A Dispatch from Bochum

The author on the steps of the Münster.

The author on the steps of the Münster.

As the academic year in the US draws to a close, uncertainty, stress, and fatigue are each a familiar presence. However, here in Germany – where the semester has just begun, and where the workload is arguably less intense – I too am faced with certain perils. What exactly is this food that I have ordered? Why am I being reprimanded by this old woman in the street? (Apparently, it is not socially acceptable to cross the street before the light turns green – lesson learned.) How much bread is too much bread? (German bread – and German beer, for that matter – is truly marvelous. Another lesson learned.)

I am currently on exchange at the Ruhr-Universität (RUB) in Bochum. This is my second time studying abroad, and the third country that I have been fortunate enough to study in. From January until mid-March I took part in an intensive language class, wherein I developed basic language skills and worked closely with other incoming students who faced the same challenges I did. The class was often difficult though enjoyable, and friendships were forged over our mutual struggle to comprehend the mysteries of German grammar. Much of my first months here were also spent making use of my Semesterticket, a train pass that allows students to travel throughout the region for a very affordable one-off fee. My state – Nordrhein-Westfalen – is the largest in Germany, and with my Semesterticket I have been fortunate to explore the cities of Köln, Dortmund, Bonn, Düsseldorf, and more. This ticket has offered plenty of extra-curricular opportunities to develop my language skills and gain some understanding of everyday life in Germany. The benefits of this pass are many; in fact, one can probably learn as much from traveling around the state than from work in the classroom.

That being said, all of the homework in the world could not have prepared me for Karneval, a time during which the citizens of Düsseldorf, Köln, and more take to the streets and are gripped by a sort of collective insanity, souped up on copious amounts of alcohol and high-quality German sausages. I’m told that the festivities have a connection to the Catholic celebration of Lent, though it is unclear exactly where Jägermeister fits within the liturgical calendar. Garish costumes are worn as the revelers celebrate their civic pride; the cities resemble a Game of Thrones battlefield, soundtracked by Kölsch lager and pounding techno music from the 1990s. It is an incredible amount of fun. Of course, this being Germany, all festive debris is cleaned away in an orderly fashion, and everyone returns to work on Monday morning as if nothing happened.

Thankfully, Karneval comes but once a year, and, after all, there is serious work to be done. My academic experiences so far have admittedly been very challenging. Class discussion is held in German, and though there is not much expected of me in terms of contribution, even trying to keep up is very difficult. Class formats are also different than in the US, and great importance is placed on your ability to independently conduct and present original research. The campus at RUB is labyrinthine, and with its brutalist architecture from the 1960s and dour winter weather, even finding your way around can initially be intimidating. However, rising to these challenges is a privilege, not to mention a great opportunity. Living and working abroad forces you out of comfort zones and demands that you adapt to new experiences; moreover, the opportunity to cultivate connections and network with like-minded academics is also a bonus. The faculty here have been welcoming and are extremely helpful in providing guidance and advice.

I have been fortunate enough to study abroad before and believe that being able to study in an atmosphere which demands hard work truly offers an opportunity to thrive. And if it all becomes too much, there is always the option to chill out and eat a pretzel. Lesson learned.

The Ethiopian Nero

Ustinov in Quo Vadis? (ustinov-stiftung.de)

Ustinov in Quo Vadis? (ustinov-stiftung.de)

In 1951, Sir Peter Ustinov played the role of Emperor Nero in the American epic Quo Vadis?, and was subsequently nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor in a Supporting Role. In 1935, his father Jona Freiherr von Ustinov, Russian noble and German citizen, began working for the MI5 and against the Nazi regime. That same year, Peter Ustinov’s great-uncle, David Hall, privy councilor to Emperor Haile Selassie, traveled to Berlin in order to get Hitler’s consent to have a large weapons cache delivered to Ethiopia, which was on the brink of an Italian invasion. The three men were part of the same family. All three lived and worked in a number of different countries, under different names, assuming a variety of ethnicities and identities. At times, Peter Ustinov’s father and great-uncle were on different sides in the European struggle. Always, however, were their stories entwined.

The history of Ustinov’s far-reaching family is one of migration, assimilation, and adaption. I stumbled across their fascinating stories when researching the Ethiopian-German relationship during the World Wars, and was quickly taken by what was a shining example of transnational history. Peter Ustinov, now the best-known member of the family and renowned for his acting career, was only the icing of the cake, however.

In 1850, the “black German” Welette Iyesus was born in Ethiopia to the German painter Eduard Zander and the Ethiopian court-lady Issete-Worq Megado. She married a German-Polish Jew from Cracow, Moritz Hall, who had emigrated to East-Africa in order to become a cannon-caster to Emperor Tewodros II. Together, they had twelve children, two of which were David Hall and Magdalena von Ustinov, née Hall. Magdalena would become Peter Ustinov’s grandmother, and through her he would be part Ethiopian. The same was true of course for David Hall, who had mostly inherited the fair complexion of his father’s side. Otherwise it would have been difficult for him to pass convincingly as the “civilized” descendant of an Ethiopian “princess” and a German “harbinger of culture,” as he portrayed himself in Berlin in 1935. Magdalena’s son, Jona von Ustinov, first worked for the German embassy in London, but was then turned by MI5 and became a British citizen. In the same year in which his nephew started working for British Intelligence, David Hall, son of a Jewish immigrant and an Ethiopian mother, travelled through Europe looking on his Emperor’s behalf for support against the Italian aggression in East-Africa. He succeeded in Berlin, where he used the full repertoire of ethnicity, colonial misconceptions, and the romantic notion of ancient royalty to gain the approval of Nazi Germany.

image: Wolbert Smidt, Aethiopien und Deutschland - 100 Jahre Diplomatische Beziehungen (Goethe Institut: Addis Abeba, 2005), 83.

image: Wolbert Smidt, Aethiopien und Deutschland - 100 Jahre Diplomatische Beziehungen (Goethe Institut: Addis Abeba, 2005), 83.

Sir Peter Ustinov died in 2004 in Switzerland, having assumed the Swiss citizenship in the 1960s in order to avoid being highly taxed in Great Britain. His life and family history are a fascinating web of migration, ethnicity, and loyalty. Above all, his family is an example of a transnational history that would be impossible if we only consider borders and national histories.

The Halls’ full story is far too complex to recount here in the limited space of a blog post. Therefore, I would refer you to my upcoming dissertation that will surely be finished at some point in the next decade. Watch this space.

You have to be There to Believe It: History Comes Alive

The Beinecke’s Gutenberg Bible

The Beinecke’s Gutenberg Bible

by David Banas

Spring Break. That semi-magical time full of the hope of freedom for undergraduates and the false hope of it for graduate students who will invariably be writing term papers or, perhaps even worse, grading term papers. While there is an emphasis on working over Spring Break, especially in graduate circles, there is still nonetheless time during most of our Spring breaks to do something relaxing or exhilarating. The latter came for me on a surprise, last minute trip to Connecticut and New York where I was confronted face-to-face with the idea of history coming to life. Most time when one tosses the phrase “history comes alive” around in the CMU History Department, it generally refers to the methodology of game-based learning. However, there is another, older, and perhaps more established way in which history has been made accessible to generations of the public and historians alike over the past two and a half centuries: museums.

On my trip I visited two such institutions. In addition to the rich primary sources that the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscripts Library offers, it presents something even more valuable to the public (or even the historian not studying Medieval and Early Modern history): an enormous glass display filled with examples of their rare collections, visible for every visitor. In addition to the large display of the collection, the Beinecke has several individual display cases with invaluable books scattered around the library. What struck me the most was the Gutenberg Bible, one of only five in the United States and of twenty-one remaining in existence. I was instantly drawn back to my undergraduate years when Dr. Rutherford had repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Gutenberg Bible to the point of making it an ID term on his Renaissance history final exam. And here I was, face-to-face with the oldest, western, printed book in history. In that moment, I forgot all the greater surrounding details that Dr. Rutherford had sought to impress upon my memory and instead was enraptured by the beauty and majesty of this work and the book’s heavy Fraktur font. For me, history came alive as I experienced not only the object in its larger historical context but also its sheer beauty.

Dürer’s Portrait of Erasmus

Dürer’s Portrait of Erasmus

After being hauled around for nearly an hour and a half around a semi-frigid New York City by my girlfriend and her friend who were hell-bent on seeing all of New York in a day, we finally arrived at the end of Central Park with a rather large and imposing stone building in front of us: the MET. The MET—officially known as the Metropolitan Museum of Art—has several interesting exhibitions of which we visited the Byzantine and Medieval art collections (because my girlfriend said so). The collection that stood out to me was “Relative Values: The Cost of Art in the Northern Renaissance,” which, as the title suggests, focused on pieces created by such master craftsmen as Adriaen de Vries, Hans Daucher, and Albrecht Dürer. Despite all the previous sections of beautiful art, this section—Dürer’s works in particular—held my profound interest. On all of his works—just like the Renaissance textbook I had read when I was a baby-faced freshman had claimed—was Dürer’s famous signature of a large, block capital ‘A’ straddling a smaller, capital ‘D’. I was again confronted with history truly coming to life. Having a historian in a rather dry and boring textbook explain to you how Dürer signed all of his works does not compare to not only the sensation of being a mere few inches away from something so old and important but also the thrill of the opportunity of trying to find his signature on every one of his works in the Met’s exhibition. Describing an item or painting is one thing. Actually seeing and experiencing the beauty of it in person is quite another.

