for __________________. Anyone? Jobs and freedom. Civil rights and economic rights. So King stood in front of the _________________. Anyone? No? Lincoln Memorial."
It was terrible.
You know the information, I wanted to scream after every class. We don't. You tell us.
About half the lecture, it felt like, was dedicated to calling attention to the awkwardness of the students sitting there, not knowing a specific word. The main point or the real point, as I took it, was that we should know all this stuff. We shouldn't need to be told. But then, really, why were we even there?
I did fine in the course, as I recall. But I l left every class session exhausted from the stress of those blanks.
A teacher now, I feel the temptation of the fill-in-the-blanks lecture. I can feel the pull to that kind of pedagogy. I worry about whether my students know basic facts, basic names and details. I think before I get into tricky questions or complicated historical and historiographical issues, I need to make sure they know the foundational stuff. Start with the simple stuff, the info every educated person should know about the subject, and build from there.
I think that way and then my notes for class start to take the shape of a Wikipedia article. "They gotta know this," I think, "and they should know that. And it would be embarrassing if I did the whole course without covering this other thing." And then I just have a pile of information to recite, and it's pretty boring. I find it boring, the students find it boring, and then I'm half way through a lecture trying to engage them somehow and I start leaving empty spaces in my sentences, hoping to God a student chimes in with a name to save me from my own fill-in-the-blank lecture.
"So in the first 100 days," I say, "Roosevelt launched a bunch of new programs. AAA. Did anyone catch what that stands for, in the reading? What about NRA? Anybody? We need to talk about the TVA too. What's the TVA?"
There's just a prairie of silence. It's terrible.
The best class I had as an undergraduate went a little different. The professor came in and set his stuff down and he said, "here's what I don't know." He said, "here's something I'm wrestling with, when I read the assigned reading for today, something I'm trying to think my way through ..."
And then he launched into ... it wasn't a lecture. It was more like thinking out loud.
I didn't know, the first time I saw it, if this professor was pulling a kind of stunt, pretending to have a question he actually already knew the answer to, as if this were just a more elaborate fill-in-the-blank kind of exercise. Or if he really didn't know. But it seemed like he really didn't know.
He phrased and then re-phrased his questions. He framed his speech as a speculative venture. "Maybe," he would say, "the way to say it is ..." He would try out answers, and then realize they didn't work or weren't quite right and abandon them and start over with the question again, trying again, in another direction.
And after 15 minutes, or sometimes longer, he would stop. He would stand there with chalk in his hand. Or sit down, leaning forward at the seminar table. And he would say what I had never heard another professor say. He would say, "I don't know."
And then he'd say, "what do you think?"
It was absolutely electric. It was still fill-in-the-blank, in a way, but the questions mattered. The blank was complicated, because it was important. The questions practically pulsed with urgency. He didn't know. He was asking us. The question was a real question. What was the best way to say it?
Each class, as Pete Blum constructed it, was about thinking. He would think out loud in front of us and invite us to participate and come along, or just watch if we weren't ready, but the class was this space of vulnerability and experiment, a place to be interested and figure out how to be interested and figure out how to respond to what you don't know and be better at not knowing and learn, most of all, how you could go about learning to know what you didn't know. Each class was an essay, in the sense of "attempt," and there was a very real chance the attempt would fail. But it could work, too.
And either way, it was exciting. And either way, it was engaging.
I return to this idea, in my classes. It's something I try to remember to do, teaching history. The pedagogical lesson I take away is, don't teach "information." Teach the question.
There's always a concern about coverage in history classes, and that's a real concern, but if I focus on a question or a problem that's interesting to me, I engage the students. I pull them in. I show them why I'm interested and what's interesting and how I think historically, and in the process of doing that coverage just happens.
This week, teaching my Great Depression and World War II class, I thought out loud about Franklin Roosevelt's outreach to clergy in 1935. He wrote ministers across the country to ask their input on the Social Security and the Works Progress Administration. Was it cynical? Was it earnest? I've seen different historians describe it different way. But I don't know. And I'm not sure how to decide, actually. I wanted to think about it. So I came into class and set my stuff down and said, "here's something I don't know." I said, "I just want to think out loud, here, and maybe you can help me think about how to think about this?"
