April 30, 2012

OAH 2012 in Milwaukee: lots of labor history, not so much on religion or the West

by Tisa Wenger, April 27, 2012

I don’t always make it to the OAH (Organization of American Historians), but this year I’d been asked to respond to a panel titled “In the Aftermath of Contact with ‘Others’: The Reformulation of Religious and Racial Identity on the Frontier”—with three papers very much of interest to readers of this blog—so I made my way to Milwaukee for the conference last weekend. Actually I headed to Madison first, where I fit in four days of research at the fantastic Wisconsin Historical Society.  (They have impressive holdings that go far beyond Wisconsin history, so check it out if you ever have the chance. I spent most of my time there immersed in the papers of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, Wisconsin Civil Liberties Union, and related collections.)

At the conference I roomed with an old friend, Colleen O’Neill, author of an excellent book on Navajo labor history, Working the Navajo Way: Labor and Culture in the Twentieth Century. I bring this up because Colleen also happens to be the associate editor of the Western Historical Quarterly, based at Utah State University, and she mentioned to me that the WHQ is always interested in articles on religion in the American west. So if any of you are working on essays that might fit in that venue, send them her way!

To some extent the OAH program reflected the interests of this year’s president, Alice Kessler-Harris, who is a leading labor historian and gave a very interesting presidential address titled “Capitalism, Democracy, and the Emancipation of Belief.” So there were a few more sessions than usual related to labor and economic history, important topics to be sure, but not really speaking to my interests. And there were correspondingly few either on the American West or in religious history, let alone the two in combination. I noticed one panel on the Joseph Smith papers, but that happened while I was still in Madison. Another session, “Catholic Lay Women and Mid-Century Public Life,” included 1) Mary Henold on Catholic lay women’s responses to Vatican II, raising important questions about methods and sources for studying the “average” lay women, 2) Karen Johnson on Catholic women and interracial activism in mid-century Chicago, and 3) Tim Lacy on the relationship between political position and conversion to Catholicism in the life of Clare Booth Luce. Great stuff, but unless we place Chicago in the West, not really within the scope of this blog.

These exclusions, of course, reflect something of the blind spots of all these fields: mirroring the traditional lack of attention to class, labor, or the West among historians of American religion, labor historians have only relatively recently started to work on the west, and only a handful have found religious history relevant to their concerns. Exceptions to these lines of division on the program included a roundtable panel on “Religion, Corporate Capitalism, and Democracy in the Twentieth Century,” featuring the star-studded lineup of Kate Bowler, Darren Dochuk, Darren Grem, Kathryn Lofton, and Bethany Moreton, and another roundtable on “Religion, Democracy, and the Working Class in Capitalist America, Gilded Age to the Present.” I couldn’t attend either of these panels—one was on Thursday while I was still in Madison, and the other was on Sunday when I was already on my way back home—but they bode well for the developing conversation between religious history and the histories of class and labor.

Finally, back to the session that took me to the conference in the first place, which proved a fruitful exploration of the construction of racial and religious identities within various sites of encounter in the American west. Kristine Gunnell’s paper, “The Daughters of Charity as Cultural Intermediaries,” examined the motivations and racial dynamics of the work of this Catholic order in early twentieth-century Los Angeles, a time of extensive Mexican immigration into Southern California. In “Texas Jews and other Others: Race, Masculinity, and American Identity,” Sarah Imhoff interrogated the interest among some Jews in early twentieth-century Texas in claiming kinship to Native Americans, or somewhat later in “playing Mexican,” as ways of asserting both whiteness and masculinity. For Imhoff these practices reflected an impulse distinct from but parallel to the contemporaneous Zionist movement—one that similarly sought to assert Jewish identity and masculinity, but in this case placing themselves at home in the American West. And finally, in “William McCrary’s Racial Ventriloquism during the Mormon Exodus, 1846-1847,” Max Mueller mined the few available sources in an effort to recover the perspective of McCrary, a racially ambiguous “Negro-Indian” Mormon convert who left the Saints after Mormon leaders refused to accept his claims to prophetic authority. I am looking forward to seeing all three of these pieces in publication.

So that was my experience of the OAH this year. The take-home for me, as it has been so many times before, was—why so little in our field on the program? And one answer to that question is that if we want to see sessions on religion in the American west, then we need to propose them. Kudos to Kristine, Sarah, and Max for doing just that at this year’s conference, and I’d encourage all of you to do the same in future years!

