Confederate Heritage at JMU


This building commemorates noted 19th century scientist and oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury, who resigned his commission in the US Navy in 1861 to serve as a commodore in the Confederate navy. After the Civil War, he briefly lived in Mexico, where he tried to create a slaveholding colony for exiled Confederates. He eventually returned to his home state, Virginia, and accepted a position as professor of meteorology at Virginia Military Institute. A strong advocate for public higher education, he helped create the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Virginia Tech). Photo by author.

Talk of Confederate heritage seems to be everywhere these days. As a public historian who studies, teaches, and writes about this subject, I find the sudden resurgence fascinating and repellent at the same time. Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, put it well when he said, Confederate statues “are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.” I make a similar point in my forthcoming book, Race, Place, and Memory: Deep Currents in WiImington, NC. But my interest is more than academic. Every day, I go to work in a building that long served as a Confederate monument. To be clear, my views on renaming/removing/contextualizing such monuments are still evolving—I take no position, not yet. Few people at JMU know the history of this campus and so I offer this post as a starting point. My study of this institution’s past is very much a work in progress, and I hope to offer additional information later.

The Lost Cause on Bluestone Hill

Built in 1909, Maury Hall opened just in time to welcome the first class of students enrolled at the State Normal and Industrial School for Women. At that time, the building was called Science Hall and it was the sole academic structure: it held the president’s office, the library, the bookstore, and all of the classrooms. Many of the students came here to become teachers and partake of an innovative curriculum designed to meet a shared standard or ‘norm’. The only other buildings of note were a dormitory, which housed a student dining room in the basement and a modest second-floor apartment for the president and his family, and a former farmhouse that accommodated the female faculty.

These buildings were seated on a gentle rise just south of the town of Harrisonburg. The architect, Charles Robinson, stipulated construction with local limestone, a distinctively dark, blue-gray rock that soon gave rise to the campus nickname “Bluestone Hill.” With their white, classical elements and red tile roofs, the structures had an unusual yet striking appearance. As enrollment grew, additional dormitories followed.


“Bluestone Hill” as it appeared ca. 1915. From left to right: Science Hall (Maury), Dormitory 1 (Jackson) and Dormitory 2 (Ashby). JMU Special Collections.

In 1917 the trustees of the Normal approved a recommendation to rename its buildings for Confederate heroes. Science Hall was renamed in honor of Matthew Fontaine Maury, a Virginia-born scientist (the “Father of Oceanography” or “Pathfinder of the Seas”) and commander in the Confederate Navy. His biographer John Grady notes that Maury was a controversial figure while alive, but by this date, thanks especially to his daughter’s 1888 memoir, he had become widely romanticized as a “great benefactor if his race.” Similarly, the original dormitory became Jackson Hall in recognition of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, the Confederate general who led the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, and a second dormitory became Ashby Hall in honor of a local Confederate cavalry officer, Turner Ashby, of nearby Port Republic. Together, these structures memorialized not only the specific deeds of these three men, but a particular interpretation of the Civil War—an interpretation that the faculty and administration expected the future teachers to pass on to Virginia schoolchildren.

In a paper called “White and Black and Bluestone: Racing History at the Normal, at Madison, and Beyond,” I explored the emergence of a distinct Bluestone identity that reinforced white privilege by inculcating respect for traditional southern womanhood, pride in Virginia’s unique past, and reverence for the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. Well known to historians, the Lost Cause ideology held that the south had only lost the Civil War because of inadequate manpower: The Confederate cause was just, white southerners were virtuous people, and slavery was a benign institution that benefited an inferior, black race. Like David Gold, who has studied the Lost Cause at several southern women’s colleges, I found at the Normal a strong desire to honor the local Confederate heritage of the Shenandoah Valley as well as that of Virginia and the south, broadly. Campus buildings played a critical role in this effort because of their fixity and permanence. Even so, a pro-Confederate, profoundly racialized attitude informed almost every aspect of daily life at the Normal–from the curriculum to the school song and planned excursions to local battlefields.

The Curriculum

The curriculum offered the most obvious way to promote the Lost Cause, and it did so on multiple levels. Textbooks, for example, became increasingly race conscious during the early 20th century. Fearful of the sudden influx of Eastern and Southern European and Asian immigrants, textbook authors celebrated the contributions of early settlers from “native stock,” a term meaning chiefly the English but also Germans, Scots, Scot-Irish, Dutch, and sometimes French settlers (but only if the Huguenots). These filiopietistic narratives reflected broader shifts in the instruction of history, which under the Progressives became more “usable,” more practical and civics-oriented, and less academic. At southern colleges, administrators and faculty made an overt effort to link the popular cult of the Anglo-Saxon to south’s distinctive racial system and culture and thereby restore regional pride.

Operating on a quarter system, the Normal offered a four year high school diploma, plus several two-year, post-secondary, professional tracks. These prepared students for certification as kindergarten, elementary, or high school teachers. All students in professional track were required to take courses in six core subjects: English, Math, Geography, History and Social Sciences, Foreign Languages, and Natural Sciences. Early bulletins provide course titles, descriptions, and lists of required textbooks.

Within the core subject History-Social Sciences, Normal students had limited  options. Each student had to take a two-quarter integrated sequence in ancient, medieval, and modern European history (which only included France and Germany). They also took one quarter of English History, a quarter of US History methods, and one quarter of US History.10  In the US content course, the  emphasis was “industrial, economic, and political progress” and the assigned texts were John Fiske, US History for Schools (Houghton Mifflin,1895) and Edward Channing and Albert Bushnell Hart, Guide to American History. Fiske’s book was one of the most popular texts in this era: it went through thirteen editions!

