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.
February 28, 2010
January 14, 2010
Hey look, I am back. I could bemoan the insidious forces that have kept me from blogging, but I seem to know so many people who have been sick, injured, or lost loved ones in recent months, it really does not seem to become me to complain. And that was even without reading the paper this morning. Anyway, it’s a new year, a new semester, a new decade, so let’s get started.
Having been to more than my share of very sparsely-attended indie rock shows and history conference panels, the thought has occurred more than once that “mid-career” academic historians have much in common with a lot of the veteran indie musicians I go to see: well-known within a certain dispersed circle of cognoscenti, perhaps even established in certain way, but doing something too particular in its appeal to ever achieve more than the most modest sort of popularity. Most historians like most bands still have to set up and load their own equipment, and while it saddens me that we historians don’t usually get to perform in dive bars, the bathrooms in conference hotels are usually cleaner.
Then there is the economics of our respective types of publication. My reminder of the similarities here , admittedly not too recent at this writing, was this very informative post byTim Quirk of Too Much Joy, critiquing his band’s royalty statement.
From Tim Quirk, I learned a new term (new to me) major record labels used to denote those never-hit-it-big back catalog bands that they authorize themselves to ignore and abuse: “unrecouped.” This means bands whose sales, according to major label accounting, never paid back their advance and promotional costs. (According to the statement, Too Much Joy’s account with with Warner Brothers stood at $62.47 in royalties with an unrecouped balance of $395,277.18.) Historians lucky enough to find teaching jobs and get tenure do enjoy some job security that bands who had a couple of songs on alt-rock radio in the early 90s might not, but we also live in danger of remaining “unrecouped” and thus powerless when it comes to dealing with the publishers and their self-serving accounting practices.
Now playing: The Low Anthem – To the Ghosts Who Write History Books
September 21, 2009
Read the whole thing, but I’ll boil his suggestions down to the nuggets:
- Make the JAH into an exclusively electronic publication
- Shake up the conference (he prefers discussions and e-discussions to roundtables and traditional panels)
- Establish an open, moderated blog (sort of like a Metafilter for historians)
- Reach out to people interested in American history in various local venues
- Provide database access to historians outside the academy
- Take a firm hand in wrangling grants.
I agree with point 1, I’m in sympathy with point 2, I’d skeptically welcome 3, I’d be all for 4 if it could be proved feasible, and I agree with 5 and 6 in principle, at least.
I shared Professor Cebula’s post on Facebook, and got various responses. I’ll let Jeff weigh in himself, but my favorite comment was from another senior scholar: “The rot set in when they changed the name of the journal. What was wrong with The Mississippi Valley Historical Review?” (Date of name change: 1964.)
I’m an OAH member, and I feel lucky every time the annual conference is held at a nearby town (I like seeing American historians outside my subfield and hearing a few interesting papers, although they always seem to schedule all the early American history panels to run concurrently), or every time the JAH has articles that interest me.
I’m not so selfish as to demand that the organization feature more early history at the expense of, say, the twentieth century (although the twentieth century would probably win a contest for Most Depressing Century Ever), but I admit that I sometimes regard the organization with something of a shrug. As long as early American history has its own journals and conferences, I’m prone to feel a bit complacent about what the OAH puts out. On the other hand, not everyone has the luxury of such specialization (and I myself teach at least through 1877), and it’s good to have an organization that can take a broader view.
Anyway, I’d be intrigued to see the OAH put some of Cebula’s ideas into play.
August 21, 2009
There was an interesting but overheated discussion at “Edge of the West” of a beloved piece of classic rock, The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” There was contextualizin’ and politicizin’ a-plenty, and I made the following remarks way, way down in the comments:
Sorry I saw this late. I love “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” dearly, and hearing the Band’s searing, lumpy original version after growing up with the dopey, slick Joan Baez sing-along on AM radio was a formative musical experience for me: it just illustrated the difference between original popular art and dumbed-down music industry pablum. (Also, the correct lyrics actually told a story that made sense.)
That said, Robbie Robertson’s lyrics for that song and several of the others on “The Band” and “Stage Fright” partook of a fairly naive infatuation with Confederate/white southern Americana that was common in the counter culture and its offshoots circa 1969 (and after). Whilst heading back to nature and making laid-back country-rock, they loved them their doomed outlaws and rebels back in those days, and with less historical insight than we might like, the hippie songwriters and screenwriters tended to think they identified with the poor Confederate soldier, especially if he turned “social bandit” after the war. Even in the dark, revisionist westerns they turned out, the good guys were almost always ex-Confederates, just like John Wayne and Randolph Scott had always been. Blue uniforms were only seen sacking Indian villages and southern farms.
