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Engaging with History: Q&A with Dr. Annette Laing

Thank you Dr. Annette Laing for your participation in this interview!  HEB is excited to hear your perspective on engaging people with non-boring history. Humanities E-Book started as the ACLS History E-Book Project in 1999, so history is near and dear to us. Your experience as an academic and a public historian gives you a unique perspective that I hope will be enlightening for all of HEB’s audience.

About Annette Laing: Born in the UK, Dr. Annette Laing is a recognized historian of early America and the Atlantic World, the author of “The Snipesville Chronicles” time-travel novels, and a public historian who brands herself a practitioner of Non-Boring History. She was a tenured professor of history at Georgia Southern University for many years before resigning to work as a public historian, bringing programs to schools and teachers’ meetings throughout Georgia and beyond.


Q: Previously tenured at Georgia Southern University and with several scholarly articles published, you decided to meld your passions for history and teaching to make history more accessible for a broad audience and engaging for young people. What led you to make that transition?

I didn’t mean to reinvent myself as a public historian, not at first. I celebrated tenure in 2003 with a midlife crisis, and, opting against a sports car, I decided to try my hand at a children’s program: Colonial Kids’ Fair that included hands-on crafts, tastes of early American drinks, and other modest activities. It was a success, and emboldened me to do something more ambitious.

The following year, I launched TimeShop, which was essentially immersive theater. I turned the university conference center into a small town in England in 1940, cast my undergraduates as costumed characters and T-shirted guides, and persuaded a hundred small-town Georgia kids to imagine themselves as time travelers pretending to be wartime British evacuees. The kids shopped with ration books and real shillings and pence, visited a movie theater, attended school, experienced an air raid, did chores in a home, which included the use of a 1930s floor sweeper and making toilet paper from newspaper, and, finally, were guests at a wartime wedding reception.

TimeShop turned out to be an extraordinary exercise in teaching. Most of my forty or so undergraduate volunteers each year were not history majors, and had to take a crash course in wartime Britain. We operated on the philosophy that we would never knowingly bore the kids, and I had my students read Disney’s guide to customer service, encouraging good humor and discouraging pedantry. And the kids were amazing: They were overjoyed to be asked to use their imaginations, and to be exposed to new ideas and settings. It was an extraordinary and emotional experience for us all.

In 2006, the Associated Press covered TimeShop. That year, I wrote and self-published Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When, a middle grades novel about three young time travelers, two of them transplants from San Francisco, who live in a small town in the Deep South, and suddenly find themselves in wartime England. Though I assumed that nobody except friends, family, and a local audience would read it, The Snipesville Chronicles series (which ended with the fourth book earlier this year) continues to build a devoted following by word-of-mouth. Using TimeShop for inspiration, Snipesville has captured what Kirkus has called a sense of “joy and wonder” in print. I resigned my academic job when I became convinced that my novels and programs for kids and teachers were the most important work I was doing as a historian, and that I couldn’t successfully juggle them all with being an academic. Quitting academia was a leap of faith, but I have never regretted it.

It is a matter of the utmost urgency that more academic historians attempt to engage directly with the broadest possible public.

Q: What areas of history do you focus on? How do you make your programs engaging and “non-boring?”

To make what I do “non-boring”, I took what I learned from TimeShop, and turned it into novels, one-woman presentations, performances, shows, what have you. The Snipesville Chronicles bounces my reluctant young time travelers around three centuries between Britain and the Deep South, always being drawn back to a small town in England, and the small town in Georgia in which they normally live. I loved dropping them off in apparently random years, so they experience England in two World Wars, Victorian Britain, the antebellum South, and mid-eighteenth century Georgia, among others.

I chose to write time travel rather than straight historical fiction because the main characters serve as avatars for my readers as they encounter the alien worlds of even the recent past, and a country—Britain—with which none of my heroes is familiar. A mysterious history professor occasionally offers help—sort of—in that way that historians do, by asking questions, making odd observations, and generally pushing the three to come to their own conclusions. I make every effort to avoid didacticism, and I put them in awkward situations that are uncomfortable for them, but entertain my readers: Hannah’s first encounter with World War II British toilet paper is worth the price of admission alone.

