Language Learning for Academics Part. 2 : Structuring your Learning

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By Emily Sieg and Willi Barthold

In the last post, we discussed the advantages and disadvantages of taking a course with native and non-native speakers of the target language. In this post, we’d like to discuss what strategies you can employ once you’ve entered the classroom or perhaps already have some semesters behind you. Coming from a systemic functional linguistics (SFL) approach to language learning, we embrace the notion that language is at heart about making choices rather than rote memory of abstract grammar rules. Perhaps that sounds at odds with our last post, which touted the grammatical self-awareness of the non-native speaker, but give us a moment to explain.

Rather than viewing grammar as the ragged cliff that you must summit before “mastering” a language, considerate it more like the “guidelines” that can lead to appropriate or conventional language choices that can optimize your meaning making potential. If we think back to the native and non-native speakers, the native speaker was socialized into the language and thus inherently knows when language choices are appropriate within a given social context and when they sound like “mistakes”. The non-native speaker, on the other hand, must internalize these conventions in order to maximize the likelihood that someone else will understand what they mean to say (or almost as importantly, do not mean to say). By thinking about language in this way, its fundamentally social basis comes into focus: if we need grammar, then it is only because grammar contains the generically approved formulations that make us mutually intelligible. Taken a step further, it goes a long way when learning a language to reorient yourself away from the right/wrong paradigm towards the appropriate/inappropriate paradigm of language usage, because language is intrinsically grounded in culturally specific communicative contexts.

Since the authors are both German speakers, we’d like to take a few examples from German to illustrate the point. As does not need to be explained to professional historians, “Germany” historically speaking was not a unified political, economic or even linguistic unit. Regionalism has and continues to play a major role in Germany and especially in consideration to German-speakers within not only the Federal Republic of Germany, but also Switzerland, Austria and other enclaves around the world from Brazil to the Caucasus. What sounds “right” to one of these groups may sound “wrong” to another or even go against the grain of codified grammar rules. For example, while Germans and especially Berliner like to substitute in the dative case wherever possible, a Swiss national might emphasize the grammatically accurate genitive: not wegen demWetter, but wegendesWetters. Of course, the Berliner might not have even understood the correction because Swiss speakers have at times an incomprehensible accent to the North German ear. But consider then if an overly confident American language learner points out the genitive to the Berliner, the American will not be credited with having rectified a “mistake” but for clinging to outdated grammar rules that no longer reflect the living language. (Coda: you’ll ultimately want language input from as many diverse sources as possible, because only then will you understand the nuance of “appropriateness”.)

Appropriateness in turn is all about context. What is appropriate in one context will not be appropriate in another. Therefore, in addition to recommending that you take a step away from the grammar tables and right/wrong paradigm, we encourage you to think more systematically about context and genre. Are you the American telling off a Berlin graduate student? If yes, then hopefully you’ve assumed that your native speaker language partner has equal or better linguistic awareness than yourself, but you chose to point out the genitive in the context of a collegial jest and not a fit of being a know-it-all. In the former case, you may have made a friend, in the latter, you may have just lost one. 

In the context of archival research, the same rules of appropriateness apply. When reading 300-year-old poetry, the word order rules and spelling conventions that you’ve agonized over for hours could get thrown out the window, but being able to recognize the difference between genitive and dative might be the key to decoding it all. If you’re looking at diplomatic correspondence from the 18thcentury, forms of address and the hierarchical differences between du, Sie, Ihr, Er and Euer Liebden will of no doubt be of importance even though no textbook addresses all of these forms. Thus when dealing with historical texts, your ability to understand these sources will come down to how well you can acclimate yourself to the conventions of the genre you are reading. 

Consequently, try to think systematically about what you need language for and attempt to identify as soon as possible what aspects of language will be most meaningful to you – not everyone needs to know five+ degrees of respectful address, but maybe you do. If you are just starting a language, grappling with even the most basic of such language conventions is undoubtedly difficult, but this is where it would be useful to have an instructor to ask. Personally, when our students come to use with specific learning goals, we almost always have tips or advice that could be useful to that student. Even though the average curriculum is catered to suit the needs of a generic student, an instructor’s input during office hours can be very enlightening when determining where to invest your time and resources. 

In the absence of an instructor, there are other methods for teaching yourself what you need to know. Take for example the tedious task of writing a grant application. Whether in your native tongue or a foreign one, this exercise is rarely a joy for anyone. Fortunately, online guides exist in all languages for application letters of all kinds. Taking an extra hour to look at other examples of the genre will always be worth the time and effort. When reading samples of the genre you want to emulate, take note of certain phrases that are recurring and make sure to use them yourself. Maybe it hurts your independent streak or feels like plagiarism to copy phrasing, but every serious German selection committee will have more respect for the clichéd “Für weitere Frage stehe ich Ihnen gerne zur Verfügung” than the “Bitte fragen Sie mich, wenn Sie was wissen wollen” that you were able to come up with on your own. It’s all about appropriateness for the context: there are just conventionalized ways that a selection committee expects to be addressed and it would behoove you to learn what those conventions are. If something in an example foreign language grant application looks “off” to you, see if it is a recurring feature, not a bug. That might tell you that you’re the one who will look “off” if you fail to include it, even though you never once considered writing something similar in English.

Over the course of these two posts we hope we have been able to provide some practical advice for language learning. Whether it be choosing a native or non-native language instructor or determining how to prioritize your studies, we encourage you to consider the context in which you are learning and the context in which you hope to apply your language skills. All language learner needs are individual, but the basis of language learning is premised in identifying and contextualizing social conventions. Wherever you are with whatever resources you have, keeping this principle in mind can help you make the most of your current language capabilities as well as steer you in the direction that is most appropriate for your own needs.

Language Learning for Academics Part. 1 : Choosing your Teacher

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By Emily Sieg and Willi Barthold            

Learning a foreign language while pursuing a Master’s or PhD can be a difficult challenge. The amount of work and commitment it takes to truly master even just the basics of a foreign tongue seems especially overwhelming when you are busy with coursework, comps, teaching, or research. However, language learning can be of great benefit beyond just fulfilling your program’s requirements, since it not only offers the opportunity to immerse yourself into a different culture and become more aware of the meaning making capacities of language but might also help you to receive research fellowships abroad and enhance your research abilities. This two-part post will thus try to offer some assistance for academics that seek to learn a foreign language, may it be for the purpose of research or simply to broaden your personal and professional horizon as a scholar.

As graduate students enrolled in a German PhD program, we – the authors of this post – not only have a good grasp of typical graduate students needs and interests when it comes to language learning, we also would like to share with you our experience as instructors of German who often have PhD and Master’s students in their classes. Since one of us is a native speaker of German and the other a native speaker of English, in this part we would like to discuss the differences between taking a course with a native or non-native speaker of the target language and the pros and cons of each, in order for you to be able to assess what you want or expect out of a language course and help you choose the right one. 

If you are in the luxurious situation to be able to choose between a native and non-native speaker as your teacher when you pick a language class, your first intuition might tell you to go with the native speaker. Who would know a language better than someone who grew up speaking it every day in the country in which it is actually used? Knowing teaching practices and styles of native and non-native speakers, however, makes this choice a less obvious one. In fact, native and non-native teachers bring in very different perspectives and qualification when it comes to teaching and these differences can become both advantages and disadvantages for your language learning experience, depending on your individual needs and preferences.

Let’s start with the native speaker as usually most people’s first choice. The advantages are quite obvious, as the native-speaker usually not only has a good command of the language in all its varieties, but, as a member of the foreign discourse community, will also be able to shed light on the various cultural contexts in which the language is used in specific ways. The native speaker will teach you colloquialisms that the textbook does not know, enrich your learning experience with real-life anecdotes that demonstrate the use of language in context, and provide you with a sheer endless vocabulary knowledge that allows you to gain an understanding of not only one but multiple ways to achieve communicative purposes in the target language. This high degree of linguistic flexibility comes with a high degree of accuracy regarding assessment and error correction. The native speaker sees and hears every mistake. It is an old saying that one learns by making mistakes, so this accuracy will raise your awareness of areas in which you still need to improve and thus will have a positive effect on your language acquisition process. 

The high attentiveness to mistakes, however, might also very quickly turn into nitpicking, which brings us to some of the disadvantages of the native speaker and areas in which the non-native speaker can shine. While the latter might be lacking some of the abilities that we have just outlined as features that distinguish the native speaker, the non-native speaker in contrast will be better able to give you feedback on your performance in the foreign language that prioritizes aspects that are most essential for meaning making. In other words, this means that while the native speaker might see more mistakes and easily gets hung up on them, the non-native speaker knows which mistakes need to be pointed out at that particular moment in your learning process and which will stop occurring by themselves once you master the most essential literacy skills. Not limited to instances like this, it is precisely the personal experience as a learnerof the foreign language that the non-native speaker is able to draw on in order to scaffold your language acquisition productively. Native speakers often lack essential theoretical knowledge about the grammar of their own mother tongue, simply because they never had to study it consciously. The non-native speaker, on the other hand, went through the same learning process as his students at one point in his life and should thus have a comprehensive command not only of grammar rules but also of how to convey and instruct them most effectively. 

When just starting a language, it thus may be to your advantage to take a course with a non-native speaker. While the complex language used by the native speaker can be a great source of inspiration, some students might prefer the non-native speaker’s pragmatic language use that allows him to single out the most essential words and phrases without overwhelming students with an unmanageable sea of choices. Furthermore, what the non-native speaker might lack in comparison to the native speaker’s comprehensive knowledge of the language is often impressively compensated by their precise knowledge of grammar choices. Yes – your non-native speaker might make mistakes that the native speaker would not, but if you want to know how to avoid mistakes, the non-native speaker will more likely be able to advise, whereas the native speaker will say “no, we just don’t do that.”

