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November 25, 2012

Peter Onuf: World’s Greatest Mentor

Filed under: Academia,Ben Carp's Posts,Historians,Teaching — Benjamin Carp @ 9:17 am

Based on the last couple of posts, this blog is rapidly becoming an elegiac tribute page, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t add one more acknowledgment. Professor Peter S. Onuf, recently retired from the University of Virginia, will be receiving the Nancy Lyman Roelker Mentorship Award at the upcoming American Historical Association conference in New Orleans. The award, established in 1991, “honors teachers of history who taught, guided, and inspired their students in a way that changed their lives.” Previous winners include Elizabeth Blackmar, Lynn Hunt, and Nell Irvin Painter. It rotates among high school teachers, undergraduate teachers, and graduate-level teachers, so we can think of Onuf’s award as being more akin to a Fields Medal for the mentoring of history graduate students than to an annual prize.

Today, incidentally, is the anniversary of the first time I ever met Peter, on a trip I made to prospective graduate schools just before Thanksgiving. He is indeed a fantastic mentor, as plenty of other former students, friends, and co-authors can attest (and have attested). Unless you’ve met him (or heard him on Backstory), it’s hard to picture someone so laid-back that he’s known as the “dude,” yet also a tough and insightful “big picture” critic of scholarly work. He devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to his graduate students. One of his greatest achievements was in sustaining a vibrant early American seminar for his graduate students and other area scholars–something that requires a rare blend of charismatic leadership, cutting-edge work, collegiality, constructive criticism, and beer. It’s great to see a historian of early America earn this award, and it’s especially great to see this particular historian receive this recognition.

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November 8, 2012

Alfred F. Young, 1925-2012

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Historians,Revolution — Benjamin Carp @ 3:13 pm

Mere hours after Pope’s Night celebrations were winding down, Alfred F. Young died at the age of 87 in Durham, North Carolina, on November 6.  A leading scholar of the Revolutionary Era, he was also a great convener of scholars as the editor of several influential volumes.  He wrote about public history, and cared deeply about how the broader public came to understand the history of early America.

You can read blog tributes by  J. L. Bell, Josh Brown, and Ann Little, and H-OIEAHC posts by David WaldstreicherMike McDonnell, and Kenneth Lockridge; also make sure to read Alan Taylor’s review of Masquerade in The New Republic, which has essential biographical material.

When I was an undergraduate taking John Demos’s research seminar on the American Revolution, I read his award-winning 1981 article in the William and Mary Quarterly on the Boston shoemaker George Robert Twelves Hewes (which was later expanded and incorporated into his widely assigned book, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party), in conjunction with two 19th-century biographies of Hewes.  It was an eye-opening assignment in many ways, but I was hooked by a particular quartet of sentences:

“He [Hewes] does not seem to have belonged to any associations. [Ebenezer] McIntosh was in a fire company. So was Hewes’s brother Shubael. Hewes was not” (584).

…which led me to ask, “what did it mean to be a firefighter during the Revolutionary era?”  I often tell this story to my undergraduates (some of whom suspect that there is nothing new to write about), to reassure them that sometimes just a few short lines from a master scholar can be the inspiration for a fruitful line of inquiry.

Not long after, I found that Professor Young was generous with his correspondence and exacting with his criticism.  I was deeply grateful for both.  He and I discussed the capacity of the Old South Meeting House, the new Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, and other issues related to Revolutionary Boston.  At one point I found out (from Alan Taylor’s review) that, like both my parents, he had graduated from CUNY Queens College.  He told me that Henry David (history) and Vera Shlakman (economics) had turned him on to the possibilities of history; he was “bitten by the history bug.”  Young struggled at various points in his early career; after his retirement, he produced a startling amount of great work at a rapid pace.  By then, his influence on the academic profession, and the broader community of history, had long ago become apparent.

I’ll be traveling to Durham this winter for research, and Al had been looking forward to welcoming me.  We had never spent much time together in person, instead enjoying a correspondence of several years.  Now I’m sorry I won’t get the chance to make up for lost time.

