Wednesday, March 16, 2016

7 Questions with Annette Laing, Academic Historian

Annette Laing is an academic historian and former professor of early American history. She is   also the author of The Snipesville Chronicles, a series of MG/YA historical time-travel novels, and a presenter of what she calls Non-Boring History in schools, libraries, museums, teachers’ meetings, and other venues. Originally from Scotland and raised in England, Annette earned her PhD from the University of Caiifornia, Riverside. She is a published scholar, and was a tenured faculty member at Georgia Southern University before resigning in 2008.See her website

1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
I don’t think there was a single moment when I became interested, but I do vividly remember two moments in particular, and both involve television. When I was 10, I watched the BBC’s Shoulder to Shoulder, a superb dramatization of the militant women’s suffrage movement in Edwardian Britain (also the subject of the recent movie Suffragette).  I was enchanted by the sight of very proper, posh women chucking rocks through shop windows, and agonized as they (or, at least, the actors who played them) suffered imprisonment and torture in pursuit of their civil rights. First chance I got, I cleared out our mobile library’s impressive collection of books on the subject. Two years later, I saw Roots, which ignited a lifelong fascination with American history, and African-American history especially. My magnificent secondary school history teachers in England, Alan Gardner and Colin Robson, sustained that interest for years, and also taught me how to teach.

2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
It’s all-consuming, honestly, because the discipline affects how I think about everything. I can’t even drive on the freeway or visit the supermarket without contemplating the historical landscape, and how radically life has changed in the postwar period. I became an inveterate museumgoer very early in life, and have passed on that habit to my teenage son.  I particularly favor the small, specialized museums that all too often are overlooked. In Georgia, Chief Vann’s House in Chatsworth is one such: I have visited several times, and even brought a group of German high schoolers to tour it. . It should qualify as a World Heritage Site, and yet it’s only open a few days a week, which is disgraceful. Chief Vann’s House sums up the enormous and fascinating complexity of American history: It was the home of a half-Scottish Cherokee who lived in a real-life Tara, operating a chain of taverns (19th century motels), and depending on the forced labor of dozens of enslaved African-Americans on his land, while his tenants, German Moravian missionaries, observed everything. You can’t make this stuff up

3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
I am a professional historian, an academic with a PhD in early American and British history. My scholarly work is concerned with transatlantic cultural connections in the 18th century, and especially religion. As a historian, I am best known for "Heathens and Infidels"? African Christianization and Anglicanism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1700-1750 (2002), which challenged historians’ longstanding assumptions about the relationship between Africans and Christianity in the 18th century. I was a history professor at Georgia Southern University for many years, but was never really satisfied with life in the academy, which is why I resigned in 2008. I had always wanted to engage with the public, and I created my first program for children at Georgia Southern in 2003. TimeShop took kids on a daylong time-travel adventure to a small town in England in 1940, where they and my students who led them (many of them in costume) enjoyed several half-hour experiences that ranged from living in a wartime home, to going to school, shopping, attending a movie matinee, and even a wedding reception. Basically, it was interactive theatre. It was the subject of an Associated Press feature, and it gave me the idea for the first of my novels. Now, I am an independent historian whose work takes me into regular contact with the public, and especially kids and teens. I can most typically be found in costume (always as an ordinary person of the past), wielding assorted props, and  entertaining audiences with disguised college lectures that make them laugh, sometimes cry, and (always) think. I am thrilled to have so many and varied opportunities to deepen people’s love and understanding of history, and, in my more insane moments, consider myself a sort of Johnny Appleseed of historical thinking.

4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
I never cease to be amazed and appalled by how little we understand and value history in America. Too many people think it’s a bunch of facts that kids should know (never mind that most adults are themselves vague about said facts), or that it’s about being interested in the quaint bygone days of yesteryear. Academic history is neither of these things: It’s a discipline, a way of thinking, that seeks to understand the past, and through it, the world we inhabit now.

I am writing hours after learning of the tragic loss of Cliff Kuhn, an eminent historian who just happened to teach at Georgia State University. Every Sunday, for years, he led a free historical walking tour of the events of the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 for anyone who cared to turn up, and many did. Nobody who took that tour could ever look at modern Atlanta, Georgia, or race relations in the same way again. That’s the power of history. It makes us think more deeply and more creatively. I cannot imagine a better training for a career, or –more importantly-for life.

5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why? 
I have to say colonial America, of course, even though I am also very keen on Victorian Britain and 20th century history in both countries. It pained me recently to hear a 20th century historian dismiss colonial America as “irrelevant”, because it’s anything but. So many of the issues that continue to vex us originated in that period: race relations, conceptions of property rights, gun rights, consumerism, religion . . .  All these issues and more are rooted in early America, as is (sometimes) the way we think about them.

6. What are The Snipesville Chronicles and how did they come about?
I have great fun writing this series of novels about three ordinary kids from a very boring small town in Georgia who become unwilling time travelers. Fellow historians pointed out to me that the books not only entertain, but also model how we think, which was a pleasant surprise to me! The adventures of obnoxious Hannah, dorky Brandon, and spacy Alex take them repeatedly through time to a small town in England, and also to the site of the Georgia town in which they live in the 21st century. The first book, Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When (Snipesville Chronicles, Book 1) clearly originated in my TimeShop program: Hannah, Alex, and Brandon suddenly leave modern-day Snipesville, Georgia, and find themselves living as English kids in Balesworth, an ordinary town in the south of England, where they are drawn into the lives and secrets of the local people, in both World Wars. In A Different Day, A Different Destiny (Book 2), the three are working for a living in early industrial Britain and the slave South, and in Look Ahead, Look Back (Book 3) they come face to face with the hard realities of the 18th century on both sides of the Atlantic.

Throughout the series, the kids are drawn into the lives of people who, despite sharing a common language, think very differently than they do. Sometimes, what happens to them is extremely funny, sometimes rather sad, but always, it’s thought-provoking. What has their experience to do with them, and with Snipesville? Those two questions hang over the entire series. One Way Or Another (due out in January and set mainly in 1905-6) is the last book in the series, I am sad to say. I thought I was writing for kids and young teens, and they certainly are my most ardent fans, but I have been rather tickled to have an adult following, too.  I am excited about various forthcoming projects in historical/time-travel fiction. I have considered writing non-fiction for younger readers, but fiction allows me to get at larger truths in a way that non-fiction (I refuse to write the ghastly “informational text”) does not.

7. What, in your opinion, should be done to improve the teaching of history in today’s schools and universities?
Really, I think the better question is not what should be done, but what should not be done. Teachers and, increasingly, professors are overburdened with bureaucracy and micromanaged to distraction. Teachers in particular have less and less control of what and how they should teach, on the assumption that their contribution is less important than prescribed curriculum and technique. Trying to standardize education is mad, of course. When formal education is successful, it is because teachers are free to teach in many different ways, and what matters is that the methods each of them uses are effective for them in reaching their students, and inculcating a passion for the study of the past. We need to support, encourage, and (most of all) respect teachers, and give them as much freedom as possible to teach what and how they like, while offering them rigorous professional development in content. Right now, our quixotic pursuit of standardized teaching perfection is leading to absolute disaster as teachers vote with their feet, and we are witnessing the bad in education driving out the good.

I would also like to see us get away from the tyranny of the survey course: The very idea that an inch-deep, mile-wide curriculum of famous names and dates somehow benefits anyone has done more damage to the reputation of history as a subject in America than anything else. What we need is to engage the subject deeply, to inspire students to read and enjoy and think about the past.

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