April 23, 2012

Who Are You?

By the editors 

Every week, sometimes more than once, we put up a post about religion in the American West. From our perspective here at the virtual offices of the RAW blog, we send these things out into the ether, to be picked up on your RSS feeds, show up on your computer screens, light up your iPads. We sincerely hope you enjoy them, that you find them thought-provoking or useful or informative or amusing (or some combination thereof). But there's only so much that we can tell by watching the stats pile up on Blogger each week. Often, those statistics raise more questions for us than they answer. For example, we get a surprising number of pageviews from countries outside the United States. Who knew we would be so popular in Russia, for instance? But apparently we are. So, in an effort to understand our readership better, we put together a short survey. If you're reading this, would you please take our survey? It should only take you five minutes -- ten, if you have a lot to tell us. It's ten questions, mostly multiple choice. Please only take the survey once. But please do take it once, so we can get a better idea of who you, our readers, are. Thanks! Click here to take the survey. 

By the way: did you see this post on regionalism? What do you think??

April 16, 2012

Religion and the Public School System: Why the West Matters

by Tisa Wenger

I recently had the good fortune to read Kathleen Holscher’s forthcoming book Religious Lessons: Catholic Sisters and the Captured Schools Crisis in New Mexico, scheduled to appear very soon from Oxford University Press. This is a book that I think deserves a lot of attention, and I thought I’d give the readers of this blog a little sampling of what it might bring to our conversation.

Religious Lessons tells the story of Zellers v. Huff, also known as the “Dixon case,” decided by New Mexico’s Supreme Court in 1949. The case challenged the legality of Catholic sisters teaching in the state’s public schools, as well as the arrangements that had allowed former Catholic parochial schools to become the local public schools in many districts in the state. Upset by such an arrangement in their town, Protestant parents in the town of Dixon filed suit in district court so that their children would not be taught by Catholic sisters in a building that had been a parochial school, with many religious items in the classrooms. The case raised a variety of questions connected to the legal principle of the separation of church and state. Could teachers who were also Catholic nuns wear their religious habits during school hours? What sorts of religious objects and artwork were permissible on school grounds, and where? Was it legal for teachers to provide religious education to Catholic students outside of regular school hours?

This case is not very well remembered today, even by historians, and it is not usually included in the corpus of key First Amendment cases from the mid-twentieth century. But in the late 1940s it sparked a gigantic public outcry across the country, and as Holscher says, “its litigation and the extra-judicial hubbub that accompanied it said more about the relation of church and state within the lives and imaginations of midcentury Americans than precedent-setting cases from the period ever did.” This was the case that motivated the formation of the group Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (POAU), with the primary agenda of challenging all Catholic incursions into the public schools. The Dixon schools inspired the moniker “captive schools,” suggesting a sinister Catholic plan to take over America’s schools, and through them the nation.

Public school children in Blanco, NM, 1942.  From the collection of Kathleen Holscher.
Holscher provides a finely-grained study of the many different players involved in this case, and the complex and contradictory ways in which they understood the issues involved. Local context makes all the difference here. New Mexico, of course, had a very long Catholic history, and there were compelling reasons for many of its school boards to form cooperative arrangements with the church to make public schools possible in their districts. Most local people, who were predominantly Hispanic and Catholic, had few if any reservations about these schools, although as Holscher points out their interests could be quite different from those of the church. Holscher also shows how the sisters who taught in these schools attempted, in a variety of ways, to honor the “nonsectarian” public school standard and to keep specifically Catholic religious teachings and practices apart from their classrooms. But the situation looked very different to the Protestant minority, both Hispanic and Anglo, that had developed in some parts of the state. And from the court’s perspective such schools almost inevitably violated the “nonsectarian” public school standard—which in most of the nation had assumed a generically Protestant religious identity, and had been imported into New Mexico—along with the newer “separationist” standard that advocated a complete removal of any and all religious practice from the public schools.

