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“It felt imaginary”: Visiting professor Michael Ebner teaches first Carleton term via Zoom

Even in pre-COVID times, completing a visiting professorship was a nerve-racking endeavor. Suddenly, a visiting professor finds himself on an unfamiliar campus bombarded with new students, faculty members and a new campus culture. 

Nevertheless, the experience has its perks, especially at Carleton: new academic connections, the opportunity to share scholarly opinions with and gain fresh perspectives from the Carleton faculty, as well as the chance to become acquainted with Northfield. 

This spring, Michael Ebner, Associate Professor of History at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School and a scholar of Italian Fascism, taught two courses as Carleton’s Benedict Visiting Professor. Except there was a twist: he couldn’t technically “visit.” 

“My experience was definitely unique in that I wasn’t able to actually be on campus,” said Ebner. He was recruited to Carleton by Associate Professor of History David Thompkins, who completed graduate school alongside Ebner at Columbia University.

“David reached out to me in the fall of 2018 because he knew I had family in St. Paul.” Seeing it as an opportunity to teach in a new environment and spend time with his aging parents, Ebner accepted the position by January. He planned on taking advantage of the direct flight between Syracuse Hancock International Airport and MSP: he would fly to Minnesota every Monday, teach his Tuesday/Thursday classes and return home Thursday evenings to be with his wife and children.

Then, a pandemic struck. Stay-at-home orders prevented students and faculty from flocking back to campus, and Ebner found himself teaching Italian history to Carleton students he had never met before, from his basement.

“It felt imaginary. I don’t know the people, I don’t know the place, and the students all of a sudden just beamed into my living room” explained Ebner.

It may have felt surreal, but Ebner and his students found a way to make it work. The 22 students enrolled in “Fascism in Europe, 1914-1945” and the 21 enrolled in “Modern Italy in the Mediterranean World” completed readings, viewed asynchronous online lectures, and participated in class discussions moderated by Ebner twice a week.

Given the uncertainty brought forth by the pandemic, Ebner understood students would likely have other issues to tend to. Therefore, he made most collaborative sessions optional. “I figured that after a while, people would stop showing up.” To his surprise, they never did.

“I was really pleasantly surprised. I think the term went very well, and that was mostly due to how engaged Carleton students are, and how understanding they were of the circumstances. They were always present and willing to learn.”

That said, teaching classes online was not a walk in the park. “I can’t believe how much work it took,” said Ebner. Between giving lectures, grading papers and moderating Zoom discussions, Ebner found his time spread thin. “I really only took Mother’s Day off. On Saturdays and Sundays, my kids were asking ‘what happened to Dad?’”

Students felt the same way. Even with the mandatory S/CR/NC, online classes were no less demanding than those normally taught in person. 

“I quickly learned going to school via Zoom University was going to be no easier than being on Carleton’s campus.” explained sophomore Sydney Marsh.

Carl Marvin, an economics major, voiced his thoughts on some of the newfound difficulties this term: “I think there were a lot of new stresses that made it particularly challenging. Sometimes figuring out how to complete assignments online or trouble shooting with professors in general took a lot of energy and effort that I wouldn’t expect under normal circumstances.”

As the term winds to an end, Ebner will finish grading final papers and return to his research on  Italian imperialism in the fascist era. “My focus right now is on Libya, where the colonial war fought between 1923-1934 ended in what some scholars have labeled a genocide.” 

Ebner is trying to understand the motives behind the violence perpetrated by Mussolini’s Fascist regime in Eastern Libya. In his research he aims to discern what motivated the commitment of human atrocities and the establishment of concentration camps across Cyrenaica, whether it was a result of fascist glorification of violence, or more because of Mussolini’s desire for Italy to be respected as a colonial power. Assuming his research pans out, Ebner is hoping to publish the first book written in English detailing Italy’s oppressive colonial war in Libya.

The syllabus for Professor Ebner’s class “European Fascism, 1919-1945” began with a deep study into the definition of the term ‘fascism’ itself. Stanley G. Payne, author of the most extensive work on fascist history in academia, was Ebner’s professor during his undergraduate years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Ebner required that students study the generic definitions of fascism laid out by scholars like Payne before they dove into the actual study of Italian, German and Spanish fascism. After examining the literature for themselves, students came to the conclusion that, in a definitive sense, fascism includes the central elements of paramilitarism, rhetoric based on national rebirth and a strong authoritarian ruler.

The study of fascism is relevant to today’s world because of how often it gets tossed around in political debate. Just recently, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis Police officer Derick Chauvin, Dr. Cornel West appeared on CNN where, speaking out of anger, he repeatedly used the term “neo-fascist” to describe President Donald Trump.

“In the past thirty years, every new development in politics and society has been labelled fascist.” says Ebner. “George Bush was a fascist, the Taliban was Islamo-fascism, Obama was liberal fascism, Zuckerberg is a techno-fascist, and so on. I’ve read stuff like this, and the authors usually make good points and sound convincing, especially if you’ve never studied fascism.”

“At the end of the day, though, I think to myself, why do we need this language, ‘fascist’? Because it’s an insult, because it stings. We have other terms in our vocabulary (‘populists,’ ‘right-wing,’ ‘nativist,’ ‘white supremacist,’ ‘racist,’ etc.), but none of these terms quite convey that someone is evil, nefarious, and dangerous like the word ‘fascist,’” noted Ebner. 

Fascism carries a dark connotation, which is why the public uses it as weaponizing verbiage to be hurled across the ideological spectrum. Take, for example, antifa- the far left militant group that defines itself as being ‘anti-fascist,’ and has been active in the recent wave of riots across American cities.

Scholars are frequently approached with proposals that political figures like Trump are ‘fascist.’ However, well-studied historians have a difficult time making such an assessment.

“I encourage people to apply ‘generic fascism’ to anything. Apply it to Trump! Whomever!  Social scientific definitions exist to be tested, and it can be useful to do so. But, most historians of fascism are going to conclude that Trump is not. It doesn’t mean they support him or are trying to protect his image. They just think that the term has a specific meaning, even if that meaning is debated amongst themselves.”

“I personally do not do research or publish on generic fascism. I just teach it, and I can teach my students about it, and they can go out in the world, knowing what they know, and decide for themselves what looks like fascism and what doesn’t.”

Even though it was through a computer screen, Professor Ebner brought to Carleton his deep knowledge of Italian fascism and equipped students with the tools to decipher what is ‘fascism’ and what is not in the real world. 

When the pandemic is a thing of the past and Carleton returns to on-campus learning, Professor Ebner hopes to follow the precedent set by previous Benedict visiting professors and give a talk on campus, at which point he will finally have the chance to visit Northfield and meet the students he taught this spring. 

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