History Department and students reflect on first year of Speaker Series

“The Race and Ethnicity Speaker Series is probably the thing I’m most proud of that the faculty accomplished this year,” Head of Upper Division Dr. Jessica Levenstein said. “It was a huge amount of work, and I am so proud of the History Department.”

This year, the History Department organized and hosted a speaker series titled “How Did We Get Here?: The Past and Present of Race and Ethnicity.” The year-long series of nine lectures, held as webinars over Google Meet and open to the whole school, focused on the historical roots of present social and political topics such as police brutality, mass incarceration, and environmental justice.

 Each lecture had about 800 viewers, but there were fewer people in attendance at the end of the year than at the beginning, history teacher Dr. Emily Straus said. Most history teachers made attendance mandatory for students, and the department agreed to not give any history homework on the night of the lectures to bolster attendance, she said.

“Everyone is experiencing our country differently as a result of their race, culture, sexuality, or other identifiers.”

– Eli Scher (12)

Even though viewing was largely required, it was frustrating to see some students not take the lectures seriously, Tess Goldberg (10) said. Those with privilege can easily ignore oppression, but they have a responsibility to learn about the issues in the series and use their voices for change. “As somebody who isn’t oppressed in this society, your voice holds a bit more weight,” she said. “That shouldn’t be the case, but that’s why it’s even more important for these students to get involved.”

The History Department created the series to provide context for the racial violence that sparked the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, Straus said. “As historians, we don’t think things just come out of the blue,” she said. “We firmly believe that there are causes and effects, and in order to understand a particular moment of time you have to look at the roots of it.”

Straus and history teacher Barry Bienstock brought their idea to the administration in June. Around the same time, Levenstein met with the school’s Black Students Demanding Change (BSDC) representatives about a monthly speaker series with similar goals in mind. “Since I was part of both of those conversations, I connected the two,” she said.

In early July, Levenstein organized a Zoom with members of BSDC, students chosen by the history department, and members of the History Department to brainstorm ideas for the speaker series. “Dr. Straus was moderating the meeting, but students were absolutely the primary voices we were hearing,” she said.

During the meeting, the committee created a list of topics that they wanted to cover, and members of the History Department contributed potential speakers. Bienstock and Straus then reached out to the professors and created an application form where students could apply to moderate the event.

The lectures showed Eli Scher (12) the multitude of stories that exist in U.S. history but are overwritten by the dominant narrative of white men, he said. “Everyone is experiencing our country differently as a result of their race, culture, sexuality, or other identifiers.”

If people are allowed to stay ignorant about the racial history of systems, such as property ownership, they might put the blame on individuals rather than societal flaws, history teacher Dr. Ellen Bales said. “When you see the histories of these things and the structural reasons why groups of people have been marginalized, that explains a lot about the current struggles people find themselves in.

Samantha Tsai (12), who moderated the May lecture “The Past and Present of Asian America” with Dr. Ericka Lee and Dr. John Kuo Wei Tchen, appreciated how it revealed the long history behind the rise of anti-Asian hate since COVID-19 began. Without that context, people might treat racism against Asians like an isolated incident and fail to address the xenophobia that persists in the US, she said.

Policymakers often tackle societal ills without addressing their historical roots, which only perpetuates the problem and puts a band-aid on it rather than healing the wound, Ericka Familia (12) said. People need to see the full historical picture to make informed decisions about how to engage with current events.

Familia liked that many speakers were both educated in their fields and had a personal connection to the issue, such as Professor Ana Raquel Minian who immigrated from Mexico and spoke at the October lecture, “Exploring the History of Migrants, Migration, and Building the Wall.” “The personal component enhances our ability to connect to whoever is speaking and it makes the issues resonate more,” Familia said.

From Tuhin Ghosh’s (11) experience as a moderator for the March lecture “Connecting Gender, Sexuality, Race, and Ethnicity”, talking to professors Maylei Blackwell and Imani Perry virtually felt personal, even though the call was in front of hundreds of people. “It seems like the professors are talking to just you, which fosters a nice conversation,” he said.

The department brought two historians in conversation for most lectures because it mirrors how historians build knowledge and approach topics from various foundations, Straus said. The meetings might switch to Zoom next year so students can see that interaction.

Scher’s favorite moments in the lectures were when the speakers expressed contrasting views, or when they addressed a counterargument from the audience, he said. Those instances of discourse gave him a more nuanced understanding of the topic because he saw multiple perspectives, he said. 

Even though the history itself was not political, many lectures brought up questions and current events that made it a political conversation, and most speakers had a left-leaning stance, Familia said. Students who disagree with them might pay less attention, so inviting historians with contrasting stances could encourage more people to engage with the lectures.

Students benefit from seeing historians interpret history differently from one another, which they might not realize from reading a textbook, History Department Chair Dr. Daniel Link said. However, the department will not seek out historians who have radically different views to argue because it is not a productive model that they want to emulate in classes. “This will not be a crossfire type program, it’s not about debate, it’s not about entertainment, it’s about experts sharing their ideas in their interpretations of history,” he said.

Link’s students have had thoughtful conversations about the historians’ points that they disagreed with, such as Paul Butler’s January lecture “The Problems and Potential Reforms for Policing Today” that challenged ideas they may have previously held about policing. “For students who’ve grown up in environments where they haven’t had to interact with the justice system, or their interactions have been very positive, I think it’s hard for them to put themselves in the shoes of others whose experiences have been negative,” he said.

Faculty discussed how to teach students for the upcoming lectures and read articles by the speakers at an optional Zoom meeting open to all departments a week before each. For Levenstein, this monthly reading group was one of the most fulfilling professional experiences of the year, she said. “It added an enormous depth to this experience for a lot of the faculty, so it was a really significant event for me.”

The selected readings for every lecture came with guiding questions available to all faculty, though history teachers could choose whether they assigned the readings or discussed the lectures in class, Straus said.

Alexa Turteltaub (10) hopes that the department will continue to make space for input from the student community on what subjects they are interested to learn about, she said. One topic she wished the lectures covered this year is antisemitism. “It is one of the most pervasive kinds of hate in the world, so the fact that it was ignored was upsetting because I think that it’s important to acknowledge.”

After the December speaker series “Reflections on Indigenous Issues and Communities,” students in history teacher Melissa Morales’ class said they struggled to keep up with professor Noelani Arista who specialized in Hawaiian history and colonization. “Students felt like they were trying to keep up with her, but there was so much background information that we did not know about colonization and loss of language,” she said.

 

The department will continue the series with four lectures on intersectionality next year so teachers can introduce the concepts and language behind each before they occur, Straus said. “Different kids have different knowledge bases and interests, so we want to make sure everybody’s on the same starting point.”

Next year, because there will be fewer events, Morales plans to spend more time in the classroom preparing her students to listen, she said. “It might allow students to unpack even more from the speaker series because they’ll be able to probably respond to more things that the speakers are saying.”