Increasing Commercialization of Knowledge

I teach AP Research. An incredible class that forces high school students to do a lot of interesting work, particularly write a “lit review”. This may be the single most difficult thing I have ever tried to teach students. Seriously. It hits every challenge – writing, reading, nuanced arguments, time, research, and more. One of the biggest barriers we run up against is simple: access to existing scholarship. I am so lucky that my employer pays for a JSTOR subscription. Absent that, I’m not totally sure what we would do to find anything usable.

Recently I joined the American Historical Association. I feel like an impostor (no PhD), but I really wanted access to recent issues of the American Historical Review and The History Teacher and JSTOR has about a four year lag on recent AHR scholarship. Amazingly, the very first issue I received of Perspectives on History (the “newsmagazine of the American Historical Association”) included “Locked Out: Research Access a Challenge for the Discipline”. The article details a range of historians and their struggles to gain access to basic information necessary to  do their work; particularly high school teachers, public historians, historians at lesser known institutions, and those who are just trying to work independently. Key passage:

“The problem has grown as the nature of information has changed, from a democratic public resource during the hey-day of the public library movement of the early 20th century to the increasing commercialization of knowledge by the new millennium. As Bernard Reilly of the Center for Research Libraries put it, “Now most of the world’s knowledge is hosted not by libraries, but by corporations like Elsevier, JSTOR, ProQuest, the New York Times, and Bloomberg. That created an enormous shift in the way knowledge is accessed that puts universities in a fairly strong position to serve well their faculty and employees, but not serve well the rest of the citizenry.” The result is a scholarly landscape defined by new forms of inequality, opening up access in some ways but closing it off in others. For those excluded, these changes are creating ” a real moment of crisis,” as Reilly put it.”

The expense of all of it makes me miss Aaron Swartz even more.

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Revisiting the Box

I spent the last week with our 11th Grade AP Seminar students discussing their ideas, thoughts, concerns, and questions about AP Research. The entire time was a privilege and incredible opportunity. I posed the following question to them: I’ve taught 6th grade, 8th grade, 9th grade, 10th grade, and 12th grade at our network. I’m pretty convinced I understand what our 6th through 9th grade classes should look like. I have a vision for 10th grade. However, I’m not convinced I’ve seen what our 12th grade classes can become. I posed this challenge to the 11th graders: We get A LOT of visitors who come to see our schools. When a visitor walks in, I want the principal to say, without hesitating, go see AP Research in Room 304. That’s what we do.

With this sentiment in mind, I revisited this post from Doug Lemov. I looped with this class; 8th, 9th, 10th, and 12th grade. They graduated last week and I’ve been sappy ever since. Two students in the video were in my AP Research class this year – modern perceptions of pornography and impact of femicide on immigration rates from Mexico were their topics. I’m very proud of my work in this video. But given where these students are going to college I”m not convinced I increased the rigor at the appropriate level. I could have done more.

With respect to the video, four years later, here’s where the students featured are going:

  • Syracuse University College of Engineering
  • College of the Saint Rose
  • Swathmore College
  • Franklin & Marshall
  • Columbia University
  • SUNY Old Westbury
  • CUNY John Jay College
  • University of Central Florida
  • Johns Hopkins
  • SUNY Polytechnic
  • Ursinus College
  • University of Michigan

There are 2-3 students who transferred out – one went to a specialized high school, one moved away, and I’m not sure about the third. One student in this class, not present in the video, ended up at a private school through Prep 4 Prep. As I drafted this I saw via the Internets that she is going to Yale.



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Propose Different Interpretations

The AP World History exam is next week. I love this test. It’s so hard and assesses really interesting aspects of a student’s ability to think historically. Over the past year I’ve watched our tenth graders and their two incredible APWH teachers grow a ton as historians. While much of our efforts are spent on the larger tasks, particularly the DBQ, the secondary source/historical argumentation short answer question may be the most vexing; it’s not a huge portion of the points on the exam, but absent a strong strategy to attack it, students are going to get almost no points. For those of you not familiar with the question style, it’s ultimately a pair of passages by two historians with conflicting views on a topic OR a single passage by a historian expressing a nuanced historical argument. Here is one of the few publicly available examples from the College Board:


On our most recent quarterly exam around 20% of students got one out of three points and fewer than 5% answered part c correctly. Some of the most common trends: vague descriptions of Cold War events, unclear sentences (“One piece of evidence that supports this is . . . “), or quoting “evidence” from the passage to explain the author’s argument. C was often total gibberish.

