“I cannot live without books”

I’ve recently seen a number of things on the social media with this quote of Jefferson’s:

“I cannot live without books”

The quote is from a letter to John Adams, and I can understand why it appeals to people. I love books so much that I am dragging a shocking number of them halfway across the country, but I don’t own or want any of the myriad items floating around with this quote on them.

I cannot live without books -Thomas JeffersonJefferson was a brilliant man who played a pivotal role in the founding of this nation. He also owned thousands of human beings throughout his life, despite his extensive writings on liberty, and repeatedly raped Sally Hemings from the time she was 14 (he was 44). Jefferson’s lifestyle was possible because of the labor of enslaved people, and he periodically struggled with bankruptcy because of the instability of agriculture and because he consistently lived above his means, in part because of his compulsive purchasing of books. In order to fund this lifestyle, Jefferson often mortgaged his property, including his human property. Baseball cap with "I cannot live without books" and Jefferson's signature embroidered on it

Jefferson mortgaged human beings to pay for his lifestyle. He only ever freed two enslaved men during his lifetime. He claimed that black people were not suited to freedom, and that they should be sent back to Africa rather than permitted to live in the land of their birth. He claimed that they could not be integrated into white society. These beliefs were convenient for a man who wished to justify keeping human beings as property and capital, able to be mortgaged or sold to cover his debts when it suited him.

Yes, Jefferson loved books, but he purchased his books with the lives of the people he owned, and that is worth keeping in mind when you see that brief quote stitched on a pillow or emblazoned on a tshirt.



Letting Go: A Semester of Experimental Teaching, Part II

This is Part II of a discussion of my Fall 2016 Introduction to Cross-Cultural Studies class. Read Part I here.

Self-Reflection: What Worked & What Didn’t

In my previous post, I talked in general terms about my approach to the class and the outcomes. In this post, I’ll break down which elements of the class worked and which didn’t, and examine how I might incorporate the successful elements in my current and future classes.


Each week, students turned in journal entries on the assigned readings. The entries were due on the day of class discussion, which helped ensure that students came to class having read and prepared to discuss the readings. These are the guidelines for journals from the syllabus:

  • The journal entry must contain at least one substantive comment or question for each of the assigned readings. You can state this in one sentence, and a rambling paragraph is not a substitute for substance. Your journal should include at least two questions about the topic to discuss in class.
  • You can write informally (use bullet points, etc), but your writing must be intelligible. I won’t be marking you on grammar, but I have to be able to follow your thoughts.
  • You must be prepared to discuss your comments and questions in class.
  • You will not receive credit for entries that only restate what the article says. I want to know what you think about it.
  • You will not receive credit for vague comments like “The article was interesting” or “I agree with the article.” Why do you agree? What was interesting?

I expect your journal entries to reflect your growth as a scholar and critical thinker. An “A” journal entry at the start of term may not be one at the end.

I had both under- and upperclassmen, and the journals helped put them on more equal footing for class. I gave students substantive feedback on their journal entries, and most of my students grew in response to the feedback. I enjoyed getting to read the journals.

Detail of the facade of Boston Avenue Methodist Church in Tulsa, OK
While in Tulsa for a wedding last fall, I got to see Boston Avenue Methodist Church, a beautiful Art Deco building. Once again, using images to break up long blocks of text.

I also gave more specific journal entry questions for some readings. When they read about AIM survival schools, I asked them to reflect on how education developed or erased tribal identity. When they read about the history of rap in Cape Town, I asked them if any artists or songs spoke to their sense of who they are. These questions helped them focus their reading, especially my students who had less experience with critical analysis.

The major drawback to the journals was the time it took to mark them and give feedback. It was easy for me to get behind, given my extremely intense schedule (I taught three different preps and worked 20 hours a week at the Tennessee Historical Society), and this is something I would want to do better with if I assigned them again. It is unfortunately not something I see as practical in much larger classes, but I am considering different ways to get the same outcome. Suggestions in the comments or directly to me are greatly appreciated.


I wanted thoughtful, informed discussions with as many students involved as possible. I did not want to spend discussions with a list of students rating the number and quality of their comments. After reading around, I decided to ask my students to set participation goals for themselves. This seemed like a cop out to me, since I prefer to control and predict everything that goes on, but the concept made sense. They wrote their goals on the first or second day of class. I asked them to think about their personalities and strengths. If they tended to talk a lot in class, maybe they wanted to work on listening and participating without dominating the discussion. If they were introverted and nervous, maybe they wanted to work on having a prepared comment to share once or twice a week and build up to spontaneous engagement.