A well known public intellectual, Fiske taught philosophy and history at Harvard and was a devotee of Herbert Spencer, whose ideas about the eventual decline of non-white races he spread through his own writing and speaking engagements. While scientific racism did not characterize his textbook, which was geared toward children, its prose did privilege the white perspective in its treatment of actions taken against slaves, freedmen, Native Americans, and Chinese immigrants.

Channing had a similar approach. Also a professor of history at Harvard, he helped develop the idea of an “American” race as a new category. In his works, English colonists the most important because they contributed nation’s language, culture, customs, laws, but he acknowledged other Anglo-Saxons, too, who by “process of assimilation” strengthened the “American” breed. The Guide was a useful companion to the Fiske text because it was a reference work designed to serve the needs of primary and secondary teachers. It listed various topics, offered a summary, and followed each one with a bibliography. Note that these cursory texts did not serve the history methods course, but the content course. At the Normal, all “subjects were taught from the standpoint  of the student being able to teach them, rather than from merely acquiring knowledge.” Apparently, the faculty didn’t want to tax the students’ female minds too much.

Virginia history was a popular elective. Here, the text was Mary Turner Magill’s  History of Virginia for Use in Schools, first published 1881 and extensively reprinted. Magill lived in Winchester, VA, where she and her mother ran a private school after the war. The women were very successful in attracting pupils because they capitalized on their close,personal relationship to Stonewall Jackson. Magill, described by a Winchester historian as a “fierce Confederate,” dedicated fully one-third of her 374 page book to a certain four year period, with the Shenandoah campaign of 1862 receiving its very own chapter. Her goal, simply stated in the preface, was to give Virginia’s children “a record so full of honor … that they may well be proud of it.”


Dr. John Wayland and students gathered at the New Market battlefield in 1912. This site appears to be part of the Bushong farm, where in 1864 teen-aged cadets from the Virginia Military Institute slogged through a field so muddy that it sucked the shoes off their feet. Although many cadets died, the charge succeeded and helped Confederate troops secure a victory that day. JMU Special Collections.

All of these books were chosen by Dr. John Wayland, who directed the history curriculum at the Normal until 1931. A Shenandoah Valley native, he received his doctorate from UVa in 1907 and eventually authored more than thirty books that mainly focused on local and state history. In keeping with his German heritage, his work especially celebrated the German immigrants who helped settle the Virginia backcountry, but he also acknowledged the English and Scots-Irish. A highly influential figure, for whom another dormitory was later named, Wayland also chaired the excursions committee.


Dr. Wayland and students on a 1910 excursion to the Turner Ashby monument. As pilgrimages to sacred sites associated with the Lost Cause, these field trips served an important didactic purpose but they were also opportunities to socialize and build school identity. To commemorate them, Wayland often arranged formally staged photographs that appeared in early yearbooks and personal scrapbooks. JMU Special Collections.

Bulletins and faculty minutes indicate the didactic function of these field trips. Each year, Wayland took students to the “hallowed site where the gallant Ashby fell in 1862” (a monument near the campus), as well as the spot “where the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe crossed Blue Ridge in 1716” (Swift Run Gap). Other popular nearby destinations were the “old home of Abe Lincoln’s ancestors,” which nodded toward the national reconciliation project, and “the place where young Daniel Boone spent a year of his life,” which echoed efforts to celebrate early settlers. Confederate battlefields, however, were paramount, especially Cross Keys,  “where Jackson won an important victory” and the so-called “field of lost shoes” at New Market battlefield.

Student Organizations and Activities.

Like other Normal schools in Virginia, Harrisonburg’s offered students myriad opportunities to socialize. The young women had a German Club, an Arts Club, and a Kindergarten Club, just to name a few. Most organizations had a clear co-curricular function. The Shakespearean theater troupe, for example, reinforced required courses in literature and English History and celebrated an idealized Anglo-Saxon heritage. Similarly, the Normal boasted two literary societies, which students established in the very first quarter session. They named one for Confederate veteran and poet Sidney Lanier, who once spent six weeks at a resort near Harrisonburg, where he wrote one of his early volumes. The other, however, honored General Robert E. Lee.


Hand-lettered and illustrated program for a Lanier Literary Society event in 1918. Besides the Confederate emblems, note the content. JMU Special Collections.

Both literary societies decorated their posters, programs, and yearbook pages with Confederate symbols like battle flags, kepis, and cavalry swords. Beginning in 1910, the Lee Society joined the local chapter of the United Daughters of Confederacy (UDC) for annual receptions. On January 19,1913, the anniversary of Lee’s birth, the ladies of the UDC presented an actual Confederate battle flag to the Normal, care of the Lee Society. To honor the courage and sanctity of Lee was, of course, to honor the courage and sanctity of his “country,” Virginia, the students’ home state. Thus, in 1918 the Lee Society published a special, inspirational poem called “The Spirit of Lee;” it appeared in the yearbook beneath a photo of the famous “Recumbent Lee” memorial sculpture at Washington & Lee and expressly connected Virginia’s call to arms in 1861 to the nation’s call in World War I.

