Potash Hill

America in the Ahistorical Age: An interview with Kate Ratcliff

In December, Danielle Scobey ’22 sat down with American studies professor Kate Ratcliff to talk about oral history, aging, and radical decontextualization in America.

Danielle: How long have you been teaching here, Kate?

Kate: Well, I have been at Marlboro College for 30 years. I think it's 30 because I came in 1989.

D: How would you describe what you teach here?

K: My field is American studies, which is the interdisciplinary study of U.S. history and culture. In general, my courses explore the connections between socio-historical forces and forms of cultural expression. Marlboro has been a wonderful place to do the kind of broad, integrative work that defines American studies. I feel incredibly lucky to have landed here 30 years ago, and it's been an amazingly rich place to teach and grow as an academic.  I was so excited when I saw the Marlboro job posting because it invited applications from people who wanted to teach a wide range of courses. That was so different from the other job descriptions, which designated something specific like the Gilded Age or 19th-century women's history. So I saw the Marlboro job and I literally got a shiver down my spine because the fit felt so right.

D: What’s the best part about teaching at Marlboro?

K: Because our jobs are fairly broadly defined, we have space to develop new interests, which is such a luxury and I think it contributes a lot of vitality to the institution. There really is the sense that that students and faculty are continuously learning together and alongside one another.

Over the course of 30 years I've been basically tasked with covering a whole field—although we don't talk about coverage in that sense because it’s not realistic to imagine a single person covering a field. At the same time, most of most of us do feel responsible for offering a range of courses that address key aspects of our disciplines. Over the years I've taught courses on political, environmental, social and cultural history.  I regularly teach a course on the history of the family and one on the history of political life. For the past two elections I've taught a course called Voting and Elections in US History, which looks at elections and voting historically and relates those patterns to the context of the current Presidential election.

Another great thing about Marlboro is the opportunity for team teaching. I’ve had the incredible privilege of teaching with so many colleagues over the years. Jenny Ramstetter and I teach a course called the History and Ecology of the Western United States. We've framed it differently under that topic heading, but the past couple times we focused on wilderness. We're going to teach that course again in the spring, which I'm excited about because we haven't taught it in a few years. I've also done team teaching with John Willis—a course in documentary photography. And I’ve collaborated with Felicity Ratté on public art, and with Carol Hendrickson on Cuba.

K: Gosh, this semester all I did was team teaching. I team taught three courses. I don't think I would do that many at one time again because actually it's tricky to team teach. It's rich, you know, I love it. It's so stimulating. But there's this whole additional layer of coordination. This semester I'm teaching with Kristen Horrigan the Community Governance Colloquium, which is I think maybe the third iteration of that course. This is one of those new interests that Marlboro has allowed me to develop: community engagement. It’s such a rich moment to be dipping into that world. For a lot of years—I'm thinking back to when I was an undergraduate— college students have been doing volunteer work, but something different has happened in the past five to ten years. Colleges and universities are looking in a deeper way at the theory and practice of community engagement and it has become a very rich and interesting intellectual subject in its own right.

D: What else did you team teach this semester?

K: I taught a new course with Kate Tzraskos, the director of experiential learning and career development. The class was awesome—the idea was to create a credit-bearing space with academic content from which students could do work in the wider community. We partnered with Groundworks Collaborative, which is a direct service organization that has two shelters and a food shelf and provides a lot of support services for people in need in Brattleboro. So students did about three to four hours of volunteer work a week with Groundworks. Partnering with just one organization gave us some common content to work with.

D: And what did you do on the academic side?

K: We studied issues of homelessness and poverty. We read Matthew Desmond's book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, It’s a powerful book that blends individual life stories with compelling analysis of the structural forces that produce and perpetuate inequality. The class also looked at cultural ideas about poverty and we talked about the myth of meritocracy. They did a lot of thinking about their own social location, because it's a basic principle that if you're going to work in the community you also need to be reflective about where you are coming from.  In all, it was really a powerful experience, and the students were so great. They were so thoughtful and so self reflective and open and engaged.

