Saturday, September 23, 2006

historians against the war

ok, they've got a terrible acronym-- but, then, how many of us can really say we've never belonged to an organization with a sub-par one? and anyhow, they've got a good plan. and for a bunch of academics, they've managed to put together a decent collection of resources and logistical suggestions. they're trying to get folks to organize


i realize that i have like 6 readers for this blog, but spread the word, y'all: October 17, 18, 19 are days designated as teach-in days. a whole range of university professors and veterans and writers have agreed to make themselves available to come and speak at schools and other groups nationwide, and HAW (yup, there it is) has put together a list of available films, collaborating organizations, and suggestions for advertising and oprganizing an event of this sort at your institution.

in the new york area, some of the people who might agree to come and talk to your group include: Zach Lochman, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at NYU; Ellen Schreker, who has written fantastic stuff on intellectual freedom in the McCarthy era; Bob Vitalis, who's brilliant on the history of oil and geopolitics; folks from Iraq Veterans Against the War and September 11 Families for Peaceful tomorrows; and etc. go to:

for more info. and pass the word.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

i heart public school teachers

This morning the sky is grey, the rain is streaking down, and I’m preparing to run off to a day of meetings and puddle hopping. Perfect setting for the main thing that’s on my mind this a.m., which is: the NYC Department of Education. It’s a gloomy subject, ladies and gentlemen. Doesn’t matter what angle you look at it from. Today I’m thinking about the angle of how many just unaccountably enthusiastic and genius teachers I’ve met over the few years that I’ve been working in the world of public education in this city. And how they get dragged through the mud by the bureaucracy and administration of the Department of Education. I’m thinking about this today mostly because I got an email from a teacher yesterday that practically broke my heart. And definitely made my blood boil. (Sometimes, yes, I feel rage.)

Here’s the story: my roommate works at the U.N., and among the various things he’s working on right now is the development of an educational project directed at youth in the U.S. He asked me if I could recommend any teachers that he might consult as he begins to put this educational project together, and I suggested a few of teachers I know. One of them, a teacher that I’ll call R., wrote him back, saying that she’d be happy to talk to him about the project. R. is an enthusiastic middle school teacher with almost a decade of experience. I’ve worked with her for several years, and in that time, I’ve seen her in action: she barely sleeps, she’s always interested in learning new stuff, and she’s capable of translating complex historical ideas into challenging but fun classroom activities. Most remarkably: even after years of working for the city, she’s got a positive attitude. Not to overstate the case, but I touch her feet in reverence. No way I could do what she does. I’m cranky—and misanthropic. And other things. So anyhow, last week my roommate took the subway to R.’s classroom, and met R. there, among the metal desks and not-too-large chairs that you find in NYC middle schools. They talked. And before my roommate got back on the subway, he pulled out his phone and called me, leaving a message on my voicemail, gushing about R. She’s so smart, she’s got such creative ideas, she totally transformed my understanding of this project. Etc, etc, etc. He elaborated later, over some food in the kitchen. Like me, was struck by her ability to translate complex historical and social ideas into consumable lesson ideas for use with young people.

A few days later, I wrote her a short email, thanking her for being so generous with her time, and telling her just how jazzed my roommate was to talk to her. And yesterday she wrote me back; she wrote the email that almost broke my heart. It was great for me too, she said. “I’m not used to being treated like an expert,” she said. “It's just so great when someone wants to hear about what I do as if it's so important, and [treats me as if] I have knowledge rather than being told what to do.”

