Category Archives: Ideas

Final American history 2016


Siege of Constantinople: The capture of Constantinople “blocked” the Silk Road.


The 95 Theses: The Reformation set off religious wars.


The Three Sisters: Europeans wanted Native American land


I had the dubious distinction of teaching American history, Pre-Columbus to 1800 in the fall quarter (the Pacific Northwest is on the quarter system; courses are 5 credits per, and 3 courses is a full load for 10 weeks). In my syllabus, the election fell on the week we were discussing the Federalist papers and the formation of the Constitution. Lucky me, to have to explain the Electoral College on election night. This quarter, this year, this century thus far: all hot messes. I find it more and more difficult to teach the history of the US when I feel as though we are in very real danger of witnessing the end of the Republic.

Perhaps the most chilling aspects of this election cycle were the triumph of propaganda on television news and on the Internet and the vehemence of the propagandists’ steadfast followers. From my perspective, this unfortunate mix of ignorance and manipulation will only get worse when the children affected by the “No Child Left Behind” testing frenzy and other politicization of education reach voting age (very soon). My students who are directly out of high school (or still in high school and attending community college through Washington State’s “Running Start” program), show an alarming inability to think independently or critically. They have been tested into obedience. Since kindergarten, this generation has been told that there are correct and quantifiable answers for everything.

The liberal arts are an antidote to that kind of rigid thinking. Since I am a Kool-Aid swilling member of the cult of liberal arts and critical thinking, I could not let my students leave my class with the same level of zombiedom they entered with. (If I left the class for a moment to go to the loo or deal with an interruption, they were perfectly quiet when I returned. It is spooky and unnatural.) So, I wrote the final exam for my course with this liberal arts sensitivity in mind. I will receive the same answers as I would have if I had phrased the questions in the usual history speak, but I made it much harder by requiring independent judgment and freedom of thought. Also, to complete the exam, the students need to employ more than just critical thinking, narrative history method, and study habits. The formula requires thinking more suited to the physical sciences (and law) than the liberal arts. In essence, they have to recognize a faulty equation, fix it, and solve for two variables. Yes, My history exam is algebraic. Math is a liberal art. (So there, troll who laughed at my liberal arts education and told me to pick up a science book—the physical sciences ARE the liberal arts, ye wee numpty.)

I welcome feedback in the form of constructive criticism, reasoned and civil discourse, honest and helpful suggestions, and penetrating questions. To head off the first criticism, I fully prepared the students for this from day one and held two review sessions in which I gave them the answers. We also had mini listening and reading workshops during the quarter. My course is designed as Atlantic history integrating social, political, intellectual, environmental, and cultural history. I “race” and “gender” the master narrative and count Native American tribes as sovereign nations in commerce with Europeans.


The Fall Line dictated the size of any agricultural labor force.


Racial construction created an easily identifiable caste of unfree agricultural workers.



Final Exam

History 146: North America Pre-Columbus to 1800

Tacoma Community College

December 2016

Rather than give you a traditional final exam, I want you find the habit of questioning all assertions for logical consistency, historical accuracy, and intentional manipulation. This is now your civic duty. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

As we have gone over in class and in the review on Dec. 1 in the final class of the quarter, please follow the instructions carefully, and then upload your answers to this page in one document file.


Much of the news coverage this autumn surrounding the election of 2016 was more akin to emotional assertion and opinion than factual reportage. The situation was so bad that the Oxford English Dictionary, the record of the English language, added the hyphenated word “post-truth” to the official lexicon. Transparency and effective journalism are necessary in order maintain an informed electorate. When opinionated emotion and supposition rule over fact-based reporting and reasoned discourse, democracy itself is in danger.