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July 22, 2012

The Bonds of Scholarly Affection

Filed under: Academia,Ben Carp's Posts,Conferences,Historians — Benjamin Carp @ 4:49 pm

Conferences are places of love.

The 34th annual meeting (pdf) of SHEAR (the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic) was held this past weekend in Baltimore. The last time SHEAR met at Baltimore was 2001, which was the summer I attended (and presented at) my first two academic conferences.

The first was at the Institute for Historical Research in London. I remember thinking that if I was going to make mistakes, at least I’d be doing it thousands of miles away from anyone I knew. The conference (theme: “The Sea”) stuck all of the graduate student presenters onto one panel, even though none of our papers were related to one another. This struck me at the time as a pretty bad method, and I don’t think I got many questions from the audience. But what I really remember is that a senior scholar, who I’d first met earlier at the conference, made a point of staying for my paper and then discreetly slipping out. Later that day, we sat together on a stoop outside and he spent fifteen or twenty minutes giving me a full critique of my arguments. So my first introduction to an academic conference was a display of almost unbelievable generosity from a scholar I deeply respected.

My second conference was soon afterwards, when SHEAR last held its annual meeting in Baltimore. I wasn’t a great fit for SHEAR, since I was studying pre-revolutionary history, but the loose, friendly atmosphere hooked me, and it keeps drawing me back. My fondest memory from this conference was playing hooky with four youngish scholars (all more senior than me) to grab a delicious lunch and then check out the wondrous American Visionary Art Museum. Just as I was trying to learn the conventions of conference attendance, a few historians showed me that sometimes you had to break the rules to have an even more meaningful experience.

Now I can look around the room at a SHEAR conference and see former mentors and colleagues, co-bloggers, editors, friends I met at previous conferences and in the archives, graduate students I’ve encouraged, and dozens of people pursuing exciting projects of all kinds. So, as I said, conferences are places of love.

It’s true that too much love can be a bad thing: the bonds of scholarly affection can encourage logrolling, backscratching, insularity, and groupthink. Indeed, scholars are often encouraged to throw open their doors a bit more widely, to reach out to the general public and have a broader conversation. In an ideal world, these members of the public would find our shared enthusiasm for history irresistible, and go home to tell their state representatives to pour more money into higher education. On the other hand, some specialized discussion is inevitable (and essential) at a subfield conference like SHEAR, and this can quickly alienate nonprofessionals. (At the plenary session, I heard a lay audience member ask his companion, “What’s a maroon?” which instantly conjured up Bugs Bunny.)

Still, for professionals, a great conference is not just an opportunity for fantastic panels and enlightened discussion, for cutting-edge research and spirited debate–a conference is also an opportunity for sociability and socialization, for the formation of a community of scholars. It’s a cause for celebration, a working vacation from department committees, grade complaints, and hermetic writing sessions. For scholars who will never register for another class in their lives, it’s a great few days of offline learning.* Our universities should do all they can to support conference attendance, for professors as well as students.

*Meanwhile, for those who want to follow along online, here’s the archive of tweets from the conference.

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June 18, 2012

We’re a Funny Board, Sully — That’s Why We’re Going to Fire You Last

Filed under: Academia,Ben Carp's Posts,Founders — Benjamin Carp @ 10:26 pm

No doubt you’ve heard about the uproar at the University of Virginia over the sudden ouster of Teresa Sullivan from the presidency.  I left the University years ago, and I don’t regularly follow the news there, so I have no unique insight into the situation.  But I trust Siva Vaidhyanathan’s assessment of her reputation, and his breakdown of how this all went down.  Many people have pointed out the irony that the Board of Visitors may have wanted Sullivan to trim the study of classics and German, when the university’s illustrious founder himself was well versed in languages ancient and modern.