Another popular Lost Cause activity bears noting: each year, the Virginia Military Academy cadets re-enacted a march made in 1864, when a group of young cadets walked from Lexington to New Market, where they aided a stunning Confederate victory in 1864. As the cadets passed the campus, the Normal’s female students lined the main road to wave and cheer them on. (The re-enactment remains a famous custom for modern VMI cadets.) In the Progressive-era reenactments, cadets assumed the role of heroic defenders, while Normal students played their loyal, protected ladies.


An image from the 1917 yearbook, The School Ma’am, showing the Senior Minstrels dressed for one of their skits. JMU Special Collections.

Other activities, like minstrel shows, proclaimed Normal students’ attitudes about white supremacy/black inferiority. The 1917 yearbook featured a multi-page spread on the Senior Minstrels. That year, a group of black-faced white women, some of whom played black men, staged a skit called “A Dark Night at the Normal.” The four featured characters, Sambo, Tambo, Bones, and Fitznoodle, also offered a variety of musical performances as part of the show. Significantly, the young women were invited to perform at the Virginia Theater downtown at a community-wide Lee celebration on January 19 and again on campus on January 22. The following year, the Junior class staged a ‘vaudeville’ featuring a performance by two women in blackface. It was part of a larger skit called “The Booster Club of Blackville.” Characters featured included “Abraham Lincoln Washington, running after chickens,” and “Alexander Thicklips, pork chop inspector.” Minstrelsy deeply permeated popular culture in this era. As scholars like Grace Elizabeth Hale have shown, in consuming caricatured images of blackness, Americans became more self-consciously white.  What’s important to note here is that these students were not merely consuming—they were actively creating minstrel shows which they proudly performed and to which they attached their own names and identities. And minstrel shows remained popular on Bluestone Hill through the 1950s, as yearbooks attest.

Beyond the Normal


The Normal had two school songs: the official one, Bluestone Hill, and the unofficial one, Shendo Land. Written by Dr. John Wayland and set to the tune of Dixie, Shendo Land was fondly remembered by students, who sang it for many decades.Commencement program, 1912, JMU Special Collections.

As I’ve indicated, this study is very much a work in progress. Like other scholars of American higher education, I’m especially interested in how administrators and faculty (past and present) shape an institution’s racial climate by what they explicitly promote and tacitly allow to occur on campus. In the early decades of the 20th century, the Normal’s president, Julian Burruss, its Board of Trustees, and faculty like John Wayland shared a common sensibility that they promoted among their female students through curriculum, student organizations, and even the physical structures. And the women students were not passive recipients of their Bluestone identity. They actively participated in its construction. While there are indications that some pushed back, alumni records indicate that most students then seemed to understand and embrace the Lost Cause and its racialized and gendered hierarchies. Consider that the school’s official alma mater until 1931 was “Bluestone Hill,” but students preferred the unofficial one, called “Shendo Land.” Sung to the tune of Dixie and written in a racist dialect, it began: “Oh, I wish I was at de school in Shendo/ Good times dar don’t seem to end, so/ look away, look away, look away, Shendo Land/.” Together, five verses gently satirize strict rules regarding male “beaux,” the bluestone buildings with their “bumptious” red tile roofs, and the faculty, while celebrating the absence of mosquitos, the noise of the railroads, and the swish of a basketball. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of their ditty, but it clearly seems a form of cultural inversion–through ridicule, the song worked to affirm their racialized, gendered  identity and to ground it a specific geographic place. And their complicity is important to recognize because nearly 500 women had graduated by 1920 and several thousand more after that. From the Normal to Madison College, alumni took their Bluestone identity with them as they fanned out across the state, teaching generations of white children who became generations of white parents.

Selected Secondary Sources

Dingledine, Raymond. Madison College, 1908-1958.

Frost, Dan R. Thinking Confederates: Academia and the Idea of Progress in the new South.

Gold, David. Students Writing Race at Southern Public Women’s Colleges.” History of Education Quarterly, 50, no. 2 (May 2010): 184-203.

Graves, Karen. Girls Schooling in the Progressive Era.

Hale, Grace. Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South.

McCandless, Amy. The Past in the Present: Women’s Higher Education in the Twentieth Century American South.

Moreau, Joseph. Schoolbook Nation: Conflicts over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present.


Riley, Karen. “Fair and tender ladies v. Jim Crow,” American Educational History Journal, vol 37, issue 1/2 (Sp 2010): 407-417.

Stronger, Patricia A. and Irene Thompson, eds.. Stepping Off the Pedestal: Academic Women in the South.

Mapping My Place in the Open Landscape

Maybe it’s all the cultural geography I’ve read, but I find the idea of mapping my place in the landscape of open learning very intriguing. Am I digital visitor or a resident? In my forthcoming book, I explore (among other things) the way cognitive mapping works to help people navigate their place in the cultural landscape of a community; I’m especially interested in the way that our attachments to physical places serve as mnemonics for experiences or events (both positive and negative) crucial to identity formation, especially civic and racial identities. Among other things, I consider the way parades function—a group of people processing deliberately by iconic buildings and monuments serves to inscribe shared values on the landscape but also works to unite the marchers and the watchers as members of an imagined community. (People can also be excluded from participating and have traumatic memories of events and places.) I wonder if a similar kind of attachment and identity can be formed in online spaces. Seems plausible, right? If I consider the web a place and participate in certain online communities, then I’m having experiences and making relationships that shape my identity as a member of those communities. The piece I’m puzzling out concerns the mnemonic structures. What takes the role of the physical marker, the iconic building or monument or sign? Is it the architecture of a web domain? The WordPress page, the Twitter profile, the Facebook page?