My schools programs, with titles like “Could You Be A World War II Kid?” focus on the historical settings I use in the books, and I do my best to connect them to curriculum (sometimes rather creatively). Increasingly, I also teach professional development programs, using humor and empathy to encourage teachers to think historically and use primary sources. Everything I do is a performance, for which more than a decade at a party school teaching hungover freshmen at 8 a.m. prepared me very well.

I prioritize engagement, and even my teacher workshops are more successful when I seek to entertain and intrigue, rather than to instruct.

Humor has always been a huge part of my programs. Sometimes, the humor is in poor taste, because that is how kids look at the past. But humor also deepens pathos: When I have a teenager re-enact life in the trenches of World War I by crawling through fake barbed wire while two classmates chuck foam balls at him in lieu of bullets, the audience laughs. When they afterward hear the tragic story of the deaths of three young soldiers in battle, and I then reveal that they were my great-great-uncles and a cousin, the impact is all the more sobering.

I teach fifth graders about change over time using a mink stole, complete with beady eyes. I get kids developing hypotheses by asking what they would do if they found themselves in need of a bathroom while huddled in an Anderson shelter in the Blitz. I introduce the radical concept that other countries exist to kids whose state curriculum reserves world history for middle school, by talking about life in World War II England and inviting them to compare it with wartime America. We analyze primary sources by asking ourselves how we know that kids in two colonial portraits are rich.

Q: What differences and shared trends have you noticed in the teaching of history in education ranging from primary to post-secondary institutions?

The lousy job market’s silver lining is that historians are ever more qualified, and I have been very impressed by the sophistication of recent syllabi from non-flagship state universities. Yet just as history teaching in universities is better than it has ever been, we are in a race against time as powerful forces push for STEM and vocational degrees in state universities, to the growing exclusion of the humanities. One would hope that people would look around at the mess we’re in, and realize that we need more humanities education, not less.

In K12 education, a similar contradiction prevails. As schools turn toward a greater emphasis on historical thinking and literacy, an encouraging trend, teachers are finding it very hard to balance an increased emphasis on historical thinking with the laundry list parts of curricula. They are being trained to use primary sources with too little context, in addition to using the dreaded worksheets. Primary sources turned into a chore are counter-productive, and hopefully, teachers recognize this. Getting kids to think, and not turning them off history – those are the key things that need to be addressed.

Social studies and history teachers still have far too little access to professional development in history, as opposed to the education classes, and are hamstrung by atrocious curriculum. Academic historians are too often used as window dressing when curriculum is written, and are generally kept at arms’ length, which is deeply unfortunate, especially when so many of us are parents.

One encouraging trend I’ve seen is social studies/history teachers partnering with English teachers to encourage kids to read historical fiction. While Common Core emphasizes non-fiction, teachers recognize that many kids engage best with historical fiction, which is precisely why I write it.

Q: Why is it important for your audience—whether it be children, adolescents, or adults—to engage with history in a post-truth political atmosphere and in general?

It’s hardly a revelation to say we’re in trouble, but I say it as a hopeless optimist, who very much hopes that most of us have not yet stepped over the edge, and that we can pull back from the brink before events swallow us. I read recently that people who lack education are more likely to think critically based on the context of their own life experiences, and that’s always been my observation as a lower middle-class person – but that is a dangerous way to learn.

The more we give people historical context and thinking skills, the better we equip them to deal with an increasingly bewildering world.

So yes, it’s crucial that we all try to get as many people as possible to engage with history, by making the most sophisticated ideas possible available to the broadest possible audiences. The more we give people historical context and thinking skills, the better we equip them to deal with an increasingly bewildering world. I am angered and frustrated that those in positions of power and influence rush to promote STEM in public schools to the exclusion of the humanities, and history in particular.

One reason I do what I do, and in the way I do it, as a renegade historian, is that institutional change is not only incremental, but often non-existent, and I for one wasn’t prepared to wait on it. It is a matter of the utmost urgency that more academic historians attempt to engage directly with the broadest possible public, and that those who do not are actively supportive of the public historians who do. While I applaud everyone who reaches out from the academy, it is simply not enough that all who do so serve the miniscule audience we mean when we speak of “the educated public.” The profession and universities must recognize that sometimes even their best scholars and teachers find a higher calling that could have an enormous positive impact.

