10 questions with Jason Herbert

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Jason Herbert is a Florida high school history teacher and University of Minnesota doctoral candidate. He is also the founder of ‘Historians at the Movies.’

Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your professional history pursuits?

Sure! I’m a doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota focusing on indigenous and environmental histories of Florida. I’m currently teaching at a local high school in Florida while I finish my dissertation.

I am also the founder of Historians At The Movies, a weekly multimedia experience in which people come together to watch and live-tweet a film. You can find it using the hashtag #HATM or follow me at @herberthistory.

What are some of the most significant challenges you face in teaching high school history?

Not surprisingly, there are a bunch and that’s why passionate, capable teachers are performing such a service to communities nationwide. I’m doing a bit of a double-shift, if you will, in that I am teaching full-time at a local high school while writing my dissertation at nights at on the weekends. So for me, the biggest issue is time and the feeling that I’m never quite giving either role the attention it deserves.

Another challenge is the wide range of ability levels of the students in front of you and trying to figure out a way to teach to all of the students in the room. Some will be absolutely brilliant. Others will be brilliant in different ways but may struggle with reading comprehension or lack fundamentals of critical writing.

You’re teaching across a much wider spectrum in high school than in a college classroom. There is a lot of balancing to be done.

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Finally, you are really connecting with the students on a much more personal basis than at the university. You know who has troubles at home, who just broke up with his or her boyfriend, and who ran a school record in track last week. All of these things affect student learning and you must find balance with them as well.

What three characteristics of a history teacher are most likely to spark a love of history in high school students?

You know, I don’t even worry about sparking a love of history with my students. It’s the furthest thing from my mind. I might love history, but some of the students might dread the class.

I get that.

And here’s the thing: I’m not trying to make them younger versions of me; I’m trying to help them become the best possible versions of themselves.

As Jason Herbert teaches students in the field, he doesn’t try to force his love of history on them. Rather, he seeks to make them the best versions of themselves. Credit: Jason Herbert.

I think that meeting them at their level and trying to help them attain their goals will at least help earn their trust. And maybe with trust comes an inquisitive mind about the past and our present.

What is your dissertation topic? How did you come up with the idea?

My dissertation examines the cultural, diplomatic, economic, and environmental transformations of the peninsula after the introduction of cattle in the 16th century. The Seminole Tribe of Florida is a major beef producer in the United States, but their efforts in the development of ranching on this continent are under-publicized. I’m hoping to help broadcast that message.

The idea came as a result of a paper I gave at the Rocky Mountain Interdisciplinary History Conference at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Professor Elizabeth Fenn suggested I write a disease history of the Second Seminole War (called alternately by some Seminoles as either the American War or the White War) and it kind of eventually morphed into my project. I’m hoping to complement works of other historians of the Columbian Exchange like Alfred Crosby, Elinor G.K. Melville, Virginia DeJohn Anderson, and John Ryan Fischer.

How were Indians affected by the Civil War? Do their stories deserve a more prominent place in high school history curriculum?

I always have pause when I refer to anything as the “Indian way” or “Indian experience,” because it suggests a single line of action for hundreds of nations and communities throughout continental North America.

It would be really difficult to categorize anything at the Indian experience in the Civil War.

However, if we look at the Five Tribes in present-day Oklahoma (Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole) we see that Native Americans were as conflicted as anyone over the war. Many possessed African Americans as chattel slaves and fought to retain that institution. Others aligned themselves with the republic. Two books people might want to consider are Barbara Krauthamer’s Black Slaves, Indian Masters and Bradley R. Clampitt’s edited volume, The Civil War and Reconstruction in Indian Territory.

To answer your second question: ABSOLUTELY. This is something that scholars have been working on for years.

One of the things that drives me nuts about the Florida textbook is that in its discussion about Florida ranching it introduces Spanish haciendas in the 16th century and then jumps straight to Jacob Summerlin, the “king of the crackers” in the 19th century.

A 300-year gap in a textbook that skips over the history of Native Americans frustrates high school history teacher, Jason Herbert. “Every single university in the United States should have a scholar of indigenous history,” he said. Credit: Jason Herbert.

Native peoples are totally erased from this history. And it’s not just white, black, or Latino/a students who read this, but Seminole, Miccosukee, and other Native American students who miss the opportunity to learn their history.

It’s infuriating and why every single university in the United States should have a scholar of indigenous history. If we can teach the teachers, we can teach the children. Then we can make change happen.

How did you first get involved with Twitter?

I think I started messing with it back in 2008 when I had a now-defunct parenting website called A Fistful of Diapers. I didn’t really understand the media and kinda piddled with it for a few years.

My real connection with Twitter came during my graduate work at the University of Minnesota. I moved back to Florida after finishing my coursework to be with my kids. This was great—I didn’t have to fly to see my sons—but it had drawbacks, the biggest being that I would no longer be on my campus.

I needed a way to recreate the intellectual engagement of Friday morning workshops and hallways discussions. Twitter offered that opportunity to engage with a wider audience.

I started following scientists in addition to historians. It allowed me to think about history in a wider spectrum. It’s also enabled me to make some wonderful connections who have become dear friends.

Jason Herbert with a criollo cow owned by the state of Florida that is a descendant of Spanish cattle brought to the peninsula in the 16th century. Credit: Jason Herbert.

Who are five historians everyone history lover should follow on Twitter?

For me, it begins and ends with Heather Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College.

We became friends via sparring over soda choices in what eventually metastasized into a five-week long thread including debates over pizza, barbecue, and all sorts of stuff. She exceptionally kind, and insanely brilliant.

