Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

June 3, 2013

Historians and Ethics on the Web

Filed under: Academia,Historians,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 10:56 am
Last week the AHA Today blog hosted a roundtable on Web Ethics to continue an ongoing conversation about civility among historians online. Respondents included:

If you haven’t had a chance to read their thoughts, you should. They provide a nice cross-section of experiences, from those with personal blogs (Fea and Little), to one affiliated with a historians’ association (Alpers), and one with The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s network of blogs (Potter). As far as one can generalize, I agree fully that we need to be clear and careful about how we interact with one another online.

For the most part, the respondents focused their thoughts on blog comments sections. Both Fea and Little, as proprietors of their own web spaces, try to articulate clearly their standards for commenting and police the comments section regularly, to some effect. (The comments sections at Historiann are some of the most active I’ve seen in the history blogosphere, and Fea’s blog, though the comments are often somewhat quiet, has a lively discussion space on Facebook and numerous links on Twitter.) The USIH blog also has an incredibly lively comments section, though it occasionally involves sharp elbows, and Potter has had several famous (infamous?) showdowns in the comments, both in her own blogs (both before and during the Chronicle era) and elsewhere around the web.

What I would add to the conversation is that I try not to think of blogs and social media as new in the sense of uncharted or complicated. Yes, there is a greater possibility of transgressing acceptable norms because commenters can remain anonymous (for more on that, see the comment thread about “jerks in academia” in Historiann’s post on her own blog). Yes, not everyone is comfortable writing for blogs (I don’t discuss my research, for example, a possible topic for a future post), and many are uncomfortable with Twitter—including Historiann herself. There are issues with the online public sphere that don’t exist in print journals or the face-to-face proceedings of conferences and meetings.

But online spaces are public, and treating them that way as participants goes a long way to answering the concerns raised in the roundtable. Participating online can be enormously beneficial to our profession, and is all the more so if more historians join in that conversation. But one should always assume that one is speaking in public, the same way one would be at a conference, in print, or through any other medium of communication. I don’t want to open myself up the critique that I’m being naive, but at the same time, on a certain level online public spaces are no different from any other, and demand the same professional decorum. That won’t stop every troll, to be sure. But as Little notes in her piece, some effort by bloggers and others to police the boundaries of acceptability (much as senior scholars might take aside an overly aggressive or rambunctious grad student at a conference) can do wonders.

Finally, I would second Potter’s suggestion that the AHA can (and perhaps should) play a central role in serving as a clearinghouse for and perhaps a publisher of best practices for web interactions, including guidelines for expectations for professionally oriented blogs, Twitter feeds, comments sections, and so on. I don’t think that AHA should be prescriptive—that would defeat one of the main benefits of online conversations, which is that they can aspire to be, as Alpers puts it, “open, public scholarly space[s].”

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January 11, 2013

The Value of Studying Politics in Context

Several years ago, the student conservative publication on the campus of a friend published a screed against newfangled history, decrying the rise of courses that focused on race, class, and gender, and bemoaning the lack of courses on serious subjects such as politics and economics. The publication singled out for praise a course taught by that friend on American business history. I chuckled when I read the article because the course in question focused heavily on—you guessed it—issues of race, gender, and class in American business. There’s only so much one can learn by reading course titles.

That story came to mind today as I read from a Facebook friend that the National Association of Scholars (and its affiliate group, the Texas Association of scholars), were releasing a report on Texas public universities that claims that the American history taught at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University contains too much social and cultural history (with “race, class, and gender,” or “RCG” as their stand-ins) and not enough political, economic, or diplomatic history.

Several people, including me, posted the report and discussed it on Twitter yesterday afternoon with a fair bit of derision and snark, pointing out, for instance, that the report flagged as objectionable The Minutemen and Their World, Robert A. Gross’s classic study of Concord in 1775, and Liberty and Power, a book whose subtitle is The Politics of Jacksonian America. Using syllabi, as many have argued, is an imperfect measure of what happens in a classroom; I offered as an example that my students listen to the Gettysburg Address in class rather than reading it at home.

That’s all well and good, and self-satisfying to boot. But for a moment indulge me in taking the report seriously to see whether those of us who practice political history in a way that attends carefully to society and culture can learn anything about how we pitch our work.