They held onto their goals, and at the midterm and final I asked them to briefly reflect on their goals in a paragraph to me, and to include a self-assessed grade. I gave them substantive feedback at the midterm, and met with some students individually. I also asked them to give me feedback on how I could encourage better participation. Many of them suggested having them speak in smaller groups, rather than to the entire class. Since the classroom was arranged with small tables, I took this on board and had them discuss questions at their tables before opening the floor. I was able to visit the tables and get a sense of who was engaging, who was quiet but attentive, and who was just texting. This also helped them bond with each other, and the more talkative students were thoughtful about drawing out their more reticent classmates.

We did the same exercise at the final, and I found that most of  my students worked harder on their goals to get better, and that the changes they suggested worked well. This is something I’ve tried to incorporate into my larger classes. It’s more difficult with a survey of 35 students, but they are better at talking to each other in groups than they are at talking to me in front of their classmates.

Congressman John Lewis on stage near a podium
I also got to see my hero John Lewis speak at MLK Magnet School (formerly Pearl High School) in Nashville. I am an excellent photographer.

The combination of the participation component and the journal worked well. When I met with students individually, I was able to tell the quieter students that I could tell they were doing thoughtful reading and had good ideas that I wanted the entire class to benefit from, so that it was constructive feedback (“Share your insights with your classmates”) rather than criticism (“Why don’t you talk more?”). It also helped create the sense that this was a group effort; it wasn’t about me pulling teeth, it was about us creating a good discussion together so that we could all stay awake and enjoy our 9am class.

Final Thoughts (for Now)

This isn’t a complete postmortem on this class, so I may revisit these posts or turn this into a series on teaching. I really enjoyed teaching this class, and I want to find ways to make all of my future classes as enjoyable as this one was. There are a lot of intangible factors that make for a successful class. I had a wonderful group of students whose company and conversation I enjoyed and who were willing to go along with me as I figured out what I wanted to do. I learned a lot about relaxing and going with the flow last fall, and hopefully that has carried forward into this semester and will stay with me as I continue teaching and learning.

Letting Go: A Semester of Experimental Teaching, Part I

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Process

In August 2016, I found myself in a bit of a bind when the grant funding my work ended unexpectedly. I scrambled and picked up an extra class teaching Introduction to Cross-Cultural Experiences for MTSU’s Global Studies program. I had two books, neither of which was a traditional text book, a few vague syllabi, and an even more vague course description. Most of the instructors in that program are cultural geographers, but Doug Heffington, the program chair, encouraged me to play to my own strengths and interests.

Photo of students in historical costumes
This is my US History to 1877 class from the same semester on Halloween. It’s important to break up long stretches of text with photos.

With no restrictions and only 18 students, I set out to create a class where we explored how cultures create identity for themselves and others in thoughtful, informed discussions. I had the beginnings of a syllabus that rewarded participation, encouraged reading and reflection, and eschewed tests and quizzes for journal entries and a final project. I had two weeks’ worth of content set out and no backup plan if it didn’t work. Go big or go home, right?

Public history is, and probably should be, uncomfortable and a little terrifying. Community work involves variables that are beyond our control that can make or break a project. For me, this uncertainty is exhilarating. Some people jump out of planes; I ask for community feedback. I think some of this is because my first community meeting felt like a train wreck. A former elected official laid into me about preservation and questioned my motives for the project. I remember feeling unprepared and convinced that I had irreparably damaged a years-long project. A community member I knew well jokingly offered to escort me to my car. But, while I stood there, numb with failure, Henry Allen approached me about starting an oral history project. People came to the next community meeting, and the project continued. The experience taught me to embrace the process and its messiness, rather than obsessing over the product.

I drew on that experience when I planned my Global Studies class. I dug up articles on engaged learning and sharing authority in the classroom. I talked to colleagues and read up on creating safe spaces for dialogue. The major takeaway from my research was that I needed to give the students a real stake so they would feel responsible for the success of the class. It was scary for this control freak, but ultimately, it was the best class I have ever taught. We had thoughtful discussions on complicated, challenging topics. We bonded as a class, and some of my students became friends with each other.

Photo of the author in front of a sign reading DinosaurLand
Visiting Dinosaurland near Winchester, Virginia, less than 24 hours before stomach flu round 2.

It was tough semester on a lot of levels. Our schedule got out of whack when I got the stomach flu not once but twice. The 2016 election threw us all for a loop. As I had the rest of the semester, I opted for transparency and sharing authority. I was honest with them about my own feelings, and told them that if they didn’t want to be here today, that was okay, they could leave. I took a blind survey on whether they wanted to have class as usual, or talk about it. They voted to talk about it, so we did. We had an honest, respectful, and open dialogue about what it meant and their fears. No one tried to convince anyone of anything. There was no gloating and no accusation. We listened to each other, something that’s too often missing in our democracy.

