To Preserve and Protect: Fostering Public Awareness in Shared History

Marc Van Horn running a museum education program at the Bohannon Schoolhouse (Mount Pleasant, MI).

Marc Van Horn running a museum education program at the Bohannon Schoolhouse (Mount Pleasant, MI).

By Marc Van Horn

At an early age, I experienced firsthand the dramatic emotional and intellectual effect historical sites can have on the public.  My interaction with places such as the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania and the medieval town of L’Argentera, Spain, awakened a ceaseless passion.  My experiences as a child resulted in later academic endeavors in history and anthropology in adulthood.  As I pursued my bachelor’s degree in those fields, it became clear that historic places gain great meaning by benefiting the public, especially by sparking curiosity in tomorrow’s historians and anthropologists.  I also realized that my role should be to make history relevant and important to a wider audience, and that there is no better classroom in which to accomplish that than at a historical place.  However, this became clear to me only after working in historical interpretation.  As a graduate student in the Cultural Resource Management Master’s program at CMU, I have had the opportunity to contribute to a number of projects involving the public and historic sites.  To me this is the most direct and effective way to foster the respect and stewardship of history in modern society.

During the summers of 2016 and 2017, I served the public as an historical interpreter at Fort Mackinac, a site managed by Mackinac State Historic Parks (MSHP) on Mackinac Island, MI.  This work led directly to my completion of an internship in public history under the guidance of Katie Mallory, Curator of Education at MSHP, and Dr. Brittany Fremion, my advisor in the Department of History here at CMU.  Specifically, I conducted primary source research into the environment, sanitary conditions, and medical practices present at Fort Mackinac in the 1870s through the 1890s.  My conclusion was that Fort Mackinac was an unusually healthy and desirable posting during those decades, which aligned with the research of others I had also examined.  Before this undertaking, I had developed a rudimentary version of a short, guided walking tour of the fort focused on issues of health and sanitation.  After my own research into various post surgeons’ correspondence with the Adjutant General of the U.S. Army located in New York, and research into the art of historical interpretation itself, I was able to greatly expand and improve my walking tour.  As a result, I received generally positive feedback on my tours, certainly better than I had before.  This experience taught me that the public can greatly benefit by the hard work of historians to bring the rich heritage of historical sites to life in an accessible and digestible way.  Thusly, we can more directly and efficiently benefit humanity through our beloved discipline.

I am currently serving as graduate assistant in museum education at Central Michigan University’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History under the direction of Caity Sweet-Burnell, the Museum Educator.  The core of my responsibilities includes editing and reorganizing a series of museum programs titled “Michigan Through the Ages.”  I began by fact-checking and sourcing the information found within the programs.  I then reorganized the program outlines, focusing on clarity, design efficiency, and brevity.  Since we have come to understand that learning takes many forms and occurs in different ways, I sought to include as many hands-on and interactive activities as possible in the programs.  Also in my duties as a graduate assistant, I have often been tasked with designing and implementing new programs for after-school groups.  Once again, my approach required flexibility, coordination, and adaptability in order to present appropriate programs in effective ways.  Every situation brings unique challenges, waiting to be overcome through perseverance, patience, and innovation.  In many ways, barriers to interpretive and educational programs can be seen as metaphors for the obstacles against fostering historical understanding in society. 

From my experiences I learned that the roles of a historian are to unearth forgotten truths, revisit and revamp the pursuit of learning, and foster dialogue and collective understanding.  It is not enough to remain in our ivory tower, content to advance our own isolated goals and largely evade those of the public in perpetuity.  My work in public history has allowed me to refine my belief that the gap between academia and society in recognizing and respecting our heritage is most effectively bridged through historical interpretation at our most important sites.  Our ivory tower must become a forum built on common cultural ground, a place open to all and constructive for all.


Marc Van Horn is currently a student in the Cultural Resource Management Master's program at CMU, and he is working as a graduate assistant at CMU's Museum of Cultural and Natural History. He earned his bachelor's degree in history and anthropology form CMU in 2009.

Writing Arthur Vandenberg

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By Hendrik G. Meijer

In 1979, after five years as a reporter and editor in Plymouth, I rejoined the family retail business in Grand Rapids.  I also began graduate work in history at Western Michigan University, attending in the evening, but did not complete my thesis.

At that time, Meijer had evolved over half a century from a grocery store opened by my grandfather to a regional mass retailer.  My father and I talked about doing a company history.  But my interest lay less in the blow-by-blow development of the business than in the story of my grandfather, who was fifty years old when he opened that little store in Greenville.

The book that resulted was Thrifty Years, a biography of Hendrik Meijer.  I fell in love with biography as a form. The research, including the interviewing I loved from my reporting days, as well as the writing, and, ultimately, the discovery of a life taking shape, was exhilarating.  I wanted to write another.

I had done some research in the Grand Rapids Public Library.  Its archive was presided over by city historian Gordon Olson.  In the course of my research, I became curious about other archival material. Here were microfilm copies of the Grand Rapids Herald, Arthur Vandenberg's newspaper.  I also recalled a book I'd read in the 1970s by Daniel Yergin, Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State. One of the featured characters was the colorful senator from Grand Rapids.  I kept coming across Vandenberg's name.  Yet he seemed largely forgotten, even in his hometown.

A professor in Chicago had already turned his University of Michigan dissertation on Vandenberg into the first book of a projected two-volume life.  It ended in 1945, just as Vandenberg was revving up for his pivotal years.  I assumed a second volume would be forthcoming, and that the world did not need two Vandenberg biographies.

But Olson was putting together the program for the 1989 conference of the Historical Society of Michigan.  Eager—or perhaps desperate—to fill the schedule, he suggested I do something on Vandenberg.  "Just take an episode from his career," he suggested.  So I talked (for an audience of about six) on the 1939 debate over the repeal of the arms embargo provision of the Neutrality Act.  This was the embargo that tied Franklin Roosevelt's hands on the eve of World War II, hindering him from aiding the British.  Vandenberg, legendary for his later conversion to an internationalist perspective, led the isolationists fighting repeal.

In January 1990, the professor in Chicago died.  His adult daughter, selling his house in Wilmette, wondered what to do with the files on Vandenberg that filled his basement.  Boxes of Xerox copies from the Truman Library, the Roosevelt Library, the British Foreign Office, and other sources had no monetary value, but she hated to throw out a lifetime of research.  Local libraries had no interest, so she called the Historical Society of Michigan.  Did they know of anyone with an interest in Arthur Vandenberg?  They only knew me because I had been on their program a few weeks earlier.  They gave her my number, and I came back from Wilmette with a van-load of papers—and a sense of mission.

In an essay in Brave Companions, David McCullough noted, among other topics, the need for a study of Arthur Vandenberg after 1945.  My sense of mission grew.  I felt fortunate to have as a subject someone so pivotal in the creation of an American foreign policy consensus destined to prevail to the present day—when the nature of American leadership once again appears to be in question.  And Vandenberg also became iconic for his efforts to find bipartisan solutions.   

I felt like I had stumbled upon a missing link in American history, as well as a model of the sort of politics we long for today.  And with files in hand, some of the research travel required in those pre-internet days could be shortened or avoided.  I could concentrate on the Vandenberg Papers at the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan, and pursue my favorite part of researching a not-quite-contemporary figure: interviewing people who knew him.

Vandenberg's papers occupy only eight linear feet.  For someone with decades of prominent public service who was himself a prolific journalist, these were slim pickings.  After he died in 1951, his son, who had been his chief of staff, published an elegant account called The Private Papers of Senator Vandenberg.  And apparently disposed of many of his father's papers when he was through.  After the Grand Rapids Herald was acquired by its rival, the Grand Rapids Press, later in the 1950s, its long-time librarian was so upset that she reportedly threw out the morgue.

Ah, but the interviews!  Vandenberg's surviving child, his younger daughter, lived in Connecticut.  As I spent more time with her, she became increasingly candid, even producing telling pages from her step-mother’s scrapbook that the family withheld when the papers were given to the library.  Others who had known the senator were also in their dotage, which brought mixed results.  For President Gerald Ford, Vandenberg was a hero and model.  Clark Clifford wished he’d known Vandenberg's mistress. Margaret Truman said how much her father admired Vandenberg, but told me not to believe Clifford, who was among her father's closest advisors. Gore Vidal offered a different slant. Harold Stassen recalled the United Nations Organizing Conference.  William Fulbright struggled to remember a story as we spoke.  In words that send a shiver down a biographer's spine, he lamented at one point in our interview, "You waited too long to talk to me."  He was 88. 

