Today marks the first football game of the season for many colleges, including Oklahoma State University. I moved to Oklahoma with the expectation that football was going to be a way of life here. I actually have a ticket (big thanks here to the colleague who generously bequeathed it to me - I am not yet to a stage in my professional career where I can justify the expense of season tickets) to next weekend's home game. If that wasn't reminder enough, at least a dozen students were missing from my survey American history class on Friday because they are members of the marching band or were traveling to the game.
And in preparation for the game this morning...this happened.
I understand the outrage, and the desire to make clear to these students the magnitude of the situation. I think Catherine Sweeny, OColly Editor-in-Chief, sums up the feeling behind the backlash quite well in this response:
"Is this still funny?
Maybe if you are completely ignorant of the past. But guess what? These fans are students. In Oklahoma, American history is required in elementary school, in middle school, in high school and in college.
Oklahoma State’s American history classes are packed with hundreds of students at a time. Professors lift the veil and let students know how despicably Americans treated the Indians.
These people, smiling and holding up their pistols, don’t get to claim ignorance. No students at this school get to claim ignorance.
They are knowingly making fun of victims of genocide. Who is laughing?"
Of course it's not funny. And of course the response to it has included every reaction from disbelief to confusion to anger. That's both understandable and justified. If nothing else, these students should certainly learn from the situation. I don't think, however, that this is their responsibility alone. It speaks to a bigger culture of passivity regarding history as a general subject of study and within our society as a whole, and at least to some extent to the glorification of sports rivalries as both expected and desirable. I'll probably get hate mail for this, but for me, as problematic as the picture is, it raises a more fundamental question - when have most of our students been shown the importance of caring that the past is relevant to their own lives?
Let me preface this by saying that I love my job and I'm pretty fiercely loyal to this university. No system or school is perfect, and making a career in academia also means being comfortable accepting this fact. As a very young historian in a very competitive and saturated job market brimming with talent, I feel incredibly fortunate to have any job in my field, let alone this one, which is extremely desirable and a great fit for me. It was a bit of a discovery to learn that upon arrival here, I was expected to teach American history--all of it--in a single semester. And not just "United States" history--pre-contact to the present. I have sixteen weeks (15 factoring in holidays). With three 50-minute lecture periods a week, that gives me 150 minutes--2.5 hours--a week to convey to students not only that some pretty important things happened in the past, but also what I think is the more salient and more frequently missing piece in their previous history education--that it matters. It matters to each of them individually, and it matters a lot.
I usually ask my students on the first day of class if they think history matters. Most of them half-heartedly agree that it probably does, in part because it's the first day and they're scared to indicate anything they think will incur my displeasure. Dig a little further and a few will generally admit that they think history is "boring," and they don't understand why dates matter. To an extent, I see their point. Pick a date in history, and it's a safe bet something happened then. Probably multiple things, that held different kinds of significance for lots of different people. Is it realistic to expect our students to learn, understand, and recall everything that ever happened? Probably not, and no history professor realistically expects that. The more pressing issue, I think, is that we struggle with finding effective ways to show our students that "history" isn't just "in the past" - it is and has always been lived and experienced by very real, and often very ordinary people just like them. This is a laudable goal - and a formidable one.
It's true that every professor teaching American history (not just at OSU) attempts to, as Sweeny writes, "lift the veil" and show students what happened in the past. And she is absolutely correct - they should absolutely not "get to claim ignorance. But I also don't think it's fair to attack these students, as a short overview of my Twitter feed suggests, as "racist," "stupid," "ignorant," or "uninformed upper middle class white kids." I won't even touch the last one. But I will go out on a limb here and say that I don't think any of these students rushed out of the local crafts store earlier this week with cans of orange and black paint contemplating what a great day it was to be an insensitive racist or piss off the overwhelming majority of those tuning into college football this morning. Were they horribly insensitive, grossly uninformed, and should they deal with the consequences? Yes, yes, and yes. And yes, they should take responsibility for their participation, and they should probably acknowledge its very real, very negative impact. But I would argue there is more responsibility to go around here.
In my American history survey class, by the end of the semester students will have read (assuming the quizzes, tests, and assignments I give are enough incentive to actually make them do the reading, which is of course another story entirely) somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 pages worth of textbooks. They will have listened to me talk about various topics three days a week in 45-50 minute blocks. I will show them dozens of pictures, maps, documents, and historical artifacts, and I will have stressed to them as much as I am able that the past still impacts us. And yes, they should have come into this class with some understanding that history is a thing and that it matters. I'm not excusing their conduct, or minimizing my own responsibility in making sure I do everything in my power to assure to help them learn effectively. But in many ways, as this situation demonstrates, it goes far beyond that.