Of all the changes to the AP history exam, this strikes me as one of the most interesting, important, and ultimately frustrating. Interesting, as the question explores the nature of what historians ultimately do in their writing. Important, as it captures an incredibly important (and difficult) skill. Frustrating, in that in many ways this is first a reading comprehension question, then a historical knowledge question. As the Chief Reader report for the 2017 exam noted, these questions force students to comprehend a passage and then apply their knowledge in a historically meaningful way across several time periods. Additionally, the College Board has continued to update the language of the questions moving away from “identify and explain” to “provide one piece of evidence”.

The first problem our staff faced was deciding on a plan of attack for students to tackle these questions. Our Pre-AP World History teacher worked on a number of approaches and settled on one that our APWH classes eventually adopted. We arrived at it by having each teacher prepare an exemplar in preparation for a data meeting, compared our exemplars, and then re-traced our steps to come up with a system. An example of a teacher exemplar of the marked up passage captures the first few steps:


First, read and annotate the questions to identify the ultimate tasks.

Second, read and annotate the source line to the document/documents focusing on contextualization and point of view (when was it written, what was going on at the time, who wrote it, what is it, etc . . . ). Note the annotation at the top “Recent, secondary source”.

Third, read and annotate the passages for author’s claim. Here you can see margin notes that capture claims and sub-claims throughout both passages (e.g., “CW was unavoidable”).

Fourth, brainstorm your evidence. “westward expansion, annexation of the Philippines”.

Finally, write your responses:


We often tell students that in class (and at home) we have the luxury of time and therefore we need to “see your thinking” in the annotations. Given the time adjustments to the APWH exam, I think these steps are reasonable. However, as our Dean of Curriculum pointed out recently when reading another example released by the College Board, this is a close reading exercise. If you mis-read one key sentence in the time crunch there is simply no way you can answer the question accurately.

As for the quality of the teacher exemplar written responses, I don’t know. I do not feel that the Chief Reader report commentary really applies the this specific type of question. I’m not sure I really understand what question c is asking – I think it’s asking about the authors’ respective points of view, as addressed by the exemplar responses analysis that one author focuses on “larger and longer global process”.

I know there are a lot of amazing AP World History teachers out there who spend a lot of time thinking about these questions – what do you think of the steps? The quality of the responses? Comment away.

PS – today is my last day of paternity leave. I’ve had a few drafts of this post floating around for awhile, but figured if I didn’t write it tonight, it was never getting written. Blame the typos on the five week old asleep down the hall.

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That Was Precious

Charles Mann posted a link to this excellent blog post addressing the ‘public’ response to the “largest single incident of mass child sacrifice in the Americas” as reported by National Geographic. Carl Feagans appropriately acknowledges the horrific nature of this event, but then, as a disciplined archeologist, applies a disciplined approach to his historical thinking and wonders why would the Chimú people would resort to such horrific means of appeasing their gods. First, the context:

In the same period, between 1400-1450 CE, there is evidence that shows that an El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event which actually peaked at around 1425 CE. In addition, the presence of the mud layer over the normal sand of the region is indicative of wide-scale flooding, a result of the torrential downpours that an ENSO event brings.

Then the analysis:

From their point of view, the gods were punishing them, angry at them, or—at the very least—lacking appeasement.

So they sacrificed to the gods.

But they probably didn’t go straight to 140 children and 200 young goats. [ ]

. . .

The Chimú people very likely tried to appease the gods with small sacrifices. Then moved up to human adults. When that didn’t work, they may have arrived at the conclusion that they must give up something to the gods that was precious.

So, when you read the story National Geographic posted a few days ago, don’t read it thinking that the Chimú people viewed children as any less precious or valuable than we do. As a society, they were in dire straits. It may have been the case that children were already dying of disease, hunger, or even violent attack from the Inca, who finally subdued the Chimú in 1475 CE.

On a somewhat unrelated note, Feagans’s post confirmed my suspicions that I am not missing much by not being on Facebook. The outrage of the masses judging the past doesn’t sound all of that interesting to me.

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An Office Had to Be Found

In the midst of an extended bout of “reader’s block”, I grabbed an old copy of Fahrenheit 451 off the shelf in an attempt to generate some “miles on the page” this week. I read it in high school and know its place on high school reading lists, but I know almost nothing about Ray Bradbury. I found the afterword and “Coda” more fascinating than the book. He wrote the first draft in the basement of a library, paying for typewriter time, surrounded by dusty old books:

In all the years from 1941 to [the writing of Fahrenheit 451], I had done most of my typing in the family garages, either in Venice, California (where we lived because we were poor, not because it was the “in” place to be) or behind the tract house where my wife, Marguerite, and I raised our family. I was driven out of my garage by my loving children, who insisted on coming around to the rear window and singing and tapping on the panes. Father had to choose between finishing a story or playing with the girls. I chose to play, of course, which endangered the family income. An office had to be found. We couldn’t afford one.