As research deepened, the manuscript ballooned past 1,000 pages.  This was a "life and times" when I should have known I would be lucky just to get a "life" published.  (Classic later-draft realization: all that hard-won local color would have to be jettisoned to get the hero to Washington.)  My breakthrough came when biographer James Tobin agreed to consult on the manuscript.  He suggested bold cuts that pulled it below 500 pages and gave me something marketable.  (Later, at the Bentley, researcher Rob Havey rescued my footnotes and had the Vandenberg Papers handy when decades-old index cards were misplaced.)  The University of Chicago Press, with experience in reaching general readers, agreed to take a chance on someone who lacked formal academic credentials and published the book in 2017

Finding freedom to research and write is always the challenge.  I am fortunate that my day job offers a degree of flexibility, as well as colleagues who tolerate my big avocation.  When someone asks where I find the time, however, the answer seems too easy: it only took me twenty-five years.


 

Hendrik G. Meijer, author of Arthur Vandenburg: The Man in the Middle of the American Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017) and co-chairman and CEO of Meijer, Inc., will give a talk on his book on March 19 at 7:00pm in the Park Library Auditorium at Central Michigan University.

Artificial Intelligence: Is There Any Possible Application to History?

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by Tommaso Costanzo, PhD candidate in Science of Advanced Materials.

Two of the most thought-provoking things of being married with someone studying a different discipline are the discovery of unexpected similarities and the possibility to learn from each other. For example, I am a chemist, and it was only while chatting with my wife, who studies history, that I came to realize that there are interesting similarities in our research methods, and that artificial intelligence (AI) could find useful applications not only in sciences, but also in the humanities.

My work as a material chemist is to search new materials with better properties compared to the ones already known. In theory this task can be easy accomplished by simply mixing numerous substances at different concentrations. However, since the combinations are infinite, this brute force approach is very inefficient (and potentially dangerous, you do not want to blow up by mistake!). In general, scientists rely on the existing knowledge (for example, the periodic table) to predict what will be a good candidate material, which is then synthesized and characterized to see if it is better or worse than the previous one.

This entire research process can also be accomplished by “machines,” a.k.a. computers. In fact, what is most commonly known as AI can do this exact process for us: the computer is trained with an already known set of data (e.g. many materials and their properties), and when the training is completed, the machine can recognize patterns in the given dataset, classify them in smaller groups, and also predict new materials.

Of course, when I understood how AI works and what it can do for my research, I was like a child receiving a new gift. However, even if I was aware of the potential of AI, I did not immediately realize that it can be something useful in other fields like, for example, history. This understanding came only while discussing with my wife about her research and work as an historian. Hearing her problems and reflections on the historical research and method made me notice the similarity between what historians and AI do. Indeed, historians generally search documents, traces, and any other sort of proof about the past. From this set of “data,” which is not necessarily ordered nor complete, they have to classify, order, and try to find pattern(s) in order to interpret and understand what happened in the past. So, it is possible to notice that the AI I use in my chemistry research accomplishes similar tasks to those that an historian has to do on his/her own.

Even though this is a very general discussion, which just aims at stimulating reflections, I suppose that historians will be able to benefit from the application of AI to their research. For example, AI has the potential to help deciphering and translating ancient texts. In fact, at the University of Alberta, a computing science professor used AI to advance the deciphering of the 15th century Voynich manuscript. Another possible application could involve the recognition and categorization of images. Also, AI could, for example, potentially help ancient historians filling in the missing parts of fragmentary documents with the most statistically probable text.

Notwithstanding these intriguing potential applications, there are indeed several hurdles to overcome. For example, for AI to function, it needs digital data. Archives and libraries have been digitalizing more and more documents (which ironically is already a process requiring an AI!), but it is not possible to digitalize everything. Furthermore, even though specific kinds of AI can offer predictions and interpretations, they cannot substitute the interpretation done by a professional historian.

Sciences and humanities have more in common than one would usually think. For this reason, we should discuss more and learn from each other.

I was once an intern

Natalie Pantelis (left pictures), Brittany Fremion (center of the picture), and Taylor Ensley (right pictures) during their internships.

Natalie Pantelis (left pictures), Brittany Fremion (center of the picture), and Taylor Ensley (right pictures) during their internships.

By Brittany Fremion

I was once an intern.

In my junior year of college, to my mother’s dismay, I signed a major in History. I can hear her to this day: “What will you do with a degree in History?” I, myself, wasn’t initially sure. My advisor encouraged me to do an internship to find the answer. She assured me there were many paths I could take: education, graduate school, or I could pursue a career in public history—work at a museum, for a government agency, or at a national park. Those last few peaked my interest. So in 2003 I began an internship at The Lincoln Museum* in Fort Wayne, Indiana. On my first day, I got a tour of the museum’s special collections. I saw a copy of the 13th Amendment signed by the former president, family photographs, and the former first lady, Mary Todd’s, shift (or underwear). I took a docent class and learned about the first family, as well as Lincoln’s political career, the Civil War, and his assassination. In addition to this, I attended guest lectures by Lincoln scholars. But I spent the bulk of the semester creating an education program for local K-5 schools. By the end of the semester, I had my answer. I would be a museum educator. 

The following semester, I completed a second internship at The History Center, located in Fort Wayne’s historic courthouse. My supervisor wore several hats: he was the museum educator; worked with collections and displays; responded to research requests; and was responsible for helping to direct programs and events, as well as maintain and restore the Chief Richardville Home, a historic Native American treaty house. I learned much from this experience. I helped with school groups—often dressed in early nineteenth century attire—by presenting on women’s fashion and work. I assisted with research. And I helped at the Chief Richardville Home. In addition to this, my supervisor introduced me to oral history and we toured notable local historic homes and sites. Lastly, I sat in on meetings with partner non-profit organizations, during which I learned the challenges of obtaining and raising funds, and of organizational and local politics. I finished the internship wanting to know and wanting to do more to make local and regional history matter. I had an earnest desire to preserve the past and make it available and exciting to a broad public audience.

After talking to my advisor and supervisor, I realized that a graduate degree was my next step. Graduate school, as an option, was a truly exciting possibility. Fortunately, Bowling Green State University accepted me into its master’s program in policy history. My curiosity about the past, especially how the human relationship to the environment has evolved, grew. As did my love for preservation, research, and instruction. Rather than traveling down the road of museum education and historic preservation, I veered toward a doctorate and life in academia. But that is not to say that I haven’t remained interested or active in the world that first drew me to the discipline. In fact, I have worked on several oral history projects, consulted on exhibits, and this past semester, contributed to the development of the exhibition, “(dis)ABLED BEUATY: the evolution of beauty, disability, and ability,” which will open in the Clarke Historical Library at CMU on February 8, 2018.

I also serve as the internship coordinator for the Department of History at CMU, which has its own Internship Program. History and Public History majors who have completed the bulk of their core curriculum can use three to six credit hours for an internship. In the past, students have combined opportunities to study abroad with internships, like Ashley Blackburn, who interned at the museum for the University of Groningen in the Netherlands last summer. Or students may stay in Michigan and work at one of the state’s many remarkable institutions, like Natalie Pantelis, who worked in Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, or Taylor Ensley, who worked as an interpreter at Colonial Michilimackinac for Mackinac State Historic Parks.

If you find yourself having a mid-degree crisis or you simply want help finding an answer to the question, “What will you do with a degree in History?”, come see me. I’ll tell you about opportunities to get valuable hands on experience, build a professional network, and discover how the craft of history extends beyond the walls of the traditional classroom.

For an appointment, email fremi1b[at]cmich.edu
Office hours spring 2018: Fridays 11:00 to 2:00 and by appointment
Office location: Powers 238

*Not to be confused with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, which is located in Springfield, Illinois. The Lincoln Museum where I worked as an intern, closed in 2008. The Lincoln Financial Corporation, which owned and operated the institution, maintains one of the largest collections of Lincoln artifacts in the world to this day. The materials are currently preserved at the Allen County Public Library (Fort Wayne) and Indiana State Museum (Indianapolis). For more information, see the Lincoln Financial Foundation’s Lincoln Collection or “The Lincoln Collection at the Allen County Public Library”.