I would say it is to Robbie Robertson’s credit that, unlike a number of left-wing historians of that day, he wrote his elegiac ballad about Confederate cannon fodder rather than, say, a revanchist thug like Jesse James.
August 11, 2009
I hardly get to read the now-venerable H-Net email lists any more, but this morning I did catch a good post from H-LAW and H-SHEAR patiently explaining to the lawyers and right-wingers who swarm those lists on certain topics that the Constitution should not be read the way fundamentalist Christians read the Bible, as an “inerrant” text every word of which is divinely inspired. The author of the following is constitutional historian R.B. Bernstein, and he was responding to a post asking somewhat bitterly whether the last five words in Article I, Section 6, Clause 2 of the Constitution “are anything but a complete nullity,” as though it was news that there was some not eternally-applicable language in there:
I also think that the question, as it stands with its note of suppressed dismay and outrage at language that might be a nullity, targets a constitutional straw-man, a general assumption about the Constitution’s text that we ought to discard once and for all — that the text is not only authoritative but somehow transcendantly so, clear and dispositive far beyond the powers of mortal men.
The framers of the Constitution were human beings, working under very difficult conditions that sometimes meant that they did not write — or “frame” — with the focused, unwavering attention to clarity and guidance for posterity that posterity has too often attributed to them. One example, memorably elucidated by Professor Michael Stokes Paulsen, now distinguished university professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, is the arrangement for who would preside in the case of a Senate impeachment trial of the Vice President. The constitutional text, read with care, indicates only one possible answer: the Vice President. The explanation is that the framers added the Vice Presidency to the Constitution at a very late stage of the game, and they may have meant to modify the language governing presiding officers in Senate impeachment trials to have the Chief Justice preside over the impeachment trial of a President or a Vice President, but they didn’t do a thorough enough mark-up.
Further, the reverence for the text of the Constitution that suffuses today’s constitutional and legal culture may not have been present at its creation, and for very good reason. The framers and their contemporaries lived in an era of rapid constitutional change, in which they all lived through three or even four forms of American constitutional governance (British empire to 1775 or 1776, Continental Congress from 1775-1776 to 1781, Articles of Confederation from 1781 to 1789, and Constitution from 1789 on); they also each lived through at least two and sometimes three different versions of state constitutional arrangements — charter or other colonial organization to 1775-1776, provision or first constitution in 1776, with at least one and sometimes two later constitutions, depending on the state. (The only exception is Rhode Island, which marked up its colonial charter to remove references to the British Crown and then did not do anything to revise or replace that reworked charter until the Dorr Rebellion in the late 1830s and early 1840s.) When Jefferson referred to the Articles of Confederation in late 1787 as a venerable fabric, he was not writing with the sarcasm that some later scholars have attributed to him. Given that rapid succession of constitutional frameworks on both state and national levels, it’s unlikely at best that the framers of the Constitution or their contemporaries thought that the Constitution proposed in 1787, ratified in 1788, and put into effect in 1789 would last more than a generation.
It may be true, as James Madison argued in an essay for the NATIONAL GAZETTE on 19 January 1792, that “every word [of the Constitution] decides a question between power and liberty,” but that is a description of the Constitution’s purposes and functions, not of its consistent literary excellence, and we would do well to recognize this fact.
Not my thoughts exactly — much more judicious — but perhaps this is the sort of cool reason that ahistorical abusers of the Constitution and the Founders might be able to heed? Probably not, but they should.
August 5, 2009
I have found that even most historians don’t want to give government credit for important developments, preferring a universe in which all people are the agents of their own destinies. And that’s fine, Americans are conditioned to think that way, and at least historians usually know enough about the social and institutional details of American life to understand the stiff challenges most people have faced in trying to take control of their lives. But imagine the chore involved in selling a government program to ordinary Americans who have the same conditioning, but know none of those details, or refuse to acknowledge them. One example would be the detail that we already have a huge government-run health care system called Medicare that senior citizens would fight to keep . . . the government out of? The president speaks ruefully about some of his mail:
[Via TPM]: The Washington Post reported a similar anecdote from a recent town hall in rural South Carolina with Rep. Robert Inglis (R-SC). Someone reportedly told Inglis, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.”