Maso Finiguerra's "Hercules and Antaeus"

Maso Finiguerra's "Hercules and Antaeus"

When people complain about history being boring and merely a collection of dates, I point to experiences such as the ones the Beinecke and the MET afforded me to make history truly come to life. Closer to home, the Clarke Historical Library provides students and the local Mount Pleasant community with the same kind of experience that the MET and the Beinecke gave me over Spring Break. The Clarke’s most recent Hemingway exhibition is on the same magnitude as the Met’s and Beinecke’s collections in that Ernest Hemingway as a person truly comes to life, especially while reading such works as the Gamble letter, a letter to Hemingway’s friend and commander during the First World War. One can feel the true character of the man, seeing the beauty of his handwriting, or some of his choice phrasing (the “fleshpots of Charlevoix” readily comes to mind).

In an age in which history and the humanities face budgetary cuts and restrictions, museums and historical libraries offer us a glimpse as to why we deemed history important in the first place. They can also show the public the beauty and importance of historical artifacts and give visual aids for many generations to enjoy. By writing the history of museum pieces such as Hemingway’s letters or the Gutenberg Bible we as historians can do our part to make history come to life.

The Search for the Holy Grail – or the Next Best Thing: The Right PhD Program

by Felix Zuber

Even before I came to Michigan to pursue a Joint MA at Central Michigan University, originally a one-year plan that quickly turned into a two year stay, I had eyed the possibility of continuing my modest academic career with a PhD at some point. Of course, the naïve graduate student that I was, I thought I would have all the time in the world to make up my mind and then prepare my applications stress-free.

The actual “Holy Grail” (credits: www.history.com)

The actual “Holy Grail” (credits: www.history.com)

Well, before I knew it, my second year at CMU had started, work was piling up again, and suddenly, with not a small amount of panic, I realized that the submissions deadline for PhD applications had silently crept up. So, here is my first tip to all of you out there looking at colleges: Start early! Yes, I know, it is the eternal warning, given in hindsight by those who survived. But the simple truth is, it really is important.

Start to look for potential landing spots early on, and that can mean as early as a year before the application is due. You will need the time to make a list of possible programs, have a look at the individual application requirements – because not all universities agree on that point – and prepare all the different parts of a successful application.

One of the first things to keep in mind will be the GRE: Perceived to be antiquated by some, loathed by many (me included), you nonetheless still have to provide scores from this test for the vast majority of PhD programs. International applicants, like me, also need to keep in mind that applications usually require some form of proof of English language, usually the Cambridge Certificate or the TOEFL, or a similar test. The reason not to postpone taking these exams, is to have enough time to retake them if needed, before the application is due.

While researching my potential future academic home, I focused mainly on faculty. I knew what my field of study was – Cold War history – and, of course, remembered some of the more inspiring books I had read. So, my first point of departure was to find the authors of those books. Were they still teaching, and if so where? Then I had a look at other faculty at the respective departments to determine if it would be only me and my potential adviser laboring in solitude, or if there would be other scholars with similar interests to learn from. Also interesting were additional resources, such as research centers, libraries, special collections, annual conferences, or ongoing/recurrent research projects. Furthermore, while others may well be in a different situation, for me geographical considerations did not factor in. As a graduate student familiar with the somewhat harsh conditions of the humanities job market, I was willing to relocate to Alaska, Utah, or the moon, if needed.

Once I had finished my reconnaissance of universities, I ranked them and then eliminated enough programs to come up with a feasible, and fiscally realistic, list of options. Unfortunately, application fees are nothing to be sneered at, especially since they can quickly pile up. A careful monitoring of your budget will be necessary, as I quickly, and with a sinking feeling, realized. Overall, before I started the process of compiling my list of potential programs, I had heard about two differing strategies, both of which certainly have merit. The first one was to follow the “traditional” approach of spreading out applications across the spectrum of universities, from safety schools, to the lofty heights of the Ivy League. The other idea was to only apply to the best, since it would be hard enough to find a job later on anyways, so why not shoot for the stars? I, for one, more conservatively followed the first approach and ended up with a rather balanced list.

The next step, was to email the lucky faculty members I had chosen as my potential advisers. Since they had had no idea of this privilege yet, I had to enlighten them concerning my (hopefully) impending arrival, but most of all to make sure they were in fact still at the respective universities, not on leave, and were considering taking on new graduate students in the first place.

On a side note, before beginning the actual application process, some universities invite prospective students to visit their campus and get a feeling for the place they could be living in for years to come. However, since the United States are a rather large country, and I was about to spend most of my application budget on the application fees, I opted to not visit any programs before I had been accepted.

Once that hurdle was taken, I had to compile the actual application. As I mentioned last week, there are test scores, which, for a fee of course, have to be sent to the prospective departments. I then had to write, what most universities referred to as a statement of purpose, sometimes followed by a research proposal or a personal statement as well. However, not all programs asked for all of these, and the length requirements also varied greatly, from a maximum of 1-2 pages, to no limit at all. In the latter cases I tended to err on the side of caution and limit myself to three pages at the most, remembering the oft-repeated graduate school mantra: You have to learn how to say as much as possible in the smallest possible space. Additionally, while some departments had very specific questions and aspects they were looking for in these written statements, other were vague at best. In the end, I prepared a set of paragraphs about my research interests, academic career, and personal background that I could universally put into every application. Then, depending on the specifics, I tailored the statements towards the individual department, and, most important, the potential adviser. However, I also tried to always identify one or two additional faculty members whose work (I claimed) I would be able to profit from. Generally, my statements followed these questions: What had I done so far? What did I plan to do? What could I contribute to the department? What could the department do for me? Where did I see myself five years later?

Another important aspect was the dissertation project proposal. Here, I felt it best to toe the line between the specific and the broad, emphasizing the potential of narrowing or expanding the scope of my ideas, as needed. Throwing in a few potential sources, or pointing towards research and writing I had already done on the topic, surely did not hurt (at least I hoped).

I also had to choose a writing sample to accompany my application. Again, I was faced with two choices. Either submit a paper that was related to my proposed dissertation project, or include a writing sample from an unrelated field, yet one that might be better in terms of source work, style, or writing. After speaking with faculty both in- and outside of CMU, some of whom had served on admissions commissions, I opted for the second choice. As a result, my writing sample covered the activities of German gymnasts in nineteenth-century Michigan, whereas my field of dreams/study, was the Cold War. I had, of course, also written about that subject, yet nothing I felt came close to the level of primary source work and writing of the paper I ended up submitting.

Next, I had to dust off my CV. Vaguely remembering that I had sworn to consistently update the same over the years, I cursed myself after finding out that (naturally) I had failed to do so. Faced with the task of creating an almost new one, I chose to emphasize my education, research, and teaching on the first page, followed by awards, honors, and grants I had received. Lastly, I mentioned conferences I had attended, relevant internships and work experience, before closing with language proficiencies and references. Overall, valuing brevity, my goal was to have a two-page CV, but I ended up with one closer to three pages. Since writing the perfect CV apparently is a science on par with splitting the atom, or solving the Middle East crisis, I will not go into further detail here.

Less work (for me at least) were the letters of recommendation all programs asked for. Trying to decide whom to ask, I focused on the faculty that knew me and my writing. I recommend allowing the people you ask a few weeks to write the letters. While some may be able to come up with something in a tour de force overnight, others might look less favorably at (an unnecessary) short-term notice. After all, this is something you do not want rushed.

At last, the only thing left was for me to press send - and then pay the application fee. I must admit I was less than happy to find out that, while many universities offer application fee waivers, these seem to be exclusively available to Americans. I, as an international student, always had to grab my credit card. The only exception were two departments that had sent me a waiver code beforehand, after I had entered my information into the GRE online-network while taking that test.

Lastly, one of the most important pieces of advice I can give the hopeful applicant is: talk to your current adviser and other faculty in your department. At CMU I was lucky to profit from invaluable advice and help many faculty members gave me. Without them, I can safely say, finding the right PhD program would have been much harder and quite possibly far less successful.

Confusion in (and around) the Archive

British Library

British Library

Last week, the CMU History blog went on a short hiatus. The reason was my journey to London, where research in the British Library and the National Archive in Kew waited for me. This second part of our double feature on archival research is a loose collection of experiences in and around the archive.

 

Sad Catalogues, or: A Thief in the Night?

Microfilm could be such a great resource. It can contain a rather large amount of copied source material, doesn’t take up much space, and exudes a certain flair of actual research that reading sources on a computer thousands of miles from any archive just doesn’t have. Microfilm also must be catalogued carefully, ordered, and put into neat boxes for future examination. The downside is, however, that anyone who might want to use microfilm has to look at a lot of material before that hoped-for slide might come up.

Please notice the right side of the screen: absolutely nothing to see here

Please notice the right side of the screen: absolutely nothing to see here

In my case, nothing came up. While looking for an early 18th century London newspaper, I thought I had finally found the issue in question, when it dawned on me that the actual page was missing. The curator who had created the microfilm had surely been aware of that, since he or she had left a neat space in-between the other pages. Perhaps they had hoped that the page would be found one day, and subsequently added to the film. That day seems very far away, however. Since the librarians of the British Library are helpful and very nice, we spent at least an hour going through the catalogue and two separate backup collections to find the missing page. In the end, the librarian had to politely admit that the catalogue had perhaps been a bit boastful in announcing that the British Library held the most important, complete collection of early English newspapers. On top of that, while doing some further research online, the creeping suspicion came over me that the newspaper’s originals were actually held by the Library of Congress all across the ocean where I had initially come from for the purpose of finding those very originals! Now, I don’t know why anyone would take a whole host of early 18th century newspapers and smuggle them over the ocean to the new world, but if that person could please step forward and hand over that missing page, I would be very grateful.