This was not a class at a small liberal arts college. Of the 18, only five were women. Most of the men were white STEM majors. In my next post, I’ll do some self-reflection: break down a few elements of the class, looking at what worked and what didn’t, and consider how I can incorporate successful elements of my Global Studies class into current and future teaching.

To be continued.


Whose History Belongs in a House Museum?

The facade of Monticello on a sunny day
Monticello (wikimedia commons)

I recently read an article entitled, “Will History Only Remember the Founding Fathers as Slaveowners?” The author is Suzanne Sherman, a lawyer who took her homeschooled children on a road trip from Utah to East Coast to visit sites associated with the some of the great men in U.S. history. She describes her visits to a number of historic sites (Monticello, Poplar Forest, Montpelier, John C. Calhoun’s home, and the Peyton Randolph House). Sherman is unimpressed with how many of these sites work to include the narratives of the enslaved people who lived and worked in these spaces, and harries the docents about their apparent insistence on interpreting the lives of enslaved people (except at Poplar Forest, where she found an ally against the scourge of “revisionist-style” history.

The author of the article makes two points in particular that I would like to discuss. First, this paragraph:
“Movies from both Monticello and Montpelier featured images of Barack Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as quotations about “freedom and equality.” Freedom for whom? Slaves? What about our precious liberty? It struck me that promoting the progressive goal of equality is the end of all these presentations; the slaves, over a century-and-a-half postmortem, are still being used as the means to further a political agenda.”

Aside from the pearl-clutching (but apparently sincere) tone of “What about our precious liberty?,”that final line is telling, “…the slaves… are still being used as the means to further a political agenda.” What strikes me about this sentiment is that the author does not consider that enslaved people have always been used as the means to further a political agenda. For a very long time, (white) historians have used the idea of the so-called benevolent master who took care of his slaves, who were child-like and ill-prepared to live in the world without their white master’s guidance. The author herself states that, “had Madison simply freed his slaves, they likely would have starved.”
RUN away from the subscriber in Albemarle, a Mulatto slave called Sandy, about 35 years of age, his stature is rather low, inclining to corpulence, and his complexion light; he is a shoemaker by trade, in which he uses his left hand principally, can do coarse carpenters work, and is something of a horse jockey; he is greatly addicted to drink, and when drunk is inso- lent and disorderly, in his conversation he swears much, and in his behaviour is artful and knavish. He took with him a white horse, much scarred with traces, of which it is ex- peceted he will endeavour to dispose; he also carried his shoe- makers tools, and will probably endeavor to get employment that way. Whoever conveys the said slave to me, in Albemarle, shall have 40 s. (shillings) reward, if taken up within the county, 4 l. (pounds) if elswhere within the colony, and 10 l. if in any other colony, from THOMAS JEFFERSON.
An ad for a runaway slave by Thomas Jefferson. (http://classroom.monticello.org/teachers/gallery/image/226/Runaway-Ad/)

That’s obviously not the case; thousands of enslaved people fled captivity and did not starve, nor did the many freedmen who lived throughout the country at a time when there was no real place for free people of color in many parts of white society. Beyond that, in many plantation settings, enslaved people were responsible for growing their own gardens to supplement whatever rations they received from white masters. Sherman positions herself as an expert on slavery relative to the docents she encountered, yet she cannot see past her own impressions of what slaves were like. In her view, they were helpless and unintelligent, an attitude that slave-owners used to justify their own actions and one that was perpetuated after Emancipation to legitimize the denial of civil rights and full citizenship to African Americans. Sherman refuses to acknowledge the implications of her attitude, and would no doubt disagree vehemently with my assessment.

The other issue I’d like to bring up is the question of interpretation at house museums. Sherman is at pains to point out that these sites neglect to interpret “the ideals, philosophies and political goals upon which the American republic was founded.” I wonder if she ever visited any of these sites before they began openly interpreting the lives of enslaved people? I certainly did. I grew up in Virginia, and I lived in Williamsburg for three years in the 1990s. I remember hearing enslaved workers referred to as “servants” with little or no reference to the fact that they were engaged in forced labor. I knew that Jefferson owned slaves, but I knew it in an abstract way that allowed me to retain a sense of awe at his achievements. For what it’s worth, I’m still impressed by his achievements, but my awe is tempered by my awareness of him as a deeply flawed human being. His lauded efficiency, for example, was facilitated by the fact that he had dozens of enslaved workers who took care of the mundane tasks of daily life like cooking, cleaning, and laundry.