Bob Cesca at Huffington Post has a funny piece with those details and more, emphasizing the fact that a lot of the people disrupting these Democratic “town hall” meetings on health care are obvious Medicare recipients. I have talked to more than senior American myself who likewise touted their Medicare out of one side of their mouths and decried “socialized medicine” out of the other.
This is American political psychology at work, the same kind of self-hypnosis that a lot of military people seem to perform on themselves, depending on government for their every need while refusing to intellectually or emotionally process that fact, the better to maintain their ultra-conservative politics in the world outside the military. Perfectly happy to be dependent on Medicare, millions of older Americans have just conveniently “forgotten” the fact it is a government program that should, according to their conservative ideology, be enslaving them, destroying their initiative, euthanizing them, etc.
I think this is why the health insurance industry really should be worried about the “public option” health insurance program being enacted. If the public option exists, people and small businesses will start relying on it, and about two weeks later, they will forget all about its being an evil socialistic intrusion and the thing will be as hard to get rid of Medicare and Social Security, which is to say nearly impossible. Even the next Republican administration will be trying to expand it. The smarter right-wing ideologues and industry lobbyists know this very well. I hope the president and the congressional Dems are ready, because the onslaught of disinformation and disruption is not going to stop. Certain people have too much money and ideological crediblity at stake.
July 15, 2009
In the past week or so, Alexander Street Press has sent me several emails touting my free one-month “Scholar’s Pass” to an online resource called American History in Video, which they evidently want to sell to universities. Looking into this, I see that the product is chiefly old newsreels and History Channel videos, definitely more in the mild general interest category than anything with much academic educational value. For my favorite period, the Early Republic, AHIV seems to consist entirely of History Channel material and episodes of A&E’s Biography, almost all of it concerned with refighting the Revolutionary War or celebrating the Founders, basic cable-style. There are only three titles listed under “Early National Era,” and one of those is really a Revolution title (about Paul “The Midnight Rider” Revere).*
Now, I must admit at the outset that I have never been a huge fan of the History Channel. The somewhat higher-brow PBS stuff works just fine for college students and usually shaves off fewer IQ points. How much do costumed guys running across a field and the substitution of breathless Basic-Cable-Narrator Guy for the stentorian vocal stylings of Edward Herrmann or David McCullough really add? Anyway, the newer PBS documentaries have got the costumed guys now too, but at least the public TV docs have gone through grant processes that force the producers to seriously consult historians.
Alexander Street’s attempt to package History Channel material for libraries made me want to check if I had missed out on some increase in the channel’s educational ambitions. Back in the early days of cable, the History Channel seemed to be nothing but reruns of old World War II documentaries, and I have heard even non-historians laugh about it being the “Hitler Channel.” (Indeed, Urban Dictionary agrees that “Hitler Channel” is now official street argot.) But maybe things had changed? I do remember Newt Gingrich or someone touting the History Channel as one of the key reasons for the coming obsolescence of academic history books and courses and faculty, so perhaps one should check.
Things have indeed changed, as my screenshot from Monday’s History Channel home page attests. (Click it if you want to be able to read it.) There seems to be only one WWII series running now, “Patton 360,” which I can only hope places a CGI George C. Scott in some immersive 3-D environments where he can smack down Nazi vampires or his own loafing troops.
However, “Patton 360″ is pretty much it for history most nights on The History Channel and “History.com” (they own us, friends) these days. The rest of the offerings seem to indicate that the network’s programming niche is not infotainment about the past, but instead manly workplace-based reality shows for guys who like their basic cable as Big As All Outdoors. We noticed from the promos during the Cardinals broadcasts that the History Channel seemed to be very engrossed in the oh-so-historical doings of the Ice Road Truckers, from which we learn that it seems to take a big man to provide the friction that the big rigs need to stay on those ice roads. Then there was Ax Men, a competitive logging show, followed by Deep Sea Salvage and Tougher in Alaska. Clearly Sarah Palin should set up her forthcoming helicopter hunting and moose dressing show right here on THC. I hope that is an appellation THC will soon adopt, following in the focus-losing, initializing tradition of other basic cable outlets like AMC, TLC, and TNN, none of which involve many classic movies, learning, or Nashville music anymore, respectively. For the pasty indoor but still manly set, I see they are premiering a new show set in a pawn shop, just in time for the recession.
