By Abigail Modaff

This essay introduces our forum that collects three undergraduate book reviews that address the themes of the Identity Before Identity Politics seminar at Harvard University in the spring of 2020, which was taught by Abigail Modaff. You can find those reviews here.

The three essays in this forum are book reviews written by students in History 12b: Identity Before Identity Politics: America in the Progressive Era, which I taught at Harvard this past spring. I created the course because I believed that students would find much about the Progressive Era familiar. “Division and difference were the watchwords of the era,” I told the class on our first day. Immigration was a constant debate; modern ideas of race were being built; new generations were remaking gender and sexuality. Those from all segments of society blamed others for poisoning the national well, and the future felt utterly unknowable. “Change seemed both inevitable and like it would never come,” I said to the students on January 30th. If only I had known what the view would be from July.

I built the course around the resonances that I felt between past and present: questions of what it means to be American, how we define ourselves, and what it really means to overcome the divisions between us. Even so, the class was predominantly a history course, working its way through primary sources on the Progressive Era and capped by a lengthy research paper. But the final week of class discussion focused on readings from the past 30 years, and on a short assignment—the one that generated this forum—that asked students to review these texts in light of what we had learned about the past. The discussion was excellent—substantive, productive, and wide-ranging—and yet the next time I teach the course, I suspect that the present-day readings will be entirely different. There were some relatively obvious choices, like Hillbilly Elegy, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal. But others appeared only because I felt that they fit the course and its themes, in a way that I would be hard pressed to explain. (This led to some almost random outcomes: one student wrote that a text I’d selected was “one of the most prominent and influential” on her topic, and I had to tell her that, in fact, it only appeared because I’d received an email advertisement for it.) Even less extreme examples than this still raised a question that was new for me as a history instructor: if the goal of an assignment is to connect past and present, how can this “connection” be defined with both pedagogical and historical integrity?

When the threat of COVID-19 pushed us all off campus in March, the stakes of this question were heightened. I found myself hesitating to demand anything of my students that I did not genuinely believe would benefit them as people, even in the midst of this tumultuous and frightening world. In reaching for this impossibly high standard, I found myself on the most solid ground when I was constructing the assignment for the book review, which I chose to keep in place while relaxing other aspects of the syllabus. In writing the assignment up for the students, I described it as the chance for “you the scholar… to talk directly to you the citizen, based on the knowledge you have as a scholar and the priorities you have as a citizen.” I wanted to give my students the opportunity to fit their education to their own values: to make it relevant and real, on whatever terms were organic to their experience, even as the world seemed to be spinning out of control.

A four-page book review is a small thing in the face of a world-changing event, and it doesn’t even scratch the surface of innovative pedagogy. Yet as my students’ end-of-year evaluations made clear, it represents a kind of pedagogy that is still quite rare in the history classroom. The assignment’s goal, rather than its specifics, was most crucial: my students were enthusiastic about having the chance to explicitly puncture the wall between coursework and what we nebulously call “life.” This was especially the case amid the pandemic, but it took hold of their and my deeper intuitions about education more generally. If the point of a class is that it changes the way you think, then why not formalize that transformation? Why make that the one thing students have to do on their own? Why not bring it instead into the space of the class itself, so it can be shared, spurred, strengthened?

The danger with such assignments is that they can become either reductive or patronizing. Although I made my pitch to students about the parallels between the early twentieth century and today, teaching only the similarities between then and now would distort the facts. A one-to-one definition of “relevance” is inimical to good historical practice. Nor did I want to pander to students by promising that I knew what mattered to them, and to insult both their intelligence and my colleagues’ by insisting that my class contained more “real life,” whatever that means, than those down the hall. I settled on an assignment that formalized the process, rather than the outcome, of connecting past and present. In the book review and the class discussion that accompanied it, I encouraged students to start from their own transformations: what did you notice about this book that you wouldn’t have noticed before taking this course? I scaffolded further questions upward from there: how might considering Progressive-Era perspectives have changed this modern-day argument? Does this book show that the history of the Progressive Era is still crucial for understanding our world, or does it show just how far we’ve come beyond those old debates? While we worked together on brainstorming and crafting a strong argument, students had to build the bridge between then and now themselves. Rather than hunting for similarities or influences, I wanted them to embrace the contrasts between past and present, the gaps and gulfs in our inheritance, the possibilities trampled and the questions unanswered, the messiness and incomparability of the past.

