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Publick Occurrences 2.0

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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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!

 

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