Q: What are some lessons that you’ve learned as an author, speaker, and presenter of “Non-Boring History” programs? What surprised you as you transitioned from traditional academia into this new arena?

When historians aim to reach the public, we tend to imagine Ivy League alumni who wear bowties. I typically think of teachers and and fifth graders in a Title I school, or women who watch Outlander and yearn for more history that appeals to them. It helps when I respect my audiences and their willingness and ability to engage. I don’t patronize. Several times, I have found myself discussing a monograph, Peter Stansky’s The First Day of the Blitz, with ten year olds, and they are absolutely fascinated.

My books reach an audience that is awesome in its diversity, in terms of age and ethnicity, and is mostly made up of kids, teens, and adult women. Although I started out in the first book writing for young people, I quickly learned that many of my readers are adult women. It’s essential that we take seriously the fact that women get their history through historical fiction, in part because few popular history books are aimed at them. One of my main characters is black, and two are upper middle-class and of uncertain ethnicity. I explore issues of race, class, and gender in the books, without ever using a phrase like “explore issues of race, class, and gender.” In general, being a woman from a lower middle class background, which was a liability in academia, is a positive advantage in my work now.

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Georgia Humanities has been amazingly supportive over the years, and especially as I am expanding my reach well beyond Georgia, I appreciate this opportunity to make other humanities professionals aware of my work. All interested can learn more at AnnetteLaing.com, and I welcome your questions.

Humanities E-Book Author to Speak in Panel on Civil War Monuments

The debate over Civil War monuments rages on… Should they remain as they are? Should they be torn down? Is there a way to save them as historical monuments for future generations to learn from?

The Cooper Union will be hosting a panel of of historians, scholars, and experts in art and architecture to discuss what is to be done with the Civil War monuments. James Grossman, the Executive Director of the American Historical Association, is also the author of the award-winning book, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration, a title Humanities E-Book is proud to house in its collection. Grossman’s scholarly work focuses on African American history, American urban history, and the place of history in public culture.

The panel will be Monday, October 23, 2017 at 6:30pm in the Great Hall at Cooper Union. The event is free, though you must reserve a space, and open to the public.  Click here to find out more information about the event. You can also RSVP by clicking here.

Browse HEB’s collection of titles on the Civil War either on our Pinterest board or directly in the collection.

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Q&A with Sydney J. Elliott, Editor of Community College Humanities Review

ACLS Humanities E-Book (HEB) and the Community College Humanities Association (CCHA) share many goals related to new ways of thinking in the humanities and promoting the humanities to as wide of an audience as possible.  HEB’s subscriber base of over 700 institutions is 10% community colleges and HEB always looks for ways to make our collection more accessible outside of traditional 4-year institutions.

My first exposure to the CCHA came through the Community College Humanities Review (CCHR) when the Spring 2017 issue caught my eye walking into the ACLS office one day. I tucked it away to read on a rainy day or on the train, but before that rainy day came, I connected with some members of CCHA on Twitter by chance. After some conversations about the exciting work going on at the CCHA, I was directed towards Ms. Sydney Elliott to talk about the newly redesigned CCHR and how the journal relates to the work of the CCHA.

If you want to learn more about the CCHA, visit www.cchumanities.org.

For information on purchasing and submissions for the Community College Humanities Review, visit https://www.cchumanities.org/connect/publications/journal/

Interview

Q: First off, great job with the redesign…the Spring 2017 issue is very engaging from both an aesthetic and content perspective.  How do you see this redesign of the Humanities Review fitting into the broader organizational goals of the CCHA?

Cover of Community College Humanities Review, Vol. 1 No. 2, Spring 2017

Community College Humanities Review, Vol. 1 No. 2, Spring 2017

I would say the overarching goal or goals of CCHR is strengthening our visibility. Many of us in the field are feeling that the humanities are undervalued, and many colleges are experiencing major cuts in the field. CCHR is a way to defend the humanities and give a voice to those of us who think the humanities are essential to college program, degree requirements and the broader tapestry of our culture.

Q: What connects the Humanities Review to community colleges besides the publication of work from faculty at community colleges?

I think our expanded content speaks to a larger audience. CCHR hopes to inspire other two-year faculty, administrators, and staff to consider seeking out the CCHA community. As someone who works in one of Oregon’s smallest colleges, CCHR is a way to connect to a wider network of people and colleagues who continue to fight for and promote the humanities. It creates dialogue and a sense of unity and dissolve some of the institutional isolationism we sometimes can experience.