To explore these ideas further, I decided to delve into visitor and resident mapping exercises. Through the Open Learning17 cMOOC, I had already read Laura Gogia’s post on V&R mapping, and she led me to read Donna Lanclos’s keynote on Teaching, Learning, and Vulnerability, which included more on mapping exercises, as well as a Periscope of Bonnie Stewart’s recent presentation at Keene State (slidedeck here) and David White’s various posts and videos at JISC. (These folks all know each other and work together in various ways and so if you follow my trail, you’ll quickly see the interconnectedness of these sources.)


My Visitor/Resident map, April 2017

A mapping exercise is a great way to visualize one’s own practices online and reflect on them. Here’s what mine looks like. It wasn’t difficult to do—the hard part was finding the colored markers (fortunately I have a daughter who’s a tween). It corroborates my approach, which has been to keep most of my personal stuff, well, personal. Note I have almost nothing in the upper-left corner. I don’t do Facebook or Instagram, but I am considering Tumblr as a way to share certain photos and curate digital images and such. I could do more with Twitter: the map shows my personal activity: I also manage two other Twitter accounts, one for an organization and one for a group on campus, but those don’t count because I’m not ‘me’ when I’m tweeting under those handles. Could I do more with LinkedIN? Should I? I am hopeful that my blog will become more ‘residential’ in the future.

Why Twitter? I joined in 2012 and I consciously chose it because I wanted (ok, needed) to connect to other scholars who were working on public history, collective memory, race, and place. It also connected me to a group of administrators in public higher ed who share my concerns about defunding, attacks on liberal education, adjunctification, student debt, inclusivity, and myriad other challenges. Sometimes, the two communities even intersect, as they have in recent conversations about memorials to slaveholders and white supremacy on campuses. And that topic brings me back to physical markers that serve as mnemonics for individual and group identity formation.


Facebook flyer posted on a glass door. Image from Flickr, CC license.

Obviously, there are no physical markers on the Web. But there are visual markers that tell us, whether we are visitors or residents, where we are. There are signposts and trails everywhere. And the current fascination with personal branding, even in the hallowed halls of Academe, reflects the recognition that our digital identities are tied to, derive from, and are shaped by the markers evident in the myriad digital spaces we enter. Having a consistent brand (same color or font, photo, logo) is imperative, it seems, as we travel around the internet. My undergraduate students understand the way visual markers work to create digital identities, but at this stage of their lives they seem more interested in promoting multiple selves than in crafting a coherent persona.


My current Twitter header etc.

My identity on Twitter, the place I reside most, is still evolving. I chose a photo that depicts me talking and gesturing with my hand because I happen to be a talker and gesturer. My profile includes words that chiefly convey my professional identity yet there is a nod to my private self in the references to my coffee addiction. Coffee isn’t unique to me, but it is actually a significant part of who I am and how I spend my time. The photo of the coffee cup I took on a visit to Charleton’s Coffee House in Colonial Williamsburg, so it also serves as a mnemonic for me of that trip and a physical place (Williamsburg) that is crucial to my professional identity since I went to W&M and worked at CW.

When I go to my Twitter site, I see signs of who I am IRL and I assume others see them, too. But I’m not aggressive in promoting my self this way and perhaps other residents will see me as merely a visitor as a result. In her Keene State talk, Bonnie Stewart noted that open citizenship occurs in “quantified” spaces. The number of followers you have, the number of comments posted, these quantities influence how others see you and whether they will interact with you or not. So those numbers serve as visual markers of your identity, except they are created by others.

Something happens when you move out from your own Twitter timeline and enter a communal space like the one defined by #openlearning17. There, I see familiar “faces,” meaning the digital identities of other members of this online community, and I remember who is who by virtue of their profiles and handles. The people in that digital space are different each time, but the place is always the same—the white Twitter boxes, the blue Twitter bar, the navigation buttons, the bird. I see the same thing when I check in over at #twitterstorians or #AACU17 or even #JMU. It’s a corporate space, designed FOR users, not BY users. I can’t get lost in the Twitterverse, not really. The markers always tell me where I am and who.

It’s a Real Thing: Open Pedagogy

About three years ago, I recreated my own domain. I had had a fairly extensive website back in the late 1990s, when Web 1.0 ruled the universe, but when I came to JMU in 2005, I found that faculty overwhelmingly used Blackboard and hid their syllabi and assorted pedagogical aids away from public sight. It has been interesting to watch the shift toward open ed occurring here in the last decade. As more and more faculty, generally the younger ones, experimented more and more with WordPress and Omeka and similar tools, I did, too. And as I added blogging assignments, digital exhibits, and web-based portfolios to my classes, I realized that it was high time to put my own self out there again. How could I ask my students to create their own domains and post their own work under their own names if I was not willing to do the same thing myself?

I admit that I’m still anxious about the kinds of privacy and surveillance issues that Audrey Watters raises in her recent keynote, Ed-tech in a Time of Trump, but that anxiety is now part of my approach to open pedagogy, which I understand to be a real thing, after all:

I love that you’re like ‘I didn’t know there was a name for it.’ There is a name for it, as soon as I pretend there’s a name for it. Open Ped is kind of in a phase where it’s becoming a thing, but it may or may not actually be a thing. I don’t know when you get to say something is a thing. Robin DeRosa

In my Introduction to Public History, students create their own web domains as their semester-long project. I have an undergraduate working with me, Edel Rimando, who is serving this semester as a fellow in the Digital Communication (DigiComm) Center. It’s a sweet deal: she is an effective peer mentor, since she is one of them, and she holds her own consultation hours in addition to leading three (three!) hands’ on workshops in class. The first time I assigned students to create websites I required them to use WordPress, which is my preferred platform, however, I was not comfortable enough with the myriad options to be an effective guide. The second time, I allowed them to choose between WordPress and Wix and Weebly, the drag-and-drop options that DigiComm recommends to first-timers. All of the students in that class chose Wix or Weebly, so this semester, that is what we (Edel and I) went with. I don’t use them and I don’t like them for all the reasons DeRosa notes in her interview, but they are user-friendly, efficient, and get the job done.