Let's be realistic for a moment. My students' assigned textbook, in well over 1,200 pages, contains exactly 7 paragraphs--about 2 pages--covering Indian removal. The Trail of Tears (though it does bear the distinction of getting bold font, meaning it's a "key term" that they should pay attention to because it will probably make it onto a test), gets 1 paragraph. Though the book does clarify what happened in numbers - the "trek," as the book calls it, "was made under such harsh conditions that almost four thousand of approximately sixteen thousand marchers died on the way," this is the extent of the coverage it gets. How much do we really expect this to mean to students who often have little interest in such things, their complicated causes, and in understanding how they relate to other, equally complicated things and their causes? I'd like to think my additional lecture on the subject will fill in some of those blanks, but ultimately it's one topic in one lecture in one course that occupies a relatively small space a college career that will be punctuated by a hundred other (maybe more memorable) moments and experiences. I won't claim to know how much of what I tell my students actually sticks. I give them the best I have, but I can't force it to matter to them. I can't make them care any more than I can be made to care about football rivalries.
Since this story broke, I've seen a lot of suggestions for how the matter should be handled. Among the most common is individual identification and shaming. "Are any of them in your class?" a friend wants to know. "You should find out who they are," another suggested. I agree that these students should be held accountable, but I don't know that shaming them is a productive response. At the end of the day, they applied their understanding of history - misguided, insensitive, and inappropriate as it was - to what they felt was a symbolically relevant situation. Should they be corrected? Yes. Should they come away from this better educated? I hope so. But this is symptomatic also of their feeling lost in a much larger system that takes complicated views towards their education in the first place. Every professor knows the frustration of having large portions of their classes absent for sporting events. On Friday, I delivered what I like to think of as a very successful lecture on perceptions of race and identity in Jamestown, and a lot of my students simply weren't there to hear it. Those who are motivated enough to get the lecture notes will be collecting them along with a slew of other facts, figures, and assignments they need to catch up on next week. I can't just tell them my class is most important because realistically, that's not my decision to make for them. And, at the end of the day, their entire college experience, including school spirit and football games, is important. In some ways we can't blame them for being confused - the school itself first "liked" and then condemned their actions, and administrators admitted they simply "missed" the offensive reference at a first glance.
This is a bigger matter to consider than some overly-enthusiastic and grossly under-informed students making (hopefully) the most glaring (and public) misstep of their college careers. It wasn't so long ago that a prominent, well-respected university-trained and employed historian suggested (seriously) eliminating history classes for high school students altogether because "the facts possess no meaning for them," and instead teaching history only at the college level, where "students who are bright enough to be admitted to college would be able to see the relevance of the facts, and by implication history, to the world around them."* The truth of the matter is that universities value a lot of things in addition to education - and for better or worse, football is one of them. Our students (even those who don't care about football), inhabit a world where vicious (I don't think it's much of a leap to get to outright hateful in some cases) school rivalries are praised and expected. These students expressed themselves in extremely poor taste, but they are far from alone. They are not the first to take to heart that school rivalries are to be cultivated and celebrated. In a very bad way, they were expressing enthusiasm and pride. Unfortunately, these rivalries have little or nothing to do with academics. I have never seen an angry hashtag suggesting students at a rival school were learning more, or celebrating that they were learning less. Nor is this limited to college football - for instance, the open hostility between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers has it's own Facebook page. These students are getting attention for making the unfortunate choice to publicize their extremely poor selection of a reference - their attempt at humor failed epically, but I would hesitate to call them the most hateful fans in college football.
As educators, we cannot expect our students to care more about "the facts" than we do, and we cannot force them to find history relevant to their own lives. What we can do is be both passionate and compassionate in our teaching, recognize that our students are individuals with their own experiences and goals, and hope some of our attempts at connection rise to the top of what they take away from the much larger experience of a college education.
* See Patricia Mooney-Melvin, "Professional Historians and the Challenge of Redefinition" in James B. Gardner and Peter S. LaPaglia, eds., Public History: Essays from the Field, Revised edition, (Malabar: Krieger Publishing Company, 2006), 10 - 12.