Two Publications and Some Good News

Just wanted to share two new publications, both available online. One is an essay, “Jacob Gartenhaus: The Southern Baptists’ Jew,” which recently appeared in Volume 19 of the Journal of Southern Religion. It discusses the role of the Hebrew Christian and missionary Jacob Gartenhaus in shaping Baptist attitudes towards Jews and Judaism from the 1920s to the 1940s (it’s sort of a condensation of the ol’ master’s thesis). The other is a review of Melanie Trexler’s Evangelizing Lebanon at Reading Religion. Check them out!

Also, I am excited to announce that I just recently signed on as next year’s Postdoctoral Fellow in Israel Studies at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. I’ll be teaching “History of Jerusalem” in the fall and “Christians and Israel” in the spring (in addition to converting my dissertation into a book manuscript). So, it’s on to Beantown!

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“Coal Miner’s Child Uses the ‘Cat Hole'” (LOC)

While preparing excerpts from Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery for my spring US history classes, I was struck by a detail from Washington’s depiction of his family’s plantation cabin–his description of the apparently-ubiquitous “cat-hole”:

“In addition to [“windows” and a door] there was, in the lower right-hand corner of the room, the “cat-hole,” – a contrivance which almost every mansion or cabin in Virginia possessed during the ante-bellum period. The “cat-hole” was a square opening, about seven by eight inches, provided for the purpose of letting the cat pass in and out of the house at will during the night. In the case of our particular cabin I could never understand the necessity for this convenience, since there were at least a half-dozen other places in the cabin that would have accommodated the cats.”

Of course, this is simply a variation on the familiar doggy-door. I just hadn’t come across the term “cat-hole” before. Now, it apparently means something quite different.

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Review of American Apostles

ApostlesFor those who are interested, I recently reviewed Christine Leigh Heyrman’s American Apostles: When Evangelicals Entered the World of Islam (NY: Hill and Wang, 2015) for Reading Religion, which is the American Academy of Religion’s new book review site. The book explores the first American Protestant mission to the Middle East in examining the early American encounter with Islam. Those of you who took “How the Holy Land Became Holy” or “Americans and the Holy Land” with me will likely be interested in it, as it focuses on the mission of Pliny Fisk and Levi Parsons, both of whom we studied in class! If I find the time, I might write a future blog post laying out some of my thoughts on the work that couldn’t fit in the word-limited review. Until then, head over to Reading Religion, which itself is very cool and useful.

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Will the 2016 Election Reverse the Partisanization of US Support for Israel?

Since its founding in 1948, the State of Israel has generally enjoyed widespread bipartisan support in the US, support that has taken on material and strategic form since the late 1960s. Since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, however, many commentators have anticipated the opening of a partisan divide over the US’s support for Israel, with out-and-out support for the Jewish state becoming an increasingly Republican cause. Fueling this anticipation has been the rough personal relationship between Obama and Israeli PM Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as specific rifts over matters of policy—most especially the US’s nuclear agreement with Iran. Signs have also pointed to the Democratic Party growing more restless on matters related to Israel in general. At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, the party initially removed language from its platform affirming Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. After protests, the language was restored and approved over clear, boisterous, vocal objections in a controversial voice vote. Recent polls have also shown that support for Israel has declined among Democratic voters but remained steady or increased among Republicans, revealing the largest partisan gaps over support for Israel in decades.

As with so much else, though, the 2016 election is likely to defy these trends—at least at the top of the tickets. Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s seeming ambivalence towards Israel has unnerved many traditionally-Republican supporters of the Jewish state (Sheldon Adelson excepted). As with a number of issues, Trump has swayed wildly between different policy positions, claiming at different times that he would be “very pro-Israel” or “neutral” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In other comments on foreign policy in general, he has advocated a reduced role for the United States on the world stage, making his slogan “America First.” Besides this flailing on policy, Trump’s candidacy in general has served to divide or alienate traditional pro-Israel constituencies within the Republican Party. The rift among evangelicals over Trump has been well-documented, even as a plurality of self-described evangelicals have supported him. The largely neoconservative Republican foreign policy establishment has refused to work with him. At the same time, Trump’s campaign has brought to the surface an antisemitic white nationalism trafficking in outright hatred of Jews and the Jewish state. Even as Trump has begun to toe a more conventional, if vague, pro-Israel line since sewing up the nomination, even as he has offered vague, if delayed, denunciations of white nationalist support, his campaign has alienated many within the traditional pro-Israel Republican camp, even as Republicans are broadly more pro-Israel than ever.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has grown more insistent in her support for Israel throughout the campaign. In a recent foreign policy speech, she specifically chided Trump for saying he would “stay neutral on Israel’s security.” In March, she delivered a speech to AIPAC, arguing, “The United States and Israel must be closer than ever, stronger than ever and more determined than ever to prevail against our common adversaries and to advance our shared values.” Beyond the US’s relationship with Israel, Clinton has called for an expansive American role in the world that a number of neoconservative commenters have praised.

All of this has come, of course, as Democrats more generally have grown skeptical of the US’s “special relationship” with Israel. Although Clinton’s primary challenger, Bernie Sanders, has laid out no specific policy alternatives on the subject, he has criticized her defense of Israel’s conduct in the 2014 Gaza War. At the same time, a number of Sanders’s representatives on the Democratic platform drafting committee have also pushed for a more neutral approach to Israel on the platform. It remains to be seen, though, whether Sanders’s appointees will have an ultimate effect on the platform’s Israel policies.

What does this all mean for November? As with everything, Trump’s general unpredictability makes it unclear. What is predictable, though, is that Clinton will likely continue with her general pro-Israel line, while also defending the Iran nuclear deal and touting her support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With support for Israel so popular among the American public in general, she has little to lose politically from staying the course as she turns towards the general election, drawing a clear contrast with both Trump’s ambivalence towards the Jewish state and his more isolationist leanings on foreign policy. While she will not peel evangelical supporters of Israel (several leading never-Trump evangelicals have advocated voting for neither candidate in the fall), she is likely to win some support from those who prioritize support for Israel on geopolitical grounds, particularly among the neoconservatives.

Does this mean a halt to the partisanization of US support for Israel? Or even its reverse? If it means either, it will probably only be temporary—barring actual results (of the victor’s foreign policy—not the election). While the tops of the Republican and Democratic tickets suggest a reverse in recent trends, those trends remain strong among members of both parties, at least with regard to the US’s Israel policies. It is possible that the candidates’ broader stances towards foreign policy could portend a shift among the parties, with Democrats embracing an expanded global role for the US and Republicans favoring a reduction of it (though House Republicans’ recent policy proposals suggest otherwise). However, whether such debates will fall along party lines depends on where Trump’s foreign policy oscillations end up stopping—if they ever do.

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Helping Students Learn from Mistakes

This post from David Goobler at Vitae spoke to an issue I’ve been trying to address in my teaching–how to encourage students to learn from mistakes on assignments. Obviously, the ideal way to do this is through allowing students to redo assignments. As Goobler notes, though, this is basically impossible within the grind of a single semester (both for the student and the instructor). The challenge, really, is in how to provide students with opportunities and incentives to revisit and address their particular trouble areas while also moving forward in a class.

As an instructor in the humanities, this challenge has been most apparent for me on writing assignments, which are a central component of all my courses. How do you get students to address specific issues in their writing without simply resorting to rewrites? Of course, giving students constructive comments on their papers is crucial, but how do you incentivize student engagement with those comments?

In addressing this challenge this past semester, I experimented with what I call “tailored grade incentives” in my class, “How the Holy Land Became Holy”. The idea is simple. I frontloaded the course with four short, 2-page writing assignments that asked students to engage historical sources in answering a specific question. Rather than just marking up their papers and leaving them, though, I embedded tailored grade incentives into the next assignment. For example, if a student failed to back up their arguments with specific evidence, I might offer a 5-point bonus for including two specific quotations from primary sources in each paragraph of the next 2-page assignment (don’t forget to keep a list of your specific incentives!). This allowed students to both progress in the course and address specific problem areas in their writing without having to turn to additional assignments or redos.

I do think the results of the experiment were positive, though it is almost impossible to distinguish between improvement resulting from the practice of frequent writing and improvement resulting from tailored grade incentives. I also had a very small sample size. I can say, however, that students “cashed in” on their incentives about half of the time. In about half of those cases, students’ overall performance on the paper was better. Anecdotally, the incentives seemed to have had the largest impact on students who generally performed in the B-C range. At the same time, one of the benefits of this grading strategy is that it can benefit students of all skill levels–I found that my high-performing students were eager to take on specific challenges.

Tailoring grade incentives also simply demands better, more attentive grading. It forces you to be specific in your critiques and really think about the practical steps students can take to improve. It also forces you to think about individual students’ trajectories over the course of the semester. Keeping a record of each student’s specific challenges allowed me to quickly recognize and address recurring issues.

The experiment will continue this summer, as I teach the US post-1865 history survey. It is a much bigger class in a much shorter time span, so I’ll be eager to see how the strategy translates. I’ll let you know how it goes!



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New Article Published in the Journal of Church and State

Truman first pitch

For those interested, the article on which my Just Lunch talk was based, “American Cyrus? Harry Truman, the Bible, and the Palestine Question,” was just published with the Journal of Church and State. Check it out here!

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See Walk Talk…

…about whether Harry Truman was a Christian Zionist:

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