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Cindy Cheng’s class on the history of immigration and citizenship was never quite as popular as another course she teaches on representations of Asians in media, culture and movies. But lately that pattern flipped, and now her 8 a.m. immigration class, Asian American History: Processes of Movement and Dislocation, is always packed.

“In the current political climate, there’s not one day you can wake up and the news isn’t … some debate about immigration reform,” says Cheng. “Students are desperately hungry for a space to talk about everything they’re hearing.”

Cindy Cheng

They come in with questions about today’s immigration policies involving deportations and family separations. They leave with a more nuanced understanding of how we got here — and why.

Cheng, an associate professor of history and director of the Asian American Studies Program, delves into previous U.S. refugee policies, colonization efforts, calculated exclusions of Asian and other minority groups and the War on Terror to provide students with critical background that will help them “step back and make sense of what we’ve done in the past, think about what we’re repeating and ask, ‘Are there other choices we can make?’”

Eric Zhao, a senior in Cheng’s immigration class, says that learning about Asian immigrants’ experiences in the U.S., information his high school history lessons glossed over, has opened his eyes to how often the debate over who’s allowed to seek asylum and citizenship here has revolved (and roiled) around the “effectiveness and morality of excluding minorities based on race,” he says. “Looking back on immigration history, you can see this is not a new issue. But if we can learn from our history, we can better understand why we react in certain ways and how we can improve our situation.”

They want to be able to talk about it in a way that’s informed, and I can say, in earnest, that I’m providing what they need. It’s phenomenal.

Cheng also teaches about how U.S. immigration policy was shaped by the Constitution, shifted over time and transformed radically after 9/11, when restriction suddenly eclipsed naturalization as a priority. That’s a recent yet significant shift that most of her students come into class knowing nothing about — they were only in preschool when New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a plane headed for Washington, D.C., were targeted by terrorists. 

“They want to be able to talk about it in a way that’s informed, and I can say, in earnest, that I’m providing what they need. It’s phenomenal.”

How did we get here? What’s driving so much social upheaval and discord? What can we do get unstuck and move forward? These are the kinds of big, searching questions Cheng and other historians are hearing a lot right now. 

Students asking those questions have come to the right place. UW-Madison’s Department of History has a long legacy of examining the difficult problems of the present through the lens of the painful past. In perhaps the most famous example, from 1965, a cadre of historians and other faculty led a “teach-in” exploring the roots of the Vietnam conflict, which drew participation from an estimated 1,500 students. 

The tradition makes UW’s history courses particularly appropriate as part of the ethnic studies requirement, in place since 1989. Through this university-mandated initiative, all incoming freshmen and transfer students are required to take at least one three-credit course that, because of its content, is deemed to satisfy one or more of the four essential learning outcomes set forth by the ethnic studies committee.The intent is to better equip UW-Madison students to participate thoughtfully and respectfully in diverse communities and environments, including workplaces.  Courses that fit the bill can found across L&S, but in the history department, they are tailored to fulfill the learning outcome stated as “awareness of history’s impact on the present.” (The other three outcomes are: ability to recognize and question assumptions, a consciousness of self and others and effective participation in a multicultural society.)

Efforts over the past few decades to move female historians and historians of color to the front of the room have expanded the perspectives and scholarship now shared with students. 

Christy Clark-Pujara

Christy Clark-Pujara, an associate professor of history in the Department of Afro-American Studies who specializes in the history of slavery and black Americans’ experiences in the Northeast and Midwest, often begins two of her history classes, African American History to 1900 and U.S. History of Slavery (both of which satisfy ethnic studies requirements), with a trip to the Wisconsin Historical Society, on Library Mall. She wants her students to learn about the roots of racism, but she knows she has to grab their attention first. So she points out an elegantly tooled, six-foot-long Bowie knife in the collection there. And while they’re gawping at the so-called “monster knife,” she shares its origin story: In 1860, just before the Civil War, John Fox Potter, a U.S. congressman from Wisconsin, was challenged to a duel by a secessionist Democrat from Virginia named Roger Pryor. The Virginian didn’t like how the Wisconsinite defended a fellow Republican representative’s right to protest slavery vociferously on the House floor. In response to the challenge, Potter said: Fine — but let’s fight with knives, not guns. Clark-Pujara explains that Pryor, realizing that Potter “is this crazy woodsman from Wisconsin,” promptly backed down. 