In the process, I ended up explaining the failures and the setbacks for Roosevelt's programs, politically and especially legally, and how he responded with a plan to pack the Supreme Court, and that was a political disaster, and the "Second New Deal" needed public support. Coverage, that is to say, happened. More importantly, I think, I modeled what's actually interesting about doing history.
I didn't preform "expert." I showed my class how I investigate, how I venture a question, how I tentatively articulate what it is I want to know, and then try to think it through, and figure it out. I had to be vulnerable, because I needed to show them a question's only interesting if you could be wrong. So I thought about different ways to phrase the question, and what kind of evidence I could look for, and how to read the evidence, and the difference that different assumptions would make in that whole process. Then I said to them, "I don't know. What do you think?" and we had a conversation about it.
It was a good class.
It's scary to teach out of my ignorance. I think I'm supposed to know and it's my job to know. But the question is what's interesting. Teach the question. Embrace the risk of the question and teach what's interesting.
The second day is a special kind of problem.
I have thought a lot about the first day of class, re-thinking and re-working that opening sessions, over the years. When I started teaching, I did a standard, read-the-syllabus first day. I didn't like it. It was bureaucratic. And boring. Every time I heard myself say "attendance policy" and "late assignments policy" and "email policy," I got sad. I also didn't like the way it foregrounded this user-agreement, positioning students as potential, probable rule-violators, and me as someone with an elaborate code I could and would hold against them.
Rules are important. The syllabus is important. But I didn't want that to be the center of the first day or the defining aspect of the class.
Really, what I want to tell students on Day 1 is just a) I am excited about the class, b) they should be excited because it is going to be great, and c) I think we are on the same side.
So, with the advice of a former student, I wrote new class policy. It's a little kick-out-the-jams, a little "solidarity forever." Now, I pledge myself to their eduction and I call them to commit to it too. Details about laptops or absences or anything else that comes up can be worked out, I make it clear, on the basis of our shared commitment.
I spend the rest of the class getting students to engage the material. I set up something they can do, right away, to see for themselves it's interesting. We throw ourselves into doing history and just start.
In my Depression and War class on Wednesday, for example, we looked at a New York Times account of the stock market crash on Oct. 29, 1929. We talked about what the story was about and who it was about. How is the story different, I asked, with different protagonists? A true account of the "Great Crash" can center stock brokers, or Herbert Hoover, or a North Carolina girl who saved up money picking tobacco after the other farm work was finished to buy her first share of Standard Oil right before the crash. The work of history involves choices about the kind of story we're interested in and the kinds of things we want to know.
That works pretty well. Then comes the second day.
There are three kind of technical, pedagogical problems with the second day, which I haven't figured out how to handle. There may be more than three, but these crop up in my classes every semester.
The first is a problem of context. What context has to be established the second day of class? What do we have to talk about, as a class, before we can talk about the subject of the class? Sometimes terms have to be defined. Sometimes questions have to be explained. There's a pre-history to whatever history the class is focused on, not to mention a historiography. Should the implicit stuff be made explicit?
In Depression and War, I wanted to talk a little bit about the causes of the financial crisis before moving on to questions about how people understood it, at the time, and responded to it over the following 16 years. Of course, the causes of the crash are debated by historians, but also economists and politicians. Maybe the class should get into that? We only have 50 minutes. Also, the financial stuff is complicated. Mechanisms of monetary policy, combined with accounts of how the stock market works (then and now), plus how the stock exchange is related to banks across the country, and how the banking system worked, all in a story about change over time, presents quite the tangle. How much of that is important? If, later, we're going to read about populist resentment of the financial industry, it might be helpful to understand how that industry worked. If, later, we're going to consider claims that poverty is a moral failing, it might be important to start with a structural account of the causes of financial crisis. But it's a lot to do, and the students just have to kind of hang on, not knowing where all this is going.
Related, the second problem is common knowledge. I often struggle with knowing what students know. Cultural references are hard: they come and go, and I always feel like I'm wasting time when I stop to ask students if they know this or that show or movie or song. It's also a problem with general education. My Depression and War students probably don't know what a call loan is, but do they understand shares? Do they know how interest rates relate to liquidity? If I reference the run on the bank in "It's a Wonderful Life," will they know the scene and if they know the scene, do they understand that explanation of the interconnections (and fragility) of the financial system?