Last semester’s Intro to Public History class working on their domain projects.

The students have freedom to design their domains as they want. We discussed professional designs, branding, and so forth. We also discussed some basic ways to protect privacy. Each person has to have a simple resume and a biographical statement that explains what the site’s function will be. Is it merely to fulfill this class’s requirement or will he or she use it to curate excellent work from multiple classes? Many of my students are public history concentrators, so they have required internships for which they have to create a blog, which they can link to their domain. Other students are in the teaching licensure program and create links to lesson plans they have made, while others still are in graphic design and use their domains to showcase their commercial work. I have been amazed at the range of talents and projects that my students showcase on their domains–from photography to music videos to traditional research papers.

To meet the outcomes for public history the students must include two projects specific to this class’s content. The first is an analysis of a city block in downtown Harrisonburg; each student is assigned a section of an historic fire insurance map that documents how a block appeared ca 1960 and then she has to physically walk the block today paying attention to and interpreting changes in the cultural landscape from then to now. Although the students initially produce traditional written essays, they are actually generating content for their individual domains. Transforming that essay, with its written text and digital maps and photographs, into a webpage poses an interesting and instructive challenge that fits the open pedagogy model in the way it employs a learner-driven process and connects to the wider public. The assignment asks them to consider writing for a public audience instead of me, their professor, and to play with design and navigability among other things. By putting their work online they are clearly doing a kind of public history, although they understand that they are not doing digital public history in the sense of inviting the public to participate in the project or comment on their work. The project does not, in other words, involve the community itself, and I can only say “next time” to that criticism.


Rear view of Montpelier showing location of historic slave quarter, which is under reconstruction.

A second project that they must complete offers a different challenge. It involves a field trip to Montpelier, the home of James and Dolley Madision, which serves as a case study for many of the different branches of public history we study: historic preservation, historic house museums, exhibit design, virtual tourism,, archaeology. In effect, they choose a particular aspect of public history that appeals to them and they use their visit as an opportunity to explore how that aspect works at an actual historic site. Of course, they must then figure out to present their analyses on their domains. Although they have examples and a rubric, I try not to direct them too much. They need to feel ownership and have agency for the assignment to succeed.

As they build their sites they work with their fellow classmates, not just me and Edel. I requested and got approval to teach in one of JMU’s EPIC classrooms, which has six tables or pods seating six students each. During the regular class meetings, students plug their laptops into the various outlets and take turns projecting their screens to a wall-mounted monitor. As they work through in-class digital exercises and discuss readings, they have been building a sense of community that will serve them in good stead when they present their domains in the final weeks of class. These days have been scheduled well in advance and serve as design charettes. Each student’s URL will be added to a common Google doc so that the entire audience can navigate along with the presenter and provide feedback to be used prior to final submission for grading.

This assignment, well, this entire class isn’t nearly as open as it could be or I’d like it to be. In other classes I have experimented with different open pedagogical practices, baby-stepping my way toward something more radical. I appreciated reading about Robin DeRosa’s extreme makeover: pedagogy edition and seeing her candid acknowledgement of the time it takes to build your network of outsiders who are willing to participate in the students’ open learning experience. I also found it helpful to think about the tension between content transfer and skill development in many courses, especially upper-level ones in the major, as mine is. Content transfer has definitely taken a back seat to community building and students’ self-efficacy. My role is that of facilitator, and despite my worries about the risks (privacy, surveillance, trolls) associated with open learning, I find the whole open pedagogy thing energizing.


Open Learning, Digital Citizenship, & Political Citizenship

NOTE: For week three of the #OpenLearning17 cMOOC, I was supposed to read Doug Engelbart, Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework (excerpts online). But I got sidetracked, as I often do, by other readings. Imagine my surprise, however, to find Englebart everywhere I looked.

I’ve been recently thinking about the relationship between open learning, digital citizenship, and political citizenship. At JMU, I’ve been leading efforts to advance the civic engagement of our undergraduates and I’ve been involved in digital humanities work in the College of Arts and Letters. These interests grow out of my training in American Studies and public history, both of which are interdisciplinary endeavors that seek to involve ordinary Americans in shaping a more accurate, more sophisticated understanding of our shared past. In case it isn’t evident, American Studies scholars and public historians alike have been actively engaged online, whether digitizing collections, hosting MOOCs, or blogging about their work. In fact, I was motivated to join the #openlearninghub in part because I wanted to learn from academics doing digital work in other fields. How, I wonder, can we leverage the positive human relationships that many people build online to foster effective participation in the traditional modes of politics that undergird our representative democracy?


icitizen swag surrounds my James Madison bobblehead. It’s a real-time, digital polling tool that facilitates open communication and collaboration between citizens and their elected leaders to shape the policies that affect their lives.