D: So what are you going to be teaching next semester?

K:  I'm teaching the Culture and Ecology of the US West, with Jenny.  We taught that class for the first time in the early 90s.  I’ve continued to learn so much every time we teach it.  It can be challenging to blend really different disciplines and perspectives in a single course and students (and faculty) invariably find themselves having to stretch a lot to engage the field that is not their academic home. It’s powerful and important to think about the health of ecological systems and human communities in a holistic way.

I will also be teaching Consumer Culture in Historical Perspective. Consumer culture, is in many ways, the air we breathe and the course is designed to explore the historical roots and development of a culture and economy organized around mass production and mass consumption.

D: Do you have other recent interests you are pursuing in classes?

K: One relatively recent area of interest is oral history. That's just been so broadening for me. I love archival material and there's nothing like dusty documents to make my heart go pitter patter, yet I actually find it much more enjoyable to talk to people.

I’m trained as a historian and my previous research has been primarily archival.  Oral history encompasses the lived experiences of people reflecting on the past and allows voices not previously part of the historical record to be included.  It opens up so much.

D: How did you get interested in oral history?

K: Another great thing about Marlboro is how the college will support you in learning new things.  In 2016 I went to Oral History Summer School, which is a three-week intensive program.

 In Hudson, NY.  I also did another training in Middlebury.  Shortly after that I team taught a course with HB Lozito, who heads up the Green Mountain Crossroads project in Brattleboro, an organization focusing on rural LGBTQ people, and Ain Gordon, an historically oriented performance artist from New York.  We collaborated to create a class focusing on radical movements in Southern Vermont in the 1970s.. All the students did projects based on oral history interviews with people who had been involved in local countercultural activities in the late 60s and 70s. Oral history has become an important part of my teaching in the past few years.

D: You’ve used it in other courses?

K: Yes. Oral history is an essential part of a new course I developed called Growing Old in America. I’ve taught it a couple of times and will teach it again in the near future. The origins of the course were personal. My father died recently from Alzheimer’s disease, and my mother also has Alzheimer's. I spent a lot of time in the past few years caring for them and thinking a lot about aging. I did what academics generally do when they confront a new topic—I researched and read—and I discovered that there's this rich interdisciplinary field called aging studies. It cuts across the humanities and social sciences and biological sciences. I started thinking about how exciting it would be to create a new course.

D: So you did a course about aging?

K: It was my first real community engagement course. One of the reasons I had hesitated in the past about incorporating community engagement in my courses is that I wanted it to be organically tied to the content of the class. The Aging course was a natural fit for community engagement.  All the students worked with institutions in Brattleboro that serve an older population.  And they all did oral history/life review with someone they met. We were able to make deep connections between the academic material and their work in the community.

D: So with all your interest in interdisciplinary studies, do you have any big projects on the horizon?

K: I want to do some kind of oral history based project that focuses on aging. Since I developed the course I have been invited to give several lectures on aging and I have made a lot of contacts I can draw upon in designing a project. There is interesting recent scholarship that looks at the struggles of older women around issues of appearance and the body and what it means to age in a culture that puts such a premium on youth and a particular kind of beauty. I’d like to explore that.  I would also like to pursue research on feminist organizing in the Brattleboro area in the early 70s. I discovered some new archival material when we taught the 70s class. Now is the time to gather oral histories from people who were politically active in the 70s.  I did not mention it before in talking about my classes, but gender studies has been a major teaching area for me and a lot of my own research interests come out of that.

D: Do you have any Plan students at the moment?