First, take a look at the report’s ten recommendations (pp. 47-49 of the report). At the topline, they are completely and utterly unobjectionable (in part because they are so vague):

  1. Review the Curriculum.
  2. If Necessary, Convene an External Review.
  3. Hire Faculty Members with a Broader Range of Research Interests.
  4. Keep Broad Courses Broad.
  5. Identify Essential Reading.
  6. Design Better Courses.
  7. Diversify Graduate Programs.
  8. Evaluate Conformity with Laws.
  9. Publish Better Books.
  10. Depoliticize History.

See? Nothing objectionable, except insofar as faculty around the United States are already doing nearly all of those things. We all worked to improve our courses, to “identify essential reading,” to address broad questions in survey courses, and so on. Nearly all of us try to publish better books, and our departments conduct frequent curricular reviews (my own department is in the midst of one this year). The problem, of course, is that a conservative organization such as NAS sees the outcomes of those efforts as fundamentally different from many academics.

To understand how, I want to talk more about the tenth recommendation. Here’s the full text after the brief nugget:

The root of the problem is that colleges and universities have drifted from their main mission. They and particular programs within them, increasingly think of themselves as responsible for reforming American society and curing it of prejudice and bigotry. When universities and university programs consider it necessary to atone for, and help erase, oppressions of the past; one way in which they do so is by depicting history as primarily a struggle of the downtrodden against rooted injustice. This pedagogical conception may be well-intended, but it is also a limited and partisan one, and history teaching should not allow itself to become imprisoned within a narrow interpretation. A depoliticized history would provide a comprehensive interpretation of American history that does not shortchange students by denying them exposure to intellectual, political, religious, diplomatic, military, and economic historical themes.

The dominance of race, class, and gender themes in history curricula came about through disciplinary mission creep. Historians and professors of United States history should return to their primary task: handing down the American story, as a whole, to future generations.

The last sentence is the crucial one. The conservative impulse, as Jeremi Suri noted, is to teach “a simple and one-sided history of just a few people.” I attended a seminar this summer in which someone argued that you simply needed to “give students the documents” and they would be able to understand their meaning, and another person argued with me that I should be teaching the “enduring meaning” of the Constitution. (My response was that the Constitution hadn’t endured in 1787 when it was written, its drafters were in fact incredibly nervous about whether it would endure, and that the Civil War poked a rather gaping hole in the suggestion that that 1787 Constitution was fine as is.)

Teaching history that way, however, does an enormous disservice to students. As a political historian, I agree that teaching political history is important, and I emphasize it in my own survey course (my analogy to Texas is a state law here requiring instruction in both the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions). I believe, as I’ve argued here before, that civic education is an important function of American history courses. Understanding the political history of the United States better, including comprehending just what documents such as the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation meant to various groups, can only help modern political discourse. But I don’t want to pass on a simple story to my students, in no small measure because there is no simple story. In fact, I would argue, college history is not about answers, as NAS wishes, but about asking useful questions. I want, and I think many of my colleagues, to empower students to engage with the fullness of the past, to understand how debates in Philadelphia in 1787, in Congress in January 1865, at Versailles in 1919—choose your example from the standard narrative of political, diplomatic, and economic history—shaped and were shaped by social and cultural forces out of doors.

To address NAS on its own terms, one of its benchmarks for proper reading assignments is the National Archives list of 100 Milestone Documents. Go take a look and figure out how many of those documents one can discuss without any reference to race, class, or gender, NAS’s menacing troika. Maybe the Lend-Lease Act? The Manhattan Project’s notebook? Of course I’m not a twentieth-century specialist so I could be wrong about those. My point is that the political history that NAS and like-minded organizations promote looks desiccated and inadequate without any consideration of the important knowledge we’ve gained and the questions it allows us to ask over the past few decades. For a sample of that, I would just offhand recommend Benjamin Irvin’s book, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty, which recasts the political symbols that Congress promoted to develop American nationalism through an analysis of gendered language, or class implications. It’s a good example of what I aspire to (still working on the book manuscript…) in terms of integrating new questions about culture into an older narrative about American politics.

A conversation about teaching and practicing political history is useful, but the solution is not to ignore the best contributions of social and cultural history by winding back the clock and pretending that those questions don’t exist and don’t matter. And it’s the responsibility of political historians who see value in that process to engage those interested in old-fashioned politics and convince them that those questions do matter.