Finally, I located just the place, the typing room in the basement of the library at the University of California at Los Angeles. There, in neat rows, were a score or more of old Remington or Underwood typewriters which rented out at a dime a half hour. You thrust your dime in, the clock ticked madly, and you typed wildly, to finish before the half hour ran out. Thus I was twice driven; by children to leave home, and by a typewriter timing device to be a maniac at the keys. Time was indeed money. I finished the first draft in roughly nine days. At 25,000 words, it was half the novel it eventually would become.

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The Least They Can Do

I really, really wish I was spending my February break reading about history and teaching. Instead my Twitter feed and the front page of the NY Times are filled with stories about the ridiculous “idea” of arming teachers. Ironically, about two weeks ago I moved a lot of the political writers I follow to a “list” so I could check it when I want and not be bombarded with Trump news every time I opened Tweetdeck or Tweetbot. Now, both the historians and educators I follow are commenting on Trump’s lack of understanding of education, schools, and gun control.

A lot of people smarter than me have addressed gun violence and school shootings. I am thankful for the coverage from some of the non-political writers I follow – particularly John Gruber and the indafatigable Jason Kottke. I highly recommend reading them daily – they reward you with plenty of non-political writing and some of the most insightful commentary on the issues you should be paying attention to (but maybe not every day).

Now for me on this.

A few years ago I did a Gilder Lehrman Teacher Seminar. It was the most rewarding history professional development I’ve ever done. After a week-long class with an incredibly talented and respected professor (“Professor”), our last session involved him opening up the table to “anything we wanted to ask”. (I’m leaving Professor’s name out, because I’m paraphrasing years later and to my knowledge he has not written on this topic.)

One teacher asked a general question about his assessment of public education in America. Professor took a moment, gathered his thoughts, and explained (much clearer than I will here) that in his view all successful nation-states/empires/kingdoms had two qualities: a strong military and a strong bureaucracy. In the United States, we have done the strong military very well, but never had a very strong bureaucracy. Instead, our bureaucracy was established pretty late and has always been subjected to that uniquely American strategy of “outsourcing”.

According to Professor, the one strong, well-run bureaucracy we do have are the schools & teachers – they’re organized, they’re mobile, they’re large, and they can get stuff done. (Ignore the reformers waving their examples of lazy teachers & failing schools for a moment.) As a result, whenever the U.S. wants to address a domestic issue they have to rely on one of the two really strong institutions: the military or the schools. As a result, we continue to push responsibility for more and more issues onto teachers and schools beyond, you know, teaching. Meals. Social services. Counseling. Basic public health.

Once you see this you cannot unsee it. And it’s impossible not to see it in the NRA and Trump “proposal” to arm teachers.

The tone of this McSweeny’s piece from Kimberley Harrington is off this week (imagine that, McSweeny’s getting the tone wrong!), but the penultimate paragraph captures the situation well:

Just to wrap up, our country has chosen to shift all of the weight regarding your safety away from our lawmakers and gun manufacturers and instead put it squarely on the shoulders of your principal and teachers. These people who kneel down on the first day of school so they’re just as tall as you. These people who shake your hand and say, “Good morning!” and help you rehearse for the spring concert and take you on field trips to see different rock formations — they are now in charge of keeping you from getting murdered. Which really is the least they can do for all that money they make.

That is all. I’m going to go grab a big, heavy history book and try to avoid the headlines.


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Scholarly in Their Approach

Michael Fordham offered up an interesting list of books for people beginning training as history teachers. Even though his audience is generally British school teachers, I always find his thoughts on teaching history helpful. I’ve added several of his suggestions to my nightstand (and I’m not just starting out). His criteria:

(a) are written by leading scholars, (b) have chronological, geographical and thematic breadth, (c) are written in a style that is easily accessible to the general reader but are nevertheless (d) scholarly in their approach with clear references to the historiography and source material.

His list is a little “euro-centric”, but in light of his audience/career it makes sense.

Here are my four additions, particularly for anyone teaching a world history course:

The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History – J.R. McNeill & William McNeill
Empire of Cotton: A Global History – Sven Beckert
Pacific Worlds: A History of Seas, Peoples, and Cultures – Matt K. Matsuda
Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food – Jeffrey M. Pilcher

Add your suggestions/questions in the comments.