If I skip seemingly basic stuff and it turns out students don't know it, they'll be lost. If I belabor something they do know, on the other hand, students will get bored and check out. Inevitably, I feel like I'm doing both.
Later in the semester, I find it's possible to speed up or slow down, go more basic or more in-depth, based on the response from the students. I find it's possible, too, to get reliable responses from students and read the signals about what they need. On the second day, though, I'm mostly guessing based on facial expressions. And, so early in the semester, my real fear is that a lost student or a bored student will decide that's just how this class is and this is what they should expect.
The third challenge is classroom culture. Everything is still awkward, on the second day. The culture of this specific classroom has yet to be established. Students don't know how to engage, which means they don't know how to prepare. Not really. They know they're going to have to talk, for example, but they don't know (and really can't know) what that means, yet. Will I call on them? By name? Will I ask them factual questions or interpretive questions? Will I ask them just about the assigned text, or might I also ask them other things, like what a stock market bubble is and why Christmas-y Jimmy Stewart doesn't have enough money in his bank? (Yes). Beyond that: if students don't know an answer, what are they supposed to do? In some classes, the expectation is you just say you don't know. In other classes you're called to think aloud and maybe try and reason/guess your way to answer. What's called for, in a particular class, might be explicitly stated in the syllabus, but never in that much detail. It's something you learn as you go, with observation and in negotiation with the rest of the class.
On the second day, though, all of this is tricky. I'm trying to send students the message they should hang on, we're going to work it out, we're going to work it out together, and I'm inviting them to be active participants in the process of learning. Some of that seems to get across. I'm fuddling through. What I'm doing now works well enough. But I'd like to figure out how to do it faster, cleaner, and more efficiently, to smooth out the second day.
1. Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line, by Heather Hendershot
I hear a lot of people talk about how American conservatism used to be different. Hendershot shows how and why.
2. Village Atheist: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation, by Leigh Eric Schmidt
This is a book of weird characters you won't soon forget. Also, it turns out you can learn a lot about American religiosity from the people who are against it.
3. Billy Sunday Was His Real Name, by William G. McLoughlin
If you've asked yourself "but what is an evangelical?" this year, reading about one of the most famous evangelists could provide some (complicating) perspective. This is an older book that really holds up.
4. All the President’s Men, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
A rollicking narrative about how the press held a president accountable. Oddly relevant to our present political moment.
5. A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe
There was a lot more liver in 20th-century casseroles than you would expect. This book shows how historical forces influence the food on the table--and how history is, invisibly, at work in our everyday lives.
All 51 books I finished in 2017:
A Torch Kept Lit, by William F. Buckley Jr.
Surge of Piety: Norman Vincent Peale and the Remaking of American Religious Life, by Christopher Lane
March: Book Two, by John Lewis
Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, by Kathryn Lofton
Entertaining Judgement: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, by Greg Garrett
Selected Letters of P.T. Barnum, by P.T. Barnum
The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu
Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line, by Heather Hendershot
The Churching of America, 1776-2005, by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark
Struggles and Triumphs: or, Forty Years’ Recollections, by P.T. Barnum
The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top, by Janet M. Davis
Billy Sunday the Baseball Evangelist, by Craig A. Bishop
Exiles from Eden: Religion and Academic Vocation in America, by Mark Schwehn
The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, by N.T. Wright
To Serve God and Walmart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise, by Bethany Moreton
Village Atheist: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation, by Leigh Eric Schmidt
Billy Sunday Was His Real Name, by William G. McLoughlin
Preacher: Billy Sunday and Big-Time American Evangelism, by Roger A. Bruns
All the President’s Men, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
The Trial and Death of Socrates, by Plato
American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, by Michael Kazin
The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace, by H.W. Brands
Sophocles I: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Odeipus at Colonus, by Sophocles
The Remarkable “Ma” Sunday, by Opal Overmyer
Becoming Tom Thumb: Charles Stratton, P. T. Barnum, and the Dawn of American Celebrity, by Eric D. Lehman
In Rare Form: A Pictorial History of Baseball Evangelist Billy Sunday, by W.A. Firstenberger
The Crusader: The Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan, by Timothy Stanley
The Comedians, by Kliph Nestoroff
Nixon’s White House Wars, by Pat Buchanan
Analects, by Confucius
Basic Writings, by Xunzi
A Whale Hunt, by Robert Sullivan
Basic Writings, by Zhuangzi
Nicomachean Ethics, by Aristotle
Genesis, trans. by Robert Alter
Roosevelt and Wilke, by Warren Moscow
In the Center of the Fire: A Memoir of the Occult, by James Wasserman
The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat, by Bob Woodward
Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, by Studs Terkel
My Bright Abyss, by Christian Wiman
Confessions, by Augustine
The Sabbath, by Abraham Heschel
The Prince, by Niccolò Machiavelli
The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism, by Garth M. Rosell
The Tempest, by William Shakespeare
The Business Turn in American Religious History, ed. Amanda Porterfield, Darren Grem and John Corrigan
The Word and Its Witness: The Spiritualization of American Realism, by Gregory S. Jackson
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, by John McPhee
A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe
The Real Cool Killers, by Chester Himes
Top three professional accomplishments of 2017:
1 Became a Lilly Fellow.
2 Did some really original research.
3 Chose generosity over rivalry a couple of times.
1 Supported my wife.
2 Made some friends.
3 Prayed more and with less anger.
Notes for a talk for Valparaiso's Church Vocations Symposium:
Ehud Sperling couldn’t find what he was looking for in physics classes. He had a half-articulated question about the ultimate nature of reality — the secret reality beneath or behind ordinary reality — but as he listened to lectures about atoms, energy, and the laws of motion, he felt the answer getting further and further away. He switched to psychology. Pysch classes didn’t help him with his question either. Then he went to Donald Weiser’s bookstore.
“Weiser’s was the place to find out,” Sperling recalled, now more than 50 years later. “At that point in time, we’re talking in the late 60s, there was no other place.”
Weiser’s New York store sold occult books. There, you could find tomes on the traditions and technologies of magick. There were books on astrology and astral projection, tarot, the secrets of Egypt, the traditions of Gnosticism, spirit channeling, and the wisdom of the gurus of the East. The sign out front said “esoterica” and “orientalia.”
Donald Weiser died on April 12 at the age of 89. His death was little noted, except for an item in Publishers Weekly and an intimate memorial with friends and family. The truth is, though, that Weiser and his book business changed the religious landscape in America.
Read the full essay at Real Clear Religion.
Despite concerns about pulpit freedom, almost no one has ever faced criminal prosecution for something said from the pulpit. The late Dean M. Kelley, who spent 30 years working on religious liberty issues for the National Council of Churches, could think of only one exception: James L. Delk.
Delk, it would seem, is the exception that proves the rule. He was arrested in Kentucky in 1914. A Pentecostal or “Holy Roller,” in the language of newspapers at the time, he was holding a summer tent revival in the town of Science Hill. He was preaching against sin and telling Kentuckians they needed Jesus to free them from their bondage.
He was arrested and put in jail with charges of obscenity, indecency and disrupting the peace.
There wasn’t a lot of information about the charges, initially, and some Kentucky newspapers got a bit carried away making up accounts about the preacher’s breach of the peace.
For example, one paper in Richmond, about 50 miles north of Science Hill, reported that Delk had been angered because some of the fashionable women in town weren’t taking his sermons seriously. There was a woman in attendance who had “a pink-nosed poodle snuggled in her arms,” and Delk lost his temper.
The rumor was false.
Another paper, from Hartford, about 160 miles to the west, came up with a wilder version. The paper reported that the revivalist got into a fight with some performers from a carnival. The carnival had an exotic dancing exhibit, according to the paper, in a tent set up opposite Delk’s revival tent. As people gathered to hear Delk preach, the “ballyhoo” or “barker” called to them to tell them he had better entertainment on offer in the dancing tent.
“Drop a thin dime,” he shouted, “and see the wonders of Egypt!”
Delk, in the fanciful account, preached loudly against the carnival and the dancers, warning the Kentuckians of the evils of lust and the consequences of sin. He apparently got quite colorful in his condemnations, until the dancer herself decided she’d had enough.
The dancer — whom the paper called Cleopatra — walked across the street to the revival tent, went “down the saw dust trail” like any sinner seeking God’s forgiving embrace, and smacked Delk in the head with an umbrella.