 

For more coverage, see:

“UT, A&M shortchanging students on American history, report says” (Austin Statesman, Jan. 9, 2013)

NAS press release: “Colleges Twist U.S. History”

Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History? (PDF)

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December 14, 2012

Understanding the Uses of the Past

I haven’t yet mentioned the new early Americanist blog in town, The Junto, so I would encourage you to head over there and check it out. As Ben Park wrote in the opening post on Monday:

Staffed by a host of junior academics studying a broad range of topics—our brief bios are found at the end of the post, and more details are found on each individual author’s page—we aim to provide frequent content related to the academic study of America prior(ish) to the Civil War. But more than just serving as a sounding board for our authors and a clearinghouse for various news, events, and calls for papers, we hope that The Junto will become a vibrant community for the field of early American studies.

I am one of those signed on to write for the blog, and I look forward to being part of that conversation, but you will still be able to find me here.

In that spirit, I want to pick up on a conversation that Ken Owen began there yesterday with a post on Herman Husband and historical imagination. In that post, Ken suggested that using figures such as Husband as a counter to Founders Chic does a disservice to history by reinforcing the notion of history as the realm of “Great Men,” even as we try to find different (and, as Ken notes, less conservative) figures to describe.

Part of the discussion in the comments has led me to think more deeply about historical memory as the key to creating a better sense for students (and by extension the public) of how to make a useable past. To expand on that here, I’d like to ironically return to the Founding Father among the Founding Fathers, George Washington. As loyal readers may know, today (December 14) is the anniversary of Washington’s death in 1799, an event that precipitated broad mourning across the young nation and launched a cottage industry of merchandising. The most important of those efforts may have been Parson Weems’ Life of Washington, published in several editions in the early 1800s by the noted itinerant book salesman.

I bring up Weems because I’ve been using his chapter on Washington’s death in my survey course to have precisely the kind of discussion about the uses of history that Ken points to. If you’ve never read it, it’s near comical in its maudlin description of the deathbed scene:

Sons and daughters of Columbia, gather yourselves together around the bed of your expiring father– around the last bed of him to whom under God you and your children owe many of the best blessings of this life. When Joseph the prime minister of Egypt heard that his shepherd father was sick, he hastened up, to see him; and fell on his face, and kissed him, and wept a long while. But Joseph had never received such services from Jacob as you have received from Washington. But we call you not to weep for Washington. We ask you not to view those eyes, now sunk hollow, which formerly darted their lightning flashes against your enemies–nor to feel that heart, now faintly laboring, which so often throbbed with more than mortal joys when he saw his young country- men charging like lions, upon the foes of liberty. No! we call you not to weep, but to rejoice. Washington, who so often conquered himself, is now about to conquer the last enemy.

Much of the discussion in the class period centered around how to use a document such as this to learn anything about Washington (it’s useful as biography for the things we can trust that he got from other sources, as the newspaper accounts of Congress’s mourning would have been broad public knowledge) and to learn about Weems and his goals (the deathbed scene with not a soul present, and surely no one who gave an exclusive interview to Weems). Through the discussion, I want to help my students understand not just the past but also how people attempt to use the past. In other words, as I mentioned in my comments to Ken, Al Young may have had the right approach to helping students understand the past as a process of historical memory. (Unfortunately, Hurricane Sandy thwarted the class days devoted to Shoemaker and the Tea Party – so I can’t discuss the pairing of Hewes and Weems until April).

The important part, therefore, is not just to engage in mythbusting, which can be useful even if it’s not a complete process. As important, to my mind, is to encourage students not just to engage in historical thinking, but also to engage in thinking about the uses of history through an engagement with historical memory.

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December 6, 2012

Student Reactions to Lincoln

As part of my U.S. History survey course, I offered students the opportunity to write a brief reflection of Lincoln. I was curious how they would respond, both because of the contours of the online debate about the movie’s portrayal of African-Americans, their role in emancipation, the process in Congress, and the depiction of Lincoln himself, and more importantly because my students are likely not as deeply engaged in the historians’ debates as many of us are. After seeing the responses, I thought it might be useful to share some of them (I asked each student’s permission and promised anonymity).

In general, the students who responded enjoyed the film and expressed an interest in learning more about the period (which is useful since we’re about to discuss the Civil War and Reconstruction in class). One went into the movie skeptical but found Spielberg’s framing alluring, noting that “I went into the movie figuring it would be quite boring, but I came out of the movie so interested I couldn’t help but recommend it to everyone.”

Everyone thought Daniel Day-Lewis did a fantastic job at portraying Lincoln (down to the voice), and unlike many historians, most of the students enjoyed the close focus on Lincoln himself. One, in fact, noted that she went in “afraid the movie was going to try to cover too many aspects of his presidency,” and was pleasantly surprised since she thought “the passing of this amendment was the most interesting part of his presidency.” Another offered a detailed analysis of Day-Lewis’s Lincoln:

I think what Spielberg really wanted to focus on was the character of Lincoln and I think Daniel Day Lewis delivered a very accurate portrayal of Lincoln. From what I saw in the movie, Lincoln seemed to be an optimist, as well as humorous and melancholy. You could see how much pressure and anxiety Lincoln suffered from; the pressure the be a father, a president and an all around good man. Something that really surprised me was Lincoln’s voice or what Lewis believed his voice would sound like. I figured that since Lincoln had so much weight on his shoulders he would carry those burdens in his voice and have a really deep, low, droned out kind of voice. But in the first line he delivered, he had a high pitched, soft voice. I think his voice was one of the many reasons he was such a loved president. When I was watching the scenes while he was giving speeches, his voice was kind of sweet and vulnerable which complimented his nature.

The same student had a strong reaction to previously conceived notions of “Honest Abe,” a trope that haunts studies of Lincoln. For this student, the film and Day-Lewis’s approach altered the meaning of the nickname:

One of the very few things I was taught about Lincoln was that he was given the nickname “Honest Abe” and I realize now that he didn’t have that nickname because he never lied, it was because he was so genuine. In an interview Daniel Day-Lewis described Abe as extremely “accessible” which was a dangerous quality to have as president during these times. Abe was the kind of man that wasn’t a puzzle to figure out, he carried his emotions on his face and in his words and had the courage not to wear a mask.

As many have noted, the film did not deal directly with the deep involvement of African-Americans in the emancipation movement. We’re covering that material this week and next in class, so for my students (who had already seen the film), it highlighted some of the racist aspects of the debate:

I didn’t realize how prejudiced the country actually was during this time in history. Of course I have sat through countless history classes learning about slavery, but seeing the lack of support Americans were willing to give to the idea of African Americans being free in their own country shocked me. Lincoln never gave up which is what makes him such a respected president even to this very day. His hard work paid off when the Thirteenth Amendment passed, but his bitter assassination shortly after proved that not all Americans approved.

And another:

As awful as it seems in the context of today, the blatant racism seems like it was portrayed accurately. Some whites truly felt superior to African-Americans. The constant use of biblical references claiming that God made whites superior showed how deeply engrained this belief was. However, there were some people who disagreed with such a belief who stood up for African-Americans when they really could not stand up for themselves and passed the thirteenth amendment.

The exclusion of African-Americans has spawned many a blog post, but I personally found the depiction of Thaddeus Stevens fascinating, as did a student, who seems inspired to go out and learn more (I may have a few reading recommendations…):

Thaddeus Stevens (as played by Tommy Lee Jones) was a great character as well in this movie and he enlightened me to the role of the 19th century Republican party in the abolitionist movement.  I had known very little about Thaddeus Stevens beforehand but I was most surprised to find out how vehemently opposed he was to slavery and that Lincoln actually had to ask him to “tone it down” as it were.

On the other hand, the film’s focus on Congressional debates left the climactic scene flat for one student.

The only time I was happy to be staring straight up at the screen in the second row of the theatre was during this scene because it felt like I was sitting in the court room. But I wasn’t as moved and riveted by this scene as I had anticipated. (Maybe because my dad leaned over and whispered, “Oh boy, I wonder what’s going to happen.”) I wish that they made that moment more captivating because it was a defining moment in history and it was a completely unexpected outcome.

In one small way, perhaps this is a residual effect of the decision to make the movie about Congress with the broader emancipation movement deep in the shadows.

Aside from the core of the film’s discussion of the Thirteenth Amendment, students picked up on scenes and moments with meaning for them that historians have not focused on particularly. One student, a veteran, was particularly struck by the reaction of the audience to the few scenes of fighting:

One thing that really stuck in my mind was the scene where Lincoln was touring the aftermath of the Battle of Petersburg. President Lincoln was riding on horseback through the battlefield looking at all the fallen soldiers. But the thing I can’t get out of my mind is the reaction from the audience. There were gasps as if this was something new to these people. I couldn’t help but thinking that this all still goes on everyday and these people don’t even care that the the month this movie came out 13 members of the armed services were killed in Afghanistan.

I may share my own thoughts on the film in the days to come. In the meantime, I’ve at a minimum found the film a good opportunity for students to think about and discuss presentations of the past in popular culture, and I hope having some students voices out in the blogosphere can help enlighten the discussion about the film’s historical arguments.

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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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August 15, 2012

The Complicated History of Journalistic Plagiarism

Filed under: Joe Adelman's Posts,Journalism history,Teaching — Joseph M. Adelman @ 6:06 am

The past few weeks have given rise to a new round of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing in journalism circles with two more plagiarism scandals. In the first, Jonah Lehrer of The New Yorker was caught fabricating quotes of Bob Dylan [note to self: don’t mess with icons with large fan bases, they’ll figure it out every time] and then international relations pundit Fareed Zakaria was found to have lifted material for an op-ed piece from a Jill Lepore essay in The New Yorker. Both of these cases are serious, and are clear violations of modern standards of journalistic ethics (in their own ways).

However, these scandals and others like them can make teaching the history of journalism more difficult. Students, trained by their reading and their writing centers to sniff out plagiarism in their own work, instantly see it everywhere in the newspapers of the past (when they don’t also encounter rampant “bias,” that is). I want my students to understand the concept well enough that they don’t commit the act in their own work, but as in many areas students want to read the present back into the past. Seeing the historical context is difficult for students, and understanding that plagiarism itself has a history, and it doesn’t run the same course in every field of the written word.

It doesn’t help matters that both scholars and popular writers conflate past and present nearly as readily.  Robert Zaretsky argued in the Los Angeles Review of Books that Lehrer’s crime—that is, fabricating up quotes and statistics—was no worse than the “founder of [the historical] profession,” Thucydides. Just yesterday, the Huffington Post published an essay by Todd Andrlik entitled “How Plagiarism Made America.” Andrlik writes:

Without professional writing staffs of journalists or correspondents, eighteenth-century newspaper printers relied heavily on an intercolonial newspaper exchange system to fill their pages. Printers often copied entire paragraphs or columns directly from other newspapers and frequently without attribution. As a result, identical news reports often appeared in multiple papers throughout America. This news-swapping technique, and resulting plagiarism, helped spread the ideas of liberty and uphold the colonists’ resistance to British Parliament.

Andrlik is right in the first several sentences (indeed, if you know me, you know that these practices are central to my own work). But he’s just wrong to describe what printers in 1765 were doing as “plagiarism.” It wasn’t and it couldn’t have been, because it hadn’t been invented yet. (Neither, by the way, had “journalism” itself, nor for that matter objectivity.) Treating the practices of the eighteenth century as if they were aware of twenty-first-century norms does a disservice to the concept of plagiarism and to our understanding of how people acted in the past.

By definition, plagiarism is a transgression of norms: one’s writing should represent one’s own work and thought, and anything not in that category must be attributed, cited, or otherwise noted. A crude definition, yes, but I don’t think an unfair one. The problem is that in the eighteenth century the sharing of newspapers and reprinting of articles was the norm. Even more, it was the only way to survive, and printers themselves actively took part in sharing their newspapers with one another so that they could engage in the very process of reprinting and circulating these stories.

To work with students on this issue asks them to engage in an act that goes against two natural tendencies: they need to see the past “as a foreign country,” to borrow the phrase of L.P. Hartley, and they need to understand change over time. What we see clearly (and rightly) in our own time as an unethical act was to those in the period in question simply a standard operating procedure.

NB: Bradley Zakarin asked me on Twitter (and I am happy to oblige) to state clearly that I don’t intend to suggest that the practices of the past should be put in place now. We can (and should!) have a discussion about what constitutes plagiarism, why it’s wrong, what penalties should be in effect, but I’m not suggesting we go back to the “free love” Sixties (Seventeen-Sixties, of course).

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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 22, 2012

In Other News

I don’t want to distract from the discussion about UVa that Ben, Jeff, and Morning Chronicler have begun. However, I do want to note several items of interest from around the web this week. Rather than bombard the blog with short posts, I decided instead to collect them here in roundup fashion, something which I cannot promise to do but in an irregular fashion.