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Inaccurate Factual Background

Both my personal education and teaching career include lessons on the Supreme Court’s distinction between de jure segregation and de facto segregation – it’s included in law school and mandated by many state standards in secondary education. Richard Rothstein’s important 2016 book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, pokes a million holes in this flawed legal theory. He opens the Epilogue with this summary:

When Chief Justice Roberts wrote that if residential segregation “is a product not of state action but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications,” he set forth a principle. But the principle supported his conclusion – that government remedies for segregation were impermissible – only because he assumed an inaccurate factual background: that residential segregation was mostly created by private choices.

Over the previous 215 pages Rothstein outlined the ways local and state governments actively created and enforced the policies that segregated communities throughout the U.S.. With examples of exclusionary zoning laws, FHA requirements for segregated communities, enforcement of restrictive covenants, tax-exempt status of churches and hospitals that enforced segregation, and even the licensing of real estate agents who claimed an “ethical obligation” to impose segregation, he paints the picture of a powerful state enforcing segregation far beyond the Jim Crow South. Tyler Cowen highlights some examples.

His proposed remedies begin not with Congress or the courts, but in the classroom. Much like James Loewen, Rothstein points to the misleading language of popular high school textbooks on residential segregation:

One of the most commonly used American History textbooks is The Americans: Reconstruction to the 21st Century. A thousand page volume, published by Holt McDougal, a division of the publishing giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, . . . The 2012 edition has this to say about residential segregation in the North: “African Americans found themselves forced into segregated neighborhoods.” That’s it. One passive voice sentence. No suggestion of who might have done the forcing on how it was implemented.

This is not a textbook I see in many classrooms these days, but the problem persists and I would not be surprised to find it in many others. I am curious to check how Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty! addresses the topic.

May I suggest you skip the textbook and go straight to the sources? You can find articles and examples of restrictive covenants online. As I went to write this, I assumed examples of the Levittown restrictive covenants would be readily available online – I have used them in class for years. But my usual primary source destinations came up short. What a shame. I used to use a variation of this lesson from, but the link is now dead. Email me if you want the documents.

[Update – 11/14/18] On Friday, I checked out a copy of the textbook our APUSH class uses, Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty!. We have an older addition, but, as expected, Foner addresses much of Rothstein’s argument:

The move to the suburbs also promoted Americanization, cutting residents off from urban ethnic communities and bringing them fully in the world of consumption. But if the suburbs offered a new site for the enjoyment of American freedom, they offered at least one familiar characteristic – rigid racial boundaries.

Suburbia has never been as uniform as either its celebrants or its critics claimed. There are upper-class suburbs, working-class suburbs, industrial suburbs, and “suburban” neighborhoods within city limits. But if the class uniformity of suburbia has been exaggerated, its racial uniformity was all too real. As late as the 1900s, nearly 90 percent of suburban whites lived in communities with non-white populations of less than 1 percent – the legal decisions by government, real-estate developers, banks, and residents.

During the postwar suburban boom, federal agencies continued to insure mortgages that barred resale to non-whites, thereby financing housing segregation. Even after the Supreme Court in 1948 declared such provisions legally unenforceable, banks and private developers barred non-whites from the suburbs and the government refused to subsidize their mortgages except in segregated enclaves. In 1960, blacks represented less than 3 percent of the population of Chicago’s suburbs. The vast new communities built by William Levitt refused to allow blacks, including army veterans, to rent or purchase homes. “If we sell one house to a Negro family,” Levitt explained, “then 90 or 95% of our white customers will not buy into the community.” After a lawsuit, Levitt finally agreed during the 1960s to sell homes to non-whites, but at a pace that can only be described as glacial. In 1990, his Long Island community, with a population of 53,000, included 127 black residents.

This is just one of a number of entries addressing segregation in the North and West found in Foner’s work. Much better than “African Americans found themselves forced into segregated neighborhoods,” but I still recommend the primary sources.

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Teachers Weren’t Leveling With Us

There’s a lot I love about Elif Batuman’s The Idiot – an outsider in Cambridge, decline of the Ottoman Empire as a narrative device, first email addresses, 1995 – including a strangely unsolicited critique of modern theories of education in the U.S.. The passage below could have been found on Doug Lemov’s blog or in Michael Fordham’s Twitter feed. While studying for an exam at Harvard, the narrator struggles with the songs her friend Svetlana (from Yugoslavia (again, 1995)) created to remember declensions of irregular nouns in Russian:

Svetlana was way better than I was at memorizing. She accepted it in her heart as something necessary. Growing up in America, I had been taught to despise memorization, which was known as “rote memorization,” or sometimes as “regurgitating facts.” The teachers said that what they wanted was to teach us to think. They didn’t want us to turn out like robots, like the Soviet and Japanese schoolchildren. That was the only reason Soviet and Japanese children did better than us on the tests. It was because they didn’t know how to think.