We hope that this post has given you a new perspective on the advantages and disadvantages of both native and non-native language instructors. In the next post, we’ll discuss some strategies for language learning to help you once you’re already in the classroom.

Archival Distractions

By Kaete O'Connell

Planning a research trip can be tedious and frustrating. You never know quite how long it will take to read through all the material you wish to see, and for grad students time and money are often in short supply. Even with amazing finding aids and helpful archivists, there are always archival surprises as well as unwelcomed distractions. Surprises are great! Like when an archivist pulls out an unprocessed collection and grants you a sneak peek. Or when you stumble upon that perfect document chock full of useful source material. 

Distractions are a different story. I’ll be flipping through a file and suddenly realize an hour of precious time was lost reading barely legible onion skins – none of which is significant! I used to beat myself up over distractions. I’ve read months of beautifully written correspondence between GIs and their loved ones, letters that were so endearing I couldn’t tear myself away. Some have made me smile, others have made me blush, and once I was so misty eyed I walked out of the reading room. Few, if any, of these distractions will make their way into my project, but they do humanize it.

Some of the best archival distractions are the blackholes that lead you to something entirely new and exciting, something worth investigating a little further. My favorite occurred on an afternoon at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. I was leafing through papers that belonged to an intelligence officer stationed in Berlin after World War II. Specifically, I was looking for commentary on the food situation and Black Market, which I did find. But I also stumbled upon a bizarre story about Fiorello La Guardia’s sister. At the time, La Guardia was best known as the New York City mayor, but he would soon take over as director of UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. The intelligence officer’s unpublished typescript recollected an investigation into the appearance of $20 bills (USD) in the British Sector of Berlin. American currency was forbidden in occupied Germany. Oddly enough these bills were not discovered on the Black Market, but in a recently reopened bank where they were exchanged for the local currency (Reichsmarks). The culprit was a 70-year-old widow, Gemma La Guardia Gluck. Gemma explained to the authorities that she received the bills from her brother, the Mayor of New York via correspondence delivered by the American Red Cross. Occupation officials were stunned when American Red Cross representatives confirmed the story.

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I was equally surprised and launched a Google search into Gemma La Guardia Gluck. How did the daughter of Italian immigrants, sister to the Mayor of New York City, end up living in postwar Berlin? That’s when I learned she married a man of Hungarian Jewish descent and was living in Budapest when it was taken by the Nazis. She was deported to Mauthausen as a political prisoner (her relationship to La Guardia was publicized) and then imprisoned in the Ravensbrück women’s camp. She survived the war and arrived in Berlin as a Displaced Person. I was left with many questions, mostly informed by my knowledge of La Guardia’s role in UNRRA. I immediately purchased Gemma’s memoir and added it to the rapidly growing “read for fun” pile in my bedroom. I’m a long way away from any future projects, but if permitted a daydream or two, I’d love to revisit Gemma’s story in the future. Hers was one of those perfect distractions that reminded me why I fell in love with research: the burning questions, the thrill of the search, and the satisfaction when one’s mind is sufficiently blown by new information. I may have lost a few hours of productivity in the archive, but it was worth every second.

Kaete O'Connell is a PhD student at Temple University in Philadelphia.  Her dissertation explores food relief in Germany after WW2.

Beyond Memorializing: Teaching 9/11

 World Trade Center Memorial, photo from Jennifer Vannette

World Trade Center Memorial, photo from Jennifer Vannette

By Jenniffer Vannette

When I was in high school, the usual oral history assignment was to ask your grandparents about their experiences in the Great Depression. Yes, I just aged myself. What I discovered at the time was that my grandparents were quite young and so it was harder to compare what they remembered to broader historical patterns. My high school history teacher acknowledged that it was likely the last year of the project, but he never did say what another project might be. Being a typical high schooler, I passed the class, moved on, and didn’t really think about whether the oral history project continued with another event or if it just faded away.

But it came to mind again as I read a U.S. News & World Reportarticle on teaching 9/11. It occurred to me that we are at a point where it would be a useful exercise to have students interview their parents (or other adults) about the tragic events that unfolded seventeen years ago. We are now at a point where students, including college students, will have no memory of the event. Sari Rosenberg, a high school teacher in Manhattan, has her students conduct interviews with an adult of their choosing about their memories of 9/11. After the students share their work, Rosenberg then gives them a lesson about the events, putting it all into context. She says this helps her students learn how to think like a historian. 

Last year when I wrote for [Re]collectionabout this topic, I discussed how 9/11 teaching can suffer both from a lack of desire on the part of instructors to relive the experience through teaching and from the tendency to get mired in commemorative aspects. Thankfully, many nonprofits including museums and other trusted education and media sources are working to craft resources to aid teaching – especially in K-12 schools. Many of these resources can be adapted to the college level.  

No matter the grade an instructor teaches, but especially in college, we need to be careful to not just examine the specific events of one day, but teach the context. Like any other historical event we need to make sure to integrate the event into broader historical understanding: what policies and/or actions led to the attacks? What were the reactions, not just personal and military, but in policy and law? How did the event shape and continue to shape our domestic polices and social reactions? What were the dynamic changes on the world stage, and what effects are still evident? We need to address the hard topics such as the rise of radicalization of Islam, with an understanding that, despite sensationalism, it’s an outlier.  Furthremore, we ought to study the U.S.’s general willingness to overlook freedom of religion when it comes to Muslims. We need to address civil liberties along with the interesting growth of the Tea Party’s individual-freedom rhetoric that virtually ignored the erosion of civil liberties in the Patriot Act. Finally, we need to encourage to students to examine how these elements fit or are different from other traumatic events in U.S. History, and even how we have historically approached memory and memorialization, which would tie nicely with an oral history project. 

Terrorism and its ugly aftermath, the ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the outgrowth of ISIL, radicalization and Islamophobia, use of torture and the closure/non-closure of Guantanamo Bay, civil liberties and the questions of legal rights for terror suspects under the Constitution are just a few of the issues still floating out there in our everyday parlance. Issues that are devoid of context unless we make it a point to teach 9/11 in a comprehensive way.              

When things are diss-couraging: Fighting through the difficulties of writing a dissertation

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By Dave Papendorf

Though at first glance the scope of this post may seem limited to those writing PhD dissertations, I don’t think that sentiment is true at all; in fact, most of us in higher ed. or with family members in higher ed. can and should resonate with some elements in this post.  In short, the difficulties of dissertation writing are not just difficulties of PhD students – they affect academic departments, dissertation supervisors, colleagues, friends, and, most importantly, families and partners.  What follows, though, should be taken with a grain of salt.  While I am speaking from experience, my experience is not universal. Moreover, I intend this post to at least start conversations that reflect upon the dissertation stage in order to open up more dialogue and (hopefully) help students through a grueling point in their academic careers.  My story is as follows:

I am writing my dissertation now, and I am discouraged on a weekly basis.  Even though I’m making both personal and professional progress, I sometimes feel like I’m riding the wave rather than driving the truck – if you’ll indulge my mixed metaphors.  After the normal pattern of coursework, comps, teaching a solo course, and (thankfully) a research fellowship, I feel as if I am only just beginning the dissertation process.  And I’m starting my fifth year to boot!  Based on the graphic above, I suppose you could place me smack dab in the middle with my friend on that boat.

Initially, my ABD (all but dissertation) phase started with relief and excitement; the coursework is done, and the comps are over. Hallelujah!  Now I can do what I was born to do – research the early Reformation in France…okay well maybe not, but at least I’m closer to the finish line. But then, after about two weeks of flying high, the dread set in:  what do I do now?  Luckily, academia has a fix for that – teach your own course!  Whew.  Never mind that cloud over my head, I can do something that is professionally productive and write later, right?  Well, sort of.  Heading to my fellowship at the Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte(which you can read about here), I knew I had some time to sort things out. But even my time there was more organizing and less actual writing.  In short, the cloud still looms.  On the other end of this, I’m still trying to plug along and make progress each day, but it is difficult.  In fact, it is really difficult.

So, what’s next?  What ought people in my position do?  I shared my story above because I suspect it is both familiar to and typical of most PhD students; namely, the dissertation phase is not as liberating as it seems but is full of significant challenges.  Outside of the self-evident things such as the difficulty of researching, synthesizing information, and writing it all up, I mean to point to the oft-isolating and discouraging elements of the dissertation:  being overwhelmed, worrying about the relevance or overall purpose for all of your work, having only a few friends who can empathize and sympathize with struggles (or sometimes none at all), questions about the job market, and the ever-present feeling of impostor syndrome.  The worst part is that the academic landscape is so competitive and performance-driven that PhD students (let alone professors) often feel reluctant to share these sentiments with colleagues.  And even when we do, we do in either a calculated or self-deprecating manner to cushion the reality of our struggles. 

 Funny, but a secretly a cry for help?

Funny, but a secretly a cry for help?

I said this was to get us talking, right?  I’ll end with a few scattered thoughts that have helped me, some suggestions for the future, and some talking points that are hopefully helpful to readers. 

(1) First, progress is progress.  You’ll probably never be as productive as you hope – so live with it.  That doesn’t mean don’t make plan or strive for personal betterment.  It just means that, when making plans, expect bumps and try to not let them affect you.  (2) Second, read a book!  If things are tough, take one day to read a book relevant to your field.  Read the whole thing, not just a “grad-school read”. It can work as a reset.  (3) Third, take a siesta day.  Even though you’re crunched for time, you’re probably not so crunched that you can’t take 8 planned hours off.  Plan ahead, so that your off time doesn’t get sucked up by Facebook (who are we kidding?  Does anyone still use Facebook?), Twitter (now we’re talking!) and emails.  And on that note, (4) fourth, check emails twice a day. This can be scary and liberating. The reality is that nothing that you are emailed is so relevant that it cannot be addressed with this strategy. (5) Fifth, use “do not disturb” on your phone.  And put it away while you work.  