I'm working with Zoey DeHart. Her fields are history and politics, and her focus is prison studies.  In our tutorials she has been doing research on the history of Angola prison. Zoe received Town Meeting money and went to Angola over Hendricks Days to see the prison, and to observe an annual event at the prison called Rodeo, where the prisoners put on a rodeo for spectators. I’m also working with Day Rodriquez who is pursuing a Plan focusing on issues relating to Design and Environmental Psychology, and with Elizabeth Johnson who is just starting Plan work that focuses on public libraries.

D: With the new professors coming to Marlboro do you think you're going to do any projects with them, maybe teach a class together?

K: For sure! I can imagine teaching classes with many of them.  We have an extraordinary group of recent hires.  Marlboro attracts faculty members who have wide-ranging interests so it seems likely that I would be collaborating with some of my new colleagues in the future.

D: Why is it important to learn about history?

K: So much of history is about learning to see the world through the eyes of other people. That's what oral history brings to the table. That's what community engagement allows, and that's definitely what history fosters. I feel like the study of history is critical at this moment. We live in a culture that is ahistorical, and arguably hostile to history. There's virtually no reference to historical context in any kind of media analysis. I take that back, because Presidential historian Michael Beschloss does get trotted out to say some wise words on public TV. He's the main one—Doris Kearns Goodwin too, every now and then. It relates to the orientation of a consumer-based culture. We live in a world that's so decontextualized, and that's really the heart of “consumer culture.” Consumer items are goods without origin. You don't see the context. In fact, maintaining the whole spectacle of consumer culture requires us to ignore that context. You don't want to think about where a product comes from, or what kind of labor went into creating it, or who made it under, what conditions, and what resources were consumed. All of that obfuscation creates the the magic of consumption.  In a consumer-oriented society we don’t practice thinking critically and contextually. Historical thinking is an antidote of sorts. Studying history helps cultivate empathy, nuance, complexity, and an appreciation for both continuity and change.

D: In 30 years how has Marlboro changed?

K: Ah, that's a great question.  I would say there is both change and continuity. Certainly there's continuity in terms of the kinds of students who are drawn to Marlboro, who are passionate and creative who have ideas they want to pursue. I'd like to do some more empirical data on this, but one theme that I've heard so often is about an ambivalent relationship to high school and a critical approach to traditional education.

D: And is there change?

K: In recent years I feel there can be a kind of orthodoxy about particular political opinions and perspectives—what I would describe as a kind of rush to judgment. I feel like there's more of that now. Kind of a sense of—dare I say— political correctness. I hate to use that terminology because I think it's been so misused. Yet I do have a sense of a community that can sometimes be intolerant in the name of tolerance! Students in the Community Governance Colloquium identified that as the issue they wanted to address in our class project. You may have seen some of the posters they created that are all over the campus with the tag line: “Can we agree to disagree”?

D: Yes, I enjoyed those.

K: We spent a lot of time in the seminar talking about issues relating to civic discourse.  Students shared that it can be hard to hold an opinion in this community that runs counter to dominant opinion.  Talking across difference is still the ideal but not always robust in practice. I certainly don't blame students because it's not just happening on college campuses, it's the whole culture. We live in a time of such polarization, and I think that that problem manifests in multiple places in society. That ability to talk across differences is so important, and I think that's a skill that Marlboro College is uniquely positioned to help foster.

D: In your web profile you said: “History is not simply a matter of learning what happened in the past, it is a process of selecting, ordering, and interpreting past events and experiences. I want students to see that they have a stake in that process. The stories we tell about the past shape the way we perceive the present and envision the future.”

K: There I'm pushing against the idea that history is just facts, that it's inherently objective. History is a story, and it's always constructed from a particular view. It always highlights some things and obscures others. And at the same time history is a professional practice that seeks to get as close as possible to what might be considered a truthful version of events. I think it's interesting how recent politics have shifted the discussion about the nature of truth.

D: Alternate facts?

K: Yes, a lot of historians who 20 years ago were arguing vociferously for the constructed nature of everything, are now framing those arguments differently in the context of our dystopian political moment.