Too often, a non-expert on television seeks to end discourse with a classic logical fallacy, the appeal to authority. Especially for college students studying history, critical examinations of assertions of authority are necessary. The most common attempt to justify a position has been, “America was founded on the principle of _____________!” Fill in the blank, and this statement seems to carry a great deal of weight. But, as we have discussed many times in class, this statement is far from complete, is oversimplified, and is, in essence, incorrect, no matter how one fills in the blank. Which America? Which founding? Is there a principle or just an expedient method? The word “the” is most obviously problematic because there are certainly more than one “founding” principles.

Your assignment is to complete the statement, to fill in the blank, explain your choice, and connect it to the United States c. 1804. However, you must first change the statement so that it is accurate. “America” is a hemisphere, and, in the time period covered by History 146, parts of “America” were claimed by at least five European powers and thousands of Native American tribes. To fill in the blank, you will have to specify which America you mean. British North America? The Early American Republic? The Revolutionary Era? New England, the Middle Colonies, Tidewater, or the South? Jefferson’s America? Hamilton’s? You will also have to verify that “founded” is the correct verb. Is “coalesced” a more appropriate term? Also, was there actually a principle involved, or can you argue that a system of labor procurement was in play?

Similarly, if you answer using the ideas of the any of the Enlightenment “Founders,” please make sure you articulate the fact that the ideas swirling around both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were contradictory. If you answer the question for Jefferson, you need to acknowledge the Federalists and vice versa. If you answer with any freedom mentioned in these documents, be prepared to explain the history of that idea on this continent and/or in Europe or from Native Americans. One very large and flexible answer is “commerce”; one especially difficult answer is “hypocrisy.” Remember, Virginia and Massachusetts were two very different societies from the beginning, as were the Caribbean and Louisiana.

I expect you to construct the statement in two different ways and write at least four pages, double-spaced, 12-point Times or Times New Roman for each statement, about 1000 words per answer.

What I want is for you to pull on a thread in the history we have studied this quarter and explain how that subject contributed to the identity of the nation in 1800. In addition, you should be prepared to discuss certain aspects of correlation or opposition to the topic you pick. For example, many have suggested the answer with slavery. I think that is a good answer. You must give a short narrative history of slavery, explain why it answers the “founding” part of the question, and include a discussion of race formation. Without discussing race formation, you cannot give an accurate answer to the answer of how slavery was foundational. True, it was an economic system, but the social and political realities of race were solidly integrated into the national character by 1800 as much as the South relied on the economic benefits of a captive workforce. As we have discussed, there are many, many ways to complete the statement. Pick two, describe how each evolved, and explain why they are so important to the concept “America” as to be considered foundational.

An “A” answer would include:

  • An accurate reformulation of the statement “America was founded on the principle of ______________”;
  • A historically accurate answer (for example, “capitalism” is not historically accurate);
  • An accurate timeline (in terms of cause and effect, not an absolute date timeline) of the principle/institution/concept/activity you choose to explain;
  • A cogent explanation of how and why your answer was manifest in the politics, culture, social structure, or even geography of the United States, c. 1804;
  • A successful demonstration that you use a dictionary to look up words you do not know;
  • Evidence of hard work and engagement with the substance of the course;
  • A demonstration of critical and lateral thinking. Outside the box is good too. Just tie it all together in a killer conclusion.

You are NOT required (or permitted) to do any of the following:

  • Completely answer the question. That would be impossible as an undergraduate or in 4 pages.
  • Use any materials extraneous to the class. Use ONLY lecture/discussion notes, PowerPoints (up on Canvas), your textbook, and additional readings either handed out in class or posted on Canvas.
  • Use footnotes or citations. If you quote the Declaration of Independence or the Sermon on the Arabella, simply identify the document and the speaker. For example, “John Winthrop called the new society ‘a cittie upon a hill’ in his sermon on the Arabella.” No notes required.
  • Use the thinking of someone else. I want you to work your way through the answer yourself.
  • Panic. This is doable because you are smart and able.
  • Plagiarize. This is doable because you are fierce and competent.