Wh-what? I’m not used to being treated like an expert. Its possible that if I hadn’t worked with public school teachers for the past few years, I would have just been confused by that sentence—instead of enraged. How could a fully licensed, enthusiastic, smart, dedicated teacher with years of classroom experience not be treated as an expert? How, you ask. Why. The answer is complicated, probably more complicated than I’ll ever understand, but I think the core of it lives at the Tweed Courthouse, where the bureaucratic power of the DOE resides, and emanates out from there. The bureaucracy that is the NYC DOE is a complicated, labyrinthine mechanism, one that suffers as much from racism and corporate politics as it does from electoral grandstanding and the presence of scores of deadened, cynical hangers-on. Each of those features of the DOE has a hand in creating a climate wherein teachers are treated as if they are simply gears in a machine. They are made to go to professional development seminars where they are either handed scripts dictating what they are to say in the classroom, or monotonically lectured at on subjects of no relevance to their work. They are talked down to by administrators who are often barely qualified themselves to teach or inspire young minds. They are used as pawns by high-ranking officials on all sides of the debate.

Its true that there are bad teachers. There are, indeed, people working as teachers in this city who actually should not be permitted to go within 100 feet of any young person with the spark of life in them. I have met some of these teachers, and I’m here to say: yes, correct. Some of them don’t know what they’re doing. But this is not true of the majority of the teachers I’ve met. The majority of teachers I’ve met are either a)young and enthusiastic (if a little under-prepared for the work they’ve taken on—especially in the area of history education, which gets short-shrift from teacher ed programs, a subject I’m sure I’ll write about at some point on this blog), or b)all-around fantastic people whose dedication and smarts defy explanation. But all of them are used to being treated like they don’t matter, like they aren’t invested, imaginative, hard-working, intelligent souls.

When I told my roommate what R. had written in her email, he said, you know, when I was saying goodbye to her, I said: I want to say goodbye in a way that demonstrates the respect that I feel for you, and for the work you’re doing. I was raised to believe that there is no more important profession than teaching. And R. replied: you weren’t raised in the U.S., huh?

(Nope, he wasn’t.) OK but that gets into a whole other set of things, and that I don’t have time for, people. I gotta get back to work.

Dear R., if you’re reading this: you ROCK. I have no idea how you do it. And I have no idea how to remedy it.

Damn. That’s not an upbeat note to end on.

Monday, September 11, 2006

and another thing: Circus Amok & public history

Another thing I want to do herein is to open up a space for thinking and talking across the various worlds and disciplines that interest and compel me. And hopefully to encourage more collaboration and more dialogue and more experimentation among my various co-conspirators and role-models and inspirations—teachers and performers and scholars and writers and activists and rif-raf of many sorts alike. Also to:

--create some fuel for a real movement to bring critical, engaged, complicated, and comprehensible history into the streets; and to

--consider those places where this is already being done.

Can I be any clearer, you ask? For sure. I'm all about clarity, and anecdote, and specificity. So, now, let me see, what do I got in my bag of tricks?…

OK, here: lets all go to the Circus together, for a minute. C’mon, don’t be scared. The clowns are all very, very, very nice, they’ll buy you a beer if you help them load up the truck… and the elephant is made out of papier mache. The scariest thing about this particular circus is how freaking HOT it is, and how little funding they’ve got.

Those of you out there in blogland whose phone numbers are saved inside my cellphone will know that I’m talking, here, about the great Circus Amok. (

