Friday, April 24, 2015

The Parallel Challenges of Doing History and Cross-Cultural Relations

Wednesday I had the pleasure of spending all day at Hosford Middle School with Mr. Essan Weah, who told more than 100 students about what it is like to be a student in Ghana.  The following day got to speak at the High Desert Museum (one of their exhibits is pictured here) to a group of very engaged museum volunteers and others about women and domestic violence in western history.

On the face of thing, this seemed like two very different activities, speaking to middle school students about becoming friends with people their age in West Africa and talking with (mostly) seniors about the history of gender in the Western United States.

But it struck me last night that becoming friends with people from different cultures and coming to terms with the past are in fact very similar activities.  We bring to both endeavors a set of expectations and beliefs that are often disappointed, at least at first.  Most Americans have very high expectations of privacy, and Ghanaians tend to expect that friendships require a substantial investment of time.  That's one point of tension.  Likewise, when we look at the past, we expect to find facts and developments that mesh with our understanding of the world.  When I wrote my dissertation and first book on the history of violence against wives in Oregon, I did not want or expect to find so much variation.  So I had the unwelcome task of explaining that variation.

But the fruits of these challenging interactions are rewarding.  Giving friends the gift of time (such as a long, detailed letter) is a very important skill to learn, and if one's handwriting is illegible, one needs to hear about it.  Likewise, being confronted by parts of the human story that don't fit our preconceptions prompts us to get closer to the truth about what the human story is actually like.

Change is not comfortable.  But it is good.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Yo Ghana! Dinner Update

Just a couple more weeks until Yo Ghana! has its first big bash, in collaboration with the Association of African Students of PSU and sponsored by EAI Information Systems and Thompson & Bogran PC..  It looks like most of our twenty or so Oregon teachers will be in attendance, and a good swath of our students and many West African ex-pats and other friends.

The Obo Addy Legacy Project will be drumming and dancing, Madam Victorine and her crew will be cooking, Dr. Agorsah will be the emcee, and Matthew Essieh will be our keynote.  And we'll be giving some awards to some special people and honoring all of our teachers for taking on Yo Ghana! work on top of everything else.

It's May 3, 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., Smith Memorial Union Ballroom, PSU.

We are striving to make the dinner a microcosm of what Yo Ghana! stands for.  We won't be requiring anyone to pay anything to attend, we'll be presenting Ghanaian and American people and cultures as equal partners, and we'll be doing a lot of laughing with, supporting of, and learning from one another.

If you want to join the fun, make your reservation soon at:

Hope to see you there,


Saturday, April 11, 2015

Is Judgement Always a Bad Thing?

Slate recently published an interesting opinion piece by William Saletan, "Judgement Day."  Although critical of San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone's decree that teachers in Catholic schools should not "visibly contradict, undermine, or deny" church teachings on morality, Saletan also  finds fault with the "empty-headed liberalism" expressed by many of the Archbishop's critics.

Saletan's point is that much of the opposition to the Archbishop's act seems to be rooted in the belief that any sort of judgement is wrong.  "A morality clause has no place in our schools," says the Facebook page of Support SF Teachers.  "We want teachers to be able to be themselves."  "Be who you are and don't care who says what," comments another critic.

I seriously doubt that these people literally mean what their words suggest, that teachers guilty of, say, advocating or practicing incest should "be free to be themselves."  Most of us believe that freedom must be curbed when it inflicts harm on others.  But the point at which that happens is far from clear cut, and it also evades the question of whether religious groups have the right to demand that members live out and defend certain beliefs.

Please do not misunderstand me.  I am not defending any particular judgement or act of discrimination, Catholic or otherwise.  But it is concerning that the very idea of making judgements, of discretion, has become off limits to many of us.

Friday, April 3, 2015

On Teaching Online: Taking It Personally

As the photograph to the right suggests, I've always enjoyed getting up in front of a group of students and pontificating, whether it's talking about Yo Ghana! to a group of junior high school students in Kete-Krachi, Ghana or trying to untangle the socio-cultural context of the American Revolution at PSU.

More and more, though, I do most of my teaching online.  Many people in academia, including students, view online teaching as a sort of necessary evil, an inferior way of learning made necessary by the busy schedules of cramped facilities of modern students and universities, respectively.  I fell into online teaching when I left my tenured job in Canada and returned to Portland in 1999.  I went to PSU and OSU, in particular, and soon learned that there were plenty of opportunities for teaching classes that tenure-stream faculty tended to avoided: classes at night; classes on week-ends; classes that were fully online.