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Filed under 2016 election, American history, Environment, Higher Education, Ideas, Intellectual History, Pedagogy, Resistance, teaching, Thinking, US Constitution

An American Reading Arendt in Kyrgyzstan

I taught in the former Soviet Union for exactly three years. The first time that I, a baby boomer, sat foot in the Soviet Union proper was the day I arrived to teach, June 4, 2011. Sure, after 1990, the former Warsaw bloc opened. As curious backpackers or enthusiastic researchers, it became possible to visit wonders hidden by die Mauer. Some even made Russia itself a regular visit. But, I was teaching in the Kyrgyz Republic, most commonly known as Kyrgyzstan.

Nestled amongst neighbors as diverse and dangerous as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and China, Kyrgyzstan is also comfortably close to Mongolia, Afghanistan (which explained the Manas Transit Center at the international airport), and, of course, Mother Russia. Kyrgyzstan is a tiny democracy, hopelessly corrupt, and teetering on the edges of full-on ethnic conflict (with its Uzbek neighbors) and a full-on charge to breakdown in infrastructure. The nation also happens to one of the most beautiful and wild places left on this planet. All in all, a heartbreaking place with which it is easy to fall in love. Teaching there, at the American University of Central Asia, was itself a unique experience because of the historical borderland that is the Silk Road.

Since graduating from Georgetown in 2002 with a Ph.D. in U.S. history, I have held positions in the U.S., Turkey, the UAE, Qatar, and now Kyrgyzstan. As a large part of my position at AUCA, I am a teacher trainer who conducts faculty workshops in methods of student-centered teaching and strategies to teach specific subject matter. I work with local faculty to encourage them to inspire students to think critically rather than memorizing the material and regurgitating a “correct” answer (as has been the technique in every country where I’ve taught). Instead, teachers are expected to help student understand the themes in any given piece of writing and propose questions for students to answer (in college-level English). Especially with those educated in the Soviet Union (anyone over 45), this is an especially difficult challenge. The other challenge is to help foreign faculty to adjust, not downgrade, their expectations for our students. Our students are an interesting mix of children from staunchly Soviet parents and of traditional families living in villages with basic amenities. In a sense, every student has special needs, depending on the provenance of his or her teacher. That I have been teaching overseas since 2002 and have faced a multitude of challenges, all of which has made me more flexible and a better teacher/colleague, has given me the perspective to stand astride this cultural confluence and help each help the other.

All of my international posts have had two things in common: a dominating patriarchy and at least a nominal Islamic majority. Neither of those circumstances have manifested too obviously in my teaching—after all, I take the position that I am teaching U.S. history; if a student wants to find a parallel in his or her own culture, well that’s not on me. In some of these places, one must be careful about criticizing the government or religion or give the hint of proselytizing (it is hard to teach Colonial America without teaching Puritanism). I’ve walked that line carefully and well. Kyrgyzstan is unique in one way, and it has to do with the influence of the U.S.

In addition to history, I was teaching and co-directing the Bard College Institute for Writing and Thinking sponsored First Year Seminar Program. Luckily, in 2014 I had the opportunity to teach Hannah Arendt’s “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship.” All of my students from the CIS countries (we also have student cohorts from South Korea and Afghanistan) have a clear history of the Great Patriotic War etched into their conscious minds, one even might call it an institutional memory. Many times overseas I must check to make sure university students have a basic familiarity with the ideas on display. For example, my students in the former Soviet Union know almost nothing about World War II in the Pacific. I say almost, because the atomic bomb is the only element of American or British participation in the war they are taught in high schools. So, when discussing Arendt, I did not have to explain who Adolph Eichmann was and what he represented, but I did have confront angry accusations of American atomic warfare on an innocent Japan. This is what we call a teaching moment.

