Chelsea Miller, M.A. student, History Department
One broad theme I noticed during this weekend’s conference was the translation of ideas from abstract forms to material consequences. From aesthetics and political imagination to social justice in the classroom, my attention was drawn to the question of how our ideas and imagination manifest as art, interpersonal interactions, and teaching materials. These can either uphold or resist power dynamics and oppression.
Bryn Schockmel, of Boston University, presented a paper exploring how fourteenth-century Italian iconography traveled to the Netherlands to be woven into a sixteenth-century silk tapestry. The movement of ideas, iconography, and design can be attributed to the tastes of elite ruling classes – specifically, in this case, the Medici family. King Henry VIII eventually became the owner of the tapestries central to Schockmel’s thesis, among many more carpets, and several paintings survive of Henry posed with his material conquests. In contrast, Joan Blanchfield, of SUNY Albany, highlighted the interconnected world of avant-garde art following World War II and focused on Richard Stankiewicz’s explicit criticisms of global post-war politics and the artistic tastes of elites in the United States and Europe. Andrew Stahlhut, visiting from Lehigh University, has taken a transnational approach to the interactions between the British Empire, Dutch traders, and the Iroquois Nations in upstate New York in focusing on borderlands history and how the British Empire depended on the precarious cooperation of Dutch and Iroquois actors. Additionally, as Stahlhut posited, the transnational approach that borderlands history provides is a recognition that history still happens “when rich white guys aren’t around.”
The panel on teaching for social justice outlined how several of our own history professors incorporate learning about social change and oppression into their lesson plans. In Professor Julio Capó’s classes, Professor Capó encourages students to write down their preferred pronouns on an index card at the beginning of the semester. For a number of students, this might be a way to comfortably express their identity. For students who had never before encountered the complexities of gender identity and expression, this might create feelings of discomfort. In either case, this activity offers a subtle, yet powerful, means to engage with the topic of gender identity.
Professor Richard Chu highlighted the importance of incorporating activism and service into the classroom experience. Professor Chu’s courses often deal with inequalities experienced by a range of people as a result of imperialism, colonialism, and systems of dependence. In order to bridge the gap between academic learning and activism, community service can be integrated into history courses. I would argue in support of this suggestion: partnerships with local communities can provide valuable experiences for all parties involved and highlight to students that social justice and history are intertwined.
Professor Libby Sharrow also expanded on these issues in emphasizing that educators must always be involved in the processes of learning, and that there are inherent power dynamics in the student-teacher relationship. Thus, a discussion about social change must also be a discussion about power. In promoting classroom diversity, teachers can use their agenda-setting power to make important decisions about constructing the syllabus and gathering resources for students to use.
I think there is one statement that addresses a major focus of this weekend’s conference and how many of us in the department do history. Before Andrew Stahlhut presented his paper on borderlands history and empire, he made this statement: “Academic history is not about finding the right answers. That’s boring. It’s a way of thinking.” The panels emphasized different ways of thinking that have real consequences. By embracing social justice in the classroom and within the field of history, we can more successfully open up conversations about the past and what this means for the future.