She is at @HC_Richardson.

Kristalyn Shefveland is a close friend who has written about American Indian/European encounters in Virginia and is now studying late nineteenth-century Florida. Quick-witted. Brilliant. Says things that matter.

She is at @kristalynmarie.

Robert Greene II is a recent PhD from the University of South Carolina. Rob often writes about African American history, but will hammer you with Star Trek knowledge. He’s an Atlanta Braves fan, so follow with caution.

He is at @robertgreenll.

Kevin Gannon’s tweets have taught me more about teaching pedagogy than all other courses I’ve taken combined. He’s well known for his pet pictures (worth the follow alone), but he’s incredibly insightful about a range of topics.

He is at @thetattooedprof.

Keri Leigh Merritt is really the ideal person to follow if you’re interested in the Civil War. Her writing is simply beyond that ability of most humans, and she’s doing such important work in helping us understand why people fought in the war and why memory of those people remains so hotly contested today. Again, brilliant.

She is at @kerileighmerrit.

I feel like I should mention Kevin Kruse (@kevinmkruse) at some point, but my understanding is that most people already follow him. If you don’t, do so. But here’s some inside baseball for you: in addition to being the most followed historian on Twitter, he’s exceptionally kind and giving.

I say this about each of these people because I believe the scholarship is really secondary to the attributes of each person I’ve listed. I follow these people not because of what they do, but who they are.

What are some pros and cons you have noticed of historians using social media?

Social media can be finicky. It has the potential to both create and destroy careers based upon short messages that can quickly be misinterpreted. Very few scholars at my university are using it, though I hope that will change. The biggest benefit is the ability to boost your profile, and in doing so, introduce people to your work. And it’s largely not just academics, but a larger general audience that hopefully will benefit from some of the knowledge that you share. At the same time, you get to be introduced to other scholars who you can learn from. Connections can be made. Communities can be built. It can be a positive and powerful tool.

On the negative side is the ability to absolutely stick your foot in your mouth. We’ve all done it, but when you do it on twitter, the whole world is privilege to your buffoonery. You can also be slandered by people with negative opinions of you. This, too, will happen in life but again twitter makes it a much larger scale. I’ve had instances where I’ve not slept through the night because of a negative thing being said. It can be brutal and hard to defend yourself.

Overall I think that social media can be positive for historians but there are definitely considerations that need to be made when someone is introducing themselves to a larger (and sometimes, hostile) world.

Jason Herbert is a strong advocate of wildlife conservation and has rescued scores of turtles, tortoises, and terrapins. Credit: Jason Herbert.

Tell us about Historians at the Movies.

Historians At The Movies, or #HATM, is a weekly multimedia experience in which historians and others all watch and live-tweet a movie together.

Every Saturday night at 9pm we all tune in to whatever film I have selected for the week, and we let it rip. Sometimes the films are serious, like Lincoln or Mudbound.

Other times they’re just fun—our first film was National Treasure and we’ve done Trading Places and Monty Python & the Holy Grail. It allows historians and general audiences to bond over films.

We laugh, we cry, we historicize, but we do it as a community.

Why is Historians at the Movies important?

I think it’s important for a few reasons. The first is the perception that academics live in an ivory tower somewhere and that’s simply not the case (I grew up in a collection of trailers in Kentucky and Louisiana). But when we are watching a movie, people can talk to Victoria Bynum about writing Free State of Jones or see Joanne Freeman’s reaction to putting lemon juice on the back of the Declaration of Independence.

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I think in some ways in humanizes academics. But it also breaks down barriers. I’ve had multiple junior scholars tell me that tweeting to more distinguished professors gave them the confidence to go say hello at a conference or book signing.

There’s also the historicization of the films that we watch. Sometimes we’ll watch a film to see how we can use it to teach history. Sometimes we do it to understand history. And other times it’s good to just turn the brains off for two hours and spend time with friends at the movies.

But the community aspect is what I’m proudest of. People have become friends because of HATM. I’ve gained friends. And I like to think we’ve all learned something because of it. But mostly it’s because we do it together.

Rank your Top 5 favorite historical movies and comment briefly on their levels of accuracy, influence, and enjoyment.

This is such a tough one. Let’s see if I can give a list and not totally embarrass myself:

  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail: I’m an American historian, which means I know almost nothing about anywhere else. But this movie was at the top of our list of films we wanted Netflix to show. It was slotted into the schedule to moment it was available. I love the movie, and am convinced that historians have not paid enough attention to rabbits.

  • Lincoln: I don’t know how you can watch this film and not forget that there’s an actor portraying Abraham Lincoln. Daniel Day Lewis is spell binding, and the film really shows the difficulties in getting the 13th Amendment passed. It’s a beautiful film.

  • Coco: In an age in which immigration laws are daily contested, Coco is a wonderful film that beautifully displays the pain of family separation. I was really proud to show this film and see the discussions that emerged.

  • The Patriot: This is the film everyone seems to be begging for. There’s so much to unpack about the history of colonial American and how it is remembered onscreen. Were there really free people of color on Benjamin Martin’s South Carolina plantation? Did the British really burn churches full of people? This film is exceptionally inaccurate and that in itself makes it worth watching and discussing. As with books, even bad films can serve a purpose.

  • National Treasure: Our first film. I always say that archaeologists get Indiana Jones and historians get Benjamin Franklin Gates. That’s ok. National Treasure is fun. We get to watch a little manufactured history and enjoy the ride. And if we do it with friends, all the better.

This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.

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