Most history textbooks provide a narrative that is filtered through the lens of the dominant culture. In this episode, Vanessa Holden joins us to discuss how the study of history can be enriched by including a wider variety of voices and perspectives in historical narratives and in our classrooms. Vanessa has a dual appointment in both the Department of History and the program in African American and Africana Studies at the University of Kentucky. Her research focuses on African American women in slavery in the antebellum South, the history of resistance and rebellion, gender history, and the history of sex and sexuality. Vanessa is the author of many scholarly publications, including the recently published Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community. During the 2021 academic year, she was selected to be the inaugural Distinguished Visiting Scholar at SUNY Buffalo’s Center for Diversity Innovation.
- Holden, Vanessa (2021). Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community. University of Illinois Press.
- Distinguished Visiting Scholars Program – SUNY Buffalo
- Freedom on the Move – Database of fugitives from American slavery
- PBS. (2004). Colonial House [Television series].
- Central Kentucky Slavery Initiative
John: Most history textbooks provide a narrative that is filtered through the lens of the dominant culture. In this episode, we explore how the study of history can be enriched by including a wider variety of voices and perspectives in historical narratives and in our classrooms.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…
Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.
John: Our guest today is Vanessa Holden. She has a dual appointment in both the Department of History and the program in African American and Africana Studies at the University of Kentucky. Her research focuses on African American women in slavery in the antebellum South. Her areas of interest are the history of resistance and rebellion, gender history, and the history of sex and sexuality. Vanessa is the author of many scholarly publications, including the recently published Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community. During the 2021 academic year, she was selected to be the inaugural distinguished visiting scholar at SUNY Buffalo’s Center for Diversity Innovation. Welcome, Vanessa.
Vanessa: Hi, happy to be here.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are… Vanessa, are you drinking tea?
Vanessa: I’m not. I’m drinking water. I’m a coffee person, I’m sorry.
Rebecca: So you got the water, you got the coffee, all right, all right. As John always says, that’s our most favorite tea on the podcast. [LAUGHTER] How about you, John?
John: I’m drinking iced tea today for a change. Because it’s such a nice, warm, wintry day here with a blizzard going on outside.
Rebecca: Hey! It’s in the 30s, it’s a heat wave.
Vanessa: Oh, that’s like beach weather in Oswego.
Rebecca: And I’m drinking cinnamon spice black tea today.
Rebecca: It’s very warming, kind of the opposite of John’s situation.
John: So we’ve invited you here today primarily to discuss your work on inclusive teaching. But first, could you tell us a little bit about Surviving Southampton and the research that you’ve been doing that led up to this book?
Vanessa: Sure. So Surviving Southampton is about America’s most famous slave rebellion, what historians often call Nat Turner’s Rebellion, but I’m really keen to assert should be called the Southampton Rebellion. Mostly because that’s what the people who lived there and lived through it called it. And that’s mostly what it was referred to until historians got a hold of it in the 20th century. And what I do for an event that’s been written about, almost since it happened is I actually just asked the question: How were women and children involved in this really important moment of violent resistance? And of course, when I started to look for women in the archive, I was led to a number of other communities of people in Southampton County who’ve been mentioned, but largely understudied and not looked at. So I do have a chapter that specifically deals with enslaved women. But I also look at free people of color in the county—Southampton County, Virginia had the third highest population of free people of color at the time in Virginia. I look at children and children’s involvement and resistance. And I really center survival not just as endurance. We use the word survivor to mean somebody who endured a natural disaster, a crisis, a tragedy, but it’s also a word we use for the bereaved. So if you’ve read a death announcement, or see a notice on Twitter, it sometimes will list who the deceased is survived by. So I also take time to look at the ways that African Americans were rebuilding systems of resistance, even as trials were happening for rebels, really violent backlash to the rebellion was happening. So even in the midst of really the most oppressive moments of the slave regime, black people were strategizing about how to continue to resist slavery. And really, women are at the center of that labor of survival.
Rebecca: These narratives are often not discussed, especially K12 but also at the college level. How do we start bringing these voices in more? Obviously, your book is helping with this, but how else can we start doing this?