What a Government Shutdown Means for Researchers

A screenshot of the warning message that appeared on the National Archives Catalog website during the government shutdown.

A screenshot of the warning message that appeared on the National Archives Catalog website during the government shutdown.

By Chiara Ziletti

Due to the shutdown of the Federal Government, National Archives facilities are closed, websites and social media are not being updated or monitored, and activities are canceled, with some exceptions. Check Archives.gov for details.

During the weekend I was duly completing my assigned research for my Historical Preservation class, and I came across this message multiple times. The first time I read this warning was while checking the National Archives Catalogue, but I later run into similar messages on the National Park Services and on the Library of Congress websites.

It seems that the latest government shutdown that begun at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, January 20, has luckily come to a resolution with the approval of a short-term spending bill. A federal government shutdown has undoubtedly negative repercussions on the entire society, though some effects might be more evident than others, and the impact is not the same for everyone. But what does a government shutdown mean for researchers? How does it affect their work? As an international student which has been in the U.S. only for few years, I must admit that I never had the occasion to reflect about these issues until I literally stumbled across all these messages of closure on the websites I needed to use.

The first time I saw the message about the closure popping up in my web browser I was a little concerned, but I soon realized that in my case the disruption was going to be minimal, I was lucky. I was looking for the list of the National Register of Historic Places, trying to understand which buildings in Mt. Pleasant are included in the inventory, and the shutdown did not prevent me from finding the information I needed. However, until they start updating their websites again, the remote risk that the information I found might be incomplete still exists, and the accuracy of my research is somehow impaired. Furthermore, the fact that I did not have major problems does not mean that other historians came out from this unaffected.

Primary sources are the foundations on which historians build their research, and even though several institutions have been digitalizing more and more primary sources in the past years, visiting archives in first person to access the sources remains a crucial and valuable step in the work of any historian. As a consequence, the closure of important institutions such as the Library of Congress and the National Archives have a significantly disruptive potential for anyone dealing with material being preserved in those places. I guess that researchers planning a trip to these institutions should start taking into account federal spending bill deadlines in order to avoid losing precious funding. The temporary cancellation of activities and events taking place at these institutions – especially those of educational significance – is also a considerable loss for those who were planning to visit them in these days.

Lastly, it is important to remember that a government shutdown negatively impacts both the entire research world and higher education. On January 18, for example, Nature published online an article explaining the major effects that a shutdown would have on federally funded scientific research. Several researches would be sent home, and important projects would be temporarily halted. Similarly, on January 22, Inside Higher Ed wrote that a protracted shutdown would more likely affect the processing of grants and funding, leaving researches and colleges without money.

It seems that for now the lawmakers have come to a compromise. We managed to avoid the worst effects connected to an extended shutdown, and we are back on track. Let’s hope we will not have to go through this again anytime soon.

What Did I Get Myself Into?

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By Mitchell Hall

One of the more interesting projects in my career has been the publication of a new, two-volume encyclopedia, Opposition to War: An Encyclopedia of U.S. Peace and Antiwar Movements.  Typically, historians work individually on research and writing projects, although some participate in occasional collaborative ventures.  I have been part of essay collections both as a contributor and as an editor, but this particular project presented an entirely new experience for me.

 An acquisitions editor whom I had worked with on a previous project contacted me with the original idea in May 2015, and after about two months of negotiation, I had a contract from the publisher.  Wanting the input and support from other scholars of the American peace movement in developing this project, I persuaded three experts to join me as consulting editors by early July.  I began by compiling a preliminary list of possible entries by reading the indexes of several key surveys and monographs in the field, ranging from the colonial era to the present.  I submitted about 900 items to my colleagues with a list of questions about how best to organize the work.  Their advice was enormously helpful, and we whittled down the list to just over 400 entries for the table of contents by late August.  The publisher accepted the list and word lengths in mid-September.  History Department office worker Gina Weare helped me put together a website for the project that potential contributors could review.

 Now all I had to do was find people to write the 90 percent of entries not claimed by my consulting editors and myself.  I wanted the highest possible quality, so I did extensive research to compile a list of experts who had published on the subjects in the table of contents, and in many cases had multiple names for a single item in case the initial person turned me down.  I sent individual emails to these scholars, asking them to write on specific topics and any additional entries they felt qualified to address.  More than fifty percent of these letters received a “no” response, although the vast majority were complimentary and encouraging.  Thankfully, this effort attracted authors for a majority of the available entries, many of whom volunteered (compensation is minimal for these types of projects) to write multiple essays.  Progress was never fast enough for me, since I was working on a deadline.

 Once I had exhausted my list of names, I ran an announcement in the newsletter of the Peace History Society, an organization I belong to, and some of whose members had participated in previous major reference works on peace and internationalism.  I was confident that this constituency would be reliable, but since I was no longer selecting people based on their specific work, but in essence asking them to select my project, I now asked for a vita to accompany letters of interest.  By insisting that writers be acquainted with primary source research on their proposed topics, I may have cost myself a few good contributors, but if I was going to make a mistake, I wanted to err on the side of caution.  This plea brought an additional influx of enthusiastic and expert scholars.

 With additional entries still unclaimed, my last solicitation was a general call for contributors via H-Net.  This was more of a risk because the audience was so broad, but I carefully read the attached vitas and added several first-rate writers who covered a number of valuable entries.  Even with this, a significant number of important subjects remained unclaimed, so I invited (some might say begged) some of my contributors who had already completed their commitments to write additional essays.  I was most gratified that a few sacrificed time and energy to help reach the target.  The encyclopedia eventually included over 130 contributors.

 During the process, I added a handful of entries at the suggestion of contributors and dropped a few that no longer seemed appropriate or contained too much overlap.  We ended up with 375 entries, but because I could be more flexible with essay length, the project ended well within the expected word range.  The majority of the essays were quite good, edited primarily for consistent style, but a handful required extensive revising.  Most authors were conscientious, but I spent a good amount of time gently reminding people of missed deadlines.  Perhaps a half-dozen or more made commitments then promptly disappeared and stopped communicating.  I was able to adjust to these various problems and produce what I believe is an excellent reference work.

 My responsibilities included writing an introductory essay and preface, compiling a bibliography, building a chronology and guide to related topics, and, of course, editing.  After completing those tasks, with numerous important entries still unclaimed, I jumped into researching and writing as many essays as time permitted.  I originally committed to writing 11 entries, all related to the Vietnam War era, but ended with 33 essays at over 30,000 words.  Learning about various subjects outside my comfort zone was a great education, and perhaps the most exciting part of the entire effort.  This ended up being a 2 ½ year project with numerous challenges and unexpected twists, but I made lots of new professional acquaintances and found the process to be extremely rewarding.  For anyone interested in more information, I would be happy to have a more extensive informal conversation.

New Year, new editor

Chiara visiting the Yerebatan Sarnıcı in Istanbul. The cistern was built in the 6th century under Justinian I. The cistern was also one of the locations of the 1963 James Bond movie From Russia with Love.

Chiara visiting the Yerebatan Sarnıcı in Istanbul. The cistern was built in the 6th century under Justinian I. The cistern was also one of the locations of the 1963 James Bond movie From Russia with Love.

By Chiara Ziletti

The holiday break has been great (probably even more than great if – like me – you love having a lot of time to read on the couch), but the new semester is finally here. It is time to roll up the sleeves, put away all the decorations, and get ready for this new adventure.

My name is Chiara Ziletti, and I have the pleasure to be the new editor of [Re]collection. I come from Italy, and I am a third-year student in the Transnational and Comparative History PhD program here at Central Michigan University. Allow me to introduce myself.