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(6) Sixth, commiserating and complaining is not the same as encouraging.  Grad students are great at complaining together, and it almost seems like this alleviates discouragement.  Newsflash: it doesn’t!  Find a confidant and ask them for encouragement. Vulnerability is okay, and it’ll help you along the way.  Sometimes getting this from an academic can be the most encouraging thing.

(7) Seventh, and most importantly, let’s do better as a field with addressing mental health.  Read here,here, and here.  Enough research is out there that demonstrates that PhD students, and academics in general, routinely face mental health crises.  Maybe some old-school types out there might call for you to “suck it up”, but that’s simply naïve.  As administrators, departments, and students, let’s work together to put helps and procedures in place for students.  More importantly, let’s build a culture that supports positive mental health.  The easiest thing in the world to do is spend $2,000 on a mental health seminar once a year.  The hardest thing is to build a culture.  But the latter is obviously better overall, so let’s figure that out.

The First Year

 Image courtesy of Getty Images

Image courtesy of Getty Images

By Dr. Timothy Orr

Hey all, it is an honor to be a guest contributor to [Re]collection! My special thanks to David for this opportunity. 

My name is Timothy Orr, and I am an Assistant Professor of History at Simpson University in Redding, California (Redding has been in the news recently as the location of the very devastating Carr Fire, but thankfully my family, home, and university are all safe). In May I completed my first full year of employment as an Assistant Professor, and it is this period I want to reflect upon in this entry.  As an overarching disclaimer, I feel so incredibly fortunate to have full-time employment in my field, and I am aware of the privilege and rarity of my situation. My below thoughts speak only to my situation and are not meant to imply a universal understanding of each individual’s graduate and professional experiences. 

Before discussing my first year of full-time work, I want to say a very quick word about the job hunt. The job market is the worst.  If you are an academic, then you are very familiar with this fact. There is so much literature on the realities of the job market that I do not feel I can add much to that discussion, but I wanted to mention it because it has continued to affect me as I move into my career, as I will discuss below. 

My first year of teaching has been a strange combination of fulfilled dreams and continued challenges. Every professor I spoke to told me that finishing a dissertation, even while maintaining a steady teaching load, is still significantly less work than the first several years of a full-time position. They were, unsurprisingly, correct. Writing lectures preps, continuing to work on research projects, and beginning to turn my dissertation into a book manuscript competed with meetings, committee work, and extra-curricular activities with students (not to mention suddenly living an area with beautiful mountains and a wife who wants to explore a new one every day she can). It has absolutely been the most work I have ever done in my life and I have loved almost every minute of it. I can remember the first time I walked into a classroom to teach as the sole instructor for that period. I was already well into graduate school and two thoughts plagued me as I did: 1. What if I am no good at this? 2. What if I hate teaching? At the least, I definitely do not hate what I do, and the opportunity to engage students every day in the classroom continues to shape me as a professor. I love teaching, and while there is less time to devote to research, I have discovered the context of being fully immersed in the life of a university provides a framework that helps me better orient why research is such a significant part of our field. Even committee work, which is undoubtedly the least glamorous part of our profession (aside, perhaps, from administrative paperwork), has helped me better understand the functioning of the university and the diverse backgrounds from which my colleagues have arrived at academia. 

There are also new challenges I have faced during my first year of full-time work. I Skyped with a friend who had also just completed her first year as a full-time professor, and we shared very similar experiences—even though she is at a large state university and I am at very small liberal arts university. We have both struggled to find a sense of community like what we enjoyed during our doctoral programs. During my Ph.D. program, I spent five years delving deeply into a subject that I love and, while doing this, I was surrounded by people who love what I love. It is an incredibly rare thing and it created friendships I will enjoy the rest of my life. But full-time work is more isolating. You inevitably spend more time with students than with peers, and colleagues, for a variety of reasons, are less engaged with your work. My friend and I also both experienced periods of existential doubt regarding the humanities and higher education during our first year as full-time faculty. These doubts certainly are not new, but they took new shape as we wrestled with these questions not just in our lives but in the lives of our students. How are we preparing and shaping them and what support, financial and otherwise, will be available to them as they continue on their journeys? 

These new struggles and doubts have been a critical part of this first year. However, I anticipated new problems as I moved into full-time work and their emergence has not surprised me. Rather, it is has been the continuation of old doubts and fears that have affected me most during this past year. The Ph.D. behind my name and the Assistant Professor tag underneath it on badges at conferences has done little to assuage the sense of self-doubt I still experience encountering senior colleagues, or even just colleagues, at conferences. Every line I write and every article I submit still seems woefully inadequate and my imposter syndrome is apparently not impressed with the degrees hanging in my office. But even this is, in some ways, unexpected. The absolute greatest fear in my professional life was, is, and will remain the job market. 

I thought that when I landed a full-time position my constant fear (terror, really) of the job market would be gone, but the terrible reality of it continues to hang over me. With so many academic institutions in very difficult financial straits, new positions are nowhere near as secure as they need to be—and even whole universities are threatened. The tenure deadline also looms ahead and I spend just as much time worrying that I will have to go back on the job market as I did worrying about landing a job when I was on it. Again, I recognize that this unfair as I am incredibly lucky to have a position when so many do not. But it would have been helpful to hear more about the ways things do not change as you transition from graduate school into the academy. It gets harder in all the ways that I expected, but it does not get easier in any of the ways that I hoped. 

However, it does seem to say something that my greatest dissatisfaction with my profession is the threat that I might not get to do it. There are a lot of layers to my fear of being forced back onto the job market. I have concerns about finances, failure, and relocating, but the primary fear is that I will not be able to continue to do the work that I love—and I think that is a rare and fortunate thing.

A summer of transitions

By Dr. Jonathan Truitt

Summer is a busy time for faculty. Expectations from ourselves and colleagues are that we will get loads of research done. Our families (ourselves included once again) request increased quality time as well. In a state where winter is half the calendar year, it is hard to object to this appeal. Finally, there are unexpected opportunities that we want to seize as well. 

This summer has been no different. For me, it has been one of transitions. I finished my book Sustaining the Divine in Mexico Tenochtitlanending a ten-year project (due out in August, buy them as stocking stuffer’s for your friends and enemies!).  Additionally, my co-authors and I are near the end of our nine-year Mexico in Revolution, 1912-1920Reacting to the Pastpedagogical game (revisions are due the end of August). As these projects have wound down, others are spinning up. My new, more traditional archival project examines games as a cultural bridge during Mexico’s colonial period. Two other new projects, one four years in the making and another nine months in progress, are where I want to stop and really focus.

Both of the projects are aimed at teaching through research. The first is “Rebel’s Guide to History” which entails a series of interconnected analog (paper-based) games designed to teach World History from the dawn of humanity to 1500 (a topic tiny in scope when compared to the history of the galaxy). The second, entitled Mexica Decision Points, is a video game that we are developing for mass consumption as a counter-weight to the continually-misconstrued idea that a handful of Europeans could simply wipe out a militaristic empire with very little effort.

 A still image from Mexica Decision points

A still image from Mexica Decision points

Both projects are team-based with at least four core writer/developers and an amazing crew of short-term supporters. Aside from the transition of projects, starting these projects with teams has been a significant shift as well. Many, dare I say most, projects in the field of history are the project of an individual or a series of individuals pulled together for an edited volume. There are exceptions, but I am beginning to believe that there should be more. The collaborations across unexpected fields (in these instances much of my collaboration has been with computer science, literature, education, and game design – and possibly more disciplines that I am forgetting) have been illuminating – all of us involved on these teams have learned a ton from each other. Our interactions and conversations have not only influenced the project we are working on together, but also our research and teaching in other unexpected ways. In fact, these conversations are what kicked off my new project on colonial Mexico. 

These projects have, in ways, been paralleled with work at CMU. The past number of years I was fortunate to be the chair of the Institute for Simulations and Games– where I got to work with some of the best colleagues I could ask for at CMU. We are now transitioning into a fully-fledged Center. This shift is pulling me further from the classroom space that I enjoy, but it also provides the opportunity to support my colleagues’ pedagogy and continue to engage across disciplines. Transitions can be a challenge, but they are not always bad.

5 Tips for every PhD student's Partner

By Sara Papendorf

Many of the posts on this blog come from the point of view of those in the academic world. I thought it might be interesting (and helpful) for some readers to describe several experiences of a PhD student from a completely different point of view – the view of a partner. My name is Sara Papendorf, and I am the partner of Dave Papendorf, your favorite blog editor.  I am not an academic, but I’ve lived through the process and, therefore, have some tips to share.

To provide some context, my life as the partner of a PhD student started back in 2014. After much discussion about our future, Dave and I decided that he should pursue a PhD in history. Thus began the long hours of filling out applications. Dave applied to a number of different programs in the Midwest. I still remember how exciting it was getting letters in the mail from the different universities he applied to – honestly, I think I was more excited than Dave was! I have always been the mail checker in the family, so Dave had to kindly ask me to not open any letters without him. I obliged his request......well......basically. There were several times when I held a letter up to the light to try and see what it said. In fact, this was how we discovered that Dave was accepted into the program at CMU. It was a very exciting time for us!

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Fast forward four years later to July 2018, and Dave is currently in the writing stage of the program. As for me, over these past four years, I would say that I have learned much about being the partner of a PhD student.  If I were to provide you with any advice, here are some tips that I have found helpful: 

Tip 1: Expect challenges

Anyone who is currently working on or has completed a PhD program knows that the life of a PhD student is not for the faint-hearted. There are huge milestones in any program – being accepted, passing comps, completing one’s dissertation, defending one’s dissertation, and securing a job – not to mention that each milestone is filled with its own set of tasks to complete.  It has been important for Dave and me to recognize that this stage in our life is not permanent, just temporary and to expect that there will be difficult times throughout each major milestone.  Keeping this outlook has allowed us to pace ourselves, take one day at a time, and enjoy ourselves along the way.  