Timothy Burke of Swarthmore is disgustedly dismissive, writing that the UVA decision is “about nothing more than mismanagement and malfeasance” on the part of the Board and the captains of industry that appear to have dominated the decision-making.  ”Doctor Cleveland” sees darker portents at work, which made me wonder why Burke was reluctant to link to his earlier worries about academic meddling:

They already came for the doctors and the psychiatrists. They already came for the lawyers. They already came for the accountants and auditors. They already came for all the professions. Professors are the last to be broken on the wheel, the last to be put at their station in the new assembly lines of the 21st Century Service Economy.

The early Industrial Revolution, in the first decades of the 19th Century, was not focused on the giant factories and mass economies that were characteristic of its later height: it was about replacing artisanal and household production through relatively small efficiencies and reorganizations of labor and property. This is what’s happening now to the professions. The professions were the great engines of bourgeois culture in mass society. They were provided human capital by the massification of education but they also provided services to much of society that couldn’t be duplicated or replaced by industrial capital, services that were seen as public goods in newly democratizing societies.

In the early 20th Century, most of the professions came to see autonomy and self-governance as the precondition of providing high-value artisanal service to both elite and mass clientele. The relations the professions created to clients were simultaneously intimate and impersonal. Patients sought doctors they could personally trust but that trust was a product of the doctor’s calling to a vocation with values and obligations bigger than his own interests. Businesses and governments looked for auditors who were independent but also had a skilled and sympathetic understanding of fiduciary workings. And students looked for teachers who were committed to an educational mission bigger than themselves but who also taught out of a fiercely independent and individualized vision of craft. Think of the exalted archetypes of teaching in 20th Century fiction for examples, like Mr. Chips or David Powlett-Jones.

The post-industrial service and knowledge-based economies of the last thirty years have relentlessly chipped away at the autonomy of the professions, because professions are service. They could no more be allowed a semi-monopolistic right to set their own value than artisans and guilds could be allowed to continue to set the value of clothing or printing in the face of early industrialization.

Burke was initially discussing outsider complaints about the workload of college professor; but it seems to me his words might just as easily apply to college administrators–in the absence of government funding (or any ethos at all of education as a common good), their claims to autonomy and their expectations of patience are doomed to be subject to the whims of big donors and their friends among the trustees.

So of course, everyone who cares about higher education and “contemplative spaces” (Vaidhyanathan) gets nervous when politicians, trustees, donors, and administrators throw their weight around in this way (see Jeff’s earlier post about the University of Missouri Press).  Faculty members much prefer a president who cares about the academic mission and raises boatloads of money, but doesn’t gore anyone’s oxen.  But given the economic climate, it’s not clear we’ll get to keep having such presidents.  One story down in Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik is touting the story of humanist David Dudley at Georgia Southern University, who lamented (in an open letter to colleagues) the revolving door of administrators out to make their names, caring little for the long-suffering faculty, who are “at the point where they say ‘just leave us alone.’”  In years when most faculty salaries have failed to keep pace with inflation, many administrators (and wealthy donors, and random packs of consultants) become particular objects of resentment, as their executive pay packages grow to ever greater heights.  Whatever the outcome for Sullivan, her reputation and financial health should emerge relatively unscathed.  The same can’t be said for the University of Virginia, which is sad for those of us who bear degrees and fond memories from the place.

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March 14, 2012

Grounded into Dust

George Inness, "The Lackawanna Valley," 1855, National Gallery of Art

Phillip Longman and Lina Khan have a fascinating article in the Washington Monthly about how airline deregulation has not only made flying miserable for all of us, but is having an absolutely devastating impact on some of America’s inland cities.

The authors find a parallel story in the development of railroads during the nineteenth century.

Dealing with high fixed costs is a challenge common to virtually all networked industries, and in one way or another, America has grappled with the problem throughout the country’s history. The Founders understood that private enterprise could not by itself provide broadly distributed postal service because of the high cost of delivering mail to smaller towns and far-flung cities, and so they wrote into the Constitution that a government monopoly would take on the challenge, providing the necessary cross-subsidization.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, generations of Americans similarly struggled with how to maintain an equitable and efficient railroad network, and for much the same reason. During various railroad bubbles, exuberant investors would build lines to the farthest corners of continent, much like start-up airlines in the 1980s. But over time, the high fixed cost of railroading and the basic economics of any networked industry left all but the core of the emerging system unprofitable before it received the benefits of government regulation.