Back in school, my relationship with history was one of “love and hate.” Something in it attracted me (for example, I have always loved visiting museums and historical places), but most of the time the amount of dates to be memorized discouraged any deeper approach to it beyond the basic “let’s study to pass the test.” After high-school, I decided to study Italian Literature at University of Pavia (which was founded in 1361, more than 650 years ago!), and it was during those years that I discovered my passion for history. Classes like philology and history of Italian Language had already captivated me. I loved to understand why and how Italian had evolved from Latin, but the real breakthrough was the Early Modern European History class. It was while taking that class that I realized how much I actually enjoyed studying history despite being very bad at remembering dates. This happened because for the first time a professor made me realize that history was more than just sheer memorization. Finally, someone was teaching me about broader historical events and concepts. Thanks to that professor, I became aware – borrowing from Fernand Braudel – of the longer and broader social, economic, and cultural trends and forces beyond the history of events; and I was fascinated. I loved the deeper understanding coming from the combination of these different historical planes; and those aspects of human history capable of transcending time conquered my imagination. After that experience, I began to take more and more classes in history, enabling me to deepen my knowledge and understanding of both the past and our own reality (all this enriched by the development of critical thinking and writing skills).

Following my bachelors, I earned my Masters Degree in European History (again from University of Pavia). During my Masters, I also had the opportunity to do a four months internship in Istanbul with the Erasmus Placement program. Istanbul is a big and chaotic city, but it is also fascinating and full of history. Therefore, even though I was doing my internship at Maltepe University on the Asian side of the city, I had the opportunity to go visiting all the historical sites on the European side over the weekends – what a dream!

After obtaining my Masters, my personal adventure brought me to CMU, where I was admitted in the Transnational and Comparative History PhD program. Here I furthered my training as a historian, and soon I will have to take my Comprehensive examination (for a taste of the fear, imagine Darth Vader approaching on the notes of the Imperial march). In addition to this, I also had the opportunity to work as a Teaching Assistant for the Department of History (an enriching experience), and now I am the new editor of [Re]collection after Jennifer graduated last semester. I want to congratulate her on her success. Furthermore, I want to thank her for her wonderful job here in the past year. If I feel more confident about my future work here, it is thanks to the solid path she traced.

I wish everyone a happy new year and the best for this new semester. As always, we continue to welcome your submissions!


 

Beginnings and Endings

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By Jennifer Vannette

“In our everyday life we are so busy moving on to the next task or the next interaction with someone that it can feel like we never finish one thing before starting the next. A mindful goodbye allows you to fully absorb your experience so that it can become part of your learning.” -- Gretchen Schmelzer

Graduations mark both beginnings and ends. We are told in numerous speeches that we will go out an make our mark on the world, that we should venture forth with hope and confidence. That's all well and good, but perhaps it's just as important to consider what is ending. Saturday evening marked my last milestone as a grad student at Central Michigan University. I graduated, and I have to say, the view from the front row was rather nice. The view looking back at my time here is bittersweet. I'm ready to move on, and yet saying goodbye is never easy.

I've been in limbo since my dissertation defense -- not quite a grad student anymore but not yet gone. As annoying as that was at times -- what do I call myself anyway? what am I doing besides blogging occasionally? -- it was a nice to have time to transition. I began to detach myself from the program without having to quit cold turkey. But the nature of academia is to say goodbye. I've been thinking about that quite a bit lately. We leave behind schools as we progress, and if we reach the other side and teach, we say goodbye to class after class. We don't often talk about it, and yet to be an academic is to practice saying farewell a lot.

I'm not going to share anything particularly personal or profound in this brief post. I'm just going to offer that in the rush of going from one semester to the next, we might reflect about how to teach something better or what course to take next or where the next research trip will take us, but we can easily avoid being introspective. The transition time between defense and graduation allowed me to think more deeply about who I became in my time at CMU and what parts of that person matter most to me. That has helped sharpen my focus as I plan my next steps in an uncertain job market. Because I've had the limbo time, I've been able to evaluate my experience and consider more deeply how that experience will apply to my life moving forward. And, so, I've come to value this transition time. It sort of seemed like a waste to have so much time between defense and graduation, but now I'm grateful, and I hope others will find value in the limbo-space as well.

So, my time as editor of [Re]collection also draws to a close. I've enjoyed serving you, the readers, and the history department in this capacity this past year. I am honored that I was trusted to shape this early phase of the project, and I trust you all will continue to submit and participate as the years go on. I will be leaving the blog in the more than capable hands of our new editor, Chiara Ziletti.

I've also discovered that there is virtually no way to write a goodbye without it sounding cheesy in the end, and I don't want that. So, even though it's not night, I'll borrow from Edward R. Murrow and say, "Good night and good luck."

The End is Nigh

It's the most wonderful time of the year ... finals and grading! Woo! .... no?

Okay, so maybe not the most wonderful time, but there is a light at the end of the academic tunnel. You are almost to that glorious freedom where you will (convince yourself) you have all kinds of time to get all the things done. So, to help you reach the end of the semester I will, in the words of blogger Kylie Soanes, "give unsolicited advice to other academics. Preferably in blog form. Don’t say anything helpful."*

  • Hydrate. This is your marathon. Prep like it's one. You know, what? Carbo-load too. Just in case. It might not help with grading, but pasta is delicious.
  • Psyche yourself up by stacking all the exams and papers so you can visualize the completely reasonable amount of work to do. Then weep quietly. Regroup. Take at least half your stack and hide it in your desk so you feel like you have already made progress.
  • Be elated when you reach the end of your pile of grading. Weep quietly again when you open that desk drawer and find the other stack.
  • Netflix. Search for historical anomalies in Stranger Things and call it work. You are a historian after all, and television show accuracy is important. Plus it will give you something to talk about at the next holiday party.
  • Only check your email once a day so you don't get bogged down. Okay, maybe once in the morning and once in the evening. Or, perhaps just once each time you need a break. You know what? Just stay logged in.
  • Avoid social media. Except to post about your progress and tiredness and your ruminations on why society expects grades as a metric. What does it all mean anyway!?
  • Write a blog post for your favorite blog. *ahem. (This won't help your progress, but it will help mine, so...)
  • If all else fails just remember that the reality is most students aren't coming back to pick up the final anyway, so limit your notations and get it done.

You are almost to the finish line (to keep our marathon analogy going) and you're doing great! In the immortal words of Dory, "Just keep swimming..." Aw, man. There went the marathon analogy.

* I mean it's probably not helpful, but you never know.

Shouldn't Academics Respect Empirical Evidence?: The Tech Debate

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by Jennifer Vannette

Read any report or op-ed in which the author suggests that use of tech in the classroom may not be as helpful as one would like and immediately the comments section roars to life with a loud, angry protest. Recently I read a brief piece about why a professor chooses to rewrite things on a white board as opposed to using PowerPoint. Cue the angry defensiveness in the comments section telling this professor that she must be terrible at her job; there is always an assumption of incompetence if a person values a low-tech method over high-tech. Tech is associated strongly with progress, and so those who offer a contrarian view are often told to step aside. Here's one thing that is fascinating in light of academic emphasis on evidence: study after study has shown note-taking by hand leads to greater understanding and retention and yet many academics (and students) still insist that the evidence is wrong and laptops are best. Deeply troubling, it seems academics are particularly guilty of ignoring empirical evidence in favor of their own anecdotal belief that that tech is better, and that disregard of evidence runs contrary to our values as academics. Case in point, recent commentary in Chronicle of Higher Education.

One of the most contentious and perpetual debates regarding tech is the use of laptops or tablets for note-taking. From students, most of the anecdotal evidence comes from those who insist that they cannot later read their own handwriting or those that have a learning disability that impairs their ability to keep up with notes during a lecture. I'm certain those are real concerns. Yet the evidence suggests that the majority of students benefit from turning off the laptops, and since there are structural supports in place for students with disabilities, I'd like to suggest we turn our focus to the majority for a moment -- most of our students can take notes by hand. Their real barrier is simply lack of practice.

The most recent and most cited study was conducted by Pat Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer and released in 2016.  Consistently they found the same results. They wanted to discover whether or not students processed and retained information better with or without a laptop. What is not in dispute is that students who take notes on a laptop tend to type verbatim notes. This means that they collect much more of what was said during lecture. Students who write notes by hand cannot keep up with verbatim notes and tend to have to process and be selective. This indicates more mental processing, but it also means less collected information. Mueller and Oppenheimer acknowledged that studying comes in two parts: the encoding hypothesis says that when we are involved in the act of taking notes we are engaged in mental processing that helps us learn and retain information, and the external-storage hypothesis that suggests notes are important for a student to look back on and study again.

