Wednesday, August 28, 2013

In Which the Student Becomes the Teacher

Today was my first day as a college instructor. Now, I've taught two college courses on my own, but I did both as a graduate student. Today, I walked into my classrooms as an actual member of a university faculty. I've wanted to teach college for at least a decade. The goal was to get a Ph.D. and then teach. For multiple reasons, I am spending a few semesters teaching before moving on to a doctoral program. I don't want to teach nothing but survey classes forever, but for now, I'm thrilled to be where I am.

I'm not gonna lie. The last few weeks, I've been increasingly terrified of teaching nine hours-- THREE different courses-- two of which I've never taught. I wasn't too worried about US107 (US History II), because I've taught it once and TA'd for it twice. I've kinda got that one down. US105 (US History I) is one I've never taught, but it's history, and American history, at that. It'll take some work, but I knew I'd do okay. I was definitely nervous though-- it's amazing how much you realize you DON'T know when you start teaching something. I'd say I had a moderate amount of anxiety over that one. The class that really had me worried was UI100 (First Year Seminar). It's not history, and I was not at all sure of myself on that one. Not only that, but it is an ITV course, which means there's all sorts of techy "schtuff" I have to keep up with. I had no idea how I was going to pull off this course. I just kept reminding myself that I always feel that way about any significant academic projects ( 90 page thesis I wrote in *seven* weeks), and then I always end up doing surprisingly well in the end. It's a matter of just pushing on and moving forward, trusting that I'll end up on solid ground, and not walking off a cliff.

This morning I awakened at 5:30 (after having gone to bed after 1 in the morning, trying to finish all my prep), terrified that I'd crash and burn, and that I'd have to go find a secluded cave in a  third world country in which to live out the rest of my life. When I got to the Sikeston campus, I looked for my room assignment, and seriously, there has to be a better way of displaying those than writing them all on a series of white boards in no particular order, but this is how they were listed, and I triple-checked to make sure I was looking at the right room assignment. Then, when I got to the room, I triple-checked the room number. I spent the next 30 minutes terrified I'd "pull a Ted Mosby." For those of you who are not very familiar with How I Met Your Mother, Ted Mosby wound up getting halfway through a lecture on his first day as an instructor at Columbia before realizing he was in the wrong class. Thankfully, I managed to not make the same mistake (less legendary, for sure, but I'm good with that).

8:00 came, and I did the obligatory first day roll call, introductions, and syllabus. Then, I launched into my first lecture on industrialization. I really didn't think about it until the end of class, but when I looked at the clock when I reached the end of my lecture, and it had all taken exactly 74 of my allowed 75 minutes, I was pleasantly surprised. I walked out of class with my confidence renewed. I got in the car to drive to my next class in Cape, and thought, "Yes. This is what I want to do with my life." Industrialization is not my area of expertise, but I taught it, and I taught it well. It's amazing how encouraging it is to see how much better a class can be the second time around. When I gave this lecture a year and a half ago, it was a struggle to make it through 40 minutes of class, even WITH the standard first-day content. I added nothing to my lecture, and yet I was able to do more with that same content. And for the first time, I made it through an entire lecture with no notes. It was amazing.

After completing that class period, my anxiety regarding my next two classes dissipated. I was reminded that teaching is one thing I can do well. Were the next two classes as polished as the first? No. But neither were they even in the vicinity of "crash and burn." This is going to work.

I can't even begin to describe how excited I am about this school year. I get to teach, and not only that, I get to work on my own research projects without having to do them for a class.  I have at least one, possibly two articles I want to have published by spring. I hope to give a couple of presentations at history conferences again this year. I'm working as a historian outside of academia too. My public history training is actually being put to use (and I'm weeping, just a little, inside) with a project for a museum in Charleston, Missouri. While I'm currently not working on my final degree, I'm building my CV, establishing myself as a professional historian, and continuing my own contributions to the academic community. My undergrad advisor, Dr. Motl, told me years ago that I had all the tools I needed to be a professional historian and college instructor, but I couldn't really see it then. I am finally coming to see this on my own, and to have more confidence in my own abilities and potential.

Of course, this doesn't mean I don't think I need more training and more guidance. I don't think I've "arrived." I'm simply starting to see the forest through the trees. And the view is grand.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Butler

I wasn't going to write this now, but it really was a fantastic movie, and people keep circulating this article, and I feel the need to do more than continue repeating myself on the same issue. This isn't the review I had intended to write, but it seems it's the one that needs to be written.

