The fall semester started off with a bit of a bang last week when The Economist published a review of Edward Baptist’s new book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The comments to the piece were wonderful (a rare occurrence) and many posters there and on Twitter mentioned using the so-called review to teach about racism. I’m going to use my inaugural post for this year to talk a bit about this event and how it might be used in the survey classroom. I see three main ways I’d take this on:
1. The content of the review as compared to Baptist’s nuanced arguments.
2. The writing quality of the review and the importance of editing.
3. The role of the Internet in how we understand the past.
*As I wrote this post I started inserting hyperlinks as they came up. It got a little crazy. For ease of use all links will be listed at the end of the post.*
Let’s start with the content of the review: It is an understatement to say the arguments presented are blatantly racist. But where do these ideas come from? And how do they match up to the actual arguments Baptist makes in his book? Having students first read the review would be my natural starting point. This would include writing on their own immediate reaction to the content and having a class discussion. I would then have them read an excerpt of the book, the likeliest being part of or the whole Introduction. More reflective writing and discussion would follow, focusing on how well the reviewer conveyed the main thesis of Baptist’s book. This shows students what a bad review looks like and how to read for the argument as well as the information. A writing assignment would be to write their own review of the book after also reading other reviews from popular and academic (once they come out) sources.
Now on to the writing: Here students would be asked to essentially copy edit the review. Sadly, the image of Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, captioned “a valuable property,” was not retained with the text after the apology and redaction. But the poorly written text is all there. The goal here is to get students to realize the importance of good writing and careful editing. It also gives them the opportunity to do it themselves. At another level, the question of editorial decisions regarding images, captions, and the final one of actually publishing this thing can be examined. The writing assignment component would be editing their review into a publishable document.
Finally, the Internet and the practice of history. To me, this topic has a lot of opportunity for engaging our students and getting them to think critically about their world and how it impacts our knowledge of the past. Here I would ask students to create a timeline of the reaction to the review. As I write this post, the timeline is still actively unfolding, but I have attempted to include links below to several items. This gets students to look at and use Twitter in perhaps a different way than they currently do, and to consider the different forums in which reactions were posted. It also allows them to create a narrative of what I would consider a historiographical moment. Teaching historiography has always been a challenge for me, but I think in this case students will see it happening in a medium that is familiar to them. A final writing assignment would be to have the class read the timeline and the reviews of everyone, and to then respond in writing to this new collective reaction to Baptist’s book.
Granted, these three components involve a lot of reading and writing. But this would be a great project for splitting the class into three groups that deal with one component throughout a week or two of class meetings. This keeps things moving along content-wise in class. I think every group would need to read an excerpt from the book, and it would be interesting to see how students from each group experience the project from different levels and angles.
Taking time to teach the practice of history in the survey classroom is, I think, imperative at the college level. The topic of slavery must be covered content-wise in the first half of the survey, why not also use this as a chance to expose students to historiography?
The redacted review [If anybody out there knows a way to get the original post that includes the image and the comments please post it in the comment section here!]
Gawker’s compilation of #EconomistBookReviews [And of course asking students to look through the Twitter feed.]
Review from The Junto blog. [You should be following this blog if you don’t already. Great collaborative of Early Americanists.]
Review from the LA Times.
Review from the WSJ.
Tips from Jamelle Bouie on how not to review books about slavery.
TPM on the reaction and redaction [Includes a screen shot of the original review post with the image and caption.]
Dan Kilbride interviews Baptist [recording].
Tavis Smiley interviews Baptist [recording].
A Storify of the Politico response. I highly recommend this response in particular, in which Baptist reviews his own book and deals with economics and history.
Added on 9/10: A response by Greg Grandin in the Nation and a link to the Economist review of his book. Here we might ask why the Internet reacted to the Baptist review differently than the Grandin review.
Added on 9/10: A response by Jim Downs on HuffPost.
Added on 9/10: A brief response by Vox.
There are so many other things that could be done with this project and links I have inevitably missed. Please do share in the comments any other links and especially other ideas for using this moment in the classroom.