The Mueller/Oppenheimer study had multiple parts so they could try to address these different components. Hundreds of students from UCLA and Princeton were asked to watch TED talks on a wide variety of topics and take notes. Some did so by hand and some by laptop. Students who used laptops took significantly more notes than students with pen and paper, so the question is whether or not that helped. The students then were tested on how well they remembered information. When it came to basic facts, both groups did well, but when it came to conceptual questions, the students who used a laptop did significantly worse. 

Okay, so verbatim notes might not help. So, in part two of the study, Mueller and Oppenheimer coached the laptop note-takers to not take verbatim notes. Use the laptop, but don't just type everything you hear. It turns out that it is difficult to control the impulse to take verbatim notes when the tool is at your fingertips. The results of the tests were the same.

But there is the external-storage hypothesis, so to make sure no stone was left unturned, the students in a third study were given the chance to study from their notes before taking the test. The idea being that because they had more collected information, with enough time to review it, they might perform better than hand note-takers who had less material to review. But, still, the hand note-takers out performed their laptop note-taking peers.

Scientific American reported that another key point in this study was that all the laptops were disconnected from the internet so as to eliminate that potential factor in the results, but in most classrooms students who use laptops can be distracted by the internet. The journal reported one study that determined 40% of all students with laptops are distracted and another law school study that showed a 90% distraction rate. The obvious implication is that those on a laptop were already disadvantaged in their ability to remember material based on their note-taking strategy so when you add in the distractions posed by easy internet accessibility, it's hard to see this as a formula for success.

Even though we need to acknowledge that students have different needs when they enter our classrooms, the evidence is clear that technology has drawbacks. No matter the fancy PR and futuristic appeal, it turns out that taking notes by hand leads to better education outcomes. And isn't that the business we are in?

Mueller admitted that it's a hard sell to get students to put down their tech devices, but she suggests that maybe with improving technologies like LiveScribe with stylus and tablet applications, perhaps the gap can be bridged. For myself, I've taken to presenting students with the evidence on day one and then I let them make their choice. In my last class of about 25 students, only three chose a laptop. 

Spared from a Delicious Fate

Luxury accommodations for the turkeys at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel. The National Turkey Federation paid the bill for the fancy lodgings as they have in the past.

Luxury accommodations for the turkeys at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel. The National Turkey Federation paid the bill for the fancy lodgings as they have in the past.

Today is the day of the weirdest of all presidential traditions — the turkey pardon. How did this even become a thing? It turns out the tradition is a very young one that technically only extends back to President George H. W. Bush.

I know. You are thinking, “No! Wait! I’m sure I heard this started with Lincoln… JFK… Nixon… Truman, etc.” There is a lot of myth-making related to turkey pardoning, so the intrepid historian must take this opportunity to set the record straight for this most auspicious* event. The reason Lincoln is often mentioned as the originator of the tradition is that he spared a turkey because his son asked him too, but that was a Christmas turkey. Truman sometimes gets credit because 1947 marked the first year of an official presentation of turkey from the poultry industry to the president. However, it seems Truman didn’t pardon the turkeys but rather they became dinner. Kennedy pardoned a turkey, but apparently he just didn’t think it was quite ready to be eaten. He was reported to have said, “We’ll just let this one grow.”

Richard Nixon was the first to truly spare turkeys by sending them on to a petting zoo. However, it wasn’t done with the pardoning ceremony that we have today. The first time we attached the word pardon to turkeys really had more to do with political deflection. In 1987, with the Iran-Contra scandal roiling around President Reagan, to dodge questions from the press about pardoning anyone involved with the Iran-Contra deal, he jokingly told reporters he would pardon the turkeys if they weren’t already destined for the petting zoo

So, although turkey pardoning was almost a thing for quite awhile, it didn’t become official until 1989 under President Bush. At the ceremony he said, “Let me assure you and this fine tom turkey that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table. Not this guy. He’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now. Allow him to live out his days at a children’s farm not far from here.” Over the years the turkeys have gone to different Virginia farms to live out their days.

And the tradition has only gotten hokier since. Every year a pair of turkeys make their way to the White House from different farms around the country. There are always two in case something happens to one or it refuses to behave for the ceremony. Consider the second turkey an understudy; ready to step into limelight in a moment’s notice. Only one gets the official on-camera pardon, but both turkeys are sent to live out the rest of their lives in turkey retirement. They often have funny or patriotic names, which have included: Liberty and Freedom (2001); Biscuits and Gravy (2004); May and Flower (2007); Pumpkin and Pecan (2008); Mac and Cheese (2014); and Tater and Tot (2016). This year’s turkeys’ names will be announced just before the ceremony.

President George W. Bush injected some election humor into the 2004 pardoning ceremony. “This is an election year,” he said, “and Biscuits had to earn his spot at the White House … Biscuits and his running mate Gravy prevailed over the ticket of Patience and Fortitude. The vice president and I are here to congratulate Biscuits for a race well run. It came down to a few battleground states. It was a tough contest and it turned out some 527 organizations got involved, including Barnyard Animals for Truth.”

President Barack Obama received a mixture of laughter and groans for his puns and turkey humor. He opened the 2016 ceremony by saying, “It is my great privilege — well, it's my privilege — actually, let's just say it's my job to grant them clemency this afternoon.” Another memorable line: “I want to take a moment to recognize the brave turkeys who weren't so lucky. Who didn't get to ride the gravy train to freedom. Who met their fate with courage and sacrifice and proved that they weren't chicken.”

It is certain the 28 year old tradition will continue as President Trump pardons the next poultry pair in just a short while. While we prepare to consume delicious turkeys for Thanksgiving, we can take a moment to enjoy the two who got away. Happy Thanksgiving!

*For the turkey anyway.

Is It the End of the World As We Know It?

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by Jennifer Vannette

Graduate students across the nation are beginning to despair over the proposed GOP House tax bill, and they should. For most students, their education is possible because their funding comes in the form of a tuition waiver which covers their credit hours and a modest stipend for living expenses. In exchange for this, the grad student works as a teaching assistant or research assistant and that labor provides a valuable and affordable service to the university. This opens the door to students of all income levels whereas in the past only students of independent means could afford to pursue a higher education degree.

What does this tax plan actually do? Under the current plan the tuition waiver is not taxable income. This is money that the student never even sees. The university pays itself from one account to another and the student never even plays middleman. The stipend varies from university to university and usually reflects both cost of living for a given region and field of study with STEM fields typically earning higher wages. The stipend is taxable income. Under the proposed GOP bill both the tuition waiver and the stipend would be taxed.

Many publications are sharing what that looks like for Princeton or other universities, but I thought we should look at the numbers for a PhD at CMU. Currently, most students can waive up to 24 credit hours per year, so we will assume our student is taking the full benefit.  If we do a bit of rounding, tuition is about $15,000 per year at $627 per credit hour. CMU has a scale for stipends depending on your field of study, but at the low end of the spectrum the stipend is $12,500 per year. Currently we are taxed as if our income is $12,500. Under the GOP plan the student’s taxable “income” would be $27,500. That’s a big jump. So, what does that look like?
 
Estimate of effect on grad student taxes

Low end of the stipend
   Actual pay                    $12,500
   Current tax                         210    (1.7%)
   24 credits tax                   2,220    (17.7%)    (10.6 times current tax)

High end
   Actual pay                    $19,575
   Current tax                          920    (4.7%)
   24 credits tax                    3,280   (16.7%)     (3.6 times current tax)


I think most would agree that $12,500 is already modest income; livable, but necessitating frugality for sure. A $210 tax burden seems reasonable. But $2,220? Now we have to ask if this is even livable... and this is only the federal income tax, we aren’t even complicating it with state, local, and other taxes. In all likelihood graduate students would no longer find their stipends could cover the cost of living.

This is an extremely regressive tax system. The less a student makes, the more tax burden he or she will shoulder. Other factors can raise or lower a grad student's tax burden such as in-state or out-of-state tuition and public or private tuition rates. As both Forbes and the Washington Post highlight, a student at Princeton would see his or her tax rate increase from 8.8% now to 41.9% under the new plan -- a higher percentage than millionaires and billionaires in our country.

Students who still want to pursue higher education but find the U.S. system unaffordable might go elsewhere, effectively draining the the U.S. of intellectuals. As noted in Chronicle “Today, by allowing grads to deduct the value of their tuition benefits, the tax code recognizes the value of their labor... Mr. Wilke, who moved to Texas from Germany to pursue his research, said the bill in the U.S. House of Representatives could push more American students out of the country to seek their advanced degrees. 'The people who are really good will go to Canada or Germany,' he said. 'Does the United States want the best scientists moving away?'