Instead of focusing on the war itself, I focused on Arendt’s basic message: in times of moral reversal, failure to think, to conduct and internal dialogue with oneself, breeds personal responsibility. Interestingly, a later reading, the excerpt “The Grand Inquisitor” from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, claims that failing to think—experiencing great events as a member of a herd—exorcizes responsibility. Yet Arendt was correct; events such as the Holocaust require review of “automatic” morality. When all of life inverts, when that which was moral is then immoral, the illegal made legal, failing to think creates responsibility and therefore culpability. Her example is the moral upheaval that was National Socialism. Yet, another moment of moral reversal clung to edge of my consciousness, and I was almost afraid to bring it up, mostly because academic freedom is a fairy story we tell to graduate students to keep them from fearing the future. The very students had experienced a profound moral reversal, and they had failed to think the consequences through.

In 1991, Kyrgyzstan became an independent nation. At no time in history prior to 1991 was the territory now called Kyrgyzstan ever a nation state. The Soviets carved the Kyrgyz Soviet Republic from the rest of Central Asia out of subtle linguistic differences among other Turkic languages, such as Kazakh and Uzbek, and primarily Mongolian features that the Kyrgyz share with Kazakhs and Yakuts in Siberia. The nation that was never a nation is now finding itself with a rising and fervent nationalism, which is not the only lasting feature of a post-Soviet world. Kyrgyzstan is unique amongst its neighbors in that it attempts to be a democracy, and despite two revolutions in twenty years, the last president, Rosa Otembayava, did leave her position on schedule. That makes one peaceful change of power, something no other CIS nation can boast.

Furthermore, Kyrgyzstan is multiethnic. In addition to the sizable Uzbek minority in the south of the nation, the environs around Bishkek, the capital, were Stalin’s dumping grounds in the late 1930s: Tatars from the Crimea, Volga Germans, Jews, and Chechens (including the Dzharnaev family whose sons moved to Boston) were all relocated to the country so far from anywhere else. Perhaps this is why the U.S. decided to focus its aid and military cooperation on Kyrgyzstan, or perhaps it is the long Chinese border, but in any case, Kyrgyzstan’s blatantly corrupt economy is propped up by payment from the United States. The only other single industry in the nation is a gold mine operated by a Canadian firm that is under constant threat of nationalization by the government and attack on horseback by the local villagers. Kyrgyzstan is afloat because of American money. And, with American aid comes American ideology, and since World War II, American diplomacy demands adherence to the political idea of the free market economy. And there is where the moral reversal lies.

Ingrained in American foreign policy is the sanctity of the open market, the inviolability of contracts. In the spirit of Arendt, the “automatic” go-to philosophy taught in America is the so-called free market, the greatest mythological expression of which is the self-employed success. Only with careful thought that feel as though borders on the treasonous does the adult come to realize that this philosophy confused with mother’s milk is itself morally questionable. To counter, the “automatic” philosophy of citizens of the Soviet Union was the violence that was the free market and the superiority of communism. Adults also questioned (inwardly) the hegemony of the Comintern, but a freer market certainly did no mean the vacuum of social support that is the American ideal (and thankfully, not the entire American reality). In the CIS, one day communism was the rule; seemingly the next day, capitalism came hand-in-hand with American aid. Included in this ideological shift was a profound moral reversal.

America’s assumed inviolability of contracts is morally compromised in idea, and perhaps completely immoral in application. At the base of contract law lies the fiction that parties who are contracting are similarly situated enough to be considered equals. The contract provides for obligations for both parties as spelled out in the document. A contract is a legal promise. The problem with this fiction is rarely, if ever, are parties contracting truly equal. When the powerful contract with the weak, there is very rarely the change to bargain honestly, and if the stronger party doesn’t keep up its end, who will make them? Certainly not the weaker party. A contract is an opportunity for abuse.

In the Soviet Union, the situation was reversed. The State existed to protect the weaker party, banning “the freedom” of contract. While not perfect, the ruling idea was not to take advantage of the weak however one can. The ruling idea was to protect the weak, “Each according to his abilities.” The old had pensions, the ill had treatment, the artists had jobs, and the swindlers had jail. After 1991, the old, the ill, and the artists had the street and the swindlers ran the country and the black markets.The strong man, like Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, became the hero, and public utilities around the region crumbled.