Q: I notice on the CCHA website that the journal has the intention of “building bridges” across disciplines to tackle issues (from a humanist perspective, of course) such as climate change, income inequality, environmental racism, among others.  What is the largest motivator to branch out of the “classic” humanities fields into these areas?

The humanities are fundamental in nearly every field of study, discipline, or career. Business and tech models are reaching out to courses that inspire creative thinking, problem solving, and communication. We also have to acknowledge that the humanities also need to embrace change, continue to evolve, and embody a sense of inclusion that is necessary in our global economy and communities.

Q:  I enjoyed reading about the disconnect between our projections of history and historical fact related to the Vikings, as history and fact are two hot button topics currently being debated (for better or worse). What was your favorite, for lack of a better term, item from the Spring 2017 issue? 

I am really enjoying our new Profiles category. In the Spring 2017 issue, we featured a profile of Holocaust survivor and 2016 CCHA Southern Division’s Distinguished Lifetime Humanities Educator/Advocate Award winner, Joe Engel. This coming fall, we are featuring poet Mario Susko who had to flee Sarajevo with his family during the war. There will also be a profile of a community college student overcoming substantial odds to graduate top of his class.

The Community College Humanities Association (CCHA), founded in 1979, is the only national organization of its kind for humanities faculty and administrators in two-year colleges. It is dedicated to preserving and strengthening the humanities in two-year colleges.

 Q: The Humanities Review is a great way for humanities scholars, students, and advocates outside of community colleges to get a better idea of the value of humanities in these institutions. What other ways of connecting the humanities in community colleges to the larger higher education arena do you think will be critical moving forward?

I think reminding everyone that we’re all on the same team. I see humanities departments in higher education suffering cuts and sometimes elimination. We need to convince administrations that by cutting humanities programs and courses, we are hurting our students and country as graduates will not be able to compete in the global market. But for me, it is even a larger issue: the humanities teach us how to be the best humans we can be—thinking, creative, empathetic, passionate, understanding, and curious—and the world needs that more than ever.

Sydney Elliott is an English instructor at Tillamook Bay Community College (TBCC) in Tillamook, Oregon. She has an MA in English from Portland State University and recently graduated from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University with an MFA in Creative Writing. She is a frequent presenter at CCHA conferences, a published writer, yoga instructor, surfer, and vocalist in a jazz band. Sydney lives on the Oregon coast with her dog, Daisy. Image credit: A. Birkan ÇAGHAN

Pulitzer Prize Spotlight

It is the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize awards! The Pulitzer Prize awards began in 1917 recognizing excellence in journalism, letters and education. Joseph Pulitzer was a powerhouse newspaper publisher, fiercely protective of American journalism and in his will made way for the Pulitzer Prize award to expand and continue. The Pulitzers have since expanded to giving out 21 awards in areas including the arts such as photography, music, and poetry. These awards are some of the most recognized and distinguished awards for the humanities.

Humanities E-Book has over 30 titles that received the Pulitzer Prize in History. These titles represent some of the best in HEB’s collection, though they do not show the breadth of awards the rest of the collection has received. We at HEB put together a list to showcase the titles that have Pulitzer Prize awards that you can easily browse through. See the gallery for selections from the list or the table below to explore the complete list of Pulitzer Prize titles!

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THE LAUNCHING OF MODERN AMERICAN SCIENCE, 1846-1876

By Robert V. Bruce; Alfred A. Knopf; 1988

ROOSEVELT: THE SOLDIER OF FREEDOM

By James MacGregor Burns; Harcourt Brace; 1970

THE VISIBLE HAND: THE MANAGERIAL REVOLUTION IN AMERICAN BUSINESS

By Alfred D. Chandler; Harvard University Press; 1977

THE ERA OF GOOD FEELINGS

By George Dangerfield; Harcourt Brace; 1952

WASHINGTON Vol. I and II

By Constance McLaughlin Green; Princeton University Press; 1962-1963

BANKS AND POLITICS IN AMERICA: FROM THE REVOLUTION TO THE CIVIL WAR

By Bray Hammond; Princeton University Press; 1957

THE UPROOTED

By Oscar Handlin; Little Brown; 1951

SOVIET-AMERICAN RELATIONS, 1917-1920 Vol. I and II

By George F. Kennan; Princeton University Press; 1956-1958

FREEDOM FROM FEAR: THE AMERICAN PEOPLE IN DEPRESSION AND WAR, 1929-1945

By David M. Kennedy; Oxford University Press; 1999

... THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH: A POLITICAL HISTORY OF THE SPACE AGE