Tip 2: Show interest in your partner’s work

Frankly, I never had much interest in history during my academic years.  I much more enjoyed math and English.  It’s quite comical that my partner has such a great interest in history.  Even though I am not a huge history fan and it takes some focus to learn about history, I have discovered over the past several years that Dave appreciates when I take an interest in what he is working on.  My interest in his work doesn’t have to be a big ordeal; questions as simple as, “What are you reading about now?” or “What did you discuss in your colloquium today?” can go a long way.  I actually find great joy in hearing Dave describe what he is learning because I can tell that he truly enjoys doing what he does.  Last year, Dave taught his first course, which was medieval history.  At the beginning of the semester he asked me if I was going to attend any of his lectures. Looking back, I think he was half joking and half serious.  However, I was able to attend two lectures, and I know taking the time to attend really meant a lot to Dave.    

Tip 3: Be spontaneous. 

There are times when your partner will need to do something to take their mind off of the grind academia - studying for comps, reading primary sources in sixteenth century Latin (I might be speaking from personal experience here ;-)), or editing the same chapter of their dissertation for the fifty-second time.  From January to June of this year, Dave and I lived at the Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG) located in Mainz, Germany.  The IEG has dormitory-like living – single rooms equipped with a sink, shared kitchen space, and shared bathrooms. Over the six-month span, Dave and I both worked in our room every day.  I am sure you can imagine how easy it would be to go stir crazy working in a small space. To help keep us sane, we often took spontaneous walks along the Rhine River.  There were a handful of Saturdays where Dave and I intended to tackle several items on our checklist; however, instead of working, we decided it would be better for our quality of life to set aside our mile-long to-do-lists and spend some time enjoying each other’s company and enjoying our German surroundings. Sometimes an unplanned trip to get gelato or to the market was just what we needed.  And you don’t have to live in Germany to follow this tip – find some spontaneous fun that works in your locale!

Tip 4: Be supportive

Throughout the past four years, consciously attempting to be a supportive partner has been an important component of my role as Dave’s partner.  Supporting Dave has taken on many forms, and I have learned that sometimes being supportive is more about listening to Dave describe his concerns and struggles rather than offering my best solution to a difficult problem.  Honestly, this is one thing that has been the most difficult for me to do but has meant the most to Dave.  Lending a listening ear has often provided Dave with the support he needs to keep plugging along.  

Tip 5: If you get to travel, take advantage!

During the second year of Dave’s program, we spent the academic year living in Newcastle, England.  Knowing we would be in the UK for quite some time, we decided to book several trips to various locations across Europe – Belfast, Rome, Geneva, Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, and Edinburgh.  While these trips could get prices, I would say that our experiences (seeing the spectacular views of Giant’s Causeway, walking the streets of ancient Rome, taking a ferry ride down the Amsterdam canals, and touring the catacombs in Paris……just to mention a few) were worth every penny.  I can honestly say that we made the most of our time in the UK and have no regrets.  Throughout all of our travels, we have discovered some simple ways to save money:  choosing to stay in an AirBnb rather than a hotel, packing a lunch (and dinner…and breakfast), and searching for deals on cheap European airlines (EasyJet and RyanAir). Traveling with Dave has been such a great privilege as he is often able to explain some of the history behind many of the things we have been able to see when traveling abroad.  As someone who was born and raised in the Midwest, I would say it’s often easy to get wrapped up in visiting places in the US. Don’t get me wrong, the US has much to offer, but the world is quite a big place.        

These tips are by no means scientifically proven. They are just the things that have worked for me and Dave over the past 4 years. I expect (and hope) that some, if not all, might be encouraging to you as well!

Archival Adventure

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By Julie Haefner

After two years as a PhD student it was finally time for me to embark on my first research trip to an archive. A few weeks ago, I described my on-going dissertation project on the United States’ foreign policy towards Angola during the Ford administration on the [Re]collection blog. In this post I would like to share my experience at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan (pictured above). 

This was my very first time conducting archival research. Luckily, I had a taken a class called archival administration here at CMU a few semesters ago, so I was well prepared. This class taught me a lot concerning how archives are organized, maintained, and what challenges their operators face. Before I embarked on my research stay I did quite a bit of research on which collections I wanted to investigate in the archive. Thankfully the Gerald Ford Library publishes their finding aids online. Findings aids describe the inventory, scope, and structure of a particular collection. With the help of these findings aids I determined which collections would be the most helpful for me. 

On Monday morning, after experiencing some rush-hour traffic around Ann Arbor (as a German who grew up with public transportation, this was slightly terrifying), I arrived at the archive. I first had to sign in and received a temporary researcher badge. One of the archivists greeted me and explained the research rules and procedures. Archival sites want to ensure that future historians can continue to use the records which is why archives have a number of rules on how to handle their documents. These include: no drinks or food in the room (understandably so they don’t want coffee stains on the documents), no pens (imagine an ink spill!), no backpacks or purses. Laptops, cell phones, and tablets were allowed in the Ford Library. Archives do differ in their rules and regulation regarding these items. 

After signing several documents, and receiving my researcher card, I was finally allowed to go into the reading room. Archives are not like libraries where you can just wander around the shelves and pull whatever you like. Only staff members are allowed to pull the boxes with the documents – I had to fill out a slip of paper to have certain collections and boxes pulled. 

Once I received the boxes, I began sifting through them. There are also several rules that had to be followed when going through the boxes with the folders. These include but are not limited to:  one folder at a time, maintaining the order of the folders, no writing on the documents, bending them, or removing staples. Researchers have different ways of recording their finds. I opted to take pictures and jot down some quick notes. One of the most important things for me was to make sure that I knew exactly where a particular document was from. I really wanted to avoid having to return to the archive to look for the correct bibliographical information. 

To make the most of my time, I prioritized certain collections. In addition, one of the archivists recommended a collection that I did not have on my radar at all. This collection proved to be a gold mine. It had been compiled by the investigative journalist Dale van Atta. I was amazed by the amount of intelligence documents he had somehow acquired. Granted, at times there were large parts of the documents that had been redacted for national security reasons. But I still found a lot of information in his collection. All of my previous research experience had been with digitized documents. There were several moments when I held a document and thought: “Wow, this document was signed by Gerald Ford or Brent Scowcroft or Henry Kissinger!” Holding these documents made them come more alive than they ever did on my computer screen.

While I really enjoyed my time in the archive, there were two things that were frustrating to me. First, I found dozens of documents that had been partly or entirely redacted. Obviously, this is due to the somewhat sensitive nature of my research topic. Seeing the pink slip that indicated that the document had been pulled because of national security reasons was sometimes disheartening. I did encounter several documents that could potentially be de-classified, but the review process (as one the archivists told me) would take years. The other thing that was frustrating was going through dozens of folders and boxes without finding anything of substance. At times it seemed like I was wasting my time, but I still kept going. You never knew, after all, what was in the next folder. On a lighter note, as an avid Michigan State Spartan fan (I went there for a year), being surrounded by all the University of Michigan colors and buildings was different. 

After my return to Mount Pleasant, I am now busy cataloging all my pictures, and actually properly reading through them. I fully expect to go back to the archive at least one more time. Overall, I learned a lot during my week at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, not only about my particular topic, but also about doing research in an archive. It has also taught me to appreciate archives and archivists even more. As historians we depend so much on them, and without them our work would be a lot more difficult, or even impossible. 

Podcasting Local Community Memories: Merits and Limits

By Sean Jacobson

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Hello there! I’m privileged to be a guest contributor to [Re]collection. My name is Sean Jacobson, and I am a second-year PhD student in the Public History and American History joint program at Loyola University Chicago (the home of Sister Jean’s Ramblers for those who followed any March Madness last season). 

My varied research interests include 20th century American history, history of American evangelicalism, public memory, genocide studies, and global humanitarianism. I’ve enjoyed being part of a program that allows me to integrate public history endeavors alongside more conventional (for lack of a better word) academic study of the past. Even in my limited time at Loyola thus far, I’ve been able to work on a wide range of projects from traditional seminar papers to NEH grant writing to historical walking tour proposals and, most recently, podcasts.

The subject of what constitutes “public history” is a discussion in itself, but for my limited purpose in this post, I concern myself with one particular question: How much power and voice can or should historians share with their research subjects and stakeholders?

I tried to explore this through a recent podcast project while in a course on material culture. As someone interested in the intersections of faith, trauma, and memory, I decided to make a podcast about genocide memorials in the Chicago area. Since Chicago is, unsurprisingly, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country, I had a plethora of communities available to reach out to.

While I had some academic background with media (I earned a BA in History and Broadcasting at Western Kentucky University), I had never yet attempted to make a podcast. Thus, I had multiple motives with this project. For one, I wanted to get an experience actually making a podcast (forewarning: it’s hard work!). Related to that, I wanted to see what value there might be in conducting community-based research with this methodology. Additionally, the experience forced me to get out of my comfort zone and make cross-cultural networks with different communities (these often started with cold phone calls). Who knows – these connections might serve as building blocks down the road for future research and service work.

I won’t spend time talking about the specifics of my podcast (called Testimony), but I’m attaching an iTunes link here for anyone who is interested in learning about it. Instead, I want to briefly highlight a couple takeaways on the merits and limits of podcasts as a tool for taking your history research into the “public history” realm.

Merits

The most positive outcome is the connections made with living communities. For example, it’s one thing to read about a subject like the Cambodian Genocide; it’s another to actually be immersed a local diaspora community that’s actively trying to make sense of a traumatic past and, as a mediator, give those people a platform to express themselves orally. This was both challenging and rewarding. It was challenging because I sometimes felt like an intrusive outsider trying to reach these communities. It was rewarding, though, because interacting with real people allowed me to see the significance of my research subject matter.