By high school, I sensed that the teachers weren’t leveling with us. Our biology teacher would say: “I don’t want you to memorize and regurgitate, I want you to understand the elegant logic of each mechanism.” Nonetheless, on the test you had to draw a diagram of RNA transcription. When it came to science or history, reason got you only so far. Even if each step followed from the previous one, you still had to memorize the first step, and also the rule for how steps followed from each other. It wasn’t as if there was only one way the world could have turned out. It wasn’t like strawberries had to grow from bushes. There were lots of ways things could have turned out, and you had to memorize the particular one that was real.

Or . . . did you? Was there only one way the world could have turned out? If you were smart enough, could you deduce it? A tiny part of me held out the hope that you could. And that part was bad at learning Svetlana’s song.

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Three of the Total of Eight Documents

If I won a Genius award (not going to happen), I would spend my time turning published academic history articles into high school lesson plans. The Stanford History Education Group is probably the closest project to this, but I am not sure if their inquires are driven by specific academic works.

Henrietta Harrison’s recent article, The Qianlong Emperor’s Letter to George III and the Early-Twentieth-Century Origins of Ideas about Traditional China’s Foreign Relations, would be my first project. Her work made me question everything I think I do well as a history teacher. On so many levels this article challenged everything I know and do about history. Here’s the skinny:

She begins by describing pretty much every textbook’s and teacher’s approach to teaching the Qianlong Emperor’s letter:

Since the 1920’s, historians, scholars of international relations, journalists, and teachers have used [the selection from the letter] to illustrate the failure of traditional China to acknowledge the rising power of the West: the Qianlong emperor foolishly imagines that George III is paying tribute to him, while his deprecation of the British gifts is interpreted as a rejection of Western science and even the industrial revolution. China’s foreign relations, associated with the giving of tribute and embodied in the ritual of the kowtow, are thus contrasted with the egalitarian diplomatic practices of the rising European states.

I would argue many textbooks and my class go further in using the letter to support the claim that the Qing Empire dismissed the strength of the rising industrial powers in Western Europe.

Prof. Harrison argues, through her laborious research, that the letter misrepresents the Chinese response to Europe and that in order to truly understand the letter you must understand the archival process following the collapse of the Qing Empire in 1911. Harrison writes:

What brought the Qianlong Emperor’s letter to public prominence was the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and the rise of Han Chinese nationalism. In 1914, a translation was included in a new history of the Qing by two British writers living in China. It was from this English source that it was picked up by Chinese scholars, for whom the Qianlong emperor’s apparent ignorance and complacent fitted neatly with a revolutionary agenda.

Harrison describes the process of opening the archives and the influence of western historians on those visiting the Qing archives in the early 20th Century. In describing the process of the writing of the series Collected Historical Documents by Xu Baoheng, she notes:

Many of the documents about the military response to the [Macartney embassy] were in what was known as the palace archives, which contained the Qianlong emperor’s personal correspondence, but these had not been opened. The documents were there precisely because these defense issues were both important and secret, unlike the question of ceremony and ritual, which were part of the public presentation of Qing diplomacy.

. . .

Xu chose to publish three of the total of eight documents about the kowtow. His decision to do so gave the issue a prominence quite unrelated to its position in the archives as a whole and was directly affected by the longstanding British scholarship that emphasized protocol and ritual.

. . .

As a whole, the selection of archives published in Collected Historical Documents had the effect of depicting the Qing as ignorant and passive in the face of the rising power of the West.

So in short, world history textbooks’, and thousands of history students’, narrative of Qing naivety and weakness in the face of rising European threat is totally and completly  inaccurate because we rely on one letter from a massive archive that was selectively released for political purposes following the collapse of an empire. This would make an AMAZING SHEG lesson.

My other big takeaway is simply the amount of work that went into writing this one article. I am not super connected to the academic history world, but this article seems like a really big deal. I spent about an hour poking around the Internet and this was about the most I could find about Xu Baoheng. And it is a big deal because Prof. Harrison put in a ton of work; an amount of work I actually struggle to comprehend.

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