Of course, as we all know, if I went to Washington and found that page, all it would tell me would be things I already knew from other newspaper entries. That’s how 18th century sources always are, you just can’t trust them.

 

An Insistent Donor?

If you are lucky enough to find yourself at a library or archive with an attached museum or exhibition, take the time to rest your brain (and eyes) a little and take a stroll. Often you might see or hear things that can make your day much better.

Shortly after quietly cursing the widespread crime of newspaper theft, I ventured into the heart of the British Library for a nice visit to the Magna Carta. Sadly, the museum didn’t have it on display at that time (and I must be honest in saying that I completely forgot to ask why), but there was a very chipper tour guide who gladly told the interested visitors about another, recently discovered Magna Carta. Apparently, some (very rich) guy had found a box in the attic of his newly acquired (ancient) house (well, palace). He had taken its contents, among them a massive scroll, to the local public library of the town of Sandwich, where the astonished librarians realized that the scroll was in fact a 1217 version of the Magna Carta. According to the British Library guide, the librarians told the lucky finder that he could offer the scroll to the British Library, which would give him 20 million pounds for it. He could also, however, give it to a private collector from America or China, who would surely give him over 100 million pounds! The owner of the scroll, shaking his head, declined both suggestions and simply gave the Magna Carta to the public library – for free. What a man!

The story remained in my head for a couple of days, before I decided to do some more research on it. Strangely, the only article I could find about a newly found Magna Carta in Sandwich dated from 2015 and described how a 1300 version was found in the archive… Which only goes to show that you can’t trust museum guides either.

 

123 Years of Adwa

Celebration of the victory at Adwa, March 1st 1896

Celebration of the victory at Adwa, March 1st 1896

While daydreaming about finding my own treasure worth 100 million pounds, I ventured out into the courtyard of the library for some air, when I was suddenly confronted with a rather large group of people dressed in white and waving Ethiopian flags. Singing and dancing, they made their way towards the library. I decided to walk with them, because I had just researched the Ethiopian-German relationship in the First World War, and out of sheer curiosity. Inside the building, the group visited the “Treasures of the British Library” exhibition, where they gathered around the priceless Ethiopic Bible, the 17th century Octateuch of Gondar. Feeling as if I should know why they celebrated this day, I still had to ask one of the Ethiopian celebrants about the significance of their visit. Beaming, he told me that Ethiopia had never been colonized, and that it had decisively defeated the Italian invasion at Adwa, on March 1st, 1896. Of course, it wasn’t such a coincidence – after all, the day is celebrated all over the world by people of the Ethiopian Diaspora – but I felt as if my struggle in the archive for this day was somehow vindicated. 123 years of Adwa matter, as a sign for the struggle of people all across the world against colonialism, and as a symbol that this struggle hasn’t yet ended.

Reminded of the ongoing validity of historical research, the need to comb through every attic in search for new documents, and the connections between historical study and living commemoration, I went back into the bowels of the library. I still needed to find that page, after all…

Assets and Obstacles of Researching Transnationally: Using Archives in the U.S. and in Europe

by Alessandra Magrin (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow)


Having been required to use a large number of archives in two different continents during my joint research assistantship for the Buffalo Bill Center of the West (Wyoming) and PhD research at the University of Strathclyde (Scotland), I thought that talking about my experience and giving out some practical advice could be of use to some of the students in the Comparative and Transnational history program at Central Michigan (of which Strathclyde is one of the partner universities). Coming from a background in Foreign Languages and Cultural Studies, I had little previous experience with collections, foundations, or national archives (both in the U.S. and Europe) when I began this project, and—in all honesty—I would have treasured a few pragmatic tips on how to approach and what to expect from each of them. So here I am, I hope this post can help some of you avoid a total ‘research freak-out’ when you are thousands of miles away from home and from your beloved supervisors.

Let me begin by saying that participating in a big transnational research group such as the ‘Papers of W.F. Cody’–researching the life and times of Buffalo Bill Cody—was no doubt a thrilling experience, but also a challenging one. And while meeting international scholars (such as Patricia Nelson Limerick, Louis Warren, Robert Rydell) was electrifying, so was getting a shock from the Microfilm machine in the National Library of Rome, alas not in the same way.

 

American Archives:

Denver Public Library, Colorado

Denver Public Library, Colorado

Regardless of the picaresque journeys to get there— long transatlantic travels with plenty of missed connections and the odd interstate bus ride with Greyhound (Laredo-Denver, I’ll never forget you)—I have to admit that my experience with American archives was, luckily, always ‘easy peasy’. As some of you might already know, research collections are carefully indexed in most major American repositories, and a thorough preliminary search will make you fairly certain that your hunt will be successful. Professional archivists working in specific collections will also provide invaluable help, so make sure to reach out to them and explain precisely what you are looking for. They might be able to show you additional material on your topic which is contained in boxes that, for whatever reason (a misleading nametag or vague description), had escaped your initial search—as it happened to me in Denver Public Library. Generally, the staff working in large archives and libraries is abundant, and the distribution of the material and the opening times are user-friendly, with some repositories operating also during the weekend. This will allow you the chance to use your time at the archive to the fullest, especially if you are on a tight schedule due to long commutes. Furthermore, an increasing number of museums and archives now have digitized copies of some of their items, which, in some instances, will remove the need to actually visit the archive—at least for some time. This brings me to a tip that will save you some trips to Europe: Major American archives (Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, Newberry Library, Huntington Library, Archives at Yale and Stanford Universities) have copies of collections and documents held in European archives. So, even if you are researching a ‘European topic’, it is worth to first take a look in US archives as they are generally rich in European collections. However, the downside is that this material has probably been studied extensively before, and, unless you approach your topic from a particularly revolutionary angle, you take the risk of not being wholly original in your study. So, if the aim of your research is to examine original or little-known documents or to uncover previously unpublished primary sources, my recommendation is to cross the pond and start rummaging in some dusty European archive!

 

European Archives:

And this is when the challenges began for me! The way archives function in Europe varies from country to country, from institution to institution, and even from whether the archive is state-funded or financed by a private foundation. The organization of British archives and libraries is the one which resembles most the American system. The British Library, the National Archives, the National Library of Scotland, and the British Film Institute archive all have professional and semi-professional staff to assist users in their search. Several holdings are available digitally to users, both on and off site (including index cards, manuscripts, and newspaper collections). Besides that, the distribution of documents is frequent, and normally very quick. On the other hand, the reproduction of material can be rather costly (printing and scanning) but taking copies with your own devices for study purposes is allowed and it is free—although check how many pages of the documents/books/stills you are allowed to copy, each archive implements different policies.

Milan State Library (Italy)

Milan State Library (Italy)

When it comes to archives in continental Europe, the rules and organization change significantly. First of all, do not expect to always find staff who understands and speaks English. Although this might be more common in archives in some central-northern European countries (the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, parts of Germany, large French archives like the BNF in Paris), it is much more infrequent in central-southern and eastern European countries. You are researching a transnational topic, so ideally you would already have some skills in the language of the country you are visiting. If you don’t, I strongly suggest getting a research assistant/fellow PhD student/friend who is a fluent speaker (or, even better, who is based in the country) to assist you during your archival visit. The best way to achieve this is to meet international students, at university, during conferences or summer schools – so make sure you polish your networking skills!

Take into account that opening times often don’t include weekends, especially in countries like Germany, Italy, and Spain where everything shuts down on a Sunday, and that some archives might close as early as 5pm. Also, the distribution of material is sometimes limited to specific days and even specific times of the day (just mornings or just afternoons, or, for instance, only between 9 and 11 am and between 2pm and 4 pm), and that some material needs to be booked a few days before the day of delivery because it comes from an external warehouse (as in, for example, the antique newspapers collection of the National Library of Florence). So, a preliminary thorough check of the archive website and borrowing rules are fundamental—also to make sure you don’t get there on a national holiday or when the archive is closed for restoration (which happens often in archives held in historical buildings). It is good practice, especially in smaller archives, to preemptively announce your visit via email to the curator/archivist responsible for the specific collection you need to use. The staff will normally be able to prepare the material for you and reserve a space in the consultation room. Indeed, you will find that certain archives, despite housing generous collections, have very restricted spaces for the consultation and only accept visits via booking.

Don’t expect to find ‘cutting edge technology’ in all the repositories, especially if they are state-funded archives or libraries (which in certain European countries are notoriously underfunded, and understaffed). Internet and computer access are now generally available everywhere, but probably the Microfilm machines will be from the 1980-90s (don’t be like me and make sure you always dry your hands well before you use them, otherwise get a good life insurance). After years of lagging behind, the digitization of archival material, and especially of newspapers, is now efficient in several major European archives. However, most state-funded repositories have gargantuan collections and only a fraction of their holdings is online.

The situation is usually better in the archives of private foundations, which might have smaller holdings but are equipped with professional archivists with meticulous knowledge of their collections. In my personal experience the document retrieval process was always quick and efficient, so my advice would be to privilege this type of archive and go to state-funded archives if the items you are looking for are only held there.