The specific prompt was Autumm Caines’ blog post on digital citizenship (#digciz), which led me to her website and course syllabus. She argues that higher ed offers an important opportunity to help young people develop a better sense of their rights and responsibilities in digital environments. Her work put me in mind of another essay I was reading at the time, Joseph Kahne, Ellen Middaugh, and Danielle Allen, “Youth, New Media, and the Rise of Participatory Politics,” in From Voice to Influence (2015). All the evidence points to the growing power of digital networks for political organizing. Groups around the world are using new media, mobilizing applications like Twitter and Facebook to create protests as they did so effectively during the Arab Spring and the Women’s Marches. Evidence also indicates that young people are the ones most effectively using their digital networks for more than mere social interaction. They forward weblinks from Huffington Post, create and circulate political memes, like each others’ Instagram images, contribute to polls at icitizen, and sign online petitions at Unfortunately, young people are also the most disengaged from traditional political life, even as they constitute the largest single demographic.

To better understand youth activity online (and my own geezer brand of activity, lol), I have turned to the work of Howard Rheingold, the man who seems to have coined the term virtual communities. In particular, his adaptation of the concept of the panopticon to the digital world affirmed my own concerns about corporate surveillance, but his argument for greater mindfulness in Net Smart is even more intriguing. For Rheingold, online networks are not only essential to our private success (and personal empowerment), but the public good. He says, “I believe that learning to live mindfully in cyberculture is as important to us as a civilization as it is vital to you and me as individuals.” (NetSmart, p1)

For me, the common thread for these writers is connected learning. I wasn’t at all surprised to see that Rheingold cited Doug Engelbart, for example, or to find Henry Jenkins’ work on participatory culture in both Rheingold and Allen et al. Caines, similarly, teaches Rheingold in her #digciz course and is co-director of VConnecting, a global initiative that hosts informal virtual meetings between people attending academic conferences and those who can not attend. I confess I’m still trying to figure out how all these individuals and their ideas and their activities intersect, but so far they have inspired me to put together a draft syllabus for a course called Citizenship in the Digital Age. I’ll put details in a future post. For now, though, here are some of the salient bits:

Potential Readings

Foundational documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Federalist 10; as well as court cases

American Studies texts like: Crevecoeur, What is an American?; Emerson, The American Scholar;  DuBois

Essays by Danielle Allen, Howard Rheingold

Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone

For several  years now, I’ve had students posting to a common course blog and/or creating their own web domains (Shout out to my fellow Virginians over at University of Mary Washington and the Domain of One’s Own project). So this course also will include social media and new tools associated with “civictech,” such as icitizen and Ballotready and Turbovote.

If you have good ideas for other readings and assignments, please let me know.

Associative trails in the post-notecard age


From Life Magazine, Nov. 11, 1945

Like other scientists involved in producing weapons of mass destruction for WWII, Vannevar Bush eventually issued a clarion call to his colleagues to create “pacific instruments,” namely machines capable of collecting “the inherited knowledge of the ages.” This week I read his famous July 1945 essay, “As We May Think” and immediately recognized his memex as a proto-computer with the ability to create associative trails of information. Unlike the atomic bomb, which Bush oversaw, the memex’s purpose was constructive: by enabling scientists to select, annotate, and associate bits of information from myriad sources, the machine would allow them “to grow in the wisdom of [human] race experience” and “wield that great record [of human knowledge] for his [man’s] true good.” I confess I had to reread the final paragraphs several times to grasp Bush’s meaning; he abruptly shifts from “we” (a pronoun encompassing him and his fellow scientists) to “he” (which references Man or mankind—as in the phrase, “Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated . . . “). Yet, for all his visionary ideas about the future, Bush’s optimism that July was clearly measured. Allied troops had just recently liberated the death camps and he undoubtedly knew more about the genocide than the general public. As director of the Manhattan Project, he also knew that Little Boy was even at that moment being readied for use against Japan. The US was still very much at war. Would mankind “perish in conflict” or “live healthily” ever after?

I found it difficult to read “As We May Think” while questions about our nation’s future are swirling. I live in a blue dot surrounded by a swath of red, an established refugee resettlement community in a historically WASP locale, a college town set in a proud but declining agricultural region. Open learning is central to who I am and what I do here, but many of my neighbors want to close our borders, reject freedom of conscience, and deride long-established scientific and humanistic knowledge. What to do at such a moment? I turn inevitably to my students.

This semester I am teaching Intro to Public History, a survey of the major branches of the field: historic preservation, oral history, museum exhibit design, living history, archives, and so forth. Over the years, I have added a lot of digital content, as well, and once again I am requiring students to create their own websites or portfolios (shoutout to UMW’s Domain of One’s Own for inspiration) as a way to not only acquire new skills but to think carefully about curating their own digital identities. The assignment intersects with Bush’s essay in interesting ways. Besides posting several research projects, they must reflect on the digital traces they have already left behind, the FB likes and Instagram posts, the Amazon purchases and texts and sexts and tweets and all manner of bits and bytes that linger in databases everywhere. The same machines that allow ‘we’ scholars to make associative trails for purposes that serve the public good are also used to data-mine for private profit. There is indeed “a new profession of trailblazers,” as Bush called them, “those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.” Young people care a great deal about privacy and their personal brands, but they often lack the information or tools they need to protect themselves.