  • At The Atlantic, senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates is turning his blog again this summer into a massive discussion group (affectionately titled the Effete Liberal Book Club) for an academic tome. Up this year is Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. It seems like a good opportunity to read or re-read a classic text, and along the way to get a sense of how non-historians read and react to academic work.
  • W. Scott Poole offers some thoughts at The Huffington Post on the release of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer into movie theaters across the nation this weekend (a subject which has also come up on this blog). Having used the novel in his college’s undergraduate methodology course, Poole argues that it and other fantastical treatments of American history can be effective tools for teaching that history. First, he writes, he wanted his students “to think about how primary historical sources, the raw material of history, can be repurposed in surprising ways,” and indeed, many of them got turned on to Lincoln’s actual writings as well as the work of historians of the era—Poole notes in particular David Blight. Second, his students helped him to understand the novel’s treatment of darkness and evil in American history as a powerful lens to understand slavery. In other words, he concludes, “America needed a vampire hunter in 1860.” Definitely worth a read.
  • The rash of media coverage for the “discovery” of lost archival items has been nagging at me, largely because, while cool to have, few of them have seemed to change our understanding of the past very much. Suzanne Fischer, curator of technology at The Henry Ford, agrees.  She points out that the recent document unearthed about Lincoln’s assassination, drafted by the first doctor to reach Lincoln after he was shot, was “right where it was supposed to be (emphasis hers)”—that is, filed under the doctor’s name among the correspondence of the Surgeon General. The researcher who revealed the report, Helena Iles Papaioannou, responded that neither she nor anyone else knew of the report, and that even if its existence had been known, its location was not obvious from the cataloguing system. Because of the public fascination with “discoveries,” this issue will likely continue to spark discussion among archivists, librarians, and historians.
  • James Grossman and Allen Mikaelian analyzed the Politifact Truth-o-Meter and the ways in which it has taken advantage of (or not) the expertise of scholars. Not surprisingly, the journalists who interview scholars are more inclined to sift through the nuance and “shades of grey” opinions in favor of blunt, to-the-point assessments. To reduce Grossman and Mikaelian’s argument, the historians provide fascinating answers on the connections between the past and the present on the issue of, for example, whether new restrictions on voting can be described as “Jim Crow laws” … and then the legal scholars hold more sway in the final decision.
  • A teaching post of possible interest: Tona Hangen of Worcester State University writes about including her students in the process of creating the syllabus for her survey course (United States Since Reconstruction). The impetus for her to do so was the constant struggle in the survey course “between ‘sprinting’ and ‘digging down’” as one races through the material of 150 years (those who teach European or world history surveys are politely asked not to snicker). Would it work in the first half? I’m not sure; the topics may be a little too unfamiliar.
  • Last, a fascinating document find that’s attractive to me as someone who works on political history and history of the book: Houghton Library at Harvard owns a copy of a book from George Washington’s library with Washington’s annotations. But it’s not just any book; it’s an excoriation of the Washington administration’s foreign policy by its former ambassador to France, a young, up-and-coming Virginian named James Monroe. Washington, as curator John Overholt explains, was less than thrilled with Monroe’s opinion.

And to get your weekend started off right, I’ll re-post a trailer for a movie trailer from the comments on a previous post about the War of 1812 bicentennial. Enjoy!

 

CollegeHumor’s Favorite Funny Videos

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June 20, 2012

The Accelerating Pace of Change for Its Own Sake [UPDATED]

Filed under: Academia,Media,Technology — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:17 pm

Can academia be saved from the corporate death cult?

This is the third post here on this subject, but there is one set of villains or enablers we have not talked much about regarding the University of Virginia coup d’ecole: the middlebrow media who just can’t stop trumpeting the glories of “online learning” and especially the entry of Stanford, Penn, and other elite players into the field. For those just catching up to this story, University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan was forced out by the Board of Visitors partly because she “lacked the mettle” to chop programs that didn’t make money, like classics and German, and refused to have the university jump with both feet into online courses like all the other kids. 1

Actually, UVA was already quite a leader in online teaching, research, publishing, going back to the 1990s. Who put the idea into the Board of Visitors’ big CEO heads that the “rapidly accelerating pace of change” required them to shock and awe the campus into “strategic dynamism”?  The Board of Visitors emails obtained by the Cavalier Daily, UVA’s really impressive student newspaper, reveal that Rector Helen Dragas and her cohorts were directly inspired by gushy articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, all venues where they love to celebrate the smashing of any institution by the Internet as long as it is being done to someone else’s institution. One message that jumped out at me appears at right. Jeffrey Walker, a hedge fund billionaire who sits on the board of Berklee College of Music, forwards Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington a Chronicle article (possibly this one) and suggests they go so deep into their research as to watch a YouTube video about the Stanford online course project. 2