Wired stresses what our country will lose: "...removing the promise of a living wage would dramatically affect people's ability to pursue a graduate degree. 'I think we'd see a shift in who even starts such a program,' says UT Austin computational biologist Claus Wilke, who also blogs on the subject of professional development in academia. A graduate education would quickly become something you pursue only if you can pay for it. That's a bad message to send to anyone driven to learn and innovate. You want talented people to study and contribute to what they're passionate about—not what they can afford."

Perhaps the most forthright, but disturbing assessment comes from Forbes. They write, "If the goal of the new tax plan is to shift the tax burden from wealthy, older Americans onto young, already-indebted students pursuing their higher education dreams, it's poised to be a smashing success. But from the perspective of someone who's been a graduate student, gotten their Ph.D., and then been a professor for many years, it looks like a ploy. The ploy appears to be to destroy higher education, to shift the tax burden onto the most educated rather than the most financially successful, and to disincentivize graduate school as a viable option for the majority of people who'd choose to pursue it otherwise."

It's time to freak out (and call your representatives).

Attending Conferences: Tips for Grad Students to Maximize Opportunity

By David Papendorf

As many graduate students know, conference activity is both important professional experience and vital for being seen in your scholarly community. But, for graduate students, conferences are big, expensive, and inconvenient trips that can mess with deadlines.  However, I want to encourage students (myself included) to continue to press on and attend conferences.  Based on my experiences – both good and bad – I’d like to offer some observations and suggestions:

First, continue to take initiative.  Look for conferences year-round.  For my field, often some of the smaller conferences will take place during the second semester.  Though attracting fewer presenters, the smaller community gives you an opportunity to speak with more scholars in a more meaningful and substantial way. My suggestion is to spend some time looking around online for conferences.  Start with the journals you read and consider their conferences.  You can also look at faculty pages of scholars you admire for ideas.  Often they have a CV that shares where they present.  Get a little stalker-y and see what people in your field are doing.  If you would like a chance to meet someone, go to a conference that they routinely attend.  Chances are other important people will be there too.  I actually sent an unsolicited email to a scholar I admire concerning conferences and, not surprisingly, received an extremely helpful reply in return.  Simply put, get out there and take initiative.  Conferences are not going to find you, you have to find them.

Second, conferences are more for networking than anything else. You will present a paper that people will really only remember by its title and basic content (if you’re lucky). Most scholars treat conferences as opportunities to receive peer reflection upon their current or future writing projects rather than as an opportunity unveil brand new ideas. Conferences are a great place to vet your research.  If you are at a later stage in your PhD, it can be a great place to propose the premise and basic evidence of your dissertation chapters.  Getting comments and questions from colleagues can be very beneficial. But, remember, you only get about 20 minutes to present your paper, and over the course of the conference you will only manage to take in some simple research profiles. Therefore, the real benefit is meeting people and seeing their research process.  Do not be afraid to go up to someone and chat with them concerning their research.  A great way in is to tell them you enjoyed their paper, and most scholars are happy to engage from there. Most scholars are happy chat with you.  Also, send a follow up email with the people you have conversations with for more than five minutes.  This solidifies the connections and gives you an in next time you’d like to speak with this person.  Networking can be hard especially if you are more introverted, but it is so important.

On that note, when you find a conference that is important for your field or beneficial professionally be sure to go again.  Plan to have a “home conference” that you attend every year.  If you go more than once, your likelihood of being recognized is much higher.  Imagine what consistent attendance will do for your recognizably.  I have friends who have reminded me that this is how they got writing projects.  Just this past weekend, I got an offer for a multiple book review from a prestigious journal just from being around and talking to people at the conference.  If you consistently present on a topic, you get known as a person who does research in that area.  You never know when someone will contact you or speak with you about a project you’re doing and see if you can write an article/chapter/entry or something else.  It is important to think this way – parlay your conference experience into future writing projects.  On another level, consistent attendance gives you the opportunity to organize panels for future conferences and be even more connected with scholars and researchers in your field.  Who knows, you may hear of open positions for which you can apply.

Hopefully these words of advice from my experience are helpful.  I’m still learning on how to do conferences well myself.  To get to more conferences in a cost-effective way, try to piggyback trips together with research ventures.  Or, find a colleague that can go with you so you can share gas/lodging/meals, etc.  Your experience with conferences can be rewarding if you have have high expectations and prepare in advance.  If you are proactive in talking to scholars and selecting your work for presentation, you can make experience beneficially personally and professionally.

On Doors, Opportunity, Risk, and Initiative

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by Jonathan Truitt

When I start my classes each semester I tell my students that they need to “own” their education. I go on to explain, that this has nothing to do with their purchase of courses, but rather their own active engagement in the material. Without their engagement, they are simply passive receptors who will fail to retain much of what is told to them. I explain that to really own your education is to seize on opportunities that appear in their classes, both unspoken and spoken. It will require them to take risks, to step through unknown doors, and take the initiative when others won’t. To be fair I let them know that I will follow my own recommendations. I will take risks and try new pedagogical techniques. Many of them will work, but others will fall short. Regardless of their success we will examine them to improve them for the next go round, or to dump them. This post then, is the story of one of my pedagogical journeys. It started as an idea that I tried on an unsuspecting class, it failed horribly and was set aside. Emily Lint, a student at the time and now a high school teacher, looked at the idea, picked it up brushed it off and improved it. Emily’s initiative made my idea better and it is why I spent Dallas, TX earlier this semester instead of Michigan.

Four-ish years ago (I don’t actually remember) I kicked off a new course for the history department on designing games for the classroom. The title of the course is “Mind Games.” The idea behind the class is to introduce students to game mechanics that can work in their future classrooms. As a hobby board gamer I get a lot of ideas from around my kitchen table when playing games with friends and family. Before this class started I decided that I wanted to introduce the students to a cooperative game mechanic. This was an element of some of my favorite board games, such as “Pandemic.” I wanted the students to have to work together as a team rather than competitively. I started thinking about the mechanic in the spring with my fall semester course in mind. This idea formed the basis for a game later dubbed “Disease Strain” and now titled “Plague, Poxes, and Pustules: A Game about Communities, Epidemics, and Survival.” When first conceived the idea was that the students would spend about five minutes at the beginning of each class trying to figure out the solution to the game. The game failed. One turn each class period provided too much time between turns and the class quickly lost interest and the pedagogical aim failed alongside it. We spoke about it as a class and set it aside. Emily was in that class, and I do not know when the fix to the game came to her, but it was Emily who fixed the game.

After the game’s failure I kicked it around trying to figure out the problem, but soon set it aside due to other time commitments. A semester later Emily asked if she could use the game in a high school class she was visiting. I thought it strange that she would want to use a game that was so broken. However, she had figured out the fix. The game needed to run in 20 minutes with two minute crises intervals to help propel the game. That fix revived the game and took it to new heights. A year later we were both attending the “Reacting to the Past” Game Development Conference in Athens, GA where she was presenting on her Honors research. We pitched the Disease game as well to see if there would be interest in seeing how a short game could function in a classroom setting. Both presentations were a big success. The disease game went on to be used in a variety of interdisciplinary settings in high schools and universities across the U.S. Fast forward a year and a half and a colleague who had been using the game presented on research surrounding the game’s success in her own classroom setting at another conference, Gen Con Trade Day. At the conference was an Agile Trainer for Walmart, he played the game and adopted it for training employees in Bentonville, AR. Jump forward another six months and the game was used as part of the pitch to start a new game-based learning series with the University of New Mexico Press (initial releases due out in Spring of 2019). This brings us to the present where in the past six months I have presented the game at Brigham Young University and the University of Texas at Dallas. This game has taken a trajectory I never would have predicted. I give full credit to Emily for making it possible, she is (and has been since her critical idea) an author on the game. I applaud her for stepping through the door and taking the risk to tell a professor he was wrong. I thank her for providing us both with opportunities to further support good pedagogy. I don’t know if her students know what they are in for when they walk into her classroom, but I am hoping that one of them opens the kinds of doors for her that she opened for me.