The authors then quote Charles Francis Adams’s Railroads: Their Origin and Problems (1878), in which he observed that Americans came to the conclusion that railroads weren’t like other industries, and government regulation was necessary to smooth out price discrimination and “local inequalities.”  The authors continue,

The response was the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887—a move that most Americans viewed as essential to preserving free enterprise and their way of life. The ICC took on the task of moderating the price discrimination that railroads practiced, evening out the burden among different regions and classes of passengers and shippers in a way that allowed railroads to earn enough money to cover their fixed costs, improve their infrastructure, and give their investors a fair reward. In effect, the profits railroads earned on some highly trafficked long-haul routes came to be rechanneled by government policy to cover the cost of providing balanced and affordable service throughout the country. Railroads were regulated much as telephones and power companies came to be—as natural monopolies that would be allowed to remain in private hands and earn a profit, but not at the cost of skewing the overall efficiency, balance, and fairness of American economy.

Longman and Khan argue that Americans may have to search for similar solutions when it comes to the airline industry.  Anyway, read the whole thing.

 

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March 7, 2012

Early Americanist Interviews Live Subject (Film at Eleven)

Filed under: American History,Ben Carp's Posts,Generations,Historians,Military,Revolution — Benjamin Carp @ 10:40 pm

This past weekend in Queens, New York, I interviewed my grandfather on camera about his World War II experiences.   A librarian at Tufts had put a packet from the Veterans History Project in my hands, and ever since then, I have felt a gnawing obligation as a historian to record my grandfather’s story, both for my family and for posterity.

When I finally got around to setting this up, it all came together very quickly. It was a daunting experience for a number of reasons: first, I study the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries! My subjects tend not to talk back. Nor am I an expert on the European theater and the experiences of World War II veterans. Furthermore, I have come to appreciate that oral history is its own fully developed methodology, and I felt somewhat guilty about being such a novice interviewer–though the VHP, to its credit, seems to encourage this. Finally, I had to scale a bit of a learning curve with the video equipment, much of which I borrowed from the Tisch Media Center at Tufts University. Thankfully I also had my brother’s help–he oversaw the camera and digital memory while I concentrated on the interview.

So how did it go? My grandfather told his tale (though he tells it better in his own words): as a young man from Brooklyn (just like Captain America!), he enlisted at age 18 in 1942 and wanted to work on airplanes. Caught up in the romance of the Air Force, he ignored the advice of the friendly officer who urged him to request a posting as a clerk/typist, and he bounced around several training camps before becoming certified to work on the P-47 ThunderboltHis unit, the 395th Fighter Squadron (the “Panzer Dusters”), was activated in June 1943 in Westover, Massachusetts, and was subsequently relocated to Farmingdale, Long Island. Six months later, he was in England. Two weeks after D-Day, he was in France with the First and Third Army. His unit reached Belgium, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. He was slated to board a ship for the South Pacific and Okinawa when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So instead he was discharged at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he boarded a bus to Manhattan and (later) a subway back to Brooklyn.

After he went through the basic chronology, we took a break for lunch, and then I asked him to flesh out some of the details. We heard about ruined towns, seasickness, frenzied days at the airfield, pup-tent habitats, wiser comrades, bureaucratic fumbling, a tragic loss, a court-martial, and a day of drinking and reminiscence before the discharged soldiers were ready to re-enter civilian life.

As I said before, I thought I’d be stymied by the differences between World War II and the periods of history I know best. On the contrary, though, I was struck by the way in which certain refrains from the life of the soldier resonate across time. This semester I am teaching a course on “American Military History to 1900.” So I was primed to hear broader truths in my grandfather’s story about the difficulties of military logisticswartime devastationunit cohesion, the soldier’s desire for self-governance, the mixture of motivations that lead a young person into military service, and the reliability of an older person’s memory about events from his younger years.