So many new tools exist now. The goal of this week’s openlearninghub exercise was to consider innovative ways of locating, selecting, and processing information. Many years ago when I was dissertating, I relied on two ordinary shoeboxes to hold the hundreds of notecards I needed for my research. The project, a study of cultural identity in a 19thC company town, required me to keep track of thousands of individuals and the million factoids I had gathered about them from census records, parish records, wage records, probate inventories, and oral histories. I also used a relational database called Paradox, which I loaded on a dinosaur of a portable computer, and two file cabinets full of folders containing Xeroxes and pages of longhand notes. But the shoeboxes with their alphabetical dividers were the heart and soul of my “philosophical genealogies.” If I had had a memex, they would have been my code book. Once, my partner-now-husband saw me laying out cards on a table as I struggled to link members of several Dougherty families. He said, “You know, that’s how the Nazis kept track of the Jews. Notecards. I wonder what they would have done with computers.” I think about my notecards a lot these days. The days of notecards are long gone.


Blank notecards with my laptop. Two ways of collecting and associating info.

Parlez-vous open learning?

Way back when I was in my twenties, I traveled to Quebec with some friends. I felt so sophisticated, so grown-up as I tried to use my high-school-plus-one-semester-of-college French language skills. I could order (safely) from a menu; navigate hotel check-in; count money out for a purchase; and interact cordialement with people I met. Of course, it was an illusion–that heady feeling of fluency. I was not then nor have I ever been fluent in French. I wasn’t even proficient. But I tried and it felt good to push myself that way.


So it is with open learning. Over the years I have acquired some of the vocabulary, grammar, and idioms needed to converse in this language, yet I know I am far from proficient.

My goal in joining #OpenLearning17 is simply to become more conversant. At the moment, I have a Twitter account that I use frequently to connect with #twitterstorians, #publichistorians, #genedadministrators (ok, there’s not really a hashtag for that yet, no one wants to admit to being one I guess), and #civicengagement folks as well as a few others. I routinely incorporate digital humanities projects into my classes, and I have a blog that I started one day when I was wondering about my personal brand, whatever that is. Like many academics, I often walk around composing blog posts in my head, but by the time I get in front of my computer, *poof*. Hopefully, this cMOOC will help me find the right words.

How about you? Parlez-vous open learning?

Quads as Symbols of Liberal Learning

We recently ended Springboard, a series of thirteen days in June and July that are designed to welcome freshmen to campus and provide a key part of their orientation programming. Organized by our Orientation Office in conjunction with Admissions, the advising centers, the academic colleges, and my unit, University Programs, it affords my colleagues and me an opportunity to talk directly to students and their parents about academic expectations here and the value of a liberal education. I only get ten minutes, so I try to make it count by focusing on a few “mental images” as takeaways.

Here’s what I said:

“Welcome, class of 2019! I’m honored to be here representing the faculty. To give you a sense of scale: there are more than 960 FT instructional faculty here and more than 400 part-time instructors. It’s a big place! And a rich, vibrant academic community. My goal this morning is for you to understand what an academic community is. If you’ll humor me for just a minute, I’d like you picture our beautiful Quad. Go ahead, close your eyes. See the broad expanse of lawn. The bluestone buildings on all four sides (cuz it’s a quadrangle). They house dormitories, classrooms, computer labs, and offices. Once upon a time, the only dining hall was there, the library, too. Now picture other quads you know. Maybe UVa’s Grounds, designed by Thomas Jefferson. My own alma mater, the University of Delaware, has two quadrangles. Think: Harvard yard, Oxford, Hogwarts. Quads are everywhere in the landscape of American higher education because they are deeply symbolic spaces. Tracing back to the medieval period, they are echoes of the great European cloisters and universities, living and learning communities where groups of scholars came together in the spirit of contemplation, study, and research.”


Architect’s conjectural drawing of the quad in 1908. Then, the fourth side was left open following UVAs example in order to signify a welcoming community appropriate for a democracy. Of course it wasn’t really open: only white women could attend then. But that’s another blog post.

“You’re here today because you’ve chosen to join our academic community. Chosen is the operative word. You are not actually required to be here! There are no laws requiring Americans to attend college. No truant officers will show up at your parent’s door if you skip classes for a few weeks. There are no state mandated SOL tests and no single set of subjects that everyone must take. For the first time in your lives, YOU are the sole person responsible for your education.”

“Because you have voluntarily chosen to enroll here, the faculty have high expectations for you. It’s not like high school, even if you have dual enrollment or AP credit, trust me. For one thing, you were ALL tops in your high school classes. We received about 26,000 applications to produce a freshman cohort of about 4300. So congratulations. But now you’ll have to step up your game. For another thing, this is a university. That word has meaning, too–it’s not a synonym for college. By definition a university is a place that grants graduate degrees—we create new knowledge here. That’s why we call ourselves professors–the faculty profess expertise in their research fields; we are scholars as well as dedicated teachers. And we expect you to join us in doing research. Ok, maybe not freshman year, but certainly when you’re in those 300- and 400-level seminars. Our undergraduates are studying everything from nanotechnology to genocide in Bosnia. A university also offers study abroad experiences, internships, and service-learning projects. To succeed, you’ll want be active not passive learners.”


The Quad today.