The real point is that in my (admittedly flawed) memory, these sites never focused on “the ideals, philosophies and political goals upon which the American republic was founded.” They instead described the daily lives of the white people who inhabited these spaces using the landscape, building, and material culture (furniture, art, artifacts). If you wanted to learn about Peyton Randolph’s historical contributions, you could read a book. Being the physical space was an opportunity to imagine daily life in this setting.

This is why so many of these sites have worked to include the stories of enslaved workers. Thomas Jefferson lived at Monticello and Poplar Forest intermittently during his adult life. During that same time, hundreds of enslaved people lived at those sites for their entire lives. Their forced labor made Jefferson’s lifestyle possible, and their lives literally shaped the landscape and built environment.
Image of an archaeological dig with Montpelier in the background.
Archaeological work at Montpelier reveals the foundations of foundations of slave quarters. (http://blog.preservationleadershipforum.org/2015/06/16/slavery-interpretation-at-montpelier/)

This is obvious to me as a public historian and preservationist, but it’s clearly not obvious to visitors. So what is the solution? Do we take Sherman up on her suggestion and return to hagiographic interpretations of great white men that obliterate the lives and contributions of thousands of human beings whose enslavement was justified by the color of their skin? There are, first of all, plenty of sites that still do that. I would argue that we need to take our educational initiative further. Let’s talk to visitors about why interpret what we do. Let’s explain that these sites were never used to explore Madison’s political philosophy, but rather his daily life, which was informed by his status as a man who owned enslaved workers. And let’s talk about how we are trying to give them a more authentic sense of his life, one that explores the contradictions and hypocrisies that make lives challenging and interesting.

And in the meanwhile, let’s all take a minute to thank the docents for being on the front line of these tough conversations.

The Cape Medical Museum

The thing about researching and working on difficult heritage is that it is difficult for a reason. Part of why I planned such a lengthy research trip to South Africa was that I knew I’d be confronting a lot of serious, emotional topics and sites, and I wanted to have time in between these more intense experiences to recover. I wanted to be sure that when I visited a site, I wasn’t emotionally exhausted from an earlier visit elsewhere. I want to be a thoughtful, engaged visitor, and that means not shutting down because I’ve spent the last three days confronting the horror that human beings inflict on each other. With that in mind, I made a visit to the Cape Medical Museum in Cape Town.

sign for the Cape Medical Museum (Kaapse Mediese)
Cape Medical Museum sign (author’s image)

The Cape Medical Museum does not have a website, and they are actually a bit tricky to find. I happened to see it when I rode past in a taxi, and knew that I absolutely HAD to visit. I have a pet interest in medical history, and I enjoy learning about the past through the lens of disease and medical practices. I love a good medical history book, especially when the writer explores the intersection between disease, science, culture, social history, and race. I listen to a lot of medical histories when I’m driving (not always the best idea if you don’t feel well), and right now I’ve been listening to Rabid: A Cultural History of Rabies, which I recommend highly.

Anyway! The museum is in an attractive but unassuming historic house in the Old Hospital Complex in Green Point, Cape Town. There is no admission fee (though I made a donation), and there are no guided tours. In addition to an extensive collection of medical machines and equipment, the museum includes a fantastic exhibit on various diseases that have invaded the region. The multilingual panels connect the facts of diseases like typhus and yellow fever to their impact on society. In a panel on the bubonic plague, for example, one section describes how the practice of quarantining Africans suspected of having plague in camps helped create the idea for townships under apartheid. One of these camps later became the site of the Nyanga township. Unfortunately, there was no photography in the museum, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Folk Victorian house housing the Cape Medical Museum
Cape Medical Museum building (author’s image)

The disease room also had a display case with small windows where visitors could look in and see some of the medical models physicians in training used to learn how to identify diseases like diphtheria and gonorrhea. Though these were not as elaborate as the casts and preserved parts I saw earlier this year at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, they still conveyed the horrifying commonness of these types of conditions.

There were several rooms dedicated to particular types of medical equipment, like dentistry and ophthalmology, and a few period rooms set up as an operating room, a dispensary, and a delivery room. These rooms also included display cases full of medical equipment from different time periods, which was both fascinating and a little disturbing. One of my favorite displays was a series of respirators/ventilators showing the evolution of that technology, and culminating with a 1960s-era Bird respirator.

If you do happen to find yourself in Cape Town, this little gem is well worth a visit. It’s an easy walk in Green Point or from the V&A Waterfront, and I spent about an hour and a half, which included reading all of the panels because that is how I roll.

View of stained glass surround to front door from the interior
A little something for the hist pres crowd: check out this stunning entryway! They sadly did not interpret the house, but they did let me photograph this (really poorly, apparently). (author’s terrible image)