So, as a rule, you do have to face a number of challenges when you decide to research in European archives. Arm yourself with a lot patience, never lose confidence in your abilities and keep persevering. Having a flexible mindset will help a great deal when you are there. Sometimes you just have to accept that certain things are beyond your control and, no matter how well organized you are, the unexpected will just happen (like when I was in Rome and my archive suddenly shut down due to the first snowstorm hitting the ‘eternal city’ in 27 years). However, I am certain that the rewards, especially for transnational scholars, outnumber the obstacles. Europe is a goldmine for historical records and the chances to come across some truly original material, or at least sources that have never before been studied by English-speaking scholarship, are extremely high. This will make a whole lot of difference in the quality of your research and, eventually, in the way your work will be received by the scholarly community.

History from the Dark Room

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by Hugo Zayas-González

Among those who in an amateur or professional way like to study the past it is well known that documents are their raw materials. Archives and historical libraries have been developing paper-based as well as digital collections, and by taking advantage of technological advances made efforts to keep them in usable conditions. Such is the case for Clarke Historical Library which launched a still ongoing program in 1967 to preserve local newspapers from Michigan communities. In this way, Clarke Library is not only striving to keep “the single most important record from which a community can be documented” usable, but also works to make this material available for a global scholarly community through its Digital Michigan Newspaper Portal. In simple words and paraphrasing a current academic expression, through this portal Clarke Library is setting Michigan local history in a global perspective.

In addition to the intellectual content found within the newspapers, there are technical reasons for preserving them. A definition of preservation says that it is “the protection of cultural property through activities that minimize chemical and physical deterioration and damage and that prevent loss of informational content.”[1] Therefore, the primary goal of preservation has to do with prolonging the existence of cultural property through two types of activities. On the one hand, there are those activities aimed at preventing damage to paper-based collections by storing them in proper buildings with suitable humidity and temperature conditions, and designing a disaster plan. On the other hand, treatment, replacement, and reformatting are the proper activities that address existing damage. In the case of Clarke Library’s newspaper project, it is mostly focused on protection through reformatting both its own and other publishers’ collections. However, Clarke Library’s project focuses not only on damaged or historical newspapers. It is remarkable that through its continuing program they are microfilming contemporary issues as well. At this moment, for instance, they are filming last year’s issues of the Clarkston News, the Cheboygan Tribune, and the Gaylord Herald Times among other titles.

Newspapers from the nineteenth century onward are printed on inexpensive, machine-made, wood pulp paper that was not manufactured for longevity, which makes it necessary to protect newspaper collections through microfilming and digitizing projects. Even though we are living in an increasingly digital world, digitization and digital preservation do not make traditional preservation methods unnecessary. Digitization is simply another option in the preservation toolkit, especially since preserving digital objects long term still presents inherent difficulties. Although microfilming has now become the least user-friendly medium for access to newspaper collections, this technique of preservation provides a master copy from which relatively inexpensive duplicates can be easily made. Furthermore, unlike digital media which requires computer access, microfilm can be read by the naked eye with only a light source and magnification. Digitization consists of making digital copies of non-digital objects, and one of the main disadvantages concerns the continuing change in technology (software and hardware) which affects the user’s expectations.

Thus, the Clarke Library’s DigMich Newspapers project faces the requirements of global and digitized users but still grounds its digital copies on microfilming from the dark room…

[1] Northeast Document Conservation Center, NEDCC, “Preservation 101,” https://www.nedcc.org/preservation101/session-1/1what-is-preservation

The Mayflower Conundrum

The Pilgrim Fathers boarding the Mayflower" (Painting circa 1754) Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

The Pilgrim Fathers boarding the Mayflower" (Painting circa 1754) Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

by Marcel Haas

Judging by the onslaught of advertisement for genealogy kits, quick tests to find out one’s genetic heritage, there is a rapidly growing market for selling and buying knowledge of our heritage. Of course, many of us have grown up with stories of family history: Grandparents talking about the struggles of their lifetime, parents reminiscing about holidays when they were little, and even stories of our own – the first love, the last cigarette, and the latest conference trip to Europe. Beyond our immediate memory, however, few families (at least in Germany) record their history in writing. Maybe they keep letters and postcards, perhaps some aunt or uncle keeps a record of a near-mythical great-grandmother born in the mid-nineteenth century, but on average it would be hard to find anyone with complete knowledge of their ancestral history.

In America, the situation looks slightly different, at least judging from several encounters and conversations I have had over the years across the United States. Here, many people will refer to a specific ancestor from a long-gone century that crossed the oceans to come to the young United States (or the British colonies). They can also add an exact description of their genetic ancestry. More than once, I saw faces light up with delight when I answered the question of my nationality with “German,” only eclipsed by the heartfelt joy in explaining to me that they, too, were “German.” In a few cases, people I talked to were even able to tell me about the very German ancestor who had come to the US. Now, I don’t want to sound dismissive. Of course, I understand the value of oral histories transmitted in families, and I can see in the history of a country like the United States, shaped so heavily by immigration, the reason for a hunger for genealogical knowledge. Nevertheless, I cannot but feel a slight discomfort when dealing with such ancestral stories.

One of my most memorable exchanges happened just last year, while I stood at the counter of a grocery store in Mount Pleasant. My accent had peaked the interest of the guy next to me in line, and he was overjoyed to hear that I was indeed German, like him, as he told me. In fact, he explained, his family had traced his direct ancestry to one of the people traveling on the Mayflower! Of course, I was a bit sceptical, considering that the Mayflower Puritans were mostly English. I did not want to be pedantic, so I let him tell me his story, paid, and left the store. Identity is a complicated and sensitive matter, and he was surely entitled to decide his own. However, the encounter remained with me, if only for the strange mix of self-declared German and Mayflower ancestry.

For one, if the ancestor he identifies most with was on the Mayflower, why did he immediately emphasize his being German with me? How did the English Mayflower ancestor and “Germanness” correlate (let alone the fact that in 1620, there was no Germany in sight)? And above all, and that is really the subject of this post, what were his other 65,535 ancestors doing in 1620?

What emerges, is a simple problem of mathematics. If one assumes a generation to be around 25 years, then someone born into my generation is 16 generations removed from someone old enough to have been on the Mayflower. In general, anyone alive today would be directly descendant from a total of 131,072 people alive since 1590. Since that does not count siblings, cousins, and their respective relations, the grand total of relatives each one of us must have over the course of only the last four hundred years should be roughly around 400,000. (I admit, this is only my lazy estimation.) Thus, only considering ancestors alive in 1620, besides his ancestor of Mayflower fame, our friend from earlier could be proud of 65,535 other people. Some of them lived probably all over Europe, in Sweden and Finland (many of whom came to Michigan in the 19th century), in France and Italy, Poland, Russia, North Africa, Asia, and Great Britain. (Again, this is based on my lazy generalization. If I would speculate based on historical movements this post would be a small book.) A good amount of his ancestors in 1620 were most likely living across North America. Arguably, the great majority of his ancestors must have been poor, some were rich, a few of some fame. Some might have died in debtors’ prisons in England, some of the plague, some of the ague in Michigan. Some might have been Moravians, some Jewish, maybe some were Muslims, and some believed in non-Abrahamic religions. Perhaps one of his ancestors really came with the Mayflower.

These are ten generations. I gave up looking for a chart with sixteen generations, probably because that wouldn’t have fit on my house front. (This can be bought at Masthof Books. https://www.masthof.com/)

These are ten generations. I gave up looking for a chart with sixteen generations, probably because that wouldn’t have fit on my house front. (This can be bought at Masthof Books. https://www.masthof.com/)

Looking at these numbers, one cannot but feel overwhelmed – and confused. After all, we cannot possibly all have 65,536 ancestors in 1620, as the total number of original ancestors would be larger than the number of people who ever lived on this planet. The consequence is simple: At some point in time, the chances are high that we are all related somehow. That one nameless ancestor from the Mayflower likely features in the family trees of millions of Americans alive today – people who would identify as Anglo-Saxon, Hispanic, African American, Native American, Asian American, and more. Ultimately, one ancestor in 1620 is nothing compared to the people we are today. While it is surely fascinating to know that someone of our blood line did great things, it is also important to remember that all of us come from a rather small number of Homo Sapiens about 350,000 years ago.

Disclaimer: As my worried fifth grade teacher can confirm, math is not my strong suit. I have assumed the average duration of 25 years for one generation. Others have used 30 years or 32 years. If I would change my earlier example according to these calculations, the number of direct ancestors in 1620 is quite a bit lower. However, since I haven’t counted the people related to my grocery store friend in 1620 (as in cousins, siblings of ancestors, and their offspring), I believe I have used fair numbers. If I did make a mistake, please let me know (or comment below).

 

Nostalgia is not History

by Angelo Moreno

It’s not exactly accurate to say that I am an alum of the graduate program in history at CMU because I quit the program almost as soon as I began, realizing very early on that I didn’t have the guts for the kind of work it required. But I never quit a real and genuine interest in history as a discipline and as a way of asking questions about the world. After quitting, I became a librarian and have been working in libraries for about six years now, including a stint at the Clarke Historical Library. I have never been directly cut off from the world of professional historians, much less people associated with, in one way or another, CMU’s history department.