She hit him right in the “clergical cranium,” in the purple prose of the paper, and thus the peace was breached.
That account wasn’t true either.
Read the full story at the Washington Post.
Sam Hose was burned to death in Georgia on a Sunday.
First he was chained to a pine tree at a place called Old Troutman Field, outside the city of Newnan, which is about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta. Then his ears were cut off. Then he was stabbed several times, blood spurting to cheers from the gathered crowd. Then his fingers were cut off, severed at the joints.
His genitals were also cut off.
Then he was set on fire.
"Now he was twisting around the tree," wrote one man who was there. "Now biting at the bark of the pine, jumping and springing and twisting and fighting for every inch of his life."
The local paper reported that Hose tried to pull himself up out of the fire with his fingerless hands. The chain that held him snapped, and he fell to the ground. His body was again hacked at with knives, but he wasn't dead, so Sam Hose was pushed back into the fire.
Some more kerosene was poured on.
He died after about 20 minutes. It was 2:50 p.m. on April 23, 1899. It was a Sunday.
Sam Hose was one of 27 people lynched in Georgia that year. His lynching was one of the 458 that occurred in the state between the end of Reconstruction and 1930.
His last words, as reported by a local paper at the time, were, "Oh, my God. Oh, Jesus!" because this was America, a Christian country.
Because this was America, a Christian country, the Sunday crowd that killed Sam Hose was coming from church. More than 500 came from nearby Newnan. Hundreds came from Palmetto, a city slightly to the north. Word of the in-progress lynching reached Atlanta right as people were leaving their morning worship services. According to historian Philip Dray, the news sparked "a mad rush of worshippers to the train station seeking the swiftest possible passage" to the lynching.
The railroad company was so overwhelmed by the demand it arranged an unscheduled run on the Atlanta to West Point line, with six passenger cars at 1 p.m. The seats were all immediately filled. People who had just come from church were so desperate to get on board they climbed through the windows and clung to the sides of the train. The company arranged for a second train, this one with 10 cars. Those were completely filled too.
"Both trains," writes Dray, "sped south at full throttle."
Conservative estimates say about 1,500 people were on those trains. Others put the figure as high as 4,000, which is the number reported at the time.
Sam Hose was dead already when the people arrived. "Oh," someone in the crowd was reported to say. "He died too quick."
The crowd wasn't going to leave with nothing, though, so they took souvenirs. The chain that was used in the burning was hacked up, the links passed out. The pine tree was cut down and chunks of the charred wood were taken too. Sam Hose's body was divided and distributed like communion.
Meeting the two trains when they got back to the city, an Atlanta reporter wrote that "the excursionists returning tonight were loaded down with ghastly reminders of the affair . . . pieces of flesh and pieces of wood placed at the negro's feet . . . . Persons were seen walking through the streets carrying bones in their hands."
One can find, today, pretty much every day, Christians concerned about how America is not a Christian country anymore. Things have changed, times have changed, and America isn't like it used to be. They don't mean things like this, though. They're not thinking about the "Christian America" that was Sam Hose's America.
All that talk, however, of that imagined idyllic past when Biblical morality was given due deference and Christians had a respected place in the public square is haunted by the Sunday when churchgoers came back from a place called Old Troutman Field with bits of Sam Hose's chopped-up body.
It's one thing to say that America should be Christian. It's another thing to say it should be Christian like is was, like it used to be.
When it actually was like it used to be, there were no stores open to sell the kerosene to burn Sam Hose because businesses were closed on Sundays. But a shop keeper was found to give kerosene to the crowd at no cost.
When it actually was like it used to be, there was a Sunday in Georgia where Christians went to church in the morning and in the evening went to the public square to sell bits of Sam Hose's burned liver for 25 cents each.
It may well be that religious liberty is threatened in America today. That's not a good reason, though, to get nostalgic for the past that was Sam Hose's Christian America.
Religious pluralism requires real work. It can only be sustained with careful, studied, face-to-face negotiations, adaptations and accommodations. It depends on pragmatic judgements.