By Walter A. McDougall; Johns Hopkins University Press; 1995

THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION: A CONSTITUTIONAL INTERPRETATION

By Charles Howard McIlwain; MacMillan; 1923

BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM: THE CIVIL WAR ERA

By James M. McPherson; Oxford University Press; 1988

A HISTORY OF AMERICAN MAGAZINES, 1741-1930 Vol. 1 - 5

By Frank Luther Mott; Harvard University Press; 1938 – 1967

PURITAN VILLAGE: THE FORMATION OF A NEW ENGLAND TOWN

By Sumner Chilton Powell; Wesleyan University Press; 1963

A PROBLEM FROM HELL: AMERICA AND THE AGE OF GENOCIDE

By Samantha Power; Perseus Books Group; 2002

THE COLONIAL PERIOD OF AMERICAN HISTORY (Vol. I - IV)

By Charles McLean Andrews; Yale University Press; 1934-1938

THE SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN MEDICINE

By Paul Starr; Perseus Books Group; 1984

AuthorTitlePub Date
Andrews, CharlesThe Colonial Period of American History: The Settle Volume I1934
Andrews, CharlesThe Colonial Period of American History: The Settlements, Volume II1936
Andrews, CharlesThe Colonial Period of American History: The Settlements, Volume III1937
Andrews, CharlesThe Colonial Period of American History: England's Commercial and Colonial Policy, Volume IV1938
Bruce, RobertThe Launching of Modern American Science 1846-18761988
Burns, JamesRoosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom1970
Chandler, Jr., AlfredThe Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business1977
Dangerfield, GeorgeThe Era of Good Feelings1952
Goetzmann, WilliamExploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West1966
Green, ConstanceWashington: Village and Capital, 1800-1878 Volume I1962
Green, ConstanceWashington: Capital City, 1879-1950 Volume II1963
Hammond, BrayBanks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War1957
Handlin, OscarUprooted, Second Edition1951
Horgan, PaulGreat River: The Rio Grande in North American History Volume One: Indians and Spain1954
Horgan, PaulGreat River: The Rio Grande in North American History Volume Two: Mexico and the United States1954
Kennan, GeorgeSoviet-American Relations, 1917-1920, Volume I: Russia Leaves the War 1956
Kennan, GeorgeSoviet-American Relations, 1917-1920, Volume II: The Decision to Intervene1958
Kennedy, DavidFreedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-19451999
Larson, EdwardSummer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion2006
McCraw, ThomasProphets of Regulation: Charles Francis Adams, Louis D. Brandeis, James M. Landis, Alfred E. Kahn1984
McDougall, WalterThe Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age1995
McIlwain, CharlesThe American Revolution: A Constitutional Interpretation1923
McPherson, JamesBattle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era1988
Miller, PerryThe Life of the Mind in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War1965
Mott, FrankA History of American Magazines, Volume 1, 1741-18501938
Mott, FrankA History of American Magazines, Volume 2, 1850-18651938
Mott, FrankA History of American Magazines, Volume 3, 1865-18851967
Mott, FrankA History of American Magazines, Volume 4, 1885-19051957
Mott, FrankA History of American Magazines, Volume 5, Sketches of 21 Magazines, 1905-1930, with cumulative index1967
Powell, SumnerPuritan Village: The Formation of a New England Town1963
Power, SamanthaA Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide 2002
Shannon, FredThe Organization and Administration of the Union Army 1861-1865, Volume I1928
Shannon, FredThe Organization and Administration of the Union Army 1861-1865, Volume II1928
Starr, PaulThe Social Transformation of American MediciThe Social Transformation of American Medicinene1984
Unger, IrwinThe Greenback Era: A Social and Political History of American Finance, 1865-18791964
Hahn, StevenA Nation under Our Feet : Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration2003