“Basically,” Clark-Pujara tells the class, “Potter punks Pryor.”

The story helps students realize that slavery wasn’t just a Southern problem, as many Midwesterners are taught (she grew up in Nebraska, so this was what she learned at first, too), but an issue that shaped attitudes toward race everywhere in America, including Wisconsin. Learning about Potter’s strong opposition to the expansion of slavery — hot enough that he almost came to blows over it in Congress — pokes a provocative first hole in the old nothing-to-see-here myth.

Throughout the semester, Clark-Pujara pulls out more stories normally hidden in the margins of history and sets them squarely in the center of her record-correcting teaching. Many of these stories can be distressing and inspiring at the same time: Though a Wisconsin state referendum granted black men voting rights in 1849, black men who attempted to vote were still systematically blocked at polls, and it wasn’t until 1866 — when a former slave in Milwaukee named Ezekiel Gillespie filed suit against the state — that black men’s suffrage was finally affirmed. 

To operate in a multi-racial country and world, you need to know about someone else’s experience and be able talk about it.

In all of her teaching, Clark-Pujara says her aim is to “push back against a narrative that people think they know” to show how slavery was ingrained in almost every aspect of America’s economic development and continues to feed institutional racism today. She also intends to show how people — black, Native American, white and others — have resisted slavery and discrimination across America for centuries. And after she shares such stories, she says, the feedback she consistently gets, “especially from African-American students, is, ‘Thank you for teaching me a history of slavery that didn’t make me feel ashamed.’”  

Being a tenured African American professor, she admits, has instructional value in and of itself.

“For the vast majority of my students, I’m the first teacher of color they’ve ever had. To operate in a multi-racial country and world, you need to know about someone else’s experience and be able talk about it. You have to look at things from a fundamentally different point of view and understand that others who don’t look like you are wholly human,” she says. “But there’s also this old idea that you can’t be what you can’t see.” So whenever students, of any ethnic background, tell her that her example has inspired them to learn more about slavery and discrimination, and push to overcome barriers, she says, “That is especially meaningful for me. This is not just something I’m professionally invested in, but something I’m personally invested in.”

It’s fairly easy to see how studying American history illuminates the present for students. But what about antiquity? Studying the life and times of a Byzantine princess, for example, might seem a stretch for shedding instructive light on the questions and concerns of 2018. 

Leonora Neville

But as Leonora Neville, who holds the John W. and Jeanne M. Rowe Chair in Byzantine History, peels back the layers of her story, fascinating discussions of morality, ethics and gender expectations  — with surprisingly far-ranging relevance — emerge in the classroom.

The princess in question was Anna Komnene, the eldest child of the Emperor Alexios, who ruled from Constantinople (now Istanbul) over the medieval eastern Roman empire (a.k.a. Byzantium). After her father died in 1118, Anna, who’d received a rigorous education in classical ancient Greek philosophy and history, wrote an account of her father’s rise to power. The book, known as the Alexiad, is a careful analysis of military and political strategy that some scholars, including Neville, consider one of the most accomplished works of history written anywhere in the Middle Ages. But because it was written by a Byzantine woman, it has been misunderstood and relatively ignored for centuries. 

As a female historian, Neville is keenly interested in the work of other women who kept records of the past. And in pondering the Byzantine Age through Anna’s biography and other literary works of the period, in which philosophers debated what it takes to be a great hero, students find a remarkably pure lab for weighing and defining their own ideas about moral courage, leadership and all-around good human behavior. 

Getting [students] to think seriously about the political and moral choices in another era they have no stake in is a great way to help them figure out what they personally value.

Neville says that students often come to college with “kneejerk ideas of what’s right and wrong based on how their parents vote.” But when students can step back and consider notions of “honor and proper personhood” in a distant age when many of the same big issues we’re facing now also just happened to be in play — debates over migration and assimilation, as well religious clashes between Christians and Muslims, were also heated in the Byzantine Age — that historical distance enables them form their own individual judgements in a new and powerful way.  

“I want all of my students to be thoughtful, discerning people, so getting them to think seriously about the political and moral choices in another era they have no stake in is a great way to help them figure out what they personally value,” says Neville. “I’m not telling them what’s moral. I’m teaching them history and inviting them to think about what they would in do in [different] situations so they can develop their own personal value structure and make thoughtful decisions about their lives.”