Vanessa: Yeah, I am a very public-facing scholar. I work a lot with public history projects and community groups, and have a real heart for working alongside K-12 teachers. I’m convinced that they’re all geniuses, that they take on mammoth feats every single day in the classroom. And really through my work with the digital humanities project Freedom on the Move, which is based at Cornell right now, but we have a team of scholars who are at universities all over the country. The project’s main goal is to find and digitize every extent runaway slave ad. Right now we’ve got about 44 or so thousand ads in the digitized archive, and a little over 10,000 have been fully transcribed. But through that project, I’ve had the opportunity to work with teaching hard histories and work with focus groups of K-12 teachers, and really hear how impactful dealing with these particular sources can be for K-12 students. That learning about the history of slavery from the point of view of people who were resisting slavery, reading thick descriptions of folks who were fleeing to find family members or striking out for freedom really transforms the way that students are able to access what is and should be a very difficult, painful history. And also thinking about really age-appropriate ways to approach that history, that often students can find people their age who are listed as fleeing from slavery. And that really helps them think through, at an age-appropriate way, the real injustice of slavery and the dehumanizing nature of enslavement while acknowledging moments of resistance and, really, triumph of humanity. So I think some key ways that I’ve seen educators who work with K-12 students bring this history to them is highlighting the ways that people their age experience these difficult histories, and giving them a chance to work with primary sources, to go to the documents, work with them to get through some of the stilted 19th century language to get at experience that hasn’t been interpreted for them that they can really exercise their interpretive skills to understand better.
Rebecca: I love the hook of finding a way to connect. And doing that through finding people of the same age is such a great idea.
John: Have you or this project done any work in having some of the students do some of those transcriptions?
Vanessa: So yes, and that has been a key part of one of the branches of developing the project, is thinking through the accessibility of our crowdsourcing platform. So right now, Freedom on the Move is a crowdsourced database, anybody can log in to freedomonthemove.org, create an account and begin transcribing, or pulling information out of the ads—what data scientists would call coding data, but what historians would call really mining sources for information. And we’ve run into a couple of interesting things working with educators, because the team initially was only researchers. And we sort of imagined that there would be classroom applications. And we’ve really learned from this misstep of not having educators involved from the very beginning. Because, of course, the things that researchers care about are not the things that are most useful in the classroom. And the transcription platform is built for an educated adult public, you don’t have to be a specialist to do the transcription by any means. But there’s a real difference in what, say, sixth graders can read and understand and transcribe, and what someone who is an adult can read and transcribe and understand. One thing that we were pushed to do actually was, and this really was an educator critique, was create a glossary. Because, of course, these documents from the late 18th through the 19th century include racial terms. And we have advertisements in the archive from Spanish speaking areas, from French speaking areas, from English speaking areas. And these racial terms are archaic. They’re considered offensive and racist now, and also students have little or no familiarity with them. And so one of the ways that we had to really provide educators with a tool they could point to, to help students understand this language, understand its context, understand why we don’t use it now, involved us going back and doing the work of writing out a glossary of terms with, really, annotations for how to best understand why enslavers are using the language that they’re using. To get students and user participants to critique the documents, read the documents with a critical eye that these are things produced by enslavers about enslaved people, it’s not the way they maybe would’ve described themselves. So finding both subtle and overt ways to cue in participants, and also teach critical skills, interpretive skills at the same time. So there’s a lot of intellectual work that goes into these sorts of projects. But ultimately, I think it helps students really engage with the sources in really fruitful ways. And we’ve had educators take this in all sorts of directions, to creative lessons, to lessons where students are writing bound poems using the ads and really attending to the emotional affect of this material. Instead of shying away from the fact that this is difficult, leaning in and saying, “Yeah, it should be difficult. And let’s actually do the care work of processing what’s difficult.”
John: Many textbooks, though, do not take this approach, where they leave those voices entirely out. What sort of harm is done to students, when there are these glaring omissions in history?