When someone does topical studies or comparative studies, the fostering of interaction between different parties has the potential to create greater solidarity and convey research to a wider audience. Many of the communities with which I interacted for the podcast struggle to find an audience beyond their own ethnic or religious enclave. As such, doing this kind of work may help share their story and needs with a more general public.

Limits

This gets me to limitations of podcasting as “public history.” If I’m trying to share communities’ memory with a wider audience, how much authority is actually shared with those constituents? To take again for example the Cambodian community in greater Chicago, I encountered some linguistic and cultural barriers when recording and editing an episode on their day of remembrance vigil service. Considering the aural nature of a podcast, how appropriate is it for me to interpret/speak for some Cambodian immigrants who might have trouble expressing themselves or their history in English? Does that undermine the purpose of a podcast as a place to give their voice a platform?

Additionally, how critical can/should I be when tackling such a sensitive topic like genocide? On the podcast, I ventured on the safe side of not expressing any overt opinion on these communities’ presentation of their own histories. Is this the right approach to take? I believe historians ought to be as objective as possible but also not hesitate to make moral judgement calls or identify problematic interpretations of history.

As you can see, I don’t have definite answers to my own questions. As frustrating as this can be, I know that I will gain more clarity with the more experience I create. I can certainly see myself continuing future podcasts on other topics related to my research fields. The nice thing about podcasts, compared to videos or online exhibits, is that they are so versatile. People can listen to podcasts with little restriction. It’s an easy, low-risk way for people to learn about new ideas while engaging in a fast-paced world. At the same time, podcasts saturate the market so much that they can be ephemeral. If not repeatedly posting new content and advertising aggressively on social media, podcast episodes can have a short lifespan if few people ever listen to them shortly after their release.

For any readers out there, have any of you tried making a history podcast? What was your experience like? Do you think they qualify as public history? Could making one possibly help you flesh out research ideas?  I’d love to hear any feedback! 

Fellowship Hunting

By Dave Papendorf

As a late-stage PhD student working to finish my dissertation, I have quickly begun to come to grips with the facts.  Specifically, though I was fortunate enough to have funding through my university, my funding package would not cover me completely as I finish my dissertation.  In other words, I wasn’t going to get paid for the final year and a half of my program. Years one and two were breezy and care free; I was just a portion of my time into my program, still learning the ropes, and living blissfully in the time when my biggest worries were seminars and colloquia rather than the dissertation lurking behind every corner. Thankfully, I received advice from some of my mentors to go fellowship hunting.  And away I went.

There are lots of funding opportunities out there, but that doesn’t make any of them less competitive or exclusive.  So, the daunting task began.  Because I study European history, I was naturally drawn towards fellowships that afforded me time to research in Europe and be close to my important archival sites.  After countless hours of research and filling out applications, I fortunately received a six-month fellowship at the Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte in Mainz, Germany.  The IEG is a non-profit research institution founded to further scholarship in European history and promote collaborative research between the countries in war-torn Europe.  Currently staffed with a large contingent of senior researchers in two divisions (Western Religious History and Universal History), the IEG continuously houses around 40 research fellows (Stipendiaten) who are working on their dissertations.  Housed in the Domus Universitatis (a building built in the 17thcentury to house Jesuit monastics, pictured above), the researchers also have access to a wonderfully-stocked library.  The highpoint of the week at the IEG is the Forschungskolloquium – a time when all of the researchers and fellows gather to hear a presentation from a peer or senior researcher.

Needless to say, I was absolutely thrilled to have received this fellowship.  Since January 2018, my wife and I have lived in Mainz – a historic city along the Rhine which was both inhabited by the Romans as early as the first century B.C.E. and the hometown of Johannes Gutenberg and his famous printing press.  Just living in Mainz alone was worth applying for the fellowship.  However, my experience here has been much more significant than simply living in another country.  I was able to pick the brains of German and European scholars who have offered differing perspectives on dissertation methodology.  It has also been stimulating to work and live with other doctoral students from all over the world and to chat about common experiences (and, let’s be honest, fears concerning the job market).  Moreover, presenting my research to a room of experts on European history was also equally helpful in crafting the intricacies of my dissertation.  In short, my experience at the IEG has been both formative and invigorating as I continue to march forward.  My experience seems to be similar to many of the other fellows that have passed through the IEG.  With this in mind, I recommend that any PhD student seriously consider applying for domestic or international fellowships.  It will give you unique life experiences, allow you funded time to work on your dissertation, and likely, as in my case, give you continued traction to push on with your project.

One final note…although I was successful in my IEG application, I was rejected on five other applications.  It was difficult to remain upbeat through the discouragement of rejection letters, but just remember:  you will get rejected more times than you are accepted.  This is a hard pill to swallow for most PhD students – a group of over-achieving, intelligent, successful, top-of-the-class people. Resist the urge to be discouraged through applications, because the applications are good training for job ads and often serve to make you think more critically about your work and even your CV. In conclusion, apply for fellowships! Keep grinding, and you’ll likely get the opportunity to move somewhere new, receive insight from senior scholars, and get an extra boost of encouragement just when you need it. Good luck!

Introduction 2.0

By Dave Papendorf

Summer is under way, and I hope that you are enjoying nice weather and much-needed time off.  Even though you’re relaxing (hopefully), I will be hard at work as the new editor of the [Re]collection blog for the remainder of 2018.  I am very excited to curate, organize, and present some of the many exciting posts we have ahead this semester.

First, let me introduce myself.  My name is Dave Papendorf, and I will be a fifth-year student in the Transnational and Comparative history PhD program at CMU. I spent this past year teaching and researching for my dissertation.  Before arriving at CMU, I completed my Master of Divinity degree in historical theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.  Before that, I completed my BA in historical theology at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.  As a part of CMU’s Joint PhD in history, I also studied for one year studying at Newcastle University in Newcastle, England.  Though I have a background in theology, history has always been of highest interest to me.

My primary area of research is, not surprisingly, the history of Christianity.  Specifically, I study the early stages of the Protestant Reformation in France.  I became intrigued by the topic while studying as an undergraduate student.  Particularly, I realized that none of my assigned textbooks spoke much about the Reformation in France.  When they did, they spoke of the Wars of Religion that began with rising hostility between the Reformed party and a subsection of the Catholic party in France during the 1550s. Simply put, it was extraordinarily unsatisfying to me to find fifty years of religious history (approximately 1500-1550) that seemed to be lost to historians.  This launched my quest to find the answer.

In order to find this answer – or, at least, to get a closer look at the evidence that can lead to an answer – I have studied for nine more academic years, learned to read in two new languages, and read over three-hundred books (I counted!).  And I’m still a long way off!  Though the journey has been difficult, frustrating, utterly fascinating, and time-intensive, I have enjoyed the ride so far.  Most importantly, it has been my curiosity that has kept me going. Ultimately, I think this is what keeps historians going – the insatiable desire to learn new things.  

Some of the most interesting things I have learned along my journey studying history have not been related to history at all; in fact, many of them have a wider application to numerous fields and professions. I hope to gather some of these lessons and share them with you over the next six months as the editor. Thankfully, I have met some great people in my 5 years at CMU.  Many of them will be contributing to the blog soon, so stay tuned for words of wisdom, professional advice, and lots of interesting answers to questions about which we are all curious.  Finally, I want to thank my friend and colleague Chiara Ziletti for her excellent work this past semester as editor of the blog – she has done a tremendous job, and we will surely miss her.

I wish all of you a happy Fourth of July, and I look forward to hearing from some of you.  As always, we encourage and welcome your submissions.

Thank You for the Music

  The Little Prince  by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

By Chiara Ziletti

In the past six months, my weeks have been rhythmed by the publishing of a blog post here every Tuesday. I still remember how nervous I was when I published my first blog post: “Will people like it? Have I done everything correctly?” As an anxious novice editor, these and many other doubts crossed my mind, but little by little I became more and more self-confident. However, with the beginning of July my appointment as the editor comes to an end. It is time to pass the baton to our new editor, David Papendorf. I am sure he will do great, and I cannot wait to read the new blog posts that he will publish. However, I have to admit that now that the time has come to leave this position I have bittersweet feelings. Indeed, the time I spent being the editor of [Re]collection has meant a lot to me. As the fox says to the Little Prince: “It is the time you spent for your rose that makes your rose so important.” For these six months the blog has been my rose, and I leave this position with the same mixed feelings that a parent would have when seeing off his own grown child. You know your child is going to be fine, but you cannot avoid being nostalgic. Therefore, in this last blog post that I get to publish, I would like to reflect on what being an editor means to me, what I have learned, and express my gratitude for this wonderful opportunity that I had.

As I mentioned, the first times I was publishing a post, I was quite nervous because there is more work behind the scenes than one would expect. Being an editor means that you are the one responsible for the content published on the blog, but this does not mean that you merely have to copy and paste what the authors send you. In my time as the editor of [Re]collection, I had, for example, to keep contact with the authors, think of possible interesting topics for future posts, decide what to publish and when, edit (and rarely write) blog posts, fight with technology (indeed, who does not fight with the computer’s programs, the printer, or else occasionally?), manage the social media accounts, and refresh my knowledge of copyright laws and what fair use is (especially when it comes to images posting). All this requires organizational skills, decision-making, relational skills, a good amount of resourcefulness and initiative, attention to the details, consistency, a more than good command of grammar and style, critical thinking, keeping an eye on current events that might make for a good blog post, and much more. Therefore, I am glad that I had the opportunity of being the editor of [Re]collection because it has allowed me to grow professionally and strengthen my proficiency in all these fields.

However, an editor does not go too far without his authors. Therefore, I want to thank every person who wrote something for the blog, you are what makes this blog alive and so interesting. I loved to meet and work with you, be it in person or just via email. Thank you for cooperating with me, writing your posts, and patiently complying with my suggestions and edits. I enjoyed reading you posts, and I learned something from all of you. Indeed, getting to read from different authors is one of the best things of this job because not only you discover new thigs on several topics that otherwise you might not know or think about, but you give the authors the opportunity to reach out other people with their work.

Lastly, I want to thank the history department for giving me the opportunity to be the editor of [Re]collection. Similarly to the conference (IGHSC) that our PhD students organize, I believe that [Re]collection is a great opportunity that not so many other history departments offers yet. Indeed, organizing conferences and being responsible for a publication are as much part of the academic world as reading, teaching, and writing. Alongside the transnational program, the conference and the blog are what makes our PhD program truly exceptional. Having the opportunity to get out of our bubble by meeting other international students and scholars, becoming good friends, and having the possibility to reach out to the wider public and showing what we do is, indeed, invaluable. I am happy that we get to build bridges and connections.

I hope those who have been reading the blog so far have been enjoying it and finding good content. I, for sure, leave this position with much more than I started with, both professionally and as a person. Even if it is time for me to move on to a new adventure, [Re]collection will always have a special place into my heart. For this reason, I beg your pardon for this final, oversentimental post. I would like to give my final thanks to Jennifer Vannette. Thank you for training me, your suggestions, and support, they meant a lot to me. To Dave, “in bocca al lupo!” And as always, we welcome your submissions. (^_^)

Every Four (or Forty) Years

 Joe Gaetjen is lifted by fans and the American support team following the victory on June 29. (Credit BBC.com)

Joe Gaetjen is lifted by fans and the American support team following the victory on June 29. (Credit BBC.com)

By Marcel Haas

It is World Cup season! Of course, while most soccer-loving people have directed their steady gaze towards Russia and the fate of the 32 teams there in action, Americans celebrate a future event. On Wednesday, one day before the kick-off of the 2018 tournament’s first match between hosts Russia and the hopefuls from Saudi-Arabia (spoiler alert, Russia won 5:0), the FIFA voted to give the 2026 World Cup to a joint bid from Canada, Mexico, and the US. With a whopping 60 out of 80 matches played in stadiums around the United States, American fans truly have something to look forward to in these hard times. Following the infamous 1950 tournament in Brazil, the US had to overcome four decades of drought in which the Soccer team featured in as many World Cups as the proud but minuscule nation of Andorra (that is, zero). The country celebrated a 1990s’ revival topped with the hosting of the 1994 World Cup, but disappeared again from the World Cup stage this year. This second US drought will definitely end at the latest in 2026, since host nations are automatically qualified for the competition.

Why am I harking on about the failure of the US national team and about soccer, the sport Americans love to hate (unless they win, in which case it is the pastime of champions, of course)? Because it is good to remember some of the more surprising victories in the midst of all that doom and gloom. Maybe, when studying the history of one of these dramatic sporting upsets, one can even find new hope and a good story, such as the US team’s monumental victory against the vastly superior English on June 29, 1950. Really, it is for this reason that we study comparative and transnational history, I would argue.[1]

In 1950, England was amongst the greatest footballing nations on the planet. The United States, however, was not. England’s players were famous worldwide, professionals in their chosen sport. The Americans, you guessed it, were not.[2] Although they had survived the qualifying tournament the year before, in 1950 in Brazil the world expected the Americans to get a good thrashing by the English. The latter had gone on an exhibition tour through North America just before the World Cup, where they had effortlessly dispatched an American national team with 1:0 in New York. In the group stages of the competition, they met the US again, besides the hopeful Chileans and the composed Spanish. The Americans played their first match against Spain, scoring early on through John Souza and defending valiantly around the Belgian-born center back Joe Maca, before going down 3:1 in the final ten minutes. England did better, and defeated now rather hopeless Chileans 2:0. Meeting the Americans for the second match, the English would go through had they won the match. In one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, however, the English team, hailed as “Kings of Europe,” could not bring the ball past the American goalkeeper Frank Borghi. On the other side, Haitian-born Joe Gaetjens somehow headed an effort by Walter Bahr on goal. The ball went into the net marking the greatest victory of any American sports team.[3] Following the goal in the 37th minute, a barrage of English shots was fired towards Borghi, who jumped, rolled, and dived to snatch each and every one of them. “As the game went on, we got a little bit better and they got a little bit more panicky,” Bahr said later about the game. “Nine times out of 10 they would have beaten us. But that game was our game.”[4]

In the end, both teams left the 1950 World Cup with one victory each: the Americans, tired by their efforts against Spain and England, crashed 5:2 against triumphant Chileans, and the depressed English lost 1:0 to Spain. The English team was ridiculed upon their return. People had first believed the reports of 0:1 to be mistaken and missing another number to make it the more appropriate 10:1. The Americans, on the other hand, treated their team possibly even more harshly. The players returned to no reception, no big news or hero’s welcome. Instead, the nation had more or less forgotten about its biggest sports victory the moment after it had happened. Finally, in 2005, the movie The Game of Their Lives was released to an absolutely horrendous reception (bad reviews and basically no viewers). Although honoring the feat of the US team, it was full of historical errors and artistic licenses (and an overall bad movie, I might add).

The 1950 victory over England is a typical underdog story, including the unlikely participants, the tragic heroes, and the hurt pride of the favored.[5] Of course, England would triumph in 1966 with their only World Cup title so far, while the United States disappeared from the World Cup stage until 1990. There are always the next four years, however. Failing that, in 2026 no one can take the US participation from them, and at least so far, no one has the team anywhere near the title. Another underdog story then, maybe?

 

[1] And what is more comparative and transnational than a FIFA World Cup? Correct, nothing.

[2] However, the US team’s captain in the fateful match against England was Ed McIlvenny, a Scotsman who had played seven matches for Third Division Wrexham A.F.C. The latter was not exactly the crown of English soccer.

[3] I realize that this is a highly subjective statement, but I remain convinced of it. Even the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” pales in comparison. If you think otherwise, email me at haas1m@cmich.edu and please explain why I should like Baseball, Basketball, or American Football.

[4] Cited in: Angelo Clemente Lisi, A History of the World Cup, 1930-2006 (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2007), 53.

[5] Especially Joe Gaetjens' life story would make for a great movie.


When CMU doctoral candidate Marcel Haas doesn’t write blog posts, he tries to research something for one of his other upcoming projects.

Detroit: America’s Motor City on the Rise and Why You Should Visit!

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By Rebecca Cuddihy

When you Google search ‘Detroit,’ the first three questions are:

  1. Is it safe to go to Detroit?
  2. When did Detroit go bad?
  3. Is Detroit, Michigan a ghost town?

However, Lonely Planet also named Detroit as the second-best city in the world to visit in 2018. So, you can see the contrast. There are reasons for skepticism about Detroit. It is often known as a city of racial tension, gun violence, and poverty, but this article aims to highlight that the city has much more to offer and that it is definitely on the rise.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Detroit’s success in the automotive industry was unmatched as thousands flocked to the city to work in Henry Ford’s factories, and thus gaining the title of the “Motor City”. During WWII, factories used to produce cars were now making weapons for the Allies, giving Detroit the ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ title. Detroit is also the home of Motown music and produced music legends like Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross. It is the birthplace of Techno music and has hosted Movement festival since 2006, which attracts over 100,000 people.  It is also home to an unbelievable number of Coney Island restaurants. First established by Greek immigrants in the early twentieth century, Coney Island’s have become a staple of Detroit’s culture.

However, Detroit’s reputation in recent years has been that of violence, poverty, and abandonment. Although the 1967 race riots are often blamed for the demise of the city, Detroit was declining long before this. Reliance on a single-industry economy, racial discrimination, poor housing and, perhaps ultimately, a lack of urban planning were all contributing factors to its downfall.

My first thought when I moved to the Royal Oak area of Metro Detroit – around thirteen miles from the downtown area – was, “I am confused.” Living in Glasgow my entire life, I was used to living in a suburb with easy access to Glasgow via several public transport links. Once I reached Glasgow city center, everything was accessible by foot or more transport, and there was hundreds of bars, restaurants, and shops right in front of me. Detroit is not quite there, yet.

What struck me as most frustrating was how obviously divided Detroit was from its Metro suburbs and even more so from the idea of Pure Michigan. The Metro Detroit suburbs like Royal Oak, Ferndale, and Birmingham have their own bars, restaurants, and retail spaces. Although these areas are very successful and vibrant, to me they also spelled isolation, segregation, and a continuing subconscious boycott of downtown Detroit.

Since moving here, I’ve had the wonderful experience of working at the Detroit Historical Museum on Woodward Avenue in Midtown Detroit. I worked with people from different backgrounds, different ages, different races, and some all-round creative and interesting people. But most importantly, they were smart, educated, and passionate about Detroit. Contrast this to working (at the same time) 40 minutes north of Detroit in the suburb of Sterling Heights. My colleagues were all older, mainly female, all of them white (except the cleaning staff), and the majority of whom rarely stepped a foot outside of Sterling Heights. It was here, I felt, that there was a hostility towards Detroit and, more importantly, fear.

Detroit has a long way to go if they want to become a fully functioning major metropolitan area again. Amazon recently rejected Detroit as a finalist to house their new headquarters, citing largely to a lack of sufficient talent, with a non-existent mass transit system and an inadequate school system as additional factors. Although the people of Royal Oak and Birmingham have different needs to those of Detroit, there needs to be more cooperation and support between these areas. Detroit has amazing museums like the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Furthermore, you can also visit 40 important historic places that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, such as Belle Isle and the Eastern Market, or watch a Detroit Tigers baseball game. Additionally, Michigan Central Station, abandoned since the 1980s, is a further example of Detroit’s beautiful architecture and has recently been sold to Ford Motor Co., signaling a new and exciting chapter for Detroit’s future. All of this goes to show how rich the city is and how much it has to offer. 

I think it’s important to appreciate Detroit’s turbulent history and continue to talk about it. But, at the same time, we should use these past issues to help Detroit move forward and shake off this dangerous image. Detroit might not be an obvious city, and it took me some time to figure it out; however, it has a lot to offer, and we must continue to get past the fear and hostility of the city’s past and embrace its future. As the city motto goes, ‘We hope for better things; It will rise from the ashes.’


Rebecca Cuddihy graduated from Central Michigan University with a Master of Arts in History in 2017 and currently works as a Collections Assistant at the Augusta Museum of History. She is aiming to visit as many states as possible before returning to Scotland next year. She has also recently started a blog on her time in the USA so far: https://rebeccanormanusalife.wordpress.com/. You can follow her on twitter @rebeccacud92.

Study Abroad From Scotland to Michigan: Why You Should Take the Leap!

By Amy Greer

Throughout my four years of undergraduate study at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, my goal was always to teach history. After being told I had been unsuccessful for my PGDE – the first step to becoming a qualified high school teacher – I felt lost with what the future would hold for me after leaving Strathclyde. Little did I know that an amazing opportunity that would change my life was about to come along.

Although the previous few years have held many milestones, it is safe to say my Masters year at Central Michigan University has been my biggest growing year yet (and not just because I have to buy my own groceries and pay rent). Back in 2017, in the space of only four months, I had been awarded the fellowship to come to CMU, taken my honors year examinations, graduated, and was on a plane to Michigan. Looking back now, it is difficult to believe that my journey began only this time last year. Once all the paperwork had been completed and I no longer had anything to focus on, I questioned whether I was truly ‘ready’ – although I am not sure anyone would ever say they were completely ready to move four thousand miles away from the place they have always lived. However, I am so thankful I pushed myself take a leap of faith to attend graduate school…in America. (Pinch me moment for sure!)

In two semesters at CMU, I have not only grown personally but also academically. Any expectations I had of what graduate school would be like were blown away in the best way possible! For me, it was a different world: suddenly I had my own classes to teach, my own office in the department, and was in graduate seminars surrounded by PhD students, feeling completely out my depth. However, it is amazing how quickly I adjusted with the help and support of my fellow grad students and Professors. Our Transnational exchange program stretches far to places such as Germany, Newcastle, and France to name a few. I feel so fortunate to be a part of this honored exchange program and to work alongside an amazing group of grad students, many of whom I am extremely lucky to call my good friends.

One of the main things that first attracted me to the program at CMU was the graduate teaching position. It was a daunting but equally exciting prospect. This experience was either going to confirm or deny what I always believed I wanted to do with my life, and I think it is safe to say I will never forget my first lesson (or how nervous I was)! Over my two semesters of my Masters year, I had the chance to teach two different courses: HST 210 U.S. History through Michigan Eyes and HST 323 Native American History. With U.S. history being one of my fields, I felt slightly more comfortable; however, the prospect of having my own classes to teach with no experience was nerve wracking to say the least. Despite this, being thrown in at the deep end has allowed me to progress far quicker. It is amazing how natural it all becomes. Lesson planning, teaching, grading, and helping students, all while doing your own course work is extremely stressful. You certainly do not see rewards every day when teaching; but when you see students progressing in their writing, or just enjoying a lesson or discussion, it makes it all worthwhile knowing you had a small part in those students’ journey. 

During some down time (I know what you are thinking, what grad student has time for a social life?!) I have had the great pleasure of exploring some parts of beautiful Michigan. Throughout my year I have visited Detroit and more specifically the Detroit Institute of Arts – thanks to Professor Harsyani for organizing such a wonderful trip as part of one of my favorite classes I have had the opportunity to take so far.  I have also had the pleasure of visiting Tahquamenon Falls in the Upper Peninsula as well as Traverse City. Before coming to CMU, Michigan was not somewhere I had a lot of knowledge about. In fact, most people I meet back home in Scotland are intrigued to know more, and when people hear what Michigan has to offer and see the insanely beautiful photographs of the Great Lakes…who wouldn’t be sold?

I am beyond grateful for all that has happened in the past academic year: from all I have learned from my professors, to teaching my students, presenting my research in our annual International Graduate Historical Studies Conference, and having the opportunity to meet amazing historians such as Alan Taylor and Edward Ayers. I have much to thank CMU for, but I am especially proud to say I now have lifelong friends, who I am lucky to call colleagues, in what can only be described as very inspiring environment. Indeed, my passion for what I do gets stronger in a place where everyone loves what they do and works so hard. For now though, I am back in sunny Scotland (always the joke because it is hardly ever sunny) enjoying summer with my family and loved ones. Perhaps if it rains too much I can hide in the archives. Like for most of us that would be a day very happily spent for me. I look forward to returning to Michigan in the Fall and exploring what the next four years hold for me as a PhD candidate at CMU!


Amy Greer is a Scottish doctoral student at Central Michigan University. Her research interests are in Early Modern European History, focusing on education, women’s history, and gender studies.  

The Global Cold War: Gerald Ford and Angola

 Left: First official portrait of President Gerald R. Ford. Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library - Right: location of angola in africa.

Left: First official portrait of President Gerald R. Ford. Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library - Right: location of angola in africa.

By Julianne Haefner

It is finally summer in Michigan – which means all PhD students are just hanging out on one of the beautiful Great Lake beaches, right? Not quite, for many PhD students – like myself – summer is the time to dive into our research (and yes, sometimes dive into Lake Michigan). In this post, I would like to share my on-going dissertation project. I will discuss how I became interested in the topic and what I am hoping to accomplish. As of now, the project is titled: “U.S. Foreign Policy towards Angola during the Ford Administration, 1974 to 1977.”

Backtrack a few years back: At the time I was pursuing a Master of Arts at the University of Jena in Germany. In one of my political science classes, I was assigned to write a research paper about the 1988 New York Accords (also known as the Agreement among the People's Republic of Angola, the Republic of Cuba, and the Republic of South Africa). The accords ended foreign involvement in the Angolan Civil War and granted independence to Namibia (formerly known as South West Africa).

While I had to write a political science paper on the accords, I still had to research the decade-long conflict. I was intrigued. I roughly knew where Angola was. The country is situated at the southwest coast of Africa, with direct access to the Atlantic Ocean. Neighboring countries include Namibia, Zambia, and Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo). What I did not know was that the United States had been financially involved in the civil war. Angola, formerly a Portuguese colony, became independent on November 11, 1975. In the aftermath of independence, a civil war broke out in Angola, with three movements vying for control of the newly independent country: the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA). These movements were backed by outside powers: the United States and some of its European allies supported UNITA, Cuba and the Soviet Union backed the Communist MPLA.

Why, though, did foreign powers become involved in internal Angolan affairs? There are multiple answers. One of them certainly is competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Angola was a proxy war. But this is not the entire story. Angola also has natural resources, in particular oil. Oil had been found off shore and in the Angolan province of Cabinda. The relationship between South Africa, Namibia, Zaire, Zambia, and the U.S. played an important role. Understanding the different players and their attitudes and interests in Angola has been fascinating (and very complicated).

For any Michigander Gerald Ford is an important name. But his presidency has received little to no scholarly attention at all. He is often grouped in with the Presidency of Richard Nixon. The Cold War has been studied extensively, and proxy wars like the Vietnam War have received a lot of scholarly attention. The Angolan war, however, has not been studied with as much detail. In recent years there has been a push to study what is called the global Cold War. This refers to studying the Cold War as a global phenomenon, and not just as a conflict that took place between the Soviet Union and the United States. With my research, I hope to contribute to studying Gerald Ford and the global Cold War.

Thankfully, I have been able to conduct much of my research online. The Gerald R. Ford library in Ann Arbor has been digitizing a lot of their holdings. In a few weeks, however, I will be travelling to Ann Arbor. The library has awarded me a travel grant to further my research. I look forward to this opportunity. This research experience has been truly rewarding and challenging. To me, there are worse ways to spend my 2018 summer.

Feel free to contact me (haefn1jh[at]cmich.edu) if you have any questions or ideas.

Elementary Social Studies: Missing Historical Context

Michigan Adventures in Time and Place book.jpg

By Jennifer Vannette

Over dinner one night, my son, who is in fourth grade, informed me that he had learned all about the Underground Railroad. I encouraged him to talk to me about what he knew, and his knowledge of the system of escape from slavery was quite good. Just when I thought I might be impressed with his education thus far, he stumbled when I asked him what life was like for a slave. Why did some try to run away? He told me all about what crops were grown on plantations. That was all he knew about a slave’s life.

The unfortunate reality of the American educational system is that we tend to avoid difficult topics. Talking to students about the horrors of forced labor and being sold away from your family is hard, and so it’s glossed over. When that happens, we are left with an unclear understanding of why slaves ran away and why something like the Underground Railroad existed. It allows space for racists to claim that people of African descent just didn’t want to work or someone with as much wealth and access to education as Kanye West to suggest that slavery was “a choice.”

Soon after that conversation, I was deeply curious to look at his social studies textbook when it came home so he could study for a test. The book, Michigan: Adventures in Time and Place, published by McGraw-Hill in 2001* had a feature section about how the Fugitive Slave Act affected a Michigan town that was home to an escaped slave family. In a narrative style, the book described how a man discovered the African-American family’s status and sought to turn them over to the authorities. The town rallied behind the family and eventually helped them to flee into Canada.

The book calls the section “Two Different Viewpoints” and layouts of the argument like a debate.  On one side of the page the headline reads: Michiganians Should Have Obeyed the Fugitive Slave Law; and on the other side the headline reads: Michiganians Should Not Have Obeyed the Fugitive Slave Law. Details of the Fugitive Slave Act are given, and also part of speech by the mayor in which he argues that slavery is immoral.

While none of the provided questions are particularly good at helping students better understand the dilemma faced by Michiganders, even more problematic is the last of the follow-up questions: “Which side do you think made the stronger argument? Why?” Slavery is and was objectively wrong. One cannot craft an argument that makes slavery okay, so to set this up as a debate between different viewpoints for contemporary students is disturbing. I commend the commitment by McGraw-Hill to teach the difference between opinions and facts, but I cannot fathom why they would scaffold a child to take up the argument that following the Fugitive Slave Act was the right choice.

Obviously, Americans rationalized and justified the inhumane enslavement of another group of people, but just because they found ways to convince themselves their position had merit does not mean that school children in the 21st century should be contemplating the question in the same manner. There is no argument here. The Fugitive Slave Act expanded slavery beyond the boundaries of slave states and forced people who did not agree with the “peculiar institution” to uphold the rights of slaveowners even within the borders of free states – a point the book does not clearly make.

Elementary school students are also taught about law and order. So, to present to them the choice between following a law and breaking a law without fully presenting the context of slavery and the reality that the Fugitive Slave Act essentially expanded slavery to free states against the wishes of those citizens, sets the students up to potentially think the moral choice was to follow the law. It should never, under any circumstances, be suggested to students that any law upholding slavery was moral or just.

These fourth graders have not learned that the United States has had to overturn unjust laws in our history. The process doesn’t seem very dynamic when one scans their reading materials. No wonder most Americans have a poor understanding of the systemic injustices of our nation, which have existed since the beginning and still do today.

I can have these conversations with my son, and I can help him to confront the darker part of our history so that he can have a fuller understanding of how he got to where we are today. But what of the other students? Attempts at neutral language only serve to confuse the issues and leave students uncertain about our history. 

 

*That this book is so incredibly out-of-date, having been published before 9/11, is another problem for another blog post. I will mention, though, that our district does not have funding issues, and still they don’t purchase new materials.


Jennifer Vannette once served as editor of [Re]collection before graduating from Central Michigan University with a PhD in History in 2017. You can follow her on Twitter @jenvannette.

Powers Hall: Then and Now 2

powers hall.jpg

By Chiara Ziletti

Did you know that Powers Hall is the fourth oldest building existing on campus and it is connected to some important events of US history? Last semester I took Dr. Fremion’s HST 681 Historical Preservation class, and the final project consisted in writing a mock nomination for the National Register of Historic Places, which lists the historic and archaeological places worth preserving and protecting in the US. After some thinking, I decided to write my mock nomination on Powers Hall. I knew a little bit about its history, also thanks to Jennifer Vannette’s post on this blog, but I wanted to do more research and see if I could find additional information about the building on campus in which I spend most of my time. I can say that my research paid well: I was able to prove that despite few changes, the exterior of Powers Hall retains its overall integrity; it was curious to see how much the interior changed since it was first built; and I found connections between Powers Hall and the broader events of US history, which will be the focus of this post.

The first connection is the one between Powers Hall and the New Deal. The works to build Powers Hall – originally Keeler Union – started back in 1938 thanks to a grant from the Public Works Administration. The Public Works Administration was a New Deal government agency active from 1933 to 1939. In those years, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted a series of domestic policies to address the continuing disastrous economic and social effects of the Great Depression, which had started in 1929. Among these policies, the Public Works Administration provided funds for the construction of public works. In this way, it provided means of employment and helped to revitalize American’s economy, society, and industry. Therefore, Powers Hall provides a great local example of the far-reaching and significant effects of President Roosevelt’s domestic policy.

The years between 1942 and 1944, in which Powers Hall housed Navy V-12 cadets, provides another connection between the building and events of national and international significance. During World War II the United States needed more commissioned officers; therefore, the government created the Navy V-12 program to provide candidates with the education they needed. Central Michigan University, which at that time was known as Central Michigan College of Education, was among the universities that participated to the program. This connects Powers Hall not only with another governmental program but also with World War II and the US participation to it.

The ballroom in Powers Hall is still used to host several events and speakers every year; it would not be surprising if you attended one or two as well. Did you know that James (Jesse) Cleveland Owens (1913-1980) was invited to speak there? Jesse Owens was a famous African-American track and field athlete. He is mostly known for winning four Olympic medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. He was invited to speak for the 3rd Annual All-Sports Banquet, which took place on May 4, 1955, in the Keeler Union Ballroom. When he attended the Banquet, he also brought with him a 16mm black and white film of the Olympic Games in Berlin to show to the audience. Because of his extraordinary athletic performances, Owens is very well known, and his participation to the Banquet was a great event that linked Powers Hall to the broader national and international sports history.

In addition to all these important connections, it is important to remember that Powers Hall is the fourth oldest building still existing on campus. It is in the same block as Grawn Hall, which was opened in 1915; Warriner Hall, which was opened in 1928; and Smith Hall, which was opened in 1934. Since Grawn Hall has gone through significant different expansions and renovations, its architectural integrity is heavily compromised. However, Warriner Hall and Smith Hall retain most of their integrity. Therefore, alongside these two buildings, Powers Hall documents the history of Central Michigan University – our history! – by providing one of the best examples of the first buildings constructed on campus. This year marked the 125th anniversary since the foundation of CMU. If you are curious about the history of the buildings on campus and would like to know more, I recommend browsing the Clarke Historical Library’s website; it has plenty of information on each building. I would also encourage everyone to take a trip to the Clarke. It is always worth seeing in first person all the primary sources they have documenting CMU’s history!

Asian American Representation in Film and Television

 Movie poster for  Crazy Rich Asians  (2018) starring Henry Golding and Constance Wu.

Movie poster for Crazy Rich Asians (2018) starring Henry Golding and Constance Wu.

By Jennifer Liu

In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May, it is worth examining Asian American representation in recent films and television shows. As the fastest growing racial/ethnic group in the U.S., Asian Americans currently make up 6% of the population and are projected to account for 38% of all American immigrants in 50 years. Yet they have remained virtually absent from mainstream entertainment until recently. On August 17, Crazy Rich Asians will be released; it’s the first major Hollywood production that is not a period piece to feature an all-Asian cast in twenty-five years (since The Joy Luck Club in 1993). Adapted from Kevin Kwan’s 2013 bestselling novel, Crazy Rich Asians is a romantic comedy about a Singaporean heir who brings his Chinese-American girlfriend home to meet his family.

The film arrives at a time when the entertainment industry is hotly debating the issue of diversity. The film market in China is second only to the U.S., but despite that nation’s box office contribution, very few major American films feature Asian characters. According to a study by the University of Southern California, only 5% of speaking parts in film, television, and digital programming were played by Asian actors in 2014. Moreover, whitewashing – hiring white actors to play characters originally designated Asian – still occurs. Scarlett Johansson was cast as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell (2017), a live-action Hollywood remake of one of the most successful Japanese anime movies in history. Other examples of recent whitewashing and erasure of Asian actors include Emma Stone playing a part-Chinese, part-Hawaiian character named “Allison Ng” in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha (2016); Matt Damon in the starring role of a big-budget Chinese period action film The Great Wall (2016); Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, a Tibetan high priest in the original comics but reimagined as a Celtic mystic for Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016); and white-dominated Hollywood versions of Asian stories such as The Last Airbender (2010) and Dragon Ball Evolution (2009).

A multi-university group of California professors and scholars studied 242 TV shows and 2,052 series regulars from broadcast, cable, and streaming television scripted shows airing between September 1, 2015 and August 31, 2016. Their report, a follow-up to broadcast TV studies done in 2005 and 2006, concluded that although there are more opportunities for Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) actors than before, their characters remain marginalized and tokenized on screen. Roles are often of lower quality: characters get less screen time, have less meaningful interactions (including less romantic storylines), or are clearly cast as tokens. Despite the minimum amount of progress for AAPI actors, strides have been made. On the small screen, Asian-American-led TV shows are on the rise. For example, ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat has a predominantly Asian-American cast. Inspired by celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name, the sitcom follows a Taiwanese-American family that moves to Orlando in the 1990s. The show features an oldest son who loves hip-hop and misadventures, with his parents dishing out moral lectures with uniquely Asian-American points of view. Since Margaret Cho’s All American Girl was cancelled in 1995 (after one season), there hadn’t been a primarily Asian-American cast on network television for twenty years. Currently, Fresh Off the Boat is the only show with an Asian-American-majority cast on network television. Dr. Ken – an ABC show about a Korean-American physician with no bedside manner, his Japanese-American therapist wife, and their two kids –  was cancelled in 2017.

 Actor/writer Aziz Ansari (R) and writer Alan Yang (L) accept the award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the  Master of None  episode “Parents” during the 68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards on September 18, 2016.

Actor/writer Aziz Ansari (R) and writer Alan Yang (L) accept the award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the Master of None episode “Parents” during the 68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards on September 18, 2016.

Critics have praised two shows with three-dimensional Asian-American leads that go beyond Asian stereotypes. Netflix’s Emmy-winning Master of None – the story of a struggling Indian-American actor in New York told through a distinct, unexpected storytelling lens – features Aziz Ansari essentially playing a version of himself. And HBO’s Emmy-nominated limited series The Night Of, starring Riz Ahmed, follows a nice guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, who ends up accused of murder and imprisoned. The show dives deep into identity politics, the perception of Pakistanis, and the legal system to explore how a strong-willed, moral man can be transformed and turn bad. In addition, recent shows like The Walking Dead, Quantico, The Good Place, My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Designated Survivor, Into the Badlands, Agents of SHIELDThe Mindy Project, and Andi Mack have featured Asian-American actors as the lead or regular cast member. The decades-long absence of leading Asian-American actors seems to be on the brink of a major shift.


Jennifer Liu is an Associate Professor of History at Central Michigan University. Her research interest focuses on twentieth-century China and Taiwan.