I am already thinking of more questions I wish I’d asked on the recording, but I suppose that’s typical. In any case, it’s been interesting to share this experience with relatives, colleagues, librarians, and students. Many of them have stories of their own about veterans in their families and the veterans’ willingness to discuss their military service (or not). Others express regret that they didn’t record their relatives’ stories before it was too late. Everyone seems really glad that I did this: it was a great opportunity to both connect with a family member and link his life to a major shared experience in American history. It certainly helped me to understand a bit better why genealogists do what they do, which was apropos of Karin Wulf’s paper this week at the Boston Area Early American History Seminar at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

At least one student has asked where to find out more about the Veterans History Project. And my grandfather is thinking of connecting with the Facebook page for the 368th Fighter Group Association. Once my brother and I have prepared a transcript of the interview, we’ll be sending it, the digital video, and the forms to the Library of Congress.

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February 23, 2012

War and a Free Press

A student’s paper reminded me of the following quote by Union general William T. Sherman: “It is impossible to carry on a war with a free press.”  This famous utterance struck me in light of this week’s Supreme Court deliberations on U.S. v. Alvarez, which Dahlia Lithwick chronicles here.  Sherman (who knew how to use politics, publicity, and the press to military advantage) is observing that military values and democratic values are not always in perfect alignment.

While most of us would find a false claim to military honors to be pretty despicable, it seems fuzzier whether we ought to punish an offender with jail time (rather than good old-fashioned shame and ostracism).  Indeed, a number of journalistic organizations, in particular, have filed amicus briefs on Alvarez’s behalf, reminding us that while soldiers may not always find it convenient to wage war in a democratic republic, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are among the values those soldiers are fighting to defend–even when fellow citizens are spouting lies and blabbing military secrets.

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November 28, 2011

Valences of Liberty

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Democracy,Film,Foreign policy,Historians,Voting — Benjamin Carp @ 2:46 pm

In the past few weeks there have been two excellent reviews of John Lewis Gaddis’s George F. Kennan: An American Life, by Louis Menand and Frank Costigliola.  Ta-Nehisi Coates does an interesting riff on these reviews, which gives him a chance to muse about the challenges of self-mastery in a democratic society.  Kennan is most famous for his advocacy of a doctrine of containment in 1947.

By coincidence, I watched John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), for the first time this weekend, itself a product of the Cold War years (and which previous critics have linked to the Cuban Missile Crisis, etc.).  It’s a movie that asks, “how do you respond to violence that can’t be contained?” and ponders the nature of the American conquest of the West.

A fun question to ask yourself: “who is the hero of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?”  Is it the man who believes in achieving self-mastery through education, representative democracy, modernity, and the rule of law, or is it the man who believes in achieving self-mastery by proving himself as physically dominant, but denying himself the fruits of victory?  And what does it say about America when the non-violent hero achieves worldly success, not wholly because of the values he’s espoused, but because the populace lionizes him for a violent deed?

The Library of Congress selected the movie (which stars John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin) for the National Film Registry because of its cultural, historic, or aesthetic significance, while Gaddis assesses Kennan’s “American Life.”  It’s interesting to ponder both artifacts side by side when thinking about American power and American democracy.

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November 15, 2011

The Flight from Downtown Manhattan

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Historians,Media,Military,Revolution — Benjamin Carp @ 3:40 pm

From the US Army's American Military History, volume 1

 

Noreen Malone of New York magazine had the interesting idea to interview Early American historians to see if George Washington’s flight from the southern tip of Manhattan in 1776 might hold any lessons for the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was evicted from Zuccotti Park this morning.

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February 28, 2010

Famous Events on February 27

In addition to being the birthday of Publick Occurrences 2.0′s senior proprietor, February 27 is the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Cooper Union address in 1860 (making this the sesquicentennial, come to think of it).  I was actually walking near Cooper Union this past evening, which gave me the chance to reflect on great men of American history and great American historians.  A fine way to say farewell to this short month.

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