“In choosing to join this academic community, you have chosen to acquire a liberal education, not job training or a piece of paper. I’m talking now about the stuff that prepares you to be an educated and enlightened citizen, like it says in JMU’s mission statement. Like the Quad, this kind of self-reflective, analytical education has been a hallmark of American colleges and universities since the colonial era. It prepares you to be an effective participant in a free society–and that’s why you can’t get this education in many parts of the world today. Now, here’s another thought exercise for you: it’s 1769; picture a short, skinny, knobby-kneed seventeen-year old boy leaving his home in rural Virginia and traveling by carriage all the way to far off, exotic New Jersey. Talk about culture shock! The boy was James Madison and like some of you he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up. At that time, the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) was known for producing Presbyterian ministers. (Apparently, William and Mary was a party school then.) Fortunately for us, he didn’t follow that path. But he did acquire a liberal education, one that enabled him to become one of the most original political thinkers in the world. JMU provides the same kind of liberal arts and sciences curriculum Madison knew, though can rest easy knowing we’ve updated it for the needs of the 21st century. We call it General Education: The Human Community, and it’s a vital part of your degree, a whopping one-third of it, in fact. It’s that important.”

“Despite what you hear in the media, public opinion research tells us a liberal education is also the best preparation for long-term career success you can get. Here’s a shocking statistic: by age 39, the average American with a BA or BS degree will have held between 10-14 different jobs. You can’t know what those jobs will be. None of us knows what jobs lie ahead, not even employers. In a January 2015, researchers interviewed more than 400 employers across all sectors. Do you know what they said they look for in hiring new employees? A little more than 60% said they valued ‘broad, comparative knowledge’ and ‘cross-cutting skills’ like writing and critical thinking over narrow technical competence, which they intend to teach you themselves. So think about the value of your entire degree. As we like to say here, your major will help you get your first job, but a liberal education equips you for a lifetime of employment.”


Students studying and relaxing on the Quad in front of Wilson Hall.

“But I know you aren’t thinking about the workplace today! You’re ready to meet your Orientation Peer Advisors and get your JAC cards. Just do this one thing for me: when you leave Wilson Hall today, take a good look at that Quad again and remember what it symbolizes–Your academic community!”

Exploring Digital Identity with History Majors


I’m currently teaching a section of HIST395, our department’s mandatory research methods course for History majors. We normally offer four or five sections a semester and use a shared syllabus. Over the summer, a colleague proposed that we add a new element: a required WordPress site. In addition to the usual research paper, exams, oral presentation, and other assignments, each student in each of the four sections will create his or her own domain–a place to post papers, a resume, photos, random musings, whatever. I’m familiar with WordPress, but I confess to feeling ambivalent. On the one hand, I agree with the project’s core goal: to help humanities students develop marketable technology skills in addition to the “traditional” ones, like writing, analyzing, and synthesizing. On the other hand, I still have concerns about student privacy and digital identity, as I described in this earlier post.

So here’s what I’m gonna do: integrate some additional information about the need to manage one’s digital identity. I especially like the approach taken by University of Mary Washington’s Domain of One’s Own Project, so I looked there first. The readings for digital identity were, as to be expected, perfect for my purposes. For now, I am assigning the students in my class to read Tim Chambers’ 2011 series of three essays for Huffington Post, “Who Owns the Digital You?,” part 1, part 2, and part 3.

HIST 395 Pilot Underway

Image #47-1953, Azalea Festival Collection, New Hanover County Library  Digital Collections

This semester (Fall 2014), students in all four sections of HIST 395: Research Methods will participate in a pilot project. Each student will create an individual domain via WordPress that will serve as a portfolio site. Today they will make their first “real” posts, which should consist of a primary source used in their papers plus a brief analysis of said source. I’m posting this image from my own research to illustrate the goal. It is used in chapter four of a book manuscript titled, “Deep Currents: Race, Place, and Memory on Wilmington, North Carolina.”

Taken in 1953, it shows members of the Wilmington (NC) Kiwanis Club on their float in the city’s annual and much celebrated Azalea Festival. It clearly shows four men in blackface, the ‘Kiwanis Minstrels.’ One of them wears a top hat and a bold, golden-yellow plaid suit; the other three wear outlandish red-and-white striped suits with oversized red bow ties. In earlier chapters, I explore how and why minstrelsy became popular in the 1830s and 1840, why it appealed to white residents, and how its unique forms and tropes persisted into the twentieth century. Through their costumes and antics, the white men on this float deployed old stereotypes of blacks as ignorant buffoons tolerable only for their entertainment value. The Kiwanans’ own place in society, derived by way of cultural inversion, is as the community’s enlightened governors. That such a prominent organization represented its identity this public way confirms the prevalence of racist attitudes among white civic leaders in the 1950s and their conviction that the audience (which they imagined as white) shared their views. In these and other ways, I argue that the Azalea Festival helped perpetuate the ideal of white supremacy and the illusion of “harmonious” race relations.

You CAN go home again . . .

On March 27, 2014, I gave an author talk, “Black Powder, White Lace – The du Pont Irish and Cultural Identity in Nineteenth Century America”

When my old friend Roger Horowitz first invited me to give an author talk at Hagley Museum and Library, I immediately said yes, but I’ll admit that I didn’t really know what to expect. Imagine turning your scholarly book into an hour-long lecture for the general public! It turned out to be one of the best presentations I’ve ever done, not just because some family and friends were there, but because so many strangers came up afterwards to share with me their stories, their genealogies, their thanks. One man, a Hagley guide, brought the copy he purchased back in 2002 for me to sign. It was all dog-eared and full of underlinings and marginalia. And that’s really what I always wanted—a book that regular people would read and enjoy. About twice a year, someone reads Black Powder, White Lace and tracks me down via Google to say hello or ask if I have more information about an ancestor or whatever. I’m always grateful and humbled when they do that. But it was so much nicer to meet my readers (past and future) in person.
Hagley has just posted the video of my talk. You watch the whole thing here: