Saturday, October 24, 2009

reflections on teaching time on the cross

Teaching this book was a very interesting experience. After Monday's class (just reading the introductory chapters: prologue, 1 and 2) I was uncertain how the rest of the week would go. In fact, even after Wednesday's class I questioned whether I would ever assign the book again. (I think I would.) If I were to assign it again, for the first class I would assign prologue, 1, 2, and 3, because chapter 3 contains the arguments over whether slavery was profitable/economically viable, and there is a lot to discuss there in terms of all the data they present and their methodology. The problem with this setup is you're assigning 100 pages of reading for the first class, which may be daunting for this text. It's possible to leave out chapter 2 (on "Occupations and Markets") as a compromise because there is comparatively little there in terms of their main arguments.

Basically, my approach was to first present methodological concerns (discussing what cliometrics is all about, and the new economic history more generally), then getting to their main points as quickly as possible. This part is really quite necessary because without a proper understanding of the formalist turn which took place in economic history at this time one may end up thinking 1. all economic history is done this way and 2. all economic history has always been done this way. While I do think an understanding of the themes in the historiography leading up to their book (in fact, some of which they leave out!) is important, such as how books written in the late 1960s and early 1970s that argued that slavery was inefficient were not based on racism, grappling with issues such as "How is slave productivity measured?" or "Is their definition of exploitation appropriate?" are relatively more important and can take some time to discuss. In terms of methodology, I highlighted the following:

-The issue of qualitative vs. quantitative evidence and how it influences historiography
^This is especially important for Fogel and Engerman since they often rely upon some notion of statistical or formalist economic significance (e.g., "it wasn't that important to their profit margins," etc.) to advance claims concerning the family, etc.

-The rise of formalism in economic theory after WW2 and then economic history in the mid-1950s
-Methodological individualism vs. social institutions (classic Jerry Friedman material from 103) in the context of slavery's efficiency
-Framing the entire debate in terms of economic incentives/motivations

These 4 points alone cover a class and a half of lecture and discussion. From there, you can move into the more intricate details of their quantitative analysis and the implications for an interpretation of slavery. Here are the main points:

-Calculating: slave diets in terms of caloric intake, whippings (very popular topic), medical problems of slaves, infant mortality rates, comparing standards of living to the North, data on slavery's effect on family (implication follows) => interpreting whether slavery was relatively benign for slaves
-Calculating efficiency and growth of the slave economy => unfree origins of labor productivity and nature of economic systems

In the end, I would definitely assign the book again. It is the best example I have found of how formalism can be taken to its extremes in economic history, and it does this in a way that makes it easy for students to debate and discuss the relative merits of the issues. What caught me off guard on Monday, I think, was I didn't realize how prepared I needed to be. Of course, I read the book before the week began. But Fogel and Engerman leave so much of the historiography out that to teach and have a dialogue with the text one needs some external resources (either the original texts or some good textbooks). I think this would allow me to strengthen the arguments I make concerning methodology and of course, some controversies with their data. It will also give me space to appreciate these classic texts better.

Overall, I must say, it was an excellent experience.

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