The Scorn of the President (and the Present): Teaching and Writing Politicized Histories in the Age of Trump

AHA Session 186
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Continental C (Hilton Chicago, Lobby Level)
Angelo Caglioti, European University Institute
Bathsheba Demuth, Brown University
Zoe Griffith, Baruch College
Peggy O'Donnell, University of Chicago

Session Abstract

In November of 2015, historians pointed out that a plaque on a golf course owned by then-Presidential Candidate Donald J. Trump in Sterling, VA—a plaque marking it as the site of a major Civil War battle (“Many great American soldiers, both of the North and South, died at this spot,” it read)—had one major flaw: no Civil War battle actually took place there. When told that local historians had called his plaque a fiction, Trump lashed out. “How would they know that?” he asked a New York Times reporter. “Were they there?”

It’s no secret that the practice of history has changed in the post-truth, post-2016 election era, and historians-turned-pundits have taken up the question of why that is with alacrity and thoughtfulness. Less discussed is the more granular effect: the how, and the what. How does the current political moment affect the daily work of being a historian, our teaching and our writing? What must we do differently, pedagogically and methodologically, upon realizing that our work on the past has new, perhaps unexpected, political meaning in the present? And if scholars of such well-trodden historical territory as the location of Civil War battlefields have found themselves the objects of scorn in the current political moment, then what happens to those of us who range further afield, into newly (or not-so-newly) controversial or politically-sensitive topics?

This panel brings together scholars with a wide range of experience and an even wider range of field and expertise: an Ottomanist, an environmental historian, and a historian of human rights. Collectively, they have taught these topics at elite private colleges, public R1 institutions, and a military academy. What they have in common is the experience of the present looming over their chosen pasts, recasting their historical arguments as present political claims and forcing explicit conversations of what might, for previous generations of historians, have remained implicit. To teach and write about environmental history, one struggles to escape the specter of how that story ends: climate change. Any history of human rights’ revolutions of care-as-politics is called to explain the contrary: recent resurgences of nativism, racism, populism, and neo-Nazism. And histories of the Middle East will find themselves supercharged by discussions of terrorism, Western interventionism, and endless war.

In a roundtable discussion, panelists will share experiences that verge on the comedic (the opinionated and vocal auditor in an environmental history lecture who spent his career in nuclear labs), to the bleak (the editor who, in response to an article submission, questioned whether the history of human rights really matter anymore, since the present is so terrible), to the unexpected (the first generation students of Middle Eastern background who said they personally related to the crisis of identity at the heart of a postcolonial Egyptian novel from the 1960s). But, more importantly, they will also share thoughts and methods (tried-and-true, and experimental) for harnessing the energy political relevance generates, and for creating opportunities to engage students and readers with the questions that animate their worlds.

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