The western democracies had so successfully branded communism as evil that its opposite must be good, so when what had been billed as the opposite arrived, the capitalists painted themselves as liberators. Unfortunately, some of America’s freedoms are freedom to starve, to freeze, to be discarded. In times of moral reversal (especially when the change is so dramatic), failure to think breeds personal responsibility. In Kyrgyzstan, at least, a new generation has accepted without question that communism was bad and capitalism is good just because America said it was. Moral reversal came to the CIS, and no one questioned it at all. Perhaps this helps to explain the popularity of Vladimir Putin. He questioned America, and in so doing became a dictator. The U.S. needs to divorce the free market from its foreign policy. Let people have their social welfare states; perhaps the world will end up with fewer dictators.

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Filed under #bishkek, Autobiography, Cultural differences, Foreign Policy, Former Soviet Union, Hannah Arendt, Higher Education, Ideas, Kyrgyzstan, Thinking

The Correct Word

“The night was sultry.” Throw Momma From The Train

As a writer, a teacher of writing, and a sometimes translator, I spend a lot of my time looking for the right word. English is beautifully protean, so full of nuance that there is often an exact word to express any idea. Even when English can provide no precision, the language will be true to its larcenous past and will  execute a linguistic five-finger discount, usually purloining from German or French. Still, the contemplation of the right word is one of the joys of writing.

Last week, a student stopped a colleague in the hall; they stood with heads bent in silent contemplation. Curious, I asked what concerned them so. They were looking for a word. Now, our students are not native English speakers–for them English might even be their third or fourth language–but English is our medium. The student explained the idea she wanted to convey. We tried direct translation to no avail. I promised to think upon it. A few hours later it hit me: parasite, or even better given the belittling ferocity of the context, leech. Thus are the joys of a large lexicon.

Yet, this pastime–which makes it me very hard to best at Words With Friends and a whiz with the New York Times Crossword–has a non-vocabulary analog. For me, a photograph has the same potential as the correct word, the potential to transcend mere comprehension in favor of epistemological metastasis. For me, a photograph is kin to the right word. A seamless composition of reflected light can be as complex as Michelangelo’s La Pietà. Stare long enough, and you might see it move.

A small college wishes to commission a work of art to express some very complex and contradictory aspects of one world historical figure. Since my medium is the non-posed photograph made in available light, my art is relatively easy to make. I do not need a studio, artificial light, models, props, or any supplies beyond my camera and my eyes. If I were to apply to that competition, I know that I could make a photograph that would express the correct sentiment; I could find the right word to express an idea precisely. Yet, since there is no fussy material cultural in my process, would the elegance of precision be enough? Will a nearly two dimensional print fill their space with an appropriate (and, one expects, massive ) object.

Hemingway wrote the shortest tragedy in the English language: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” Because of its brevity and precision, is it less powerful than Hamlet? The shortest horror story should be compared with the shortest tale of psychological anguish: “The last person on Earth sat in a room. There was a knock on the door.” Compare: “The last person on Earth sat in a room. There was a lock on the door.” Perhaps brevity is the soul of wit, but it is also the essence of elegance. And skill.

In the years since World War II, Abstract Expressionism has competed with photography for elegance and brevity, especially with  images of the Shoah. Can a  sculpture ever inspire the same level of distress as a photograph of the Einzatzgruppen gleefully completing their loathsome task? Enormity of feeling needs to be met with enormity of scale. Subtlety and efficiency may be too severe and thus insufficiently oppressive to wrap one’s head around the brutal immediacy of a photograph.

I will not submit a proposal for this commission, mostly because most people do not think a photograph can inspire the same sense of gravitas  as a sculpture or installation. I will, however, undertake to make the image as a test for myself. After all, the exercise, like journey’s relationship to destination, is as important as the output. Whether it be the correct word or the precise image, thinking is the cure for the restless spirit.

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Filed under criticism, Ideas, Letters, photography, teach writing, teaching, Thinking