At some point the media, and especially the NYT and Chronicle, needs to own up to the role its hyping of online courses and other shiny technological objects has played in poisoning the minds of the business people who sit on governing boards all over academia. So let me address the media for a moment. Reporters and editors covering higher education, it matters what you constantly tout. The busy executives who control our lives in their spare time are much more likely to read your little trend pieces and op-ed columns than they are to sit through a college class or talk to a working professor or read one of our books. Please think through the desirability and plausibility of the higher education apocalypse you are getting the suits so wound up about. Online and hybrid courses will have their place in certain subjects for certain audiences, especially at the introductory level, but until the day that major corporations and elite universities start very publicly recruiting and hiring holders of online degrees for their top positions, brick-and-mortar universities are here to stay. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation may find it groovy to put money into the University of the People (sort of a Wikipedia U., apparently, with courses taught by volunteers), but I am guessing it will be quite a while longer before U of the P alums fill the executive suites at Microsoft, or edit the Chronicle and NYT (Ivy League bastions in my journalism days).  Like most types of “education reform,”  online learning is something that traditionally-educated elites do to others.

At the same time, it is never clear exactly what the process would be by which the “Online Course Tsunami” will destroy conventional academia, unless it is by various Boards of Visitors, Curators, and Regents proactively sacrificing real academics to the the gods of change and “strategic dynamism.” 3 Students enjoy not coming to class, sure, but right now public universities are seeing record enrollments, and the competition for students is based on academic reputation, facilities, and cost, not buzz on the op-ed pages and Chronicle tech columns. (The competition for research money really only turns on the first of those.) Online education might reduce the need for classroom buildings, but I predict that a reputation for herding tuition-paying freshmen into online courses will not turn out to be a very healthy one for a major university to have. (Look for “no online courses” to become a SLAC selling point just like “no classes taught by TAs.) The damage to a sterling academic brand like UVA would be inconceivable, not to mention completely counter-productive. If these board members actually spent much time on campuses outside of meetings they might more easily grasp that students and their parents want the college experience (with the beer, parties, and extracurricular activities) and a prestigious credential, not the pleasure of accessing a shiny new web site.  Board members and administrations clearly think that somehow throwing money at online learning will save them money, against all evidence, but online learning is not the inevitable, annihilating  future of all higher education. It is a current craze that they are rushing to join because they are more familiar with computers and smartphones than scholarship and teaching.

What’s striking to me about the UVA situation, and reminds me of what has happened on my campus with the closing of University of Missouri Press, is that in neither case was there an immediate crisis or catalyst for the sudden, precipitous strike against the core academic values of a great public university. There were ongoing funding issues and new technological challenges to be sure, but nothing that demanded such immediate, self-damaging action. Instead, what we are dealing with is a kind of corporate death cult that worships Change for its sake and does not feel right until some blood is spilled. 4

P.S. “Death cult” is trifle exaggerated, I admit, but here is the excellent song that inspired it, T-Bone Burnett’s “Madison Avenue.” Listen all the way until the end.

P.P.S. Check it out: footnotes!

Show 4 footnotes

  1. The Chronicle of Higher Education had devoted so much space to ballyhooing online courses that Sullivan’s go-slow policy became itself a story, for them, back in April.
  2. I notice as I post this that an excellent article by George Washington University’s David Karpf called attention to the same email.
  3. I started writing this “death cult” post independently, but by the end of the day I was borrowing the cult and sacrifice metaphor from Barbara Fister’s wonderful essay, “UVa, the Cult of Change, and the Uses of Fear“, at Inside Higher Education. So goes the Internet.
  4. Alternate edgy title for this post: “Bring Me the Head of the German Department!”
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June 19, 2012

The Weakness of Being a Herd of Cats

Power grabs are nasty, brutish, and quick.

They’re intended to overwhelm and surprise the victims. To cause confusion. To frustrate your enemies’ abilities to mount counterattacks.

What we’ve been watching unfold at the University of Virginia during the last two weeks is a nothing less than a coup, carefully planned and staged when nobody was in town and when nobody was watching.

I have no original reporting to add, and I think Timothy Burke nailed it in his post about the incredible ham-handedness of the Board of Visitors as a horde of micro-managers who are either treating UVA in a way they’d never treat their own private businesses, or who are so inept that they’re walking proof that wealth is mainly based on luck in marriage and genetics.

What’s striking to me is how familiar this should be to historians. We’ve seen appointments of ‘midnight judges,’ a Saturday night massacre, a night of the long knives. We’ve seen Bush-Gore, Hayes-Tilden, Adams-Jefferson.