So, what does this case and this book offer to our ongoing conversation on this blog about religion in the American west? My first thought here is that Holscher places a very western story at the center of a pivotal national debate. Protestant-Catholic tensions and efforts at dialogue in mid-twentieth-century America would have looked very different without the Dixon case and the consequent trope of the “captive schools.” POAU and its allies generalized that story to make it appear that Catholics were taking over schools all over America. Similar public-parochial arrangements did exist elsewhere in the country, especially in cities like Detroit that had significant Catholic populations, but nowhere were they as prevalent as they were in New Mexico. The events Holscher recounts are very specifically rooted in the cultural and religious history of New Mexico—a quintessentially western story. She clearly shows the importance of this story to national debates over church-state separation that are not generally associated with the west. And in so doing she illustrates one of our favorite talking points: just how important it is for historians of American religion to pay attention to the west.

April 9, 2012

The Religion in the American West Syllabus Project (an occasional series)

Part I: Enduring Understandings and Student-Centered Learning Outcomes

By Quincy D. Newell

I don’t remember how, precisely, the job ad was phrased anymore. I do remember that Wyoming was looking for someone who knew about religion in the American West. I remember thinking, “that ad describes exactly what I do!”

I applied and, lucky me, I got the job.

This is where the people who signed my hiring papers work.
[Full disclosure: not only is the University of Wyoming my employer, but the Religious Studies Program at UW is also a sponsor of the Religion in the American West Seminar's website.]

As the job ad portended, I was hired at the University of Wyoming with the expectation that I would teach a class on religion in the American West. Seeing as how I describe myself as someone who studies religion in the American West, that seemed like a reasonable thing. But I have a confession: I have taught “Religion in the American West” all of two times in my eight years at Wyoming. It’s my specialty, true, but I have yet to come up with a syllabus that I’m happy with. (In contrast, I’ve taught “Theory of Religion” seven times, I think. In fact, I’ve taught just about every course in my rotation more than I’ve taught “Religion in the American West.” Holy avoidance, Batman!)

As it happens, I’m also a participant in the “Young Scholars in American Religion” program run by the good folks at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. One of my tasks for that program, is to produce or significantly revise a syllabus. So I chose to rework my Religion in the American West syllabus (the last iteration of which you can see here, along with the Religion in the American West Seminar's collection of syllabi). I’m on leave this year, which means I have the luxury of time to think through this task carefully and attend to both the pedagogy and the content of the course. And I’ve got some extra motivation: I’m scheduled to teach Religion in the American West (RELI 3400) for the third time in Spring 2013. Third time’s a charm, right?

So I’m working on a syllabus, and I’m inviting you along for the ride.

Before I turned my attention fully to the writing, I noticed a series of blog posts on syllabus creation by Tona Hangen, who does American religious history at Worcester State University. (Here’s part 1, part 2, part 3, part 3a, and part 4.) Hangen boiled the process down into an easy to follow, broadly applicable process and reading her posts was really helpful as I planned my attack. Following her lead, I began working on articulating some “student-centered learning outcomes.” What would the result of my course be, for my students? The goal here was to articulate some results in which students would be active participants. (So, not “this course will introduce you to the skill of underwater basketweaving,” in which the students passively have information stuffed into their heads. Instead, something like “by the end of this course, you will be able to weave rudimentary baskets under water,” where students actively participate in the achievement of the objective.)

I should note here that throughout this process I have had to constantly resist the urge to lapse back into an older model of syllabus building, and an older model of this course, which started from the content: I chose readings based on what I wanted to talk about, and assumed a set of writing assignments that would draw on the readings. While I did want students to learn, the decisive factors in syllabus construction did not include the effects on student brains. Each time I have felt myself resisting an idea, cringing at a verb, gaping at the chaos some statement could cause, I have reminded myself that nothing is (yet) set in stone, that this is a process, that I am trying to do things better than before. I was unhappy with previous iterations of this course, remember? So I should do something about it.

Despite my best efforts, I was quickly stymied in trying to articulate those student-centered learning outcomes, so I backed up even further to another blog post, this one by Mark Sample on the ProfHacker blog. This urged me to consider what “enduring understandings” I wanted my students to take from the course. Ten years after taking “Religion in the American West,” what did I want them to remember? This task, surprisingly, was easier (though I did not find it, by any means, easy).

I played around with several “enduring understandings.” It helped to remember that I should be able to phrase an enduring understanding in a declarative sentence. The first thing I wrote down was this:

The religious history of the American West is both similar (connected) to and different from that of the country as a whole.