This year, I had the immense privilege and joy of working with the Circus in the role of what Jennifer Miller calls a dramaturg. "Dramaturg" sounds a little too dramatic and a whole lot too turgical, and anyhow, I know very little about any of that. Actually, I was much more of a historical advisor. (If you are reading this post during the month of September 2006 and you’re anywhere near NYC, get yourself to the nearest park to watch the Circus during its one-month all-NYC parks tour. See the website—above—for schedule and details. You won’t be disappointed.) A one-ring extravaganza of the most glittery and grassroots kind, this year’s Circus was organized around the twin themes of immigration and Latin American politics. It was called “Citizen*Ship: An Immigrant Rights Fantasia in 10 Acts.” Miller called me up and said: can you help me figure out some way we can fit something about the history of immigration and naturalization into the Circus this year. And I replied: it just so happens, Ms. Miller, that several square feet of my PhD dissertation was devoted to the history of U.S. immigration and naturalization law. So I actually feel qualified—licensed, even—to speak professionally on such subjects. The result was that one afternoon in—what was it, Miller? June?—of this year, I went over to her place, and we sat around talking history. After that, we exchanged several thousands of emails and I visited Circus rehearsal a few times, and boom, before I knew it, there were professional acrobats and dancing teacups and glittery performers jumping around on pogo sticks and doing flips and standing on their hands to illustrate complicated features of the history of immigration and naturalization law in the U.S. I’m talking about ideas that came right out of books like Ian Haney Lopez’s brilliant work of critical race theory, White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race. And in no time, audiences in parks from Coney Island to the South Bronx found themselves watching performer after performer step up to a microphone and talk about the racism embedded in the history of U.S. citizenship laws. And it worked—or at least, audiences didn’t stream madly out in frustration and boredom during these pedagogical moments. This, I think is in part because Miller choreographed it, and Jenny Romaine musicalized it, so smartly—and in part because it was wedged between an insanely hilarious fake-Heidi-themed juggling routine and a glittery acrobatics act. And in part because—what? That New Yorkers are ready to hear that the history of U.S. citizenship law was racially coded? I have no idea. But I am studying it. And I am trying to learn how public displays of history of this sort can be so powerful.

Now, I don’t have any illusions. I don’t think that the Circus is going to singlehandedly change the world, or that the brilliant combination of politics and history and entertainment that it features will mean that immigrants won’t continue to be attacked in the streets, at work, or in state and federal legislatures in the coming year. But I did watch something kind of beautiful happen at the Union Square performance last Thursday afternoon.

Because it was the middle-ish of the day, a fair portion of the audience for that performance consisted of West Indian domestic workers—nannies—with their charges, white children, in their arms. The central narrative thread that organizes this year’s Circus’s is a story about a West Indian nanny who abandons the white family that employs her. Lupita, as she is called, has joined together with a group of her friends and created a circus act. And together they have all decided run away to Argentina—where, as Lupita says, “You can be a circus performer and have health care!” It was impossible not to notice, throughout the totally bold scene in which Lupita tells her boss off, the surprised and delighted laughter coming from a section of the audience where a group of West Indian domestic workers were standing. I don’t know what sort of lasting effects this kind of encounter between circus and audience might have, but it certainly felt a whole lot different than it feels to watch some reality TV absently over a beer at the local bar. And ok, yes. It suggested the possibility of alliances across occupation and class and neighborhood in this city that so often feels hard-core and impossible.

And that's what I mean when I say "public history."
Are you with me, my fellow university-trained and -based public historians?


back-to-school and hi

Hello and welcome to how history feels. I hope you’re not expecting me to solve the riddle for you, or to explain, in each post, just exactly how history does feel. Today history feels like a cup of tea without sugar, sucked through my teeth at 8 am. Yesterday it felt like a phone call. The day before it felt like the screech of fingernails dragged across a blackboard. Its true that I am interested in figuring out how the migrations and labors of generations of my ancestors shapes the way I feel and what I do, what I’m able to imagine and how my body moves and takes form. And probably, or anyway, I think, I’ll write some on that question in this here blog at some point in the near future. But that’s not, in fact, what I consider to be its central purpose. No, its central purpose is to stage a series of collisions between history + education + contemporary life + politics + culture.

There will be observations about history education and the New York City Public schools; there will be interviews with artists who make history-based critical work; there will be tiny investigations into the way memories live on a streetcorner. Stuff like that. There will be links; there will be reports; there will be photos. I feel certain that at some point I will complain about some bureaucracy or other. (I have a hunch you’re feeling me on that one.)

My aim, in part, is to provide resources, ideas and support to the public school teachers that I work with in NYC public school Region 9, and their colleagues. There will be times, I’m sure, that I won’t be able to help myself from getting a little whimsical and poetic on your ear. But I do hope that you’ll find in here good and useful information; resources; and provocations as well. Your comments are MOST welcome.

Happy back-to-school.

See you on the blog, and in the streets.