There are lots of bells and whistles available to online teachers, more and more all the time.  But I have found that two broad principles are particularly prized by students taking online classes.

First, they prize clarity.  It's imperative to have a clear and detailed syllabus and to answer questions about it promptly.  Teaching online requires strong organizational skills.  Everyone emphasizes that.

Lesser known is the second key component to successful online teaching: fostering a sense of connection.  It's taken me awhile to figure this out, being something of an introvert by nature.  Most students enjoy interacting with each others' ideas and helping each other to improve.  But students seem to "perform" much better when they believe that their teachers also care about them,  And teaching is a lot more enjoyable when that care is sincere and enforced.  Intellectual pursuits need not be impersonal.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Richard Maxwell Brown, 1927-2014

Richard Maxwell Brown, who recently passed away in his mid-80s, was a mentor to me in many ways.  Dr. Brown (he became "Dick" only once I had earned my Ph.D.) was my dissertation adviser.  He was a very active and supportive adviser who always made time for my meandering monologues on my research, and he wrote countless letters of reference for me.  He was a giant in the history of interpersonal violence, so his backing was critical in whatever success my dissertation and the book it was based on achieved.

More than that, though, Dr. Brown (I still can't quite bring myself to think of him as "Dick") modeled what it meant to be a scholar.  He had a ferocious work ethic, no doubt honed during his Dakota boyhood, and was humble and eager to help others, his very impressive list of publications and other accomplishments notwithstanding.  More than that, though, he had a great enthusiasm for learning.  There's a popular misconception that a historian is someone who knows everything.  Dr. Brown knew a lot  He once complained that he was beginning to forget the details from some of the books he had read forty years ago.  But what really set him apart was his unstinting curiosity.  I guess that's where his humility came in handy.  Rather than trying to prove what he already knew, Dr. Brown was always interested in exploring what he didn't know.  He showed me that history, like the human prospect itself, is not a field to be mastered, but a fascinating puzzle to be explored.

Thank you for everything, Dr. Brown, for a life well lived.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Balancing Individual Freedom and Collective Responsibility

I just finished reading a set of posts from my students in courses on the history of the U.S. family on the tensions between individual freedom and collective responsibilities.  One of the great parts of teaching at PSU is that the students have such varied backgrounds in terms of ethnicity, age, gender, and life circumstances.  Many of them, particularly the women, speak of balancing family and school, are coming back to school after being away for some time and find themselves balancing their personal interests and making a good living for their families.

The title of my own book on the history of the family is subtitled From Obligation to Freedom, and in it I suggest that we have moved too far toward freedom and away from obligation  But my students remind me, often by example, that in fact most people remain deeply committed to their families, much more so than popular culture suggests.  They also remind me that although most women remain focused on their families, that a healthy dose of individualism can make one a better life partner and parent and friend.

For myself, raised to focus on individual achievement, surrendering a goodly chunk of my personal freedom for the well being of others has been a great--if at times terrifying--blessing.  For others, raised to always defer personal goals, a focus on their own dreams can enrich not only their lives, but the lives of those whom they love.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Save the Date: Yo Ghana! Bash May 3

We are having our first big Yo Ghana! event May 3, 2:00 to 4:00 at the PSU Ballroom, a venue made possible by the generosity of the Association of African Students of PSU.

I'll provide more details in the coming weeks, but for now I'll just emphasize that we want this to be a fun event that doesn't cost you much money to enjoy.  Most of us have been to fundraisers where the ticket to get in is $50.00 or more, and the goal is then to get people inebriated so that they will write checks for larger amounts than they would have done if they were sober.  Or maybe to bid higher on silent-auction items than they really should have.

We decided that we wanted our event to be open to everyone interested in attending, so entry is $10.00 to $20.00 if you can afford it, and no charge if you can't.  There will be Ghanaian food and music and dancing, plus some speeches made and awards handed out.  There will be donation envelopes available and some fun Yo Ghana! shirts available to purchase.  But the board's main two goals for the event are these: 1) To say "thank you" to our Oregon teachers for their hard work; 2) To bring together a goodly fraction of the 1,000 Oregon students we work with, and their families, with the warm and extensive community of Ghanaians living in the Pacific Northwest.

You can reserve a place at:

We are hoping to have a big event for our Ghana teachers in the summer of 2016, by the way.