When I looked at what I had written, I shuddered. How on earth would I teach students enough stuff for them to be able to make a valid comparison without just cramming information into their brains? It occurred to me that maybe I should be thinking less about content and more about method – I wrote in the margin of my notes, “Maybe this class is about religious studies, not about American religion/the West?”

That question also made me shudder (I don't want this to be a theory/method class that just happens to look at religion in the West), but it freed me up to try out this enduring understanding:

The study of religion in the American West requires that we think creatively and analytically about sources and methods, because the history is not our traditional story.

Okay, so maybe I want to think some about method/theory, but I realized that the crux of this statement for me was not how we get at the story of religion in the American West, but rather the wide variety of it. I wanted students to have some grasp of the diversity involved.

That insight led me to this enduring understanding:

The study of religion in the American West includes a wide variety of historical actors and a diverse array of beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, practices, objects, images, places, sites, etc. that may be recognized as “religious.”

Ultimately, I refocused and tightened that statement, and I added a second one, plus a skill that I wanted students to take away:

1. The religious history of the American West includes a wide variety of historical actors and an array of modes of being religious, including some forms of religion that don’t look religious at first glance.

2. The history of the American West has been deeply shaped by religious behaviors. (And American religion has been deeply shaped by the West.) 

3. Enduring skill: How to analyze religious texts/behaviors in historical context

So yes, this is a religious studies class (see #3), but it’s not so focused on theory/method (see #1-2). I’m still uncertain about #2 – it feels too vague – but it will do for now.

Having taken a crack at the enduring understandings, I came back to the student-centered learning outcomes, which proved more yielding this time around. The idea of learning outcomes, and even the idea of student-centered learning outcomes, is not a foreign one for me: I taught fourth grade for two years before fleeing to grad school, and I learned in that context to articulate goals and objectives for my lessons in the language of Bloom’s Taxonomy, which helpfully ranks thinking skills from lowest (recall, define) to highest (evaluate, assess). Still, I had to not worry too much about the language at first. Instead, I wrote a series of sentences, all answering the question “What do I want?” and all beginning with “I want them [by which I meant students in RELI 3400] to…”

Here’s what it turns out that I want:

• I want them to know something about the religious history of the American West – the basic information.

• I want them to be able to recognize religious stuff that doesn’t fit “eastern” models (Protestant/Christian models) – stuff beyond churches/institutions. And I want them to be able to think intelligently about it.

• I want them to think critically about what makes the West distinctive and how that affects/is affected by religion. (LAND is a key component here.)

• I want them to be able to write a good argumentative paper.

Using these “wants” and referring back to my list of “enduring understandings (and skills),” I could really tackle my learning outcomes.

Here is a draft of the student-centered learning outcomes for Religion in the American West:

By the end of RELI 3400, students will…

1. Describe the religious history of the American West by identifying key figures, groups, and events and linking these together in narrative fashion, paying particular attention to the role of religion.

2. Recognize and analyze manifestations of religion that do not fit traditional (usually Christian/institutional) models, as they are found in the West, by identifying non-traditional modes of religious expression and appropriate forms of evidence for analysis.

3. Assess the distinctiveness of religion in the American West by identifying factors (religious or otherwise) that distinguish the American West from other regions and evaluating what (if any) impact these factors have had on religion in the West and how (if at all) religion has affected the impact of these factors on societies and cultures (ecosystems?) in the West.

According to Hangen, the next step is to connect these outcomes to “artifacts” or assessments – things that the students will do that will demonstrate their mastery of these outcomes. So I invite your comments (in fact, I implore them!): what do you think of the learning outcomes? How would you revise them? What did I leave out? And what sorts of artifacts or assessments would you include in the course to evaluate students’ mastery of these outcomes? (I’m sure papers will be in there somewhere, but if you have thoughts about particular formats or assignments, I’d love to have your suggestions.) If you’d like to move a few steps ahead, how would you envision organizing this course into units? What would those units be? What materials would you assign for reading (or viewing, or listening, or otherwise consuming)?