            When Marcel asked me to contribute to this blog, I wanted to say no. What would I write about? I am not even an alum! I thought about it for a bit and remembered that a question had been circulating in my mind for the last couple days as a result of my current job teaching research methods (supposedly) to the children of the wealthy elite at a private high school in Mexico. It turns out that some of these privileged teenagers have a genuine and somewhat enthusiastic interest in “history.” Specifically, they are nostalgic for a period of time in Mexico that neither they nor even their grandparents actually experienced: the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz from 1876-1911. As a casual student of Mexican history, this nostalgia startles me. The most widely accepted scholarly narrative of the Porfiriato, as the period is known in Spanish, is that it was characterized by, among other things, a dictatorial government that restricted the rights of the people of Mexico. In addition, the regime carried out organized violence against rural and indigenous communities in order to forcibly implement its idea of order and progress in the country (Turner 1969; Balbas 1927). How could Mexican teenagers in 2019 be nostalgic for that?

            Like a good librarian, I played around in scholarly databases for the answer. I quickly came across an article written by Dr. Jacqueline Avila (2016), a scholar at the University of Tennessee. Avila (2016) analyzed a genre of film that emerged in Mexico during the 1940s called cine de añoranza porfiriana, or “films of Porfirian longing.” According to Avila (2016), these films “nostalgically shape[d] the period as a carefree, bygone era for the bourgeoisie, a utopian space far from the social, political, and economic instability taking over Mexico during the late 1930s and 1940s” (p. 2). This line resonated with what I have come to observe about my elite students: though they are not, on the whole, an intellectually curious lot, they are most certainly, at this early stage in their lives, products of their bourgeoise households. As such, they often uncritically express anxiety about what they see as a socially, politically, and – most important for them – economically instable country. Many of them fear that the most recently elected president, the leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), will bring chaos and stagnation to the country by curtailing the privileges of, quite literally, their families and their class. Avila (2016) described the porfiriato as a time when

“[c]ommerce and industry flourished, giving rise to new consumer cultures, lifestyles, and social stratification, and the Porfirian elite class became the embodiment of cosmopolitanism. The wealthy, perceiving themselves as the pillar of civilization, enjoyed the pleasures of the Porfirian regime by means of all things foreign…” (p. 4)

It would not be a stretch to use this same language to describe the last couple decades of neoliberalism in Mexico, and I believe my students are unconsciously aware of this. They perceive that with the election of AMLO to the presidency, this period is coming to an end. Perhaps, then, their anxiety and invented nostalgia is logical?

Screenshot from a Facebook page dedicated to posting humorous material in support of former Mexican dictator, Porfirio Diaz.

Screenshot from a Facebook page dedicated to posting humorous material in support of former Mexican dictator, Porfirio Diaz.

            For those of us who have imagined and fought for a world in which many worlds fit, and a world free of exploitation and oppression, these are scary times in the western hemisphere. It would be easy to simply write off this Porfirian longing as bizarre, “ignorant,” and marginal, but I fear that it is more than that. I fear that my students are genuinely willing to defend their privileges and comfort up to the point of accepting and supporting a political regime that uses violence and coercion to maintain “order” and to keep them isolated from the great majority of their compatriots. Nostalgia and history are not the same. Historians have a duty to aggressively interrogate nostalgia if they are interested in truth and justice.


 

References

Avila, J. (2016). México de mis inventos: Salon Music, Lyric Theater, and Nostalgia in Cine de añoranza porfiriana. Latin American Music Review, 38(1), 1-27. DOI: 10.7560/LAMR38101

Balbas, M. (1927). Recuerdos del Yaqui: Principales episodios durante la campaña de 1899 a 1901. Mexico City: Sociedad de Edición y Librería Franco Americana

Turner, J. K. (1969). Barbarous Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press.

You are cordially invited to: The International Graduate Historical Studies Conference 2019

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by Amy Greer

It is that time of year again. The beginning of a new semester brings the joys of course work, deadlines, and, for many of us, teaching and the mountain of grading we sleep under every night in our office. Despite this, I am here to tell you about something that could be a promising addition to your calendars, that I am sure are beginning to fill up (if they aren’t already). What is this promising addition you ask? It is the opportunity to present at our annual International Graduate Historical Studies Conference (IGHSC), taking place on the 29th and 30th March 2019! Our conference this year, “Transcending Boundaries,” welcomes graduate students from across the social sciences and the humanities to submit proposals that apply interdisciplinary or transnational approaches, all within a grounding of original research. Last year, graduate students from five different countries presented fascinating research analyzing a wide variety of areas and fields, including painted illustrations in Medieval Islamic Cartography, language migration, and masculinity’s link to the failure of soccer in California, just to name a few. 

Our conference, held here at Central Michigan University, is unique, and for many reasons it is not difficult to understand the longevity of the annual event. The IGHSC is a realistic and well-rounded professional experience. Unlike many graduate conferences, it is a full two-day event with panels that are commented and chaired by a historian of the field, as well as the chance to network and socialize (and of course the most important part, eat lots of food), as our event has professional development experiences built in. You will leave our campus with real experience of what it is like to present your research at a professional historical conference, as well as detailed comments on how to further build upon your research. Panels are open and free to the public, so even if you do not wish to apply, come and engage with exciting historical research. Social lunches, dinners and receptions are also open to non-presenters for a fee at the door. Details of these events will be in our program, which will become available in the weeks prior to the conference.

Dr. Lynn Hunt, UCLA, https://lareviewofbooks.org/author-page/lynn-hunt

Dr. Lynn Hunt, UCLA, https://lareviewofbooks.org/author-page/lynn-hunt

Every year we invite a historian to present the keynote speech, and this year we have the honor of hosting an early modern European historian, Dr. Lynn Hunt, author most recently of The French Revolution and Napoleon: Crucible of the Modern World (2017) and History: Why it Matters (2018). Professor Hunt currently teaches at UCLA and her keynote will address ‘Why History Matters.’ For more information on Dr. Hunt or for information on how you can contact her, please visit http://www.history.ucla.edu/faculty/lynn-hunt. If you would like to hear the answer to the question of why history matters, and enjoy a weekend in the beautiful Mount Pleasant, then please send an abstract and apply by February 3rd, 2019. More information can be found on www.ighsc.info. We look forward to seeing you there!

NAFTA – History without Borders

by Scarlet Munoz Ramirez

As a Mexican citizen, a graduate student in the USA, and currently employee in Canada, I thought that “NAFTA” would be a good title to start my blog post since I am a good example of it. It has been almost seven years since I started my adventure as a Graduate Student at Central Michigan University. With hopes to graduate this summer (without jinxing it) I recently found myself in a totally different position and place. This year has started very busy, forcing me to already miss important academic events such as the AHA conference due to my immigration status being in process. So far, I haven’t even been able to leave the country unless I travel with my spouse (thank you, Canada). Yet, it gets a bit more complicated than that: While finishing editing the introduction and conclusion of my dissertation, a bigger challenge waits for me. This Winter semester I started teaching at the University of Regina. I was lucky to get a sessional position here in Canada, to teach the classes Imperialism in Latin America, First Nations and Colonization as well as History of the Mexico-US Border. We will even employ some game-based learning methods!

View of the First Nations University, which is part of the University of Regina’s campus, Saskatchewan

View of the First Nations University, which is part of the University of Regina’s campus, Saskatchewan

I was very fortunate to get the classes at the University of Regina since they were looking for a Latin American Historian and I happened to be in the right place at the perfect time. The university puts special emphasis on the continuing support for Indigenous peoples and is situated (similarly to CMU) on Indigenous land. Besides the opportunity to gain wonderful teaching experience, I also had the chance to develop my course on the Mexico-US border. The latter is a relevant, fluid, dynamic, and ever-changing space which greatly influenced the history of North America. Considering the heated current events and politics of the border, the class could not come at a better moment. Thus, the University of Regina (in collaboration with the department of International Studies) gave me the opportunity to design this class and think of it as a history class with a focus on transnational studies. Students will gain a better understanding of the origins of the border idea, its formation and delimitation, while also participating in an open dialogue with the academic community. The Mexico-US Border will provide information on the effects of the past and the legacy of the present border situation.

In my First Nations and Colonization class, students are engaged in learning and understanding the Mesoamerican cultures and the impact of Colonialism in the Americas. Using elements of game-based learning, students will participate in a “First Nations Conventions,” a short but hopefully revealing debate. In addition, in my Imperialism in Latin America class, I will use the Mexican Revolution RTTP game. Students are already curious and engaged in the discussion, preparation, and conversation of the game.

As I look back and think on my experiences at CMU, I can only feel lucky and grateful for the education and training that I received from my professors and during my teaching training. Consequently, I will apply the methodologies that I learned in my time at CMU. The classes that I will be instructing are within my field of interest, which makes things more exciting but at the same time more challenging when you want to do your best in those areas. However, it can be very tempting to try to cover the topics more deeply than you should for the relevant education level. Nevertheless, I am teaching students in their 4th and final years and I have at least 8 students that are majoring in history. I believe that this gives hope for the future and development of the humanities by knowing that history is still a great subject of interest. 

After all, the study of history is our job. Regardless of how busy and difficult things can get at the end of the day, teaching, writing, and presenting the stories that you enjoy as an academic historian are fulfilling and satisfying.

New to being a TA: Where to start?

by Sam Malby

You’ve just got the news. You’ve been given funding by the History department at CMU, and you’re going to be a Graduate Teaching Assistant. For fifteen seconds you’re ecstatic. Then you come to the realization… you’re going to be a Teaching Assistant. And you have no idea how to teach, how to talk to students, or how to grade. You suddenly realize that you know nothing about anything, and that they will immediately realize that you must be an impostor and will hunt you down with torches, pitchforks, and (this being America) probably some guns. 

