New Faculty: Christopher Babits ☆

According to Assistant Professor of Social Studies, Sandra Schmidt, Christopher Babits, the new instructor and student teaching coordinator of the Social Studies program has a knack for seeing the big picture.

“He really sees big ideas,” said Schmidt, who hired Babits as a graduate assistant back in 2011. “His ability to see the big ideas really helps him see themes across literature or other contexts. When he gets an idea he wants to learn about, he’s really good at pursuing it and learning the field quickly. He gets himself really well-read on a new topic or thing and isn’t afraid to say what he’s thinking or participate in conversations.”

While working with Schmidt, Babits focused his research on Occupy Wall Street, something that Schmidt says she “lured him into.”

“It was great to have Chris on board because it really brought out his strengths,” said Schmidt. “As a researcher, he has such a strong disciplinary background in history, and as a teacher, I really think that he wants his students to be challenged to ask questions about what they think they know.”

Babits, who earned both Bachelors and Masters Degrees in History from Clark University has focused much of his work to date on race relations. He wrote his Bachelors Honors thesis on Boston’s response to John Brown’s raid and then wrote his Masters thesis on free labor activities in Kansas and the use of children’s abolitionist literature as a form of propaganda. Next month, as part of the National Council for the Social Studies Conference, he is presenting a new project titled “The Pedagogy of Bondage” which analyzes how the movies “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained” can be used in classrooms to critically think about and discuss race relations.

“Both of these movies came out in the same month, both received critical acclaim, but the public perceptions were vastly different. Django received negative attention for its lack of historical accuracy, but Lincoln was taken at face value. People didn’t question Lincoln, they just accepted it for what it was–they were comfortable with Lincoln as a movie that dealt with race, but not explicitly, which is odd for a movie about the passage of the thirteenth amendment. [The viewer] saw none of the psychological implications of slavery; there was no discussion of the slave experience. We didn’t here about actual slavery, and I think the we [the American people] are fine with that because their is still a discomfort about talking about race.”

He adds, “Django was very much considered an angry black man out for revenge. And there is nothing America hates more than an angry black man. There is this sense of trying to reclaim what it means to be an American and who can be an American. Django touches on a theme that has been apparent since emancipation and it touches a raw nerve.”

Furthermore, Babits claims that students and teachers alike are uncomfortable discussing race and that both movies provide an opportunity for critical instruction.

“Race has been the elephant in the room that nobody wants to take about. Social studies educators are afraid to engage with topics such as race and I think that’s a mistake because I think adolescents are interested and want to engage. Schools don’t talk about race explicitly and parents don’t talk about race because they were never taught how to have constructive conversations, but good history instruction would make use of both of these films by using a cultural lens of memory. Instead of just accepting that we are in a post-racial society, we can question it. We can use the cultural tools around us to understand how race shapes everything for we do–our history, pop culture, and our current events.”

In addition to his upcoming presentation, Babits is currently working a proposed seminar for next summer titled The History of American Capitalism.

“I want to give students more choices,” he said. “There has been an increased focus on economics education for students because when we work with students who are in poverty or the middle class, we want and need to help them understand the structure of economic inequality. Throughout American History, there has been a lot of emphasis on rugged individualism. This type of thinking puts much of the blame on them and not on the real issues.”

But Babits isn’t just all intellectualism and new ideas. According to Schmidt, he also likes to laugh as much as he can think.

“He doesn’t spend his whole life getting lost in his ideas, so he’s very approachable,” said Schmidt. “He’s very willing to sit down and have a cup of coffee.”