April 2, 2012

Book of the Month:

Bryan Stone, The Chosen Folks: Jews on the Frontiers of Texas 

Review by Sarah Imhoff

In The Chosen Folks: Jews on the Frontiers of Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), Bryan Edward Stone uses the idea of the frontier to conceptualize his history of Texas Jews. Perhaps this should come as no surprise as the tale of a place where the sixteenth century saw Spanish-heritage Crypto-Jews, the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries presented fighting between white settlers (some of whom were Jewish) and Native Americans, and the subsequent racial landscape claimed Anglos, Blacks, and Mexicans. For some of us, however, thinking about the American West in terms of “frontier” conjures specters of the problematic interpretations of Frederick Jackson Turner: white men courageously conquering the land and its residents, civilization defeating barbarism.

But Stone reimagines the idea of the frontier to be a place of cultural coexistence, interaction, and negotiation. In this way, he writes, “American Jews are, and always have been, frontierspeople” (15). In justifying his choice of central motif, Stone relies on the recent work of Sander Gilman, who has proposed the idea of the frontier as a better image for understanding contemporary Jewish identity (specifically post-1948). Rather than clinging to traditional ideas like Diaspora or exile, using frontier metaphors allows us to imagine Jewish identity in more complex ways than one that identifies Israel as the center and the Diaspora as the periphery. Gilman writes: “Let us imagine a new Jewish history written as the history of Jews at the frontier, a history with no center, a history marked by dynamics of change, confrontation, and accommodation, a history that focuses on the present and in which all participants are given voice. The frontier is not the periphery… it is the conceptual and physical space where groups in motion meet, confront, alter, destroy, and build.” (Gilman, Jewish Frontiers, 15). The idea of the frontier leaves behind the center-periphery in respect to Israel and the Diaspora, but in the American context, it also unseats versions of American Jewish history in which New York serves as the paradigmatic locale of the Jewish experience.

Stone, therefore, sees this model of the frontier as a fruitful one for understanding the experiences and identities of Texas Jews throughout their history. By building on this conceptual framework, Stone’s work aligns with the methodological commitments of what we often call “borderlands” histories. (Although he never explains his preference for “frontier” over “borderlands,” it is clear that for Stone the two share much of their substance and method.) The Chosen Folks traces how the space of conceptual divide, contact, and difference played “a pivotal role in shaping Jewish identity and self-definition in Texas” (2).

At the outset, Stone claims that as frontierspeople, these Jewish Texans made poor Jews, and as Jews, they made poor frontierspeople. Stone shows that strictly observant traditional Jews—what he means here by “good Jews”—never constituted a large portion of Jewish Texans. Without large Jewish communities, religious observance like keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath could be quite difficult. Nevertheless, Stone’s research suggests, the Jews who did make their homes in Texas became different kinds of “good Jews”: Jews who negotiated to adapt and defend Jewish identity and what they saw as Jewish values. His chronologically organized history stretches from the Crypto-Jews and their descendants in the sixteenth century to present. Along the way, Stone provides insightful interpretations of major historical issues as well as the minutia of everyday life. He analyzes the early nineteenth century and its settler-“Indian” encounters in the “wild” region, interfaith friendships, reactions to early Zionism, responses to the Ku Klux Klan, Jewish participation in Texas politics, disagreements about religious practice within the Beth Israel synagogue, reactions to World War II and the Holocaust, and interaction with the Civil Rights movement.

While a single work could never cover all the details of Jewish Texas history, Stone’s wide-ranging attention to “frontiers” in the metaphorical sense allows him to present compelling accounts of both important episodes and larger social trends for Jewish Texans. For instance, his careful attention to the dynamics of the racial and religious components of Jewish identity demonstrates how Jews (as not Black, not Mexican, and not Indian) found themselves firmly in the category of Anglo, and yet nevertheless would experience the acrid rhetoric of the Klan. In this sense, The Chosen Folks sets itself apart from most other histories such as Hollace Ava Weiner’s Lone Stars of David and Jewish Stars in Texas that concentrate on telling the tales of individual personalities and communities.

If we take seriously the idea of the frontier as a metaphor for all Jewish identity—as Stone suggests—then The Chosen Folks may serve as a model for helping us to rethink the metaphorical topography of American Jewish history in two ways. It can help decenter an often New York-centric story, and it can offer a narrative based on borders and encounters rather than center and periphery.

Editor’s note: Have you read this book?  What do you think about it?  Join the conversation and leave your thoughts in the comments!  If you have a suggestion for a future book of the month, or if you would like to review a book for the book of the month series, please contact us. Next month, James Bennett reviews Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (University of North Carolina Press, 2012).