But fear not! There is no need to panic, simply take a deep breath and try to calm down.

Let me suggest a few places you can start.

First of all, there are some things to remember before you even enter the classroom.

1.     Don’t try to be someone you’re not. If you’re a cheerful, joke-laden person who always has a smile on his or her face, don’t put on a stern, scary face because you think it’ll give you more authority in the classroom. It won’t. (Don’t be the Grinch, unless you’re naturally a mean, green, grumpy machine). Be natural and do your best to make others feel comfortable around you.

2.     Remember that the aim of a discussion section is getting the students to talk. You are there to guide the discussion; you certainly shouldn’t be talking for 50 minutes straight. You will most likely end up putting yourself and your students to sleep.

3.     It’s perfectly fine to say, “I don’t know.” Just follow it up with “I’ll look that up for our next class” or “can someone check that on their phone or laptop?”

4.     At first, it is better to be overprepared than underprepared. Eventually, you’ll know how much preparation an hour of discussion section requires.

 

Now a few tips on how to improve your teaching skills.

1.     You might think that the go-to person is the professor you are teaching for, but while the professor is high up on the list, the first people most of us turn to are other TAs. These could be those you are working with as well as other TAs in the History Department. A quick discussion with one of them will often help you find a solution to your problem, an idea for your next class, and suggestions on finding resources.

2.     You can of course also discuss your dreams, doubts, and questions with the professor you work for, and usually they are also a great resource for dealing with any difficulties you may have.

3.     If by chance you are an International student arriving during the summer, there is an International Teaching Assistant Workshop. This is a nice place to start and will help you become aware of some of the cultural differences between your country and the United States.

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4.     During the fall semester, the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) provide bi-weekly GTA workshops where they discuss topics such as ‘Starting on the Right Foot,’ ‘Dealing with Issues in the Classroom,’ and ‘Tackling the Demands of Professional and Personal Responsibilities’. Many of these sessions have been a great resource this semester and provide feedback and discussion points throughout the year that will help you reassess your own teaching.

5.     The HST 700 Practicum in College Teaching is a great place to discuss classroom issues and might make you re-consider many of the pre-conceived ideas you may have about teaching.

6.     The professor for the Teaching Practicum in the Fall 2018 semester, Dr. Brittany Fremion, introduced us to a number of books on teaching. For example, Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do can be a great place to start if you’re in need for some ideas.

7.     If you need a quick refresher on a topic or need some information on something you haven’t studied yet, a great place to start is the Crash Course YouTube channel. Their videos on World History and US History are full of information, presented in a fun and easy to understand way.

 

Ultimately, experience is the best teacher. All you need to do is walk into the classroom, stand in front of the class and begin to talk. Not everything will always go to plan, but that is absolutely fine. Over time you will learn to adapt, improvise, and survive. Just remember what Winnie the Pooh says: “You’re braver than you believe and stronger and smarter than you think.”

A New Year – A New Editor

The new editor somewhere beautiful in Mexico (and definitely working!)

The new editor somewhere beautiful in Mexico (and definitely working!)

While the new year 2019 promises to be an eventful ride – academically, politically, and socially – it is also the begin of my tenure as the new editor of [Re]collection. I am equally humbled and excited to start working on our great blog and online presence, giving you all the amazing content you are used to from my predecessors. Before I introduce myself further, however, I would like to take this moment to thank Dave Papendorf, Jen Vannette, and Chiara Ziletti for their help and guidance, since their respective tenures as editors have put the bar very high for me. I promise to give my best not to disappoint them.

Before landing this job, I was (and still am) a PhD candidate and teaching assistant in the History Department for the better part of the last four years, culminating in a great last semester (at least for myself, the evaluations aren’t in yet, of course) in which I taught my own course on modern American history. My teaching interests have taken me back and forth between Michigan, Indigenous, and US history, while my research focuses on Global Indigenous and African History – with a special emphasis on the colonial experience. All of these fields have instilled in me a keen interest in the political and social development of America and Africa. I think that future blog entries by yours truly will reflect that emphasis. This semester in particular, I am looking forward to several trips to the colonial and state archives in Germany and Great Britain. Watch this space for updates on how to navigate foreign archives, find material in languages I don’t even speak, and manage to book the cheapest (and worst) hostels in Europe.

The Anna Amalia Library in Weimar - Too pretty to be real (I wish the actual German archives would all look like this one…)

The Anna Amalia Library in Weimar - Too pretty to be real (I wish the actual German archives would all look like this one…)

Beyond the archive and classroom, I am a traditional geek (before it all became chic, I’m afraid), and I might delve into some game-based learning ideas and experiences later in this semester. Especially Reacting to the Past has developed into a staple of teaching in our department, and provides us with a fascinating window into teaching and learning methods, student-led classroom interactions and historical imagination. Besides historical role-playing games I also love movies and TV shows, especially those that have influenced how people think about the world. Who didn’t get their ideas of politics from West Wing and House of Cards, their imagination of the Wild West from John Wayne classics such as The Searchers and Stagecoach, and their perception of the Mafia in America from Goodfellas and The Godfather? Consequently, we will have some experts talk about exactly these influences on popular culture and historical thinking.

Of course, I am more than happy to review and publish any and all relevant contributions by our readers, a.k.a. you! Be it your experiences as students, teachers, parents, or avid consumers of knowledge, don’t hesitate to write a piece and send it to our email address (cmichhistoryblog@gmail.com). Serious pieces on work in the archive, fluff pieces on academic holidays (yes, they do exist!), as well as reflections on your research interests are welcome.

In addition to the blog, I am also excited to bring you all the usual department-related news and updates via some of your favorite social media platforms: Gesichtsbuch (https://www.facebook.com/CmichHistory/) and Zwitscherer (https://twitter.com/cmuhistory)! After all, what is the use of a German editor if he can’t have some fun with ridiculous English company names.

I am looking forward to a surely great semester in the world of academia and university education. Together, I am certain that we will keep this blog amazing!

Movies in the classroom -- teaching tool or lazy way out?

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By Sean Scally

As students and teachers, we have all been there before. A short preamble, the classroom lights are dimmed, and the movie begins. Ten minutes pass. One by one, smartphone screens slowly begin to glow; tweets are tweeted, candies crushed. The movie is supposed to be related to a topic we have been discussing for some weeks now; occasionally it is. As every semester draws to a close a period of fatigue can set in, and 50 minutes of Daniel Day Lewis in full Lincoln gear may offer respite to teachers and students alike. However, as someone who meets both of these criteria, I sometimes question the usefulness of this approach; does film offer us a useful way to discuss important historical questions, or is it simply a desperate refuge for an overworked teaching assistant? 

I was an unexceptional history student in high school. For this I partially blame myself, though it must be said that a few of my teachers left much to be desired. In particular, there was an overreliance on a certain VHS cassette. As a respectful and diligent – though, to reiterate, unexceptional – student, it was my duty to go to the storage cupboard to collect and carefully wheel-in to the classroom the TV and VHS equipment. Thereafter, on many occasions, we would sit together as a class and endure the 5-time (Five!) Oscar winning Mel Gibson picture, Braveheart. As an enthusiastic Scot, my teacher loved Braveheart; even then, I was not a fan. While the sight of an incoherent and bloodied man screaming at people in a field does resonate to some degree with my experience as a Scottish person, in hindsight I struggle to see the benefit of this as a pedagogical tool. Aside from the numerous (too many) historical inaccuracies, the film manages to both condescend and pander to its audience. From a historian’s point of view, it should do neither of these things. 

There are certainly benefits to screening a movie at the end of the semester. To be sure, we can all use a bit of a break. Moreover, certain movies can also help students to form a clearer picture of historical settings and events; the aforementioned portrayal of President Lincoln, for example, reflects (in my opinion) a realistic portrayal of the style, language, and character of Civil War era American politics. Similarly, in spite of its obvious lack of historical verisimilitude, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds offers a believable portrayal of Nazi oppression. In his portrayal as an SS investigator, Christoph Waltz accurately conveys the quietly menacing nature of Nazi interrogation, without resorting to cartoonish tropes. Both of these examples can arguably offer students another way to think about ideas and themes discussed during lectures in a way that is both engaging and informative. Further, movies can allow us as TAs to connect with students on a level that the normal teacher-student relationship sometimes does not allow. One of the better historical movies released this year – Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman– was effective in its portrayal of a remarkably true story, and Lee also used this story to offer commentary on current issues in American life. As a former TA for an African American history class, this struck me as a prescient way in which to use historical narratives in a discussion of important current events; the historical material in the movie can fill students in on some of the background information, and the message of the film itself can facilitate conversation between teacher and class.

I suppose then that films can be a useful pedagogical tool when properly implemented. If the movie itself is properly researched and informative to its audience, we shouldn’t feel too bad about letting Spielberg take the reins for a few hours of the semester. However, there is often a fine line between relevant material and historical flights of fantasy. Perhaps the point is that credible historical movies make for credible historical discussion.

What is in a Syllabus?