Go deeper into the schedule and website, and you get to the pseudoscience shows, like a Bigfoot-hunting program called MonsterQuest. In fairness, I am sure they are hot on the trail of other cryptids as well. MonsterQuest fans include bulletin board poster “Maldar34,” contributor of the following panegyric to the intelligence of History Channel viewers:
Dudewe know this already. Were not some dumb southern hicks that are drunk 98% of the time. We also can tell when somthing is fake or not. Look at the bigfoot reports thread both me and dontwatch have agreed on the fact that most of them are fake. There was one involving a bioligist biking through a forest in washington that seemed very credible if yuu want me to i can find it. But seriously were not some dumb rubes that have a meeting every night on how bigfoot impregnated my wife while i was being probed by aliens. Were just not idiots. We are people of science who belive the exsistence of somthing ou think doe not exsist. You dont have to be rude about it.
I wish that were a satire, but I’m fairly sure that it isn’t, because there were a lot more guys like that where he came from. They were arranging to go on hunts through the site.
It all kind of makes you long for the old Hitler Channel just a little bit. People were learning some history there, even if it was somewhat limited and possibly led to a few viewers getting just a little too interested in the Nazis, if you know what I mean.
It would be easy to dismiss the present pseudo-History Channel as popular nonsense that does not concern us “real” historians. Yet some academic commenting on Stan Katz’s recent Chronicle piece, which answered an alarmist NYT story about the decline of traditional history courses, seemed to regard the History Channel as a kind of saving grace for the world of boring academic knowledge, if not the whole culture. This seems to be what a frightening number of educated people think our discipline should be about:
As for history – it is the only interesting field I have found now that every other discipline is mired in identity politics, and entertainment is nothing but explosions and chick flicks. Hooray for the History Channel with its 360 degree battles! and other excellent programming. Kids do need to learn what history has to offer, and I tell you, when the kids get into the personalities that accompany world events, they like it.
Get the kids into personalities, that’s how we will get them to understand their world. Why didn’t we think of that?
*In fairness, one of the Early Republic shows that was available concerned Andrew Jackson’s conquest of Florida and seems to heavily feature incoming SHEAR president-elect Harry Watson. That one I may have to watch all the way through (even though it was part of a series called The Conquerors that seems to date back to early Iraq times and perhaps celebrates conquering stuff just a little bit).
Now playing: Nick Lowe – Little Hitler
April 16, 2009
Last night I went to one of the tax day “tea parties”–this one in lower Manhattan, by City Hall Park. I have a lot to say about my experience there, but I want to hold off for a little while. In the meantime, I wanted to provide readers with some of the most interesting links I’ve perused over the last few days.
Our regular readers will have already seen my previous thoughts, plus smart observations from Andrew Shankman. The website for the NYC event I attended is here. Wikipedia does an informative rundown of the 2009 history; see also the talk page. I found good advance coverage by David Weigel of the Washington Independent, who followed up by reporting on the Washington DC tea party here. Lawrence Downes was caustic about an earlier tea party event in the NYT; more interesting was this rundown of previous tax revolts in US history.
Samuel Adams biographer Ira Stoll graciously linked to this site in this Forbes piece: “Time for a Tea Party?“ So did John Fea of Messiah College, who records his observations of the Harrisburg, PA, tea party, and Jared Elosta of bottom up change, who began reporting what he saw in Boston.
Thom Hartmann offers historical perspective from the left in “The Real Boston Tea Party was an Anti-Corporate Revolt,” at CommonDreams.org (hat tip to PJT).
Glenn Reynolds of the University of Tennessee offers a sympathetic discussion of the movement’s political mobilization in the Wall Street Journal, and Jack Balkin of Yale Law School does a great follow-up to the Reynolds article.
From the right, Ross Kaminsky combats some left-wing stereotypes about the Tea Party in “Lunatic Left Wrong About Tea Parties,” in Human Events; Angry White Dude offers his thoughts. Supporters of the tea parties give a rundown of the day’s events at taxdayteaparty.com and redstate.com.
Skeptics have included Paul Krugman, Andrew Sullivan (also here), Amanda Marcotte, the folks at thinkprogress.org and buzzflash.com (see Ann Davidow), the Huffington Post, Robert Reich, and Rand Simberg (though he’s also somewhat of a supporter).