Advocacy: What Historians Do

Last week, CMU professor Dr. Jonathan Truitt published "A Cry for Help" advocating that universities offer their resources to help displaced Puerto Rican students continue their education. Two weeks ago Dr. Andrew Wehrman issued different call to action by tying the history of statistical analysis to address public health crises with today's gun violence. With that inspiration, this week [Re]collection offers a glimpse of other advocacy efforts by historians and published by AHA.


September 5, 2017 - In preparation for the Supreme Court's hearing of Gill v. Whitford, a group of 15 historians, including 11 AHA members, filed a brief of amici curiae that laid out the history of equal representation in early American voting systems and why the Court should strike down Wisconsin's district maps. The historians are joined by numerous other organizations, many of whom agree that Wisconsin's 2010 redistricting plan contains a statistically significant bias towards the party that drew it. A decision on the case is expected by June 2018. 

August 2017 - The tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, have re-ignited debate about the place of Confederate monuments in public spaces, as well as related conversations about the role of Confederate, neo-Nazi, and white supremacist imagery in American political culture.The AHA has released the following statement about the role of history and historians in these public conversations. Rather than seeking to provide definitive answers to the questions posed by individual monuments, the AHA emphasizes the imperative of understanding historical context in any consideration of removing or recontextualizing monuments, or renaming public spaces.

April 6, 2017 - The AHA Council signed on to a letter from the Coalition for International Education urging members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to reject the Trump administration's proposal threatening to reduce or eliminate funding for the US Department of Education's International Education and Foreign Language Studies Programs. After this mobilization, Congress passed an omnibus appropriations bill on May 4, 2017, which kept these programs funded at previous levels through September 30.

April 5, 2017 - AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman sent a letter to Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson urging him to reject HB 1834, which would prohibit any Arkansas public school from using materials authored by Howard Zinn in their courses. Grossman denounced the measure as an "egregious micromanagement of the work of Arkansas teachers." The measure was dropped shortly afterward.

March 16 and May 23, 2017- Following the Trump administration's proposals to eliminate funding for programs imperative to the work of historians, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, Title VI, and Fulbright-Hays, the AHA issued action alerts on March 16 and May 23 calling on members to express their concerns by contacting their congressional representatives. Our early efforts were rewarded when the FY17 omnibus appropriations bill, passed on May 4, 2107, included a modest increase in the NEH budget through September 30. As the appropriations process begins for FY 18, however, and the threat against humanities programs renews, the AHA will mobilize our partners and members again to resist any cuts.


This is a small representation of different advocacy efforts by historians, particularly through AHA. Historians can be important advocates for academic freedom, access to education and resources (therefore budgetary concerns), and public policy based on consideration of past efforts and prejudices. AHA has provided a statement called Guiding Principles for Taking a Public Stance.

A Cry for Help

"Central Michigan University, an inclusive community of scholars, is a national leader in higher education inspiring excellence and innovation." -Adopted by the Board of Trustees, Dec 6, 2012

"Central Michigan University, an inclusive community of scholars, is a national leader in higher education inspiring excellence and innovation." -Adopted by the Board of Trustees, Dec 6, 2012

By Jonathan Truitt

UPDATE: [Re]collection is pleased to announce that Central Michigan University is offering full tuition and room and board to Puerto Rican students in the spring.

We started this blog as an effort to humanize what it is we, as historians do. We wanted to showcase our research, teaching, committee work, travels, and home life. Put simply we wanted those who interact with us in our professional lives to have a better understanding of what it’s really like to be a professional historian and educator. I was hired at Central Michigan nine years ago to help expand our research into Latin America and connections to Latin America. This past month has been torturous. Earthquakes and hurricanes have ravaged the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and the U.S. South and Southwest. All of these are areas that I study. Aside from having friends, colleagues, and loved ones in these regions I also have a more immediate understanding of what they are going through as I was a graduate student at Tulane University in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. I was fortunate in that my family and I were able to evacuate to my parent’s place in Birmingham, Alabama. Their small house soon became a temporary refuge for many of my friends who were also fleeing the ravages of the hurricane.

Then, as now with Puerto Rico, our government failed to act as soon as it should have. Where our government failed, our companies and universities stepped in. As soon as people were aware that New Orleans was not going to be able to function on the level required to sustain its population, companies started moving their employees. My wife and I were relocated to Denver by my wife’s employer, Banfield the Pet Hospital — where she had been employed for all of a week before the hurricane hit. They paid for her new state license, our moving expenses, and turned a part-time job into a full-time position. They did not make money on this endeavor; they did it because they could, and they wanted to help. In my case the University of Colorado, Denver stepped up and provided me with office space, access to their library, and the opportunity to give lectures. The University of California also called and offered to have me join them there for the semester. Other friends and colleagues shifted to the University of Arizona, the University of Texas, and many other locations. Ordinary people stepped up and helped while the government tried to sort things out. The outpouring of help was amazing and I have never forgotten it.

This past month I have been trying desperately to repay the kindness that was shown to me. So far, I have found many people who want to help, but despite a meeting with the president of my university I have not been able to accomplish my goal. However, hope is still out there. This past week Tulane University issued an offer to Puerto Rican students in need . Simply stated they are paying forward the assistance provided them during Katrina. I could not be prouder of my alma mater. I am hoping we can build on this momentum. I reached out to Jeff Schiffman, the director of admission and one of the organizers of the effort (for more on the organization of the effort see this article: "Tulane Extends a Helping Hand..." ). In his reply, he stated that the number of applications they have received from Puerto Rican students is higher than one university can handle. But this is where we can help, currently many colleges and universities in Michigan and elsewhere across the U.S. have lower-than-normal enrollments. Most have at least some dorm rooms — and some have many —that stand empty. With seats open in our classrooms and beds open in our dormitories I am asking institutions to open their doors to U.S. citizens enrolled in institutions that cannot reopen immediately in the affected areas. This act will cost us little but will help the affected individuals and their home communities greatly.

How will it help communities in Puerto Rico and other affected areas? At the moment the cost of food, gasoline, and other supplies are astronomically high. Helping people leave the area will allow them to progress with their studies and decrease the demand on essential supplies. When things have stabilized the students can bring their skills home to help with the ongoing cleanup and return to their home institutions. The cleanup process is long and arduous. It will still be there when these students return, but if we extend the help I envision here they will have continued to progress in their degrees and will be able to deploy those skills as well.

Here is where you, dear reader, come in. We are following the precedent of those who have responded before us in other crises. Reach out to your nearby companies and universities, show them our letter if it will help. Challenge them to open their dorms and classrooms. If they are not a university have them look at what they do and see what they might be able to provide. If we are able to get movement from more schools we can create a ground swell and start taking next steps. Tulane has taken the first steps, I believe CMU and others can follow suit. Before I end I want to acknowledge that this targets people who are in a privileged position. I desperately want to help everyone, citizen and non-citizen alike. My hope is that we will all continue to think of ways to do just that. As I said above, this is one of the first steps, but there will be many.

To bring this back to where I started this post, I am a social and cultural historian. Among other things, this means I think constantly about the people and places I study. I have studied great disasters and amazing acts of human kindness. I am hoping that all of us can demonstrate our own humanity at this time.

Todos Somos Humanos. We are all human.

Statistical Analysis and Public Health

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By Andrew Wehrman

Last week in my class "Red, White, and Blood: The Curious History of American Medicine and Public Health," I lectured about the importance of statistics to improving health. Beginning in the late 1830s reformers in New England started forming Statistical Societies promoting the idea that state and local governments should keep vital statistics. Previously when doctors tried to convince politicians that there was an epidemic or medical crisis, they had to rely on qualitative evidence--word of mouth. Statistics then were needed to compile documentation from different towns, doctors, hospitals, morgues, etc. in order to keep track of illnesses and deaths. Those statistics could then be used to call for political action.

In 1839, Lemuel Shattuk was among the founders of the American Statistical Association (ASA). The goal of the ASA was to use statistical data to enhance human welfare. After an 1849 cholera epidemic in Boston, Lemuel Shattuck wrote a report using these statistics and presented it to the legislature in Massachusetts in 1850. Shattuck's report implored the government to take action. He argued using statistics that governments should build new water and sewer systems and organize city-wide street cleaning and garbage collection. He called for the creation of public health departments with extensive authority during times of epidemic. We hardly think of street cleaning and garbage collection as public health measures, but they absolutely are. Boston, once it implemented Shattuck's recommendations, never experienced another epidemic of cholera.