Vanessa: You know, there’s like a whole series of podcasts you all could do on the textbook industry, and how textbooks happen, and what is and isn’t allowed. And of course, we’re living in a contemporary moment where what reading materials are provided to, particularly K-12 students, where they’re being deeply scrutinized. There are a new wave of bans on materials. And interestingly, a lot of those revolve around the language of discomfort. And I think often the way that issues like racism, sexism, ableism, classism can be approached is with the language of emotion and feelings. So particularly very young people, it’s explained to them, “Oh we don’t use these words that are racist, because they’ll hurt someone’s feelings.” And sure, yes, feelings are a part of that. But the other reason we don’t use these racist terms, it’s not just that it might hurt someone’s feelings, it’s that those terms dehumanize someone. And when that happens, that opens the door for very real violence, and very real physically, financially, materially detrimental consequences. The first step actually is that language, but it’s the steps that follow that language that are the issue. And so I think sometimes, because so much can get wrapped up in only dealing with the first piece, when it comes to feelings, the other pieces get maligned. So then it becomes about well, nobody should ever feel bad ever. And a lot of times that I’ve talked to my own students who often, even at the college level, they’re encountering these sources for the very first time, they’re encountering an in-depth discussion of American slavery for the very first time, some of them have never really heard in any detail the types of violence that were involved in American slavery, that just are omitted, they sort of know slavery was bad and that’s where the lesson stopped. I give them a moment to pause before we really get into the semester and I just acknowledge that this is really difficult material to read and to process. That they’re going to learn about things that they haven’t learned about before, and they’re going to have a feeling about it. And then I say that that’s actually pretty great, because that actually just means they’re human. They shouldn’t learn about the Middle Passage or slave auctions or physical violence, and just be sort of okay with it, or have no emotional response to that. Then in those moments when they’re having an emotional response, that’s just a moment where they are being empathetic human beings. So at those moments where a student learns something that makes them uncomfortable, learns something that ignites an emotional response. It could be sadness, it could be anger, it could be disbelief, it could be a little bit of denial, it could be a whole range of things. That’s actually a moment to pause and acknowledge your own moment of really human empathy, your moment of discomfort. And then to push forward that, “Oh, this is the place where I actually should be paying attention. That, here’s the point at which I’m learning things I didn’t know before. Here’s the point at which I haven’t experienced that before.” I also like to do an exercise that involves watching an episode of Colonial House. Are you both familiar with the series from PBS?
John: I am not.
Vanessa: It’s an early reality television series where they get people to agree, I don’t know how they get them to agree to this, but they get them to agree to live using only materials and technology for a particular historical period for a summer. And then they film them and find out what happens if a bunch of modern people go pretend it’s the 1630s. So there’s this great episode of Colonial House where the overwhelmingly white participants are upset because churning butter is really hard and the corn isn’t coming in. And it turns out building a colony in 1630s Massachusetts isn’t so great, and it’s pretty smelly, and difficult or whatever. And then some Wampanoag people who are descendants of the original inhabitants of the Cape in Massachusetts show up in their traditional clothing. And their point of view of this experiment is very different than the participants. The participants are there thinking they’re doing this educational thing with their kids, even though it’s hard, they have a really positive perspective about what they’re doing. And when the Wampanoag show up, some of them are moved to tears, the way that they’re viewing this little re-enactment experiment is deeply emotional, and deeply hurtful. And they make the point to the participants, you know, “You’re out here playing, but you’re re-enacting this moment, this kind of point of no return for people like us where we were about to lose our homelands, we were about to lose everything.” So I have students engage with a form they’re really familiar with, reality television, before they’re engaging with each other around these topics. And we kind of talk through how this is an iconic period in American history, the Colonial Period. And Americans throw around that word “colonial” like it’s a type of architecture or a type of clothing. Americans don’t really think about it as a system of oppression, even though a key moment of our history is throwing off colonial rule. And we talk about it, it’s the exact same experience. The people who are playing colonists aren’t there with evil intentions, they think this is like a summer learning thing. And they’re confronted with a community of people who can look at the exact same thing, and say, “No, this is actually really harmful. And here are all these things you haven’t thought about at all.” And it creates a really helpful moment because, of course, in an African American history course we’re going to talk about the American Revolution, we’re going to talk about the American Civil War, we’re going to to talk about westward expansion, we’re going to to talk about all sorts of moments that they probably have watched movies about, they’ve maybe read really celebratory accounts of, or just accounts that are just like, “Well, that was just meant to happen, that people moved westward, that just happened. And moving on.” That doesn’t account for other people’s experiences. So it gives them a moment to look around the room and say, “Oh, I might be sitting next to someone for whom a moment in American history that I’ve always thought was celebratory for them is actually a horrible thing to remember. And it involves all these other dimensions that they just have never been asked to think about before.” And so give students a moment because, of course, some of the people on the show get really defensive. And so rather than have them start to learn difficult things and get defensive with each other, they can actually talk about these people on the TV. So we get a lot of that out of the way before we get to, “Okay, now you’re reading a slave narrative, and you’re learning really horrible things. And you see some place names you recognize, when you get into it.” Now, we have this common text to come back to and say, “Oh, there are different ways to remember this. There are different perspectives about what exactly happened. And the version I learned has particular consequences.”
