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Doing Time, Doing History

Doing Time, Doing History


About an hour’s drive from Nashville and only a few miles from Bucksnort, Tennessee (seriously, a place by that name exists) sits an Industrial Complex, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. The Complex is a medium security prison, housing around 1600 inmates. I teach the U.S. History survey after 1865 there on Tuesday nights to twenty-six men. In my own adaptation of the “un-coverage” model of the survey, I teach the course through six novels. I treat them as primary sources for specific periods in time.

By “un-coverage,” I mean doing history from primary sources in order to explore different features of historical thinking, rather than the traditional coverage model, where one assumes that students need a storehouse of facts before they can begin to think historically. This all sounds perfectly lovely when one reads articles about it, but for me anyway, it’s been surprising just how wedded I am to the old coverage model. It occasions serious pangs of moral obligation.[1] (These students can’t leave this class without knowing about x, y, or z!)

On the drive back the other night, I wondered whether it would be a good idea to write about my experiences and share them. When I got the opportunity to teach at the prison, I figured I would write about it, but just then, in the dark car alone with my thoughts, I realized I wasn’t as sure about it anymore. I don’t talk all that much about these experiences, so writing about it makes a kind of therapeutic sense. Beyond that I’m not certain I should work through my reasoning completely because then it becomes about me and not about the men I teach.

I’ll just say here that I’ve come to question my approach to teaching and writing history. I wonder how much of what I do is about erudition or making connections rather than thinking. Connections are good, but only insofar as they advance arguments or lead to deeper considerations. My worry stems from what I see as a general laziness about language. I know that I just accept far too much of the conceptual shorthand in my modern life-world. Language appears as a tool or shortcut for simply participating in disciplines or markets rather than for questioning the basic assumptions embedded in those institutions. Like plenty of people, I’d prefer poetic experiences, occasions when words recall a primordial gathering up of being, a bundling together that evidences care for being-itself and, by extension, for the being of others.

From what I’ve gathered thus far, the men in the class have varying degrees of familiarity with historical “facts” or arguments. Those who do tend to trot out familiar arguments or stories work them them up as autodidacts, so they speak about things differently than the students I teach most of the time, the best of whom can sometimes sound like college professors in the making. I tried to sound like those students when I was an undergraduate.

In keeping with my modified “un-coverage” model, we started with historical thinking rather than with content or facts on the very first day. We tried to talk about “doing history” before reading history, discussing what it meant to practice history. We began with a discussion about the definition of history. Following a gimmick I’ve used a few times, I drew a circle on the board and called it the past. Then I asked what part of that was history. Several hands actually shot up. The first guy said that all of it was history, because history is the past.

In other classes, I would have questioned that assumption quickly, using it as a jumping-off point to show how history is much less than that. (Is all of the past remembered? What is recorded? What is recovered? What fits into a story? What criteria do historians use for putting together stories?) Yet, from a certain perspective, the conflation of the two made sense. If classrooms are places for thinking more carefully about language, then the rubber might as well hit the road. I’m working these days from what might be called a “naïve” perspective in the best sense of that word. I tried out some common expressions. What if we said “Well, that’s in the past”? But what if we said, “Well, that’s history”? What’s the difference? Is there a difference? Without saying it quite this way, some guys figured that maybe the past is bigger and more of an absolute (all has been wiped clean), while history isn’t as comprehensive and more of a narrative (that’s another story and I don’t want to get into it).  But what is “another story?” In common idiom anyway, we tend to use “that’s in the past” and “that’s history” interchangeably. We might use either one of those phrases when trying to get over something.

This all seems silly or simplistic if we begin with a too rigid or Platonic distinction between opinion (in the sense of doxa) and some deeper truth that opinion obscures. I realized that the men were ready to think from the everyday to the more technical, getting through tangles of everyday language, because they had already thought quite a bit about time while doing time, thinking about their own past and their own history before they ended up where they were. I think now that these men must have a more sophisticated historical consciousness than most of us because they all have a critical event in their lives that needs explaining. They live now in a place they don’t want to be and think often about what put them there. Even if they choose different words to describe it, they understand concepts like sequence, causation, or contingency better than most.

We could only discuss being-as-getting-over in the most general terms, unaided by particulars. At my orientation, the authorities at the prison made it clear that discussion about the crimes that got the men there in the first place were off-limits. (This logic here goes that if other inmates knew about those crimes there could be repercussions. The general tenor of volunteer orientation seemed to be that one should most often assume the worst-case scenario as a way of protecting oneself.)

The restriction actually helped in this case, because the unsaid particular cases lingered a bit. I suspect many of the guys conjured up specific ideas in their heads about why they were there, but we had to find a way to speak about them without revealing too much, getting behind the particulars to deal with general concepts. One guy concluded that he used history and the past interchangeably because he couldn’t change the events that put him there. That amounted to wishful thinking. Here I tried to think of the despair that must come from wishing things might have been different. These men have to salvage something from the wreckage that put them in prison. Part of doing time surely means doing history.