Anyone have other links to add? I’m not particularly interested in television coverage; if people have links to standard press coverage (or other opinions from any part of the political spectrum) then I’m more interested, particularly since I’ve found very little on the NYC protest I attended.
More links: Ross Douthat from the right, and Kos, Ezra Klein (with newer thoughts here), James Wolcott and Whiskey Fire from the left. Also, Jared Elosta (an Obama supporter) continues his Boston coverage.
Gordon Belt of the Posterity Project linked here with his own linky post (with some videos too).
April 9, 2009
After my hard-hitting foray into “historians liking libraries,” I think I’m ready for even more tendentious blogposts on subjects such as the cuteness of kittens, the madness of hatters, and the wealth of Croesus.
In all seriousness, though, I do want to mix it up with Chris Beneke a little (but I should preface it by saying that he’s a smart and thoughtful scholar, he’s written a really interesting book, and he’s a fine fellow all around).
I certainly don’t want to diminish the extent of the problems Beneke is addressing here–the bleak humanities job market and the terrible conditions in which adjunct faculty work. I also agree with most of his prescriptions: we should be as forthright as possible in our defense of the value of the humanities, we should pay more attention to some of the underlying problems, we should engage with broader audiences (at least some of the time), and we should think about whether the training of graduate students best fits the world they will face upon receiving an advanced degree.
I do, however, want to push back on a couple of points:
First, his statement that “much of a history professor’s traditional teaching responsibilities can now be easily replicated and widely distributed.” It’s not clear where Beneke is going with this–after all, our scholarship can also be “easily replicated and widely distributed,” and that hasn’t stopped us from writing books and articles (yet). I also don’t think Beneke is seriously suggesting that watching a lecture on iTunes University is equivalent to being in a classroom with a professor and taking his/her course–but if he is, I think he’s selling what we do quite short. In the comments, Beneke recommends (though he doesn’t necessarily endorse) Kevin Carey’s “What Colleges Should Learn from Newspapers’ Decline,” which Jeff has already spiritedly attacked.
Second, I think Beneke needs to slow down a bit before arguing (in point five) that we should both “substitute more rigorous teacher training for grad school research committments” and scale down degree and tenure requirements such that full-length works of history aren’t necessarily demanded. (Does he mean everywhere? And if not, who gets to decide who disarms and who doesn’t?)
There are several things going on here besides “our standards are too high”: the overproduction of Ph.D.s, the disconnect (often unproblematic) between market saleability and scholarly value, and, finally, the good old-fashioned notion that our teaching and research can be vitally connected, and what’s good for one side of that equation is good for the other. I’d also add that some ideas really do need a full-length book to fully explore–and the best way to ensure that a scholar has the discipline and endurance to write a big, book-length idea one day is to make sure that they first do it under the wing of a senior mentor in a university setting. But whatever–this is an obvious argument. I don’t mind debating the pros and cons of specific solutions (and I agree that some tinkering, or even overhaul, needs to take place), I’m just wary of arguments that appear to devalue what a Ph.D. in history ought to mean, and what it can offer.
April 7, 2009
Over the weekend, Stanley Fish (the humanities’ designated representative at the New York Times, for better or worse) wrote a column on the Ward Churchill case. Fish (no relation) made the point that academics accuse one another of “incompetence, ignorance, falsification, plagiarism and worse” all the time, and it shouldn’t necessarily get someone fired, even if a television pundit gets upset about something you’ve written.
The scholars who are the objects of these strictures do not seem to suffer much on account of them, in part because they can almost always point to positive reviews on the other side, in part because harsh and even scabrous judgments are understood to be more or less par for the course. And I won’t even go into the roster of big-time historians who in recent years have been charged with (and in some instances confessed to) plagiarism, distortion and downright lying. With the exception of one, these academic malfeasants are still plying their trades, receiving awards and even pontificating on television.
Anyway, Fish’s argument (with which, like Michael Bérubé, I largely agree) struck me as a little surprising, because I remember him best for the series of pieces he’s written (here’s one example) in which he insists that professors keep their politics out of their pedagogy. Apparently he doesn’t mind if tenured professors inject politics into their research and writing, but where the tender minds of students are concerned, the teacher must take greater care. I don’t entirely disagree–the classroom isn’t for preaching (if you want to put it that way)–but I’ve always had a problem with the way Fish stated his case in these earlier writings. Maybe our readers can help me put my finger on it.