When he learned that UVA Rector Helen Dragas – a real estate executive – had gone to UVA’s President Teresa Sullivan on the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend to tell her that 8 of the 15 members of the university’s board were prepared to demand her resignation, a friend of mine thought it couldn’t have been true. Eight of fifteen was “bare majority” and “nobody” would run a university like that. It was too divisive. It flew in the face of everything a liberal education was supposed to stand for at Thomas Jefferson’s school.

Yet some people do operate that way; some just did.

We’re not used to thinking that the bare-knuckle power plays which are routine in politics, corporate boardrooms, and statecraft could be so portable. It’s shocking to think that one rector, weeks before the expiration of her term, would do something like this. Sullivan was in her second year, and by press accounts, Dragas and several members of the university’s business school community began working on what they called the “project” to have her fired. Who knows if Sullivan suspected that Dragas was telephoning board members individually, holding meetings to dodge open records laws and evade other board members who would expose her sleazy m.o. Dragas timed the meeting with Sullivan to coincide with the holiday weekend, after students had left town, when many faculty were away and several big money donors on the board were either overseas or – in one case – recuperating from surgery. To this day, she has offered no clear account of why Sullivan was removed. No specific complaints, no particular flaws or faults. Nothing.

There was a protest on the university’s famed Lawn yesterday. The faculty senate had a meeting with Dragas at which she gave no clear explanation for Sullivan’s removal. They held an overwhelming ‘no confidence’ vote in Dragas soon after.

What’s interesting to me is that Dragas doesn’t care. Just look at this portion of the statement she issued late in the day yesterday:

We recognize that, while genuinely well-intended to protect the dignity of all parties, our actions too readily lent themselves to perceptions of being opaque and not in keeping with the honored traditions of this University. For that reason, let me state clearly and unequivocally: you – our U.VA. family – deserved better from this Board, and we have heard your concerns loud and clear.

In case you’re not fluent in Bullshit, that statement is what it looks like when you extend your middle digit in the direction of your iPhone and ask Siri to transcribe it. Dragas has no intention of explaining her reasons. It doesn’t matter to her whether we, or the students, or the faculty, or the alums, or the other members of the Board don’t know why this was hatched.

We’ve been lulled into thinking that a university operates on a consensus model, and maybe we’re about to witness why it should. But my hunch is that trustees will learn from this. Dragas acts like this because she can, and as long as she can, she will. It doesn’t matter to her whether the faculty senate is upset, because right now the faculty senate seems to have no legal standing to do much of anything except pass resolutions with no binding authority or quit their posts.

We like to think that we can rely on the good intentions of board members whose ostensible and historical role has been to serve as caretakers. But we are ill-equipped to deal with a board that goes rogue. By some media accounts, Dragas and her cabal want UVA to start closing departments and to begin shifting 1st- and 2nd-year instruction to an online format. Why? Because several of her conspirators are invested in an online education provider and want that company to be given a preferential role in transforming UVA’s curriculum.

If you wanted to have a discussion about the goals of online ed or the structure of departments, you’d have that conversation with people who work in academia. But if you wanted to just grab some revenue streams for your pals, this is how you’d do it, because at the end of the day you don’t really care about the content or the consequence for the faculty, students, or university – you only care about the money pipeline.

I keep hoping that some rich member of the UVA Board of Visitors is going to step forward and publicly call for Dragas to resign and for Sullivan to be reinstated.

But that hasn’t happened, and even if it did, it would only paper over the enormous problem that’s been exposed during the last two weeks:

Faculty governance institutions, as they are currently constituted, are far too weak to stand up to board members who see the university as an oil deposit or a copper vein. I suspect that Dragas’ enemies on the board know they’ve been beaten. I hope that the smarter ones among them are taking the time to learn the ins and outs of the university’s rulebooks and the Virginia statutes concerning higher ed. I hope the Faculty Senate is lawyering up for a fight.

Remember how we used to wonder how we were going to answer the argument that the university should be run like a corporation?

It turns out that you can just skip over the conversation part.

If this can happen at UVA – and, let’s just say it – IT DID – we should all feel the fierce urgency of now. We’re not used to thinking of ourselves collectively – in practice, many of us are Mugwumps and anti-Federalists – but we’d better start.

The people coming after our institutions, our students, and our jobs are organized, committed, and highly motivated. The rules matter, and if we’re going to survive as a profession, we’d better learn how to play hardball and start figuring out ways to make it impossible for future Helen Dragases to unravel 200 years of traditions in service of a crassly self-interested self-enrichment scheme.

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