Rebecca: I really love the idea of having something to try on that conversation without it feeling like it’s actually a conversation about you. It’s safe to have a conversation about something that’s not you, like the TV show, as a way to work through those ideas, and deal with some of those emotions that you were talking about that certainly come up that make you be defensive about certain topics, potentially. I love that you have that grounding and shared moment with each other. I’m sure it actually helps make everything else be far more productive during the semester.
Vanessa: I mean, there’s a great moment where one of the participants says, “Oh, I never thought that I was being an imperialist.” And then inevitably a student of mine will say, “The name of the show is Colonial House. [LAUGHTER] Like, what did you think?” So then he kind of really gets it like, “Oh, you’re using these terms to describe, I don’t know, buckle shoes and funny hats and architecture, but you’re not thinking about, ‘Oh, I’ve re-enacting a process of incurring on other people’s lineage.’ Like, that’s what I’m re-enacting.” It’s not just churning butter. It is a lot of butter turning, but it’s not just that. [LAUGHTER]
John: I also really like that approach of letting people look at it through this third-party lens. We’ve talked about that in some other situations, where that’s really effective when their own personal emotions and feelings are not put at stake in the same way. But I imagine some difficult conversations will come up during your class. How do you help prep students to deal with those issues when someone is offended by something that someone else says because they weren’t considering other perspectives?
Vanessa: I try to… and this is some work that I do in the first few weeks before students, I think, are even really aware, because the first few weeks of class are all about setting the stage, not just material that they need to know, but also practices that I want them to engage in throughout the semester. So I begin to set up early a culture of common texts for the class. So that first documentary clip screening that I show, it becomes a common text. It’s the first day of classes, sometimes they think, ‘This is just a throwaway exercise,’ or ‘Dr. Holden is just trying to engage us or whatever.’ But I start to build into this culture of, we have common texts in this course that we go back to. Part of learning in my field, at least historical methodology, is work with historical sources. So I begin to build piece by piece that in this class, it’s less about you talking about your own opinions about things, and more about us discussing common sources and common texts. So I’ve had, of course, a number of situations. Sometimes it’s students speaking without thinking. Sometimes they are in the middle of having an emotional response to something, dnd so what comes out of their mouth hasn’t taken into account all the other things we’ve read. Sometimes though, I’ve actually had a couple situations a lot earlier in my career, where students are just trying to test me or test my knowledge or see if they can knock me off kilter a little bit by saying something just outrageous just to see if I’m going to take the bait or engage. And typically what I do is turn the whole class back to the common texts. So I had a student once make a really disparaging comment about a group of Thai immigrants who were actually being forced to do unfree labor in Hawaii on pineapple plantations, because we were talking about contemporary cases of unfree labor and slavery. And the student just off the cuff said, “Well, these people aren’t Americans, why should we even care about them?” Which immediately resulted in gasps for the rest of the class. And so I said, “Well, let’s answer that question. Okay, this half of the class go back to this document, this piece of the class go to this document, and this piece of the class go to this document, let’s interrogate this. A: Why aren’t these people Americans? How is it that people who are not Americans are ending up in this labor situation? B: What is the landowner getting from this? And C: What connections can we make? Why should we care?” And this took the wind out of this particular student’s sails, because I think they really hoped I was going to really go in and yell at them or say something out of pocket. And instead, it was up to their classmates. And what came out of that, A: Really made clear that the class as a whole was not going to accept this. And B: Got students back into the documents in a way that felt way more immediate, I think, than it would have if they felt like, “Oh, clearly everybody in class with us agrees that this is horrible.” And it also set up some expectations for appropriate ways to handle disagreements in class. I do that a lot. Teaching the American Civil War here in Kentucky is always interesting, because the Commonwealth did not secede from the Union. But it’s a very contentious topic. And what folks often know is what family members have told them or things they read themselves in historical fiction or more pop historical texts. And seeing the primary documents for the first time can be kind of startling with just