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by Julie Haefner

As someone who has been a Teaching Assistant for a while, and a student for even longer, syllabi are nothing new to me. Almost every semester I would look forward to getting the syllabi in the first week of class (and color-code everything – much to the ridicule of some of my fellow students who attributed this to my German organization). To my delight, this past semester I took a graduate course called teaching practicum in which one of our final assignments was to design a syllabus for a class that we would hopefully teach one day. I choose to write a syllabus for the 1865 to modern day U.S. history survey course offered here at Central Michigan University. Throughout this assignment I learned a great deal about how to put together a syllabus – a challenge that was much more difficult than anticipated. 

The first task in the process was to come up with learning objectives. What was the purpose of this class? What did I want my students to learn? What kind of skills would they acquire? One of my learning objectives, for example, was for students to develop public speaking and presentation skills. I still had to learn how to present effectively myself (something that I still sometimes struggle with), and it is my belief that universities need to do more in this regard to prepare students. Presenting is a skill, just like writing. With this in mind, one of the assignments that I come up for my students was to in groups prepare presentations on the changing landscape of New York City in the early 20th century. 

Aside from the topics covered in the class, any good syllabus also must include thoughtful course policies. Some of my polices are pretty standard and required by the university. Others I could customize: the use of electronics (absolutely not), the policy for late assignments (loss of 1/3 of a letter grade for each day late), or proper e-mail proceedures. What helped me most in coming up with course policies was my extensive experience as a teaching assistant. Over the years I have seen a variety of course policies, and I selected my favorite policies from all the professors with whom I have worked.

In addition, I had to come up with means to evaluate students; I chose a variety of different means to accommodate different student learners: participation, written papers, journaling, and class presentations. In doing so I had to ask myself questions like: Does this assignment make sense for my learning objectives and the content of the course? Does the assignment work? (something that most likely I will figure out once, and when, I teach this particular class) Am I including a diversity of methods to accommodate different learning types? 

Teaching survey courses is by no means an easy endeavor. Depending on the scope of the course, the professor must cover a wide range of topics.  This is especially true for world history courses, for example, since they cover a large geographical area and time span. Thankfully the post-1865 U.S. history survey course “only” needs to cover about 126 years. It was, however, not easy for me to pack everything into around 15 weeks of actual class time. Modern United States history has, after all, seen quite a bit of turmoil: from Reconstruction to two world wars, isolationism in the 1920s and 1930s, the New Deal, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movements. My own research interests lie in diplomatic history, and in particular the Gerald Ford Presidency. In a perfect world I would have told my students everything about my dissertation. But when teaching a survey course that is simply not possible. While obviously students should know about Gerald Ford (he was a Michigander after all), the main reason for taking this survey course is not to learn everything about my particular research topic. Balancing my own interests and passions while keeping in mind what students needed from that particular course was sometimes challenging.  I was able to use some diplomatic history in designing their final paper though – the so-called cable assignment. 

Overall designing a syllabus has been interesting and worthwhile. There is much more that goes into it than students usually think: What kind of material do I as a teacher want to cover? What should my students learn? What kind of previous knowledge can I assume they have? And finally the most important question (at least in my opinion): What kind of teacher do I want to be? Hopefully one day I get to teach the course that I designed, and maybe I can even inspire my students to color-code their syllabus. 

Wrapping it up with Thomas Aquinas

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As the semester and year come to a close sadly so does my time as the editor of [Re]collection.  Though there are still a few weeks before the end of the year, this is the last time that I will write a personal post on this blog.  Therefore thought I ought to give a few words of salutations before passing the torch to the more-than-capable Marcel Haas.  I have learned a lot in my six months as editor and have greatly appreciated all of the authors and readers that make this blog a point of interest. I could spend the rest of this post describing the mechanics that go into editing and managing a blog:  copy editing, working with peers and senior colleagues, managing deadlines, keeping an eye out for tone of writing, scrambling to get the final touches on a post, and much more.  But I am sure that many of you are familiar with this process already; in fact, I can imagine a great deal of our readers are academics themselves and are therefore all too familiar with these processes (and more).  So rather than spend any more time on these matters, I have decided I am going to share a parting story from my own research and teaching interests.  My hope is that this story will be interesting and serve properly as parting words for my time as editor.

In May of 1244, Thomas Aquinas decided to leave his cushy life assured of future ecclesiastical appointments and to join the Dominican order.  Perhaps this change of heart is all too close to some of our own lives – leaving a life of potential financial and professional success for headier pursuits (i.e. signing up to spend half a decade of your life getting a PhD).  As he left, Thomas utterly stunned his family who worked so hard to set him off on the right track.  Regardless, Thomas followed his calling and trudged on.  In fact, he did not trudge at all – he became one of the most prolific writers in medieval European history.  Historians estimate that, during his prime, he was producing two to three novel-length volumes per month.  Most readers will likely recognize Thomas’s name from his life’s work, Summa theologiae– a tome that addresses over 4,500 theological questions and was meant to replace the outdated Sentencesof Peter Lombard. Curiously, though, Thomas never finished his magnum opus.  This fact is curious because Thomas simply decided to stop writing seemingly out of the blue.

On December 6, 1273 (not that long from today’s date, albeit 745 years later), Aquinas is reported to have said, “After what I have seen today, I can write no more, for all that I have written is straw”. Historians are not sure exactly what it was that Thomas saw and why exactly he had such a dramatic change in perspective.  Dying three short months later in March 1274, some speculate whether it was some sort of medical diagnosis.  Nevertheless, Thomas stepped away from his enormously productive career at the height of his powers.  More critically though, he did not finish what seemed to be his life’s work. Thomas’s halt in writing has fascinated historians and theologians for years, and it remains puzzling to this day.

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I share this story not to draw any parallels between the theological giant Thomas Aquinas and my own time at [Re]collection. Nor do I plan to offer any new answers as to Thomas’s sudden stoppage of writing.  What I find most fascinating about this whole story is how Thomas continually displays what he thinks is a realistic perspective on his own legacy.  He is reflective and even self-deprecating as he halts his projects to engage in more contemplative pursuits.  This is especially true if he did not know that he would soon pass away just a few months after ceasing writing.  A general point of application that I draw from this story, and, by extension, offer to you as readers is to have the proper perspective as you reach the end of the year.  Whether it is with professional goals, writing projects, grading, or end-of-year holiday hustle, be sure to not overestimate how critical every detail is. Remember that you will always experience a mix of failure and success – perfectly embodied, I believe, in my time here as the editor.  If even Thomas Aquinas gives himself a thoughtful critique and reflection, so can you too.  So, as I wrap things up in the next few weeks, I hope that the posts over the past few months have been a little more than “straw”.  At the same time, I know that it has been a productive season.  Thank you all for all of your support – especially former editor Chiara Ziletti and everyone in the History Department at Central Michigan University.  Finally, I wish my colleague and future editor Marcel Haas all the best in the coming year – viel Glück mein Freund!

Teaching in Bochum, Germany

By Dr. Carrie Euler

On June 2, 2018, I kissed my husband and two children (ages 9 and 13) goodbye in Lansing and flew to Germany for a month to teach a seminar at Ruhr University Bochum in northwest Germany.  I was excited for the adventure, but I was also nervous.  Though I have traveled in Europe extensively, and I can even speak some German, I had never taught a course at a university outside of the U.S. before.  Even though I was going to be teaching in English, I was nervous about being a guest in a department (would I have access to a copy machine?), the students (would they find my teaching methods unusual or have trouble understanding me?), and generally about being an American in Europe at this time of political upheaval and tension (would I get non-stop questions about Donald Trump?).  

Why was I headed to Ruhr University Bochum?  The short answer is that the history departments at RUB (the abbreviation for the university) and CMU had been awarded an Erasmus Grant for an exchange of faculty and graduate students over a two-year period.  Erasmus grants are funded by the European Commission in order to support student and faculty exchanges across countries.  Until recently, these grants were only for exchanges within Europe, but a few years ago, the Commission started offering a few grants between Europe and non-European countries like the U.S.  I was the first faculty member to take part officially in our exchange.  When I arrived, three M.A. students from our department were already in Bochum and had been there since February.  

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Bochum is in the Ruhr river valley.  It is one of a cluster of medium-to-large cities in that valley that make up a large metropolitan area; among the others are Essen, Dortmund, and Duisburg.  It is an area of Germany that was very industrial in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; consequently, it was bombed very heavily during World War II, and it has a reputation for being, well, heavily industrial.  The reality is, however, that the cities are quite cosmopolitan—with lots of amazing cultural opportunities like museums and concerts and great food—and the countryside around the cities and alongside the river itself is beautiful.  The university campus itself is not beautiful, at least not in a traditional American college campus way.  As you can see in the first photo, which features the building in which the history department is located, it boasts a lot of concrete and a definite 1960s look (the university was indeed founded in the 1960s).  The second photo, however, is taken from the same spot, just after making a slight turn to look out over the river valley and a lovely little town dating from the Middle Ages called Stiepel. 

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In the end, my experience at Bochum was very positive. None of the things I had been nervous about ahead of my departure came to fruition.  Happily, no one I met was particularly interested in discussing President Trump.  I was given a lovely, newly-renovated apartment with a view of the university and the river valley; it was within walking distance to the university, shops, restaurants, and the commuter train into the center of Bochum (the university campus is located just outside of the main city).  I was granted office space and a graduate assistant to do copying for me. I did not have a printer, however, so I was happy that I had loaded up my suitcase with paper copies of the various readings I wanted to assign my students. 