Overall, I thought it was a fantastic movie, with one significant caveat: too many people won't realize how loosely based on a true story this movie is. The public will see "based on a true story," and put it in the same category as something like 42. While The Butler was indeed based on a true story, a lot of liberties were taken with the details regarding the butler himself and his family. As a historian, that does bother me a bit, because I believe it is important to keep the integrity of the story intact. However, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The article I linked to claims that there were 5 huge inaccuracies. I take issue with four of those.
1. The movie did not portray Ronald Reagan to be indifferent to the sufferings of African Americans. In fact, the movie showed the main character, Cecil, and his co-workers being promised by Nixon during the Eisenhower Administration that the African American White House staff would be given equal wages with the white staff at the White House, should Nixon become president. That never happened. The movie brought up this issue multiple times, and who was it (at least in the movie) who finally got the black staff equal pay? Reagan. How is this indifference? Reagan actually stepped into a realm in the White House where the President doesn't need to step. He went above and beyond to get all of his staff the pay they deserved. If he was truly being portrayed as indifferent, the director would have left that out. (Side note, this was the only time in the entire movie that the whole theater erupted in applause- it was that noticeable.) Not only that, but when Cecil tells Reagan he is resigning, Reagan says, "Cecil, I fear I am on the wrong side of the race issue," and is clearly troubled. If he was actually indifferent, I'm not sure he would have appeared so troubled. The movie DID portray Reagan accurately in regards to the Mandela/South Africa issue.

2. In reality, it was Johnson who got the Civil Rights Act passed. What the article (and voting records) doesn't tell you is that had Johnson not intimidated so many people into voting for it, Congress never would have passed it. Johnson took it upon himself to make sure Kennedy's Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. Johnson was famous for something some historians refer to as "the Johnson treatment." Basically, he was a political bully. Now, whether he should have bullied people into voting for anything is another issue entirely, but had Johnson, a Democrat, not personally taken it upon himself to make certain Kennedy's bill (another Democrat) was passed, neither enough Democrats NOR Republicans would have voted to pass it. Not only that, but the Civil Rights Act could have its own movie. This one was about the president's butler, not Congress. In fact, the Civil Rights Act was so briefly mentioned in the movie I'm surprised it made a "top 5" list of anything.

3. Nixon, well, Nixon was an interesting person. In fact, there is significant speculation now that Nixon suffered from a mental illness or personality disorder. I say that to say, Nixon had three chief concerns during his administration: 1. Wrapping up Vietnam, 2. Opening relations with China, and 3. Making sure no one was plotting against him. You think I'm joking with that third one? I'm not. Nixon was absolutely paranoid, and that actually took a significant amount of his attention during his administration. Yes, he did a lot for school integration. But I attribute that less to his concern for African Americans and more to the time at which he became president. One could argue that Eisenhower did a lot for integration too, and yet it's fairly well known that he was not a fan of it at all. Eisenhower only did what he did because he was the president and he did his job. I have seen no evidence to suggest that it was any different for Nixon. And whether Allen (the REAL Cecil) spoke well of Nixon in his memoirs or not is rather irrelevant. Many individuals are much more palatable as, well, individuals, than as public leaders. Nixon was a rough personality, period. It's hard to say what his true feelings were about many things. I don't think this movie did him any real disservice.

4. Again, I didn't see that Cecil disliked the Reagans. I saw that decades of civil rights struggles had taken him to a place where he was more disenchanted with anyone he perceived to be less than fully dedicated to civil rights. Reagan DID in fact oppose Congress on the South Africa and Mandela issues. Additionally, during the state dinner, Cecil did say, "I only wish we had been there for real, and not for show." That's a legitimate feeling. Unless there was a lot left out of the movie, and the Reagans actually played cards and had drinks with Cecil and his wife regularly, it would be hard to make a solid case stating that he had actually been invited with absolutely no shred of motive for "show." Again, considering the era is a must. This does not reflect poorly on Reagan as a man. It portrays him as a human being with human faults. What I did see was that Cecil did not at all dislike Reagan, but rather, he was disappointed by Reagan's unwillingness to do more on the Mandela issue. In his shoes, I think I'd get weary of that too, by the 1980s.

As a historian who is unfamiliar with Allen's particular story, but who IS rather familiar with Jim Crow, Civil Rights, and the presidents in the movie, I really didn't have any problems with the portrayal of those things in the movie. Again, yes, I do have some issues with them taking a true story and changing it SO much, but had it been a fictional work, like The Help, it would be phenomenal. Therefore, my suggestion is definitely to go see it and learn from it. It does accurately portray the various presidents, the struggle of the students on the front lines of the civil rights movement, the horrors of Jim Crow America, and the struggles faced by many black families during the civil rights era.