It is possible, and perhaps even imperative, for intellectual history classes to give students this kind of support and structure as they step forward from the class into the rest of their lives, whatever those lives happen to hold. We can extend the analysis we normally use in the classroom to the present day without reducing the complexity of either; these “presentist” assignments can be as inventive, collaborative, careful, well-reasoned, and profound as the rest of the scholarship we teach. My small book review assignment built on principles and practices from Harvard and beyond—from the examples of specific instructors, the Mindich Program in Engaged Scholarship, the Democratic Knowledge Project, and the countless discussions I’ve had about pedagogy with other graduate students. But I wanted to adapt those practices specifically to intellectual history, and thus to insist on the relevance and civic value that I see in the subdiscipline that can sometimes seem to be the most esoteric.

To do this, I focused on the subdiscipline’s bread and butter: the analysis of text in context. For the book review, I encouraged my students to analyze the key words of their present-day texts in light of what we’d read in class: who is the imagined “we” of the text? If the book talks about “progress,” toward what is that progress directed, and what does it hope to leave behind? Would anyone we read in class have productively disagreed with what the modern-day text argues? Does it matter that one text talks about “universality,” and another about “unity”? More profoundly, I wanted them to take this textual analysis a step further and turn it back upon themselves: to articulate the way that the course’s purely historical portion had changed the way they saw their current world. I wanted them to engage in that miracle of realizing that the texts they’d read from the past had expanded their minds—a miracle that the subjects presented in intellectual history are, I believe, especially good at provoking. Old pieces of writing gave my students new concepts to think with, alternatives to seemingly settled questions, and fresh angles on old debates: tools that they could use to scrutinize something written yesterday just as much as something written in 1906. “Studying the past lets us defy what’s given,” I told them in January. I wanted them to practice that liberation, so that if it was something they valued, they’d have the muscle memory to keep doing it.

The resulting eleven essays were as diverse and thoughtful as I hoped, and the three of them that follow here are a rich sample. While the reviews speak for themselves, I’ll note one overarching takeaway: a majority of students agreed with their texts’ diagnosis of the problem, but scarcely any had faith in their book’s proposed solution. Though we hadn’t read his work since February, which by late April seemed like another lifetime, several students returned to Walter Lippmann’s Drift and Mastery: to his lyrical, compelling yearning for communion, followed by a hollow-seeming defense of science as universal language. For my students, Lippmann’s search continues. From Lippmann, to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, to the self-satisfied philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, to W. E. B. Du Bois’s art above the veil, and even to the revolutionary unionism of Eugene Debs, they distrusted utopias past and present, and they confronted the difficulty of defining exactly what it is that we are searching for. Few of them lost the chance to take a swipe at Theodore Roosevelt’s rigid Americanism. But while they sought an identity—a “higher allegiance,” as one student put it—that celebrated difference rather than crushing it, none seemed to feel that they’d found it. In their final assessment, despite flashes of inspiration, both past and present came up wanting. They agree that we are divided; they aren’t yet sure what comes next.

Abigail Modaff is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Harvard University. Her dissertation is titled, To Meet Life Face to Face: Communication and American Social Reform from Haymarket to the Harlem Renaissance. Her larger research interests include intellectual and cultural history, in the United States and around the globe.

Featured Image: Make the Fourth of July Americanization Day: Many Peoples—But One Nation. New York: National Americanization Day Committee (1915–1919). Woodrow Wilson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.