how explicitly racist people of the 19th century really were. And so I found myself in a number of situations making clear, we’ve got to go back to the sources. And I’ll say this, my subject position in the classroom is something that I have to be very aware of, as a woman, as a person of color. Sometimes students expect somebody like me at the front of an African American history course or an African American studies course. But when I’ve taught broad U.S. courses, I’m not who they think is going to teach them American history. And it would be silly for me to not be aware of that. But oftentimes, that means my pedagogical practice has to be really transparent, I have to be really clear. This is what I’m asking you to read, this is why I’m asking you to read it, and this is what outcome I expect for there to be. And some students are surprised that I’m that transparent about pedagogical practice. But in a time and place where student evaluations are as biased as the research tells us, I think it’s really, really important.
John: This might be a good place to transition into a discussion of inclusive teaching practices. And one aspect of that might be that sort of transparency about what you’re doing in class and why you’re doing it. Could you talk a little bit about your philosophy of teaching and how you go about creating an inclusive environment in your classroom? Some of that has come through already, but what are some other specific steps you might take?
Vanessa: Sure, I approach my classrooms as a collaborative space. Of course, there’s a power differential, and my job as a professor is different than students’ jobs as students. But I find that, actually, the more transparency, the better. So clearly laying out expectations, but also being really clear about what my expectations for myself are. So students are often surprised that I’m pretty upfront, “Here are the ways that I am available to you. And here are the ways that I can help you outside of those hours I’m not available to you.” Modeling healthy boundaries around what is my obligation to this course, allows them the leeway to say, “Oh, one of the things I need to do is set up what my boundaries are around my coursework.” [LAUGHTER] I’m very clear. I don’t expect that you are only thinking about my class all the time. So you should just know that that’s not an expectation I have for myself. So let’s talk about the times when I am thinking about this course. Beyond that, I offer them as expansive a menu as possible of inclusivity policies. And I think when students think about accommodation in class, they often think only of visible disability and that’s it. And so in my syllabi, in my first day of class presentation, I make super clear that anybody can be eligible for accommodation, and the ways to go about advocating for that for themselves, that there are processes involved. So I mention everything from care responsibilities, I have a number of students who are parents, I mention military service, I have a number of students who are in ROTC, or they’re in the National Guard. I talk to athletes in my classes. I talk to students who may be figuring out for the first time that they have learning needs that are now becoming apparent in their first year of college, they just, it hasn’t been diagnosed, it hasn’t been looked into, tested, treated, all those things, and then give them all the resources I possibly can to access those services. And I’ll say that it actually lends itself to really good classroom management, because it opens the door for students to talk to me early and often. I can’t tell you how many times I have students who are parents that are surprised that I note care responsibilities, particularly for young children. And I just say, “Look, as your professor, obviously I can’t help you with the direct physical care of your children. But when a two year old has an ear infection, they have an ear infection. So here are ways you can get in touch with me, here’s how we work on how your assignments work. This is something you can bring up to me as a mitigating circumstance for assignments.” I also bring a sense of, and this is where common texts come in too, that nobody’s joining the course because they know everything that we’re going to cover already. That everybody is at a space of learning and a space of growth. That this classroom is an opportunity to ask questions, it’s an opportunity to sometimes get things wrong, it’s an opportunity to be called in about various prejudices you’ve never really interrogated before. And to really set up the expectation that what’s important is not that you know all the right things to say every single time. But what’s important is that you’re open to learning, and that you’re open to understanding. And I think that setting up that environment as collaborative is really important. That it’s as much about the questions that they ask as the lecture terms that I talk about. To really be clear that students have agency in their own learning process. And some catch on, and some lean in and some don’t, that’s just the nature of classrooms. But affording them that agency then has resulted in some really fascinating takes on the material I have to cover.