The organization that Shattuck helped start, the American Statistical Association is the oldest continuously operating professional science society in the United States. It has a membership of about 18,000 people promoting sound statistical practice to inform public policy. The ASA stated in 2016 that "Still after all these deaths and the unconscionable mass shootings in recent decades, little is still known about gun violence primarily due to a lack of federal funding and research on the topic." In 1996 Congress passed the Dickey Amendment which read, "none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control." Congress then took the $2.6 million that had been spent to study gun violence and reallocated it to the study of traumatic brain injuries. After the Dickey Amendment, and despite the spike in the number of mass shootings in the US, the CDC has provided almost no funds for firearms research, and according to health policy analyst Ted Alcorn, "From 1997 to 2012, the share of scientific publications between firearms and crime or violence fell by some 60%."

The point is that without statistics, we can't properly identify health problems. What we don't know can kill us. It is killing us. And if we deny statistics or we deny the ability to collect statistics, then we cannot solve big problems like the epidemic of gun violence. Last year the American Medical Association declared gun violence a "public health crisis." Let’s take a cue from Shattuck’s example and solve it like one.

 

Historical Archaeology Informs History: The Brig James McBride

Illustration of a brig from a federal government publication.

Illustration of a brig from a federal government publication.

By Jay C. Martin

Historical archaeology and the material culture remnants of the past often inform historical inquiry.  One need only to think of how the excavations at Pompeii have enriched our knowledge of the past to understand the importance of archaeology as a tool for historians, particularly in fields of study where historical documentation is rare.

The potential for historical archaeology in the maritime realm is vast.  In Michigan the cold freshwater of the Great Lakes and their tributaries preserve cultural material.  The best examples of this are the wrecks of the Hamilton and the Scourge, War of 1812 vessels lost in a sudden squall on Lake Ontario.  When located in 1975 they were in near pristine condition, intact with guns and deck equipment still at the ready.

A less dramatic, but equally important story is that of the Great Lakes brig James McBride.  Built in 1848, it was reputedly the first American-flag merchant ship to initiate direct trade between U.S. Great Lakes ports and the Atlantic World via the St. Lawrence River.  “Direct trade” in this context can be defined as a commercial vessel carrying its cargo direct from the port of loading to the port of discharge without having to use the time consuming and expensive “forwarding” process wherein cargo was unloaded and transferred around one or more topographic obstacles.  Such cargo was most often transferred to an ocean-going vessel during the final leg of the journey.

Although the merchant vessels of British Canada were first to initiate direct trade by running the St. Lawrence River rapids and using the pre-Seaway locks, McBride’s trip to saltwater illustrated the intent of Chicago commercial interests to become leaders in global, not just the regional, shipping industry.  This intent was signaled in 1847 when the young city—incorporated in 1833--hosted the first national rivers and harbors convention.  The convention focused on internal improvements and drew 2,500 participants from nineteen of the twenty-nine states. 

The pre-St. Lawrence Seaway adventure of the McBride in 1848 was an important stride toward making the Great Lakes a more influential and competitive part of world maritime commerce.  This innovative venture was typical of the can-do spirit that characterized contemporary lakefarers.  The success of the venture encouraged others to do what had only previously been considered theoretically possible.  An example occurred the following year when the Eureka sailed from Cleveland direct with “49ers” headed for the California Gold Rush, taking Great Lakes trade direct to the Pacific.  Direct trade expanded rapidly after reciprocity agreements allowed American vessels to pass through the St. Lawrence River without special diplomatic permission or crippling duties.  The trade flourished until Confederate commerce raiders and the resulting rise in insurance rates made it prohibitive for shipowners to trade outside the Great Lakes.  During this period the entry of vessels flying European flags dramatically increased.

Direct trade by American-flag vessels recovered after the war.  Existing locks and dams were expanded in incremental stages until the mammoth St. Lawrence Seaway project of the 1950s finally made it easy for large modern ships to transit between the Great Lakes and saltwater.  Despite its importance to the development of the United States and Canada, little has been done to interpret the pre-Seaway traffic and the shift from forwarded cargo to direct trade via the St. Lawrence River. 

Staff, students, and volunteers working on the McBride this summer. Photo credit: Jay Martin. Used with permission.

Staff, students, and volunteers working on the McBride this summer. Photo credit: Jay Martin. Used with permission.

In August 2017 I led a small group of CMU students, faculty, staff, and volunteers to survey the remains of the brig James McBride at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, the location of its grounding and loss in 1857.  The intent was to determine the relative archaeological integrity of the wreck and its potential for full archaeological survey and excavation.

The team found that relatively little of the lower hull remains submerged off shore.  A thirty-eight foot section was swept ashore a few years ago by ice, but has substantially degraded over time.  Still the wreck has potential to add to the collective knowledge of Great Lakes to saltwater direct trade by a comparison with the remains of contemporary vessels to determine what modifications were made to Great Lakes vessels to prepare them to navigate saltwater. 

Analysis of the results of the 2017 field season is ongoing, but it is clear that the remains of the McBride and other Great Lakes vessels have much to contribute to our collective knowledge of world history.  They also help us reinterpret that history, shifting from the prevailing saltwater-centric view that what happened on the world’s oceans determined what happened on inland waters.  The author’s scholarship has demonstrated instead that Great Lakes innovations in technology, business management, and maritime labor had lasting and transformative impacts on maritime commerce worldwide. 

Tiger Woods: Racial Identity and Sports

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CMU history professor Lane Demas offered an insightful reflection on the importance of Tiger Woods for the UNC Press blog. His book, Game of Privilege: An African American History of Golf, is now available in print or eBook formats. From the publisher: "This groundbreaking history of African Americans and golf explores the role of race, class, and public space in golf course development, the stories of individual black golfers during the age of segregation, the legal battle to integrate public golf courses, and the little-known history of the United Golfers Association (UGA)--a black golf tour that operated from 1925 to 1975. Lane Demas charts how African Americans nationwide organized social campaigns, filed lawsuits, and went to jail in order to desegregate courses; he also provides dramatic stories of golfers who boldly confronted wider segregation more broadly in their local communities. As national civil rights organizations debated golf’s symbolism and whether or not to pursue the game’s integration, black players and caddies took matters into their own hands and helped shape its subculture, while UGA participants forged one of the most durable black sporting organizations in American history as they fought to join the white Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA). " Enjoy and excerpt of his blog post below.

Tiger Woods and his career are officially history.

No, this is not another mean-spirited screed; a sportswriter proclaiming the once-greatest golfer can barely hit the ball today, a tabloid promising more lurid details on the star’s “shocking” downfall, or another fan angry that people still care when Woods is now just the such-and-such ranked golfer in the world. (#987, as of this writing)

Can they really not understand why we’re still interested in Tiger? Do they really prefer to read about #986? (No offense to Mr. Jake Roos of South Africa, I’m sure he’s an interesting guy.)

At any rate, I have no idea what the future holds for Tiger Woods on the golf course. I won’t even speculate. What I do know is that the recent attention surrounding his personal and professional “decline” led to a missed opportunity, for this past April marked the twentieth anniversary of his first victory at the world’s most important golf event: The 1997 Masters Tournament at Georgia’s Augusta National Golf Club. Yes, it’s been twenty years since 44 million U.S. viewers watched 21-year-old Tiger dominate the field, win his first major championship, and tearfully embrace his father Earl on the eighteenth green.

So whether or not his golf career is history, it’s at least time to consider Tiger Woods as history.

And here, at a moment when the star’s light is fading and some are questioning the legacy of his accomplishments, I have perhaps a different perspective. As a historian, I believe that the past decade has seen the historical significance of Tiger Woods grow, not shrink. Even as his popularity and prowess fades, even if he may never reach the expectations many had in the 1990s – heck, even if a better golfer should soon come along (unthinkable at the height of Tigermania) – it’s still likely that Woods will make the history textbooks of 2050, 2100, and beyond.

Why? Because it’s increasingly clear that Tiger Woods was the largest pop culture figure associated with the discussion of racial identity – blackness, whiteness, multiracialism, etc. – at a pivotal moment in American history when those ideas evolved swiftly.

Continue reading at UNC Press Blog.