Frequently Asked Questions

 

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What is History? Why do you study history?
What is history? It depends. There are at least two broad answers. Simply, history, with a little “h,” never changes and refers to everything and anything that has ever happened or existed. History, with a capital “H” on the other hand, is an academic and human endeavor used to reconstruct the past and make sense of the world. Ideally, this endeavor is based on the examination of evidence; however, in the public at large, it is all too often based on fear and manipulation. As continually examined and (re)told, History is always changing, shifting, evolving, and is greatly selective in terms of who and what it remembers depending on the availability of sources and the mores of any given society and time. On another level, the relationship individuals have with history (either the past or the study of) is also a hermeneutical (in other words, roughly, reciprocal and forever changing) relationship. Individuals are constantly shaped and reshaped according to past events and experiences, both those on individual levels and national or international levels. 

I study History because I love learning about past peoples and places and learning both how much and how little the world has changed. I love learning about the infinite number of ways people have lived across time and place. Additionally, the umbrella of History naturally covers anything and everything and allows for my many diverse interests. Knowledge of the past also makes living “today” less scary, and it helps us understand the world we live in. All the time we hear proclamations of doomsday – about how the world is changing more and more and faster than ever. We hear about about how corrupt society is compared to a generation or two ago. When we study the past, we see how History is stabilizing. Every generation says that the previous generation had it better: less crime, less poverty, etc. I call this the “Utopian Past.” In reality, much doesn’t really change all that much. For things that do slowly evolve, we can trace these trajectories and see how, why, when, and where things changed. 

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Why do I have to take United States History in college?
The “easy” answer is because we say you have to. 🙂  A background in history (in addition to literature, languages, art, sociology) is considered part of a classical liberal arts education. Through reading assignments, lectures, writing assignments, and class conversations, for example, these social sciences and humanities help all individuals see the world in more complex, diverse, and creative ways. A liberal arts education creates citizens who are prepared and (hopefully) willing to be advocates for social justice and who are life-long learners. 

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What is your favorite person and event in History?
I don’t have a “favorite” person or event. Picking a “favorite” would also unavoidably involve ethnocentrism and presentism because individuals are always, at least to a degree, tied to their time and place. I do, however, have a favorite type of historical actor: those who rise above the confines of their own society and culture in an effort to produce systemic and positive change.

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Why do you analyze film and culture? Can’t you enjoy anything?
Just because I study and critique popular culture does not negate enjoyment. I am of the opinion that it is absolutely vital to analyze popular culture precisely because far too many people engage in such pop culture for hours every day without critically examining what they are seeing. As my research and others’ research shows, these seemingly innocent spectacles have profound consequences for how we do and do not understand the world around us. Pop culture also provides a tremendous reservoir of information about the hopes, fears, and mores of a society.   

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Why do you say everything is a social construction?
By recognizing the reality that everything is a social construction we are able to recognize the constant change and diversity that occurs across history. This helps us avoid being ethnocentric and helps us embrace cultural relativism and be more comfortable with change and difference. Anything and everything around us could easily be different. For an easy example, take the basic shape of cars or the basic structure of public education. All of this could easily be different. Peoples and societies created (constructed) these things. Although well known and accepted today, for a long time gender was seen a given and something that was non-negotiable for various religious and/or biological reasons. Today we know that gender (and even sex, see below) differ vastly across time and place. Gender can ever differ with the same person depending on time and place. Nonetheless, hair length and hair style, for example, remain highly “gendered.”

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What do you mean “race” is a social construction? How do you define “white” and “black”?
I define “White,”  “Black,” etc, when necessary, the way society does, which is generally subjectively by appearance and occasionally still by the “one drop rule.” Of course “race” doesn’t exist, but as Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper say in “Beyond ‘identity’” to be effective scholars, we must separate and recognize the difference between “categories of practice” and “categories of analysis.” As a category of analysis, race is absolutely nonexistent, but as a category of practice, it is very real. It is also important to remember that “White” and “Black” and other racialized terms are not at all referring to colors as we typically think of them. Very few people are actually “White” or “Black.” Rather, we are all shades of gray (there is a wonderful song by Amanda Marshall called, “We’re All Just Shades of Grey,” you should check it out). Please be sure to read this excellent statement by the American Anthropology Association about “race.”

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What do you mean the biological categories of “male” and “female” are social constructions?
First, we must recognize science as a social construction. Occasionally, people readily embrace notions that gender or childhood are social constructions, but they are hesitant to accept the idea the science is a social construction. They say, but science is true, it is fact, it is based on hard-core evidence. Perhaps. But we have to recognize that “science” in the past has asserted that women and non-Whites were something different than Humans. Science, historically speaking, does not have a very good track record. Science in any given time is limited by the current boundaries of acceptable thinking and knowledge, many of which are intangible and unknown. Additionally, science is absolutely a social construction in that its discoveries are limited to the tools available at any given point. 

As I said above, everything is a social construction. Sex, normally considered an absolute based on a quick examination of the genitals at birth, is much more complicated than the “male” or “female” dichotomy allow. It is also more complicated than the pattern of chromosomes a person has, etc. Some scientists assert that everyone is a “defective” female. Others say that there are as many sexes as there are humans. Upon close examination, we can see that there is no clear line between “male” and “female.” Genitals, facial hair, tone of voice, the body’s level of testosterone and/or estrogen, and any other “sexualized”/”sexed” aspect of humanity is vastly different person-to-person. Various “sexualized”/”sexed” aspects of the body don’t necessarily aline either-some may be “male” (such as genetics) and others “female” (such as the genital). Marilyn Frye, Laura Kramer, Susan Sontag, John Stolenberg, Virginia Woolf, and others elaborate on these ideas.  

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White people face discrimination, too. Why don’t you ever write about that?
Individuals racialized as White do not face institutionalized discrimination based on racialization (or colorization). The laws and culture of the United States are particularly built on a foundation that privileges those deemed White. An analysis of the criminal justice system, educational attainment, or wealth distribution, for example, help reveal the extent  to which non-White (and female) individuals are the only ones who face racialized discrimination. Of course, this does not mean White people are never victims of anything. When they are, it generally receives excessive attention. Discrimination toward White people is not an en masse problem – it doesn’t need specific attention. On a related note, exceptions do not make the rule. Just because the United States has a Black president does not automatically translate into a world free of racism. Racism has arguably gotten worse the last several years. White people can, of course, face other types of institutionalized discrimination, but even in such cases Whiteness plays a positive role when we recognize intersectionality.

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I don’t have White Privilege. I work hard and have earned my things.
Due to centuries of racism and control, people with lighter skin across the World have been thought to be “prettier” and “better” by their societies. In the United States, one manifestation of this is “White Privilege.” Simply by virtue of being White, people in the United States are provided a whole array of additional opportunities, freedoms, and extra chances. Additionally, due to a whole variety of subtle and unconscious assumptions, people who are racialized as White see the world differently. Peggy McIntosh’s article on White Privilege from 1988 remains the best introductory work on this topic. White people are frequently uncomfortable when White Privilege is mentioned. They say I work hard; I have earned my things; no one has helped me. This way of seeing the World ignores vast bodies of evidence that confirm again and again that simply by virtue of being White in the United States a person will have a much easier time in life. This is an excellent article that uses the lowest level on a video came as a metaphor for the dynamics of White Privilege. Individuals can do little about White Privilege beyond actively being aware of it and actively helping others have fair and equitable opportunities. White Privilege will never be dismantled until the law makes room for the role racism has played, until movies and music and school curriculums truly embrace multiculturalism, until individuals en masse recognize the legacies of racism and actively work toward change every-single-day. White Privilege is also particularly challenging because, as we know from psychological research, people are more comfortable around people who “look” like they do. 

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Why don’t you have television?
This question probably deserves an entire blog posting and will probably receive one at some point. Basically, I find that much of the content on television is immoral. This passive, heavily commercially driven content is designed to make people be mindless individuals who cannot or will not think for themselves and who are unnecessarily afraid of the world. Television is also highly addictive and destroys personal relationships. I have not had television service or even a television anywhere in my house since 2006. (I do not watch television on the Internet.) I was already on the verge of this transformation, but I was fully converted to an “anti-tv” position when I read Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, which was recommend by an art professor. In my house, our living room has chairs and couches – and these, rather than being pointed at a box, are pointed at each other. Not having television allows for deep personal conversations and a freer, more creative mind. I am always surprised at the reactions I get (“What!! You don’t have tv!! How do you survive?!!), and more recently, I am pleasantly surprised at the growing number of people who do not watch television.

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