The course I was teaching was a graduate-level seminar. Bochum’s spring semester runs from April to July, so compressing the course into four weeks in June was not easy, and I only ended up with five students.  It was a nice group, however; they seemed very interested in what I had to teach and gave very well-prepared presentations.  My topic was “Printing and Print Culture in Early Modern England,” which I had just taught as a seminar in the spring semester 2018 at CMU. The history department at RUB was happy to have an English history topic, because they do not have anyone who teaches British history.  I would say that the biggest difference between our system and that at RUB was that, in the end, only one student registered to take the course for full credit, meaning she had to write a long research paper.  The others took it for half credit, where all they had to do was a presentation in class.  This is something that is not an option for students at CMU, and it took some getting used to.

Nevertheless, I was happy to be a guinea pig and get this exchange going, and I believe the three MA students who went to Bochum on behalf of CMU felt the same.  In addition to the teaching experience, I had a lot of time to work on my own research and writing—I even took a quick trip to England to do some archival research on my latest project.  Furthermore, the exchange is thriving—this fall CMU has hosted Dr. Andrzej Michalczyk from RUB, and next fall Dr. Budrass will be visiting.  Hopefully another CMU professor will go in the summer of 2019 or 2020.  I will certainly recommend the experience, and I even hope to go back one day myself. These types of exchanges are vital for our graduate program and they certainly benefit both students and faculty enormously.

Alexis de Tocquville’s “Two Weeks in the Wilderness” and the Clarke Historical Library’s Fall Exhibit 2018

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By Gillian Macdonald

As a PhD student in the history department you expect to be a teaching assistant for much of your time in the program.  Recently, however, the History Department at Central Michigan University has partnered with the Clarke Historical Library and the Michigan Historical Review to open up new opportunities for PhD students to embrace possible alternative careers to being a tenured professor. As the job market remains ever so thin, this opportunity is particularly helpful in offering training for careers outside of traditional tenure-track positions. 

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As one of the first PhD students to be granted this opportunity, let me take some time to describe my responsibilities at the Clarke Historical Library…my new home away from home as Frank Boles has so wonderfully called it. Simply put, arranging and creating exhibits is hard, detailed work. Anyone that thinks it is anything less than stressful (but enjoyable) up until the last minute is likely still enjoying the euphoria of finishing a project to give an accurate assessment. While exhibit curators and designers are fun people to work with, there is a lot of negotiation throughout the process. As historians we hope to see all elements of our research make it into an exhibit, but it is simply not possible to do so. That leads me to the Clarke’s Fall 2018 exhibit:  Tocqueville’s Two Weeks in the Wilderness. The idea for the exhibit itself began with United States District Court Judge Avern Cohen.

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Alexis de Tocqueville visited Michigan in the 1830s.  “Two Weeks in the Wilderness” or “Quinze jours dans le désert,” describes the journey he and Gustave de Beaumont took along the Saginaw Trail in 1831.  “We are going with the intention of examining in detail and as scientifically as possible the entire scope of that vast American society which everybody talks about and nobody knows.” Enamored with the vast forest and wilderness of Michigan, he described the interior of Michigan with great admiration: “While exploring this flourishing wilderness...you feel only quiet admiration, a gentle, melancholy emotion, and a vague disgust with civilized life. With a sort of savage instinct, it pains you to think that soon this delightful solitude will have been utterly transformed.” Tocqueville’s travels in Michigan were part of a commissioned trip to the United States to examine the prison system.  However, his true aim was to explore the untapped outer limits of civilization was only made clear upon his arrival. 

Despite only being part of about half of the process for this exhibit, it is challenging nonetheless. The excruciating detail and time-consuming activities make a time crunch almost inevitable. Nonetheless, I had so much fun. Hands-on work and practical applications of history and the training that we get in the history department are put to the test not to mention an ability to create statistics about Michigan in the 1830s from scratch. This particular exhibit is marvelous (and I don’t just say that because I helped). It is the result of hard labor and a lot of fun exploring stacks and running back and forth from the printer doing last-minute labeling. Another fun perk is that the Clarke’s very own Bryan Whitledge is now on a first name basis with the Countess Stephanie de Tocqueville, so that’s pretty cool too. 

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In summary, the Clarke has one of the nicest housing spaces for exhibits that I have seen in any university library (in my limited experience). With this, they have a unique ability to showcase collections and exhibits, work with departments, be an archival library, and house a journal. You should check it out!

Adventures and Conferences

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By Marcel Haas

If you ever wondered whether immersing yourself fully into academia is a good idea, this week’s post has some ideas that might convince you to do so. Let me begin by saying that I truly enjoy going to conferences. Think about the fact that the university allows you to go on a short holiday where you meet some interesting people, make great new friends (who can also be quite influential and helpful), and all you have to do is give a short presentation and listen to why people think that you should use different sources. Conferences become even more enticing when they are held in a different country than the one in which you are currently working. In my case, that foreign country was Mexico, and that conference the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory (of which I am a shiny new member). 

Right away, I felt the rush of oncoming adventure when my plane touched down on the runway of Oaxaca’s Xococotn Airport and I emerged into October’s tropical heat. The conference took place in a comfortable hotel a little outside the city center, which commanded a magnificent view of the valley. Oaxaca is an incredibly beautiful place that boasts architecture from the Spanish colonial era as well as modern art, markets, and restaurants that overlook the tremendous sight of ancient Monte Alban. The latter truly feels like the city of the gods it was meant to resemble. Built entirely upon the peak of the central mountain of the valley (which had been razed to create a massive plateau), it surely takes its place besides Mexico’s other archaeological highlights such as Teotihuacan and Palenque.

As a center of art, culture, and history, Oaxaca was the ideal place for a very special conference. The Society for Ethnohistory is generally focused on examining the history of Indigenous peoples of the Americas, but more specifically highlights the agency and achievements of Indigenous people in interaction with the colonizing Europeans (the latter part is mostly due to the source availability of course). In South Mexico, this focus allowed conference attendees to experience the region’s history while presenting their new research on exactly that. Coupled with the brilliant organization by the colleagues of UNAM and Oaxaca, the proximity to world-renowned archaeological sites (apart from Monte Alban, also the fascinating former Zapotec city Mitla is only a short cab ride away) made the conference week very special.

Besides its historic relevance and culinary excellence, it seemed to me that Oaxaca (and Mexico specifically) had also been chosen as a political statement in the face of increasing xenophobia in the United States. The choice reaffirmed the close connection of the Society with Mexico (especially considering that the “American” in its title does not simply refer to the US!), and the importance of Mesoamerica for the study of Indigenous peoples and the history of the continent. Importantly, a fiery speech by the outgoing president of the Society, Matthew Restall, emphasized the need for empathy for the suffering of other people, especially Indigenous women who have been the target of violence for centuries. 

After five days of talks, presentations, round tables, receptions, and late-night chats, the conference came to an end. Exhausted, amazed, laden with ideas and photographs, I finally made my way back to Michigan. The week in Oaxaca had been special, but also a perfect example of the experience we as graduate students, early career researchers, and even established scholars can have at one of the many conferences throughout the academic year. Alright, why aren’t you applying yet?

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Obama Center, African-American golf, and Chicago

Original members of the Chicago Women’s Golf Club, courtesy of Chicago Tonight

Original members of the Chicago Women’s Golf Club, courtesy of Chicago Tonight

By Dave Papendorf

Through the great work of CMU’s own Dr. Lane Demas a recent item of news has come to the forefront — and one of historical note concerning former president Barack Obama’s proposed Obama Presidential Center on the south side of Chicago. Refurbishing bits of Jackson Park along Lake Michigan, the project, headed by the Obama Foundation, plans to provide a “refurbished” public space that connects the park to the lakefront. The park will also include a museum tower that tells the history of the Obamas’ story in the United States and prominently features exhibits on the history of civil rights, African Americans, and Chicago generally. Complete with Obama’s presidential library, a conference center, and a large athletic center, this project will celebrate the Obama family and provide a new public space for south-side residents. The city of Chicago has been largely enthusiastic towards the project, giving the Obama Foundation a sweet deal on the property — a $10 (!), 99-year lease to rent and use the land. Despite a dendrological lawsuit and real estate critiques, the project continues forward.

One larger and more historical concern with the project, however, is closely related to Dr. Demas’ book, Game of Privilege: An African American History of Golf. Jackson Park is the site of the Jackson Park Golf Course, an important historical site for African American golf in the city of Chicago. This course is the primary course of use of the Chicago Women’s Golf Club — established in 1937 and featured prominently in Dr. Demas’ book. Golfers and historians were initially concerned that the Obama Center might close the course in favor of improvements, but this concern seems to have been tempered for now. Currently, the Obama Foundation’s plan is to redevelop some of the property into a six-hole “short course”, and they have enlisted the help of Tiger Woods for design and input. Whether the course will still be accessible to South-Side residence is still debated, but the history of this course is indispensable in telling the history of African Americans in Chicago. Included below is a recent presentation at the CWGC’s clubhouse concerning Nettie George Speedy — the first female African American golfer in Chicago and a founding member of the CWGC. One of Speedy’s descendants offers insight into the history of the organization and its importance. Moreover, the archives preserved at the clubhouse of the CWGC have proven to be a historical resource for retelling this important story:

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As previously mentioned, Dr. Demas’ book is award winning in many capacities. He was the 2017 USGA Herbert Warren Wind Award Winner as well as the recipient of the North American Sports Society for Sport History’s book award. Be sure to read more about the history of golf in Chicago in his monograph and keep an eye on the news concerning the course in Jackson Park.