So it seemed to me that we needed to free up history some, shake it loose by emphasizing change rather than continuity. That meant making it much smaller than the past. We also messed around a while with the sense of past-ness, in our naïve way reaching a conclusion not dissimilar from William James:

To think of a thing as past is to think it amongst the objects or in the direction of the objects which at the present moment appear affected by this quality. This is the original of our notion of past time, upon which memory and history build their systems.[2]

Memory and history thus come out of the experience of what James calls “the original of our notion [of a past].” After we pondered that one, another guy said that history is about winners, as in the commonplace that history is written by the victors. After kicking around some examples, we eventually settled on the hierarchy that I would have got to much earlier but with much less intricacy with a different group of students: history is the remembered, recorded, recoverable, important, narrative past.  The last two in the list were sticky, because the criteria for “important” can vary widely when we work out winners and losers, and as for narrative, the kind of story the historian means to tell can be subject to any number of contingencies. I’ve always liked Henry Adams on this:

Historians undertake to arrange sequences—called stories, or histories—assuming in silence a relation of cause and effect. These assumptions, hidden in the depths of dusty libraries, have been astounding, but commonly unconscious and childlike; so much so, that if any captious critic were to drag them to light, historians would probably reply, with one voice, that they never supposed themselves required to know what they were talking about. [3]

After an nearly an hour defining history we talked about Reconstruction. I decided to give them visuals to look at before getting into competing interpretations of the period. That way we could frame everything around talk about what people think is important and why they tell the stories they do at different times in history, including how and why things changed. My thought was to use visuals and short fiction, giving them the darkest version of the Dunning School before turning to a Foner interpretation with a touch of DuBois.

So we watched a couple of sections of the D.W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation (1915) to get things going. I was queuing up the film with my back turned to the class. I mentioned that it was a racist silent film over three hours long, so I would never make them watch the whole thing. A guy behind me said, “I’d watch it. I mean, I’ve got plenty of time.”  Enough said.

[1] See Lendol Calder, “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey” The Journal of American History, 92(4) (March 2006), 1358-1370.

[2] William James, The Principles of Psychology, vol. I (Dover, 1950), 605.

[3] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Oxford, 1999), 319.

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  1. I introduced the 1915 Birth of a Nation in the same lecture and discussion sequence as the myriad protests against U.S. federal support for the Allies, Wilson’s March 1915 screening of the film, the Lusitania crisis, as well as the subsequent “American” KKK activities and Preparedness debates. Students later discussed Madison Grant’s Passing of the Great Race, the Redwoods League, and Randolph Bourne’s Trans-national America. My curriculum and pedagogy aimed for *modified un-coverage* of coverage. I may or may not include David Blight’s Race and Reunion (passages after the Spanish-American War) and the 2016 film trailer for the next go-around. Thanks for the post.

  2. Thank you for sharing. I’m curious if you’ve considered looking at and/or reaching out to organizations like the National Council on Public History. I know one of the pushes in the field right now is analysis and discussion of mass incarceration and its impact on American history. While most of the effort has been from a perspective of teaching the public, I am unaware of materials related to undertaking history education in the prison system; though I think that it would be an interesting discussion.

    • Thanks Ethan for the heads-up. I’m thinking now about a more expansive view of public history. I suppose, like some, I tend to think of public history as being situated institutions other than the academy, like museums, etc. which really is a narrow view. I’ll look into this.

  3. Peter,
    I just wanted to register how moving I found your account of this class and how much it echoes (perhaps consciously?) Carl Becker’s “Every Man His Own Historian.” Thank you!

    • Thanks so much Andy. I didn’t think about Becker explicitly while writing this, although I do love that essay, so no doubt some of that crept into my thinking about the experience with these men.

  4. Peter–
    That was really a good account of teaching history in a setting where, as you convincingly recount it, it counts a lot how a person sorts out his own past and especially how he got there. The guy’s comment right at the end(roughly “I got nothing but time”) reminded me of Merle Haggard’s “Still Doing Time,” which isn’t really about prison life at all…
    Still, one question–how does the race-ethnicity stuff work in your group(s). What’s their composition? Is the classroom off-limits for the tensions of prison life in general where gangs are notorious for the power they have. Give us some more of this…


    • RHK delivers with some Merle Haggard…To answer your questions: the class is mostly African American men, around 2/3rds. The rest of the men are White, and there aren’t any Latinos or Asians. I haven’t experienced any issues with gangs and the like. I was warned about certain colors, etc. in orientation. Several of the men are heavily tattooed, but I’ve not seen anything that suggests affiliation of some kind, but then I’m no expert on that kind of thing. (I also only see arms, necks, and faces.) I was told by a guard that there is a gang presence in some of the rougher “pods,” (the separate buildings where they house inmates) but with only a couple of exceptions, the men in my class aren’t in those places. In other words, you have to have a record of “good behavior” to be in the class in the first place. I know too that the director of the non-profit who runs the program has worked with prison administrators to get the men in college classes in the best pods. They need to be in places where they can study and read. In class anyway, we tend to stick to the subject matter because the guys want to talk about history and about ideas. They make analogies regularly, but from what I can tell they want to talk about something other than being in prison and what that’s like, so I don’t know enough to give a complete impression.

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