Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Genealogy and teacher education

Dr. Christine Sleeter, professor emerita at California State University, Monterey Bay, will talk about "Critical Family History, Identity & Historical Memory" September 25 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

It turns out that well-done family history can help new teachers recognize that their own identities and histories are not so simple -- white people have ethnicity too! -- and thus be better able to deal with the diverse classrooms they'll encounter. Sleeter discovered this for herself researching her own family history, while always asking about the context: who else was living there and what the different groups' political, economic and social relationships were at the time. It turns out that good genealogical practice is good historical and teacher-training practice too.

"Our stories are our own stories," she wrote in Educational Studies 43(2):114 [apparently available online only through academic databases], "but they need to be informed." When she started asking questions she learned, for instance, that her probable great-grandparents left east Tennessee abruptly in the early 1880s and settled in Yampa, Colorado, from which the Ute Indians had recently been forced out. In an 1885 census, she writes, "Oliver reported being from Switzerland, and Celesta from Germany. I suspect they left Tennessee to escape Jim Crow, and concocted stories about where they were from to explain the not-quite-Anglo appearance of one or both of them." There's some DNA and census evidence that her family's vague story of Cherokee ancestry may have been a mask for a less acceptable situation -- an ancestor who was the child of a slaveowner and a slave.

I had no idea that family history was being used professionally in this way; it's part of the evolution of genealogy, from telling simple stories that deify historic ancestors, to understanding that often unpleasant facts of violence and racism lurk in all of our pasts.

. . . But in that process we shouldn't lose our methodology: Sleeter assumes too much about census informants. In fact, we don't know who gave any census taker the information that was written down.

P.S. Two genealogy/history books that combine good research and uncomfortable truths are Martha Hodes' The Sea Captain's Wife and Victoria Freeman's Distant Relations.

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