Rebecca: So one of the things that you’re describing, Vanessa, is in your classes, students are doing history, right? [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: No matter who they are, they’re doing the practice of history, because they’re looking at primary documents and things. But we also know that there are students who may not come to a particular class or a discipline because they don’t see themselves represented or people like them representing the field. How do we help to bring students in through the door, and also keep them there, so that we do have a wider perspective in each of our disciplines?
Vanessa: I feel like I’m really fortunate because I end up with, at least in my African American history courses, I end up with a pretty self-selecting population. So, typically, I end up with students who already have some subject interest in African American history. So they’re not particularly surprised, for example, that we’re going to talk about slavery at some point. In my general American courses, then that can be a little hit or miss. But in my AFAM courses, students tend to, like I said, expect somebody who looks like me at the front of the classroom, expect to talk about these issues. Something that I find is that students often arrive on campus with a pretty limited view of what’s available on university campuses. There are some majors that have professions directly related to them. So they know if I go pre-med, then I’m going to become a doctor. That’s a thing. I know what that is. If I major in history, there’s less of a clear, professional path. And that’s true with a lot of the majors that are available on university campuses. And we know from this side of the desk, like, “Oh, no, there are all these applications for all these different types of inquiry. They’re all these different ways to think about the world.” But students often are just trying to figure it out. And I just find a lot that students don’t realize what can be known, if that makes sense. They’ve taken history courses, because they have to in high school. They can be pretty cursory. And that’s not the fault of educators, it’s often the fault of a whole other set of mitigating things like standardized testing schedules and what textbooks are available and these sorts of things. I know I was told frequently growing up that the kinds of things I was interested in in U.S. history, just couldn’t know them. They just weren’t knowable. There were no sources for that. So I think sometimes when I go to these major fairs, or I’m trying to reach students at our black students center and say, “You know, you could take whole courses on this.” Some of it is just about showing up in spaces where students are already, being visible on campus. I’ve gotten more interest in my classes just walking through the classroom building and having students say, “Wait a second, who are you and what do you teach? I didn’t even know that there were black professors in the history department.” Meanwhile, we have like eight tenured black professors in our history department. So not just assuming that students know what’s available to them. I also think there’s something to be said for university advising. This is different at every institution, but the sorts of courses that advisors are slotting students into sometimes has way more to do with whatever the core curriculum demands. So for example, now that my African American History course to 1865 is part of our core curriculum, I know that that’s going to get that course in front of the eyes of way more students, and students who would have self-selected into the course, had it been part of that core. And so I also think that there’s something to be said for really solid intro course teaching, because that’s the place where you can really capture students’ interest and give them a sense of what’s available to them.
Rebecca: It’s also the place where we often rely on part-time faculty, it’s a different experience, often at the first year, not always, but that happens more often than not that introductory classes may be taught by faculty who aren’t there all the time, or who are new to the field. And not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily, but it’s not always engaging students with the people they might be working with as they go through all four years.
Vanessa: Well and I think students have really very real and understandable considerations. I know at my institution, a lot of our students, they’re very career minded. We have a number of students who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, they do not have the extra funds to just play around in elective courses, they’ve got to get things done. I get it, I understand. I’m not going to disparage them for that. That makes a lot of sense. So sometimes the kind of exploratory moment of, “Well, who’s in what department? Do I see myself in this? Is there a way that I can learn the histories that apply to me?” That’s not the priority. And I get it. I think, as a faculty member, and I’ve talked to my colleagues about this too, what we want to pivot and do, really, with real intention is find ways for us to serve students better with the kinds of offerings we make. And that has meant actually putting in the time and the paperwork to make sure that our courses fulfill particular requirements. We’re in our first couple of years of having an African American Africana studies major at U.K. We had a minor for a while, and now we have the critical mass of black faculty to really provide an Africana course progression in the history department. And so these things really do matter. And I think as faculty, that’s also something to think about when we’re advocating. I’ve seen, I don’t know how many job ads for scholars of color, for research areas around minoritized people, and that’s fine. But it really does take more than one person to step in. To really serve a student population, you really have to have a whole constellation of folks. And so tackling issues of diversity and inclusion on this side of the desk are super essential to tackling those issues for our students.
Rebecca: So I’ll be your next student, I’m going to sign up. This sounds like a really good course to take. [LAUGHTER] I’ll be moving.
John: I was thinking throughout this that Vanessa and I worked at the Duke University Talent Identification Program for several years, and I never got a chance to sit in on any of her classes. And I was just thinking, I wish I could do that now.
Vanessa: Oh, man, I was a baby. He met me when I was a rising junior in college.
John: At first, but I think you also did it into graduate school, didn’t you?
Vanessa: Oh yeah, yeah and I did teach some of my own courses, which was a lot of fun. It’s always fun in the humanities, because it’s this area that I found students, particularly students who are slotted into the gifted track, they end up doing STEM things, sometimes the social sciences, sometimes, but they found the humanities challenging in ways I don’t think they expected because you can’t evaluate them in the same way. And they were just so much fun. So much fun to work with.
John: Now, you went to SUNY Buffalo in 2020, as this visiting scholar. It may not have been the greatest time to be able to do as much outreach and meet quite as many people. Could you talk a little bit about your experience at the start of this pandemic?
Vanessa: Sure. So a couple interesting things that were just happenstance because, of course, we couldn’t have possibly seen any of those coming, except for in a broad sense that like pandemics are possible. But what that would even look like most people didn’t really think about. So two things. So in 2018, I agreed to develop an online course for African American Studies, as a part of a graduate certificate program in diversity and inclusion. It’s an accelerated course that runs for eight weeks. And it’s exclusively online and asynchronous. And so back in 2018, I said, “Oh, yeah, yeah, I would do that.” I developed it over the summer of 2019. And then ran it for the very first time spring semester 2020. And ironically, it wrapped up right at spring break, just in time for everything to shut down. And then the other course I had was full of senior seminar papers that now they couldn’t leave their houses, let alone go to archives, it was a complete mess. So I have this completely online course. I did all of this work, thinking through asynchronous pedagogy and thinking through… How would I cover an intro to African American studies that quickly? How do I make sure that the rigor is at a graduate level, but also accessible to undergraduates? And I put in all this time and work. And now for the first time since then, I’m actually going to teach that course the second half of this semester. But I’ll be interested to see for students what the differences are, because initially with the course, actually, the learning curve for students was pretty steep. I think there’s an assumption that students, at least before this pandemic, there is this assumption that students just are born with devices in their hand, and they just automatically know how to use whatever random teaching platform exists. Honestly, this move to more online teaching, or even platforms like Blackboard or Canvas. What you make available on those platforms, there’s a whole sharp learning curve for students, they don’t necessarily know the functionality of the Canvas website, and they don’t know where to find things. And you really have to teach them to use the course, if that makes sense. And so I’ll be interested to see if there’s any difference now that the students that I’ll most likely have in this course will have had, at least part of their education has happened online, remotely during the pandemic. I’ll be interested to see if they’re more adept at it, or if it feels too demanding, because it’s assuming conditions of a different time and place. So we’ll see. It’s designed to be really, really flexible, because it was designed for people who this is the one thing that they’re doing this semester towards their certificate, and they might have a full time job or whatever. The other thing about the start of this pandemic is in 2019, I got invited to apply for this program at Buffalo. I moved to the University of Kentucky from another institution. So even though I was going up for tenure, I wasn’t eligible for sabbatical yet. So I knew that if I wanted some time away, I had to go find the funds somewhere else. So this was a great opportunity. Looked like a great time to get involved in a different intellectual community. And I knew western New York was gorgeous. And it was like, “Yeah, this will be wonderful.” And then the pandemic happened. [LAUGHTER] So I moved up to Buffalo and I spent time in Buffalo and came back and forth to Kentucky. It’s actually only eight hours by car between the two places. You know this but Buffalo’s about as far west as you could get without being in Canada. And yeah, Buffalo is such a cool city. And I got to experience none of that. [LAUGHTER]
Vanessa: I did eat wings while I was there, and they are better. They’re different there than they are other places. And I had a lot of great colleagues. But there just wasn’t the opportunity for the kinds of collegial bonding or collaboration. My cohort was wonderful. And I was putting the finishing edits on my book. It was really good for me to have that time out of the classroom, sort of dodged dealing with early pandemic stuff. I will also say that New York’s approach to the pandemic, very different than Kentucky’s. Initially in Kentucky, we had a lot of really common sense measures around safety in the pandemic. And that eroded pretty quickly in ways that New York was way more cautious. City of Buffalo was way more cautious, for example I had to quarantine for 14 days every time I left the state and came back and I experienced two different types of availability of testing. In Kentucky we had really good testing really quickly. Experiencing the pandemic and two very different states was a little bit of reality whiplash. I felt like I was beaming down to a new planet each time I would go from place to place. And then I experienced that again, just this fall, I gave a talk at my graduate alma mater at Rutgers and I got off the plane in New Jersey, it was like I was on a different timeline where the pandemic was still happening, versus Kentucky where very few people wear masks in public and mandates are few and far between. So it’s been a wild ride. It was a really weird time to have a fellowship like that. I think I still got quite a bit out of it. And I enjoyed my time up in Buffalo. I really wish that it had been a non-pandemic time. And I did get to go to Rochester and see Susan B. Anthony’s house and Frederick Douglass’s grave. So I felt like I got to have my one big field trip, but I’d have been doing a lot more field tripping had I been there any other time.
Rebecca: Definitely a weird time to be doing things. [LAUGHTER]
Vanessa: Yeah, just figuring out travel in general. We had pretty early access to vaccines in Lexington, and so I was vaccinated relatively early, but New York did not. So I would go from an area where the city has really high vaccination rates to then New York where they just were not available yet.
John: Interesting times.
Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.
Vanessa: I told my students sort of jokingly, “History is way more fun to study than to live through.” [LAUGHTER] We’re all ready for some precedented times. It turns out, yeah, living through a historic global pandemic, not fun, not a fun time. And they all chuckled. That’s why I always sort of scratch my head when people find out I’m a historian and they ask me, “Oh, well, what time period do you want to live in?” And I’m like, “Oh, yeah, no I’m good. We’ve got enough going on right here. Yeah, I’m good.”
Rebecca: Well, we always wrap up by asking, What’s next?
Vanessa: So it is been since the 1930s, that we’ve had a synthetic work about slavery in Kentucky. And so currently, I’m the Director of the newly started Central Kentucky Slavery Initiative. It’s a project to both tell the black history of our university from its founding in 1865 to present, and a multipronged research initiative to study slavery in the bluegrass. So we’re working on a history of African Americans in Bourbon with one of our partners right now. We’re working to make some public documents more accessible to community members. In collaboration with and partnership with our local county clerk’s office. We have a number of research projects going on African American contributions to the University of Kentucky. And my hope is to take really the broad range of research that’s happening across a project right now, and do a project on slavery in Kentucky. It’s famous for being one of the hubs of the internal slave trade, but the depth of knowledge about that sort of stops there. So I’m going to do work where I’m at and delve into this archive. I’m a Virginia specialist, and when I got here I was bowled over by the amount of material that still exists here. In Virginia there are a lot of burnt counties, because lots of cities were burnt to the ground in the American Civil War. But this place didn’t secede, so they have all of their documents. And I think it’s really powerful, particularly for descendant communities, to have a lot of what they often already know from oral histories and community historical memory, acknowledged, preserved, and presented in accessible ways. Not just for researchers, but for community members, for communities that have their roots here, but have moved on to other parts of the country. So yeah, I’m Kentucky focused and the Bourbon project doesn’t hurt. I’ll say that’s one of the perks of living here.
Rebecca: Sounds like a great project and a really worthwhile endeavor and a good way for us to be thinking about the different spaces we live in, and the records that are kept, and what’s here and what’s not.
Vanessa: Yeah, I try to keep things as local as possible wherever I’m teaching. Because if students can recognize street names, or they recognize names from buildings in the work that we’re doing, it just makes it feel so much more present.
John: Well, thank you. It’s great talking to you again, and I really enjoyed reading your book Surviving Southampton.
Vanessa: Thank you. Thank you.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.
John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.