To make religious pluralism work -- freely allowing robust religious practices from diverse minorities that variously offend and befuddle the majority while at the same time disallowing any group's imposition of its beliefs and practices on others -- a society has to be willing to make pragmatic judgements. Judgements have to be made case-by-case. The principle calls for compromise. The ideal, in practice, values actual humans and life and its messiness over the clean and clear pronouncements of ideological abstractions.
US law, as it currently stands, does this.
For example, as Eugene Volohk recently explained in the Washington Post, the law since 1972 has required private and public employers to exempt employees from rules they find religiously objectionable, except when the exemption would cause the employer undue hardship.
The law says, essentially, "work it out."
"The rule requires judgments of degree," Volohk writes. "Some accommodations are relatively cheap ... while other are more expensive. The courts have to end up drawing some fuzzy line between them. Maybe that's a bad idea, but that's what Congress set up with the 'reasonable accommodation' requirement."
The rule also, according to Volohk:
• turns on specific facts of particular cases,
• accepts the risk of insincere objections,
• accepts the risk of slippery slopes, and
• focuses on what specific accommodations are practical.
Perhaps most importantly, the law rejects the idea the religious minority should just conform. It rejects the idea that people should either "get with it" or "get out." The religious minority has a right to an accommodation -- even if it's stupid. Even if it's offensive. Even if that religious minority is a terrible human being.
That's why it's called tolerance.
This requires work. Perhaps too much work. I have spent more than a little time studying philosophers and theologians who don't think this idea of religious pluralism is coherent or even possible. If it is possible, though, it is only possible with a commitment to open conversations. Pluralistic religious freedom, if it's actually practiced and means anything, depends on dialogue and discourse, valuing other human beings in an open-ended commitment called "society."
The real enemy of this vision of pluralism, then, is political polarization. The real threat is the fracturing and fragmentation of a "public" that could partake in public discourse and work things out.
If that's right, and the Kim Davis case is any measure of how things are now, then things aren't great.
The public conversation around this Kentucky official who objected on religious grounds to personally endorsing marriages in her official capacity as county clerk has only barely been a "conversation." There has been only the scantest interest in accommodation. The loudest voices show no interest in working anything out.
The sides of this conversation are obsessed with winning. And when they win, they really lose.
As Adam Kotsko, a philosophy professor at Chicago's Shimer College, puts it, Kim Davis has defeated us all. Writing from and to the political left, Kotsko argues the whole spectacle has been a disaster for liberals, who seemed to go out of their way to confirm their worst stereotypes.
"Do you think that liberals are smug assholes who think they're smarter than everyone?" Kotsko writes. "Then you'll be really pleased at all the superficial analogies and 'gotcha' logic contradictions that they deploy against people's religious convictions .... Again and again, these dumb talking points show an absolute lack of any thought or even the most minimal empathy -- it's all about feeling smart and building solidarity by pointing and laughing at the dumb Republicans."
From the opposite perspective, writing as a religious conservative to religious conservatives, blogger Rod Dreher makes a markedly similar point. Conservatives in this "conversation" have been congratulating themselves and feeling smug. They've scored points at the cost of persuasion.
Watching Kim Davis become a prop for Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign, Dreher writes, "She comes out of jail with that cheesy 1980s song 'Eye of the Tiger' playing, and mounts the stage, holding hands with Huck, and giving God the glory. Now, religious liberty -- our most precious freedom -- is associated in the mind of the public with ersatz culture-war pageantry orchestrated by a cynical Republican presidential candidate."
Winning, as children are sometimes told, isn't everything. And sometimes it isn't even winning.
At least for the moment, the laws are strong enough and humane enough to withstand this sort of "winning." American religious pluralism has survived this most recent breakdown of discourse. The Kim Davis case appears to be settled for the time being.
A fairly practical accommodation seems to have been found -- however inelegantly. The clerk's office changed the marriage forms, taking the elected official's name off the document. So now people can get married, as is their right under the law. And Davis doesn't have to endorse those marriages with her name in violation of her religious commitments, as is her right under the law.
It's a pragmatic judgement, a compromise befitting the principle of religious pluralism.
There are better ways to negotiate to that compromise. There are more sustainable ways to work it out. It does take real work, though -- case-by-case, judgement call by judgement call, pragmatic accommodation by pragmatic accommodation.
Originally published Sept. 11, 2015.