In Defense of History: A New Blog Feature

Paul Revere sounding the call. Boston.

Paul Revere sounding the call. Boston.

The blog is changing. Even historians can stride purposefully towards progress!  If you go up to the Newsworthy tab, you will notice a drop down menu with two options: News & Happenings, which has all the announcements you are familiar with finding under Newsworthy, and the new In Defense of History.

In Defense of History is where you will find links to different resources that discuss the importance of studying history and the usefulness of a history degree (or more broadly liberal arts/humanities). The collection of articles features people such as entrepreneur Mark Cuban stating that liberal arts is the future or The Harvard Business Review echoing the sentiment and arguing that innovative thinkers come from the humanities. David Kalt, the founder of Reverb.com penned a piece for the Wall Street Journal saying that he was wrong to believe he need computer science people exclusively to build his business. He wrote, “A well-­rounded liberal arts degree establishes a foundation of critical thinking. Critical thinkers can accomplish anything.”

While we need to apply our critical thinking skills to our own field and question whether or not we are effectively communicating the importance of historical studies to our universities and the broader public, we should also remember that it’s not all doom and gloom. There are many people who understand our abilities and want to have us on their team.

So, when you need a dose of inspiration, an injection of optimism, or resources to boost your argument, you will find a growing archive under In Defense of History. Feel free to pass along suggestions for the page. Send links to cmichhistoryblog@gmail.com

History through Students' Eyes

By Katie Krawetzke

US History through Michigan Eyes is like many survey courses in that it features a large lecture hall, multiple TAs, and many of the enrolled students are required to take it, either as a University Program or Writing Intensive course. Unlike many survey courses, though, it draws an exceptional number of Education Majors and Minors. HST 210 fulfills a requirement for CMU’s future teachers, which means I was teaching the next generation of educators. Running discussion sections for teachers raises my expectations for class participation because educators in both primary and secondary schools are going to be in front of (increasingly) large classes and are constantly kept on their toes by their students. In my semester of TAing for this class, I was lucky enough to see some highly engaged students, who I am sure will make wonderful teachers when they graduate from CMU. Featured here are two of those students who I have no doubt will make great teachers because of their own inquisitiveness and passion for learning.


By Keturah Ashford

This course has affected my understanding of American and Michigan history by giving me a clearer and deeper understanding of what truly transpired within our state and nation. I feel as though the education system does not make a large enough emphasis on history at the primary and secondary level. The information in lower grades is also biased to what the author’s views are and what they deem important. Through the activities, essays, and discussion in HST 210, I have gained more knowledge and new found perspective on the history previously learned.

One of the most important skills I acquired is finding and analyzing primary sources in order to gain my own deeper understanding. Without this skill I would still be under the impression that Lincoln freed all slaves, Henry Ford was a good man who cared about all employees and their families, the civil rights was the only movement in the 1960s, the Boston Massacre was a horrible tragedy because of Britain, and how much Michigan actually relied on slavery. I know know that Michigan played a huge role in national history including through industry, agriculture, mining, forts, mining, timber, and race rallies.

The knowledge and skills accumulated will help me educate the future generations on historical facts, how to find the most accurate information, and how to actively read, analyze, and form opinions and connections from the past, present, and future.


By Krystal Headley

In the course United States History through Michigan Eyes, the emphasis on perspective most affected my understanding of history. The more I learn about history in general, from any point in time, I see that there are many ways to view each event. I feel like this class did a great job showing us how to separate the account of events from emotional responses in many documents. We used and analyzed primary source documents accounts from events like the Boston Massacre or the Civil War or WWII, and we were able to get down to the bare bones to study events and learn about bias.

As an education major, I spend a lot of time considering how to best to teach future students. These historical thinking activities changed my perspective about how history should be taught. Rather than memorize a set of facts, dates, or series of events, it should be about uncovering clues form the past through a multi sensory experience. Then, critical thinking and comparison should be applied; for example, how does a series of events apply to our current political climate?

I appreciate how this class forced us to do more than just know what happened, but to put it into real context.

For Public Consumption: Food History and Youtube

By Simon Walker

               University of Strathclyde

When I started my post-graduate training, I envisaged a world of books, half-moon glasses and dusty archives.  I looked forward to writing a book that no one, except my suffering students, would read and delivering lectures to a room of people more interested in their catnaps, computers and coffees.   Then I discovered, the scourge of 21st century academia: Public Engagement! 

 Strange thing is, I love public engagement.  I blog, I tweet, I teach in local schools and occasionally guest lecture at public events.  It’s great fun and its very different to dealing with other academics who half the time are waiting nervously (or sometimes impatiently) for their turn to speak.  At a PhD level your peers tend to be kind, your betters benevolent and your academic audience, polite.  With the public you get quirks, questions and often genuine interest. 

One of the best public talks I ever gave was to an audience of only six people as part of the Glasgow Southside Fringe festival. Serves me right for presenting in the basement of a grand mansion whilst the sun streamed down on music and comedy acts elsewhere!  To be fair, I wouldn’t have to come to see me either.  But the talk was great, because as I explained about trench food and hard tack (the impossible to eat biscuit / bread that was the British soldiers last resort on the front line), the audience engaged, leaned forward and conversed. 

But all of these things have been done and done again.  Even my teaching in schools, which is great fun, is not exactly unique.  So, in the best tradition of finding any distraction from not writing my thesis, I searched for something ‘a wee bit different.’  In the middle of the Great British Bake Off,* I had a very daft idea.  When I’m insolently not writing my thesis, I have a tendency to bake.  I bake cakes for friend’s birthdays, cookies for my younglings, and doughnuts because it’s Friday. So, I decided to blend together: my love of cooking, my passion for the First World War, and let’s be honest, my dashingly handsome and charismatic self.  I decided to make a YouTube cookery show which I called Feeding Under Fire

The format was simple: get camera, use camera, cook!  Having never presented on camera before, I was ridiculously naïve.  The research bit was the easy part.  I pulled a recipe from an Army Service Cook Book from 1914 for Hard Tack and then trawled through my personal archives for my unwritten thesis for accounts of trying to eat it.  I storyboarded the scene, wrote my script and it was time for Lights, Camera, Action!  This is where it fell apart. 

So, I enlisted a YouTube expert to help me film.  Together we managed to make an 11-minute film, which took six hours to make and then ten hours for me to edit.  I couldn’t look at the camera, I couldn’t remember my lines, I hated the way I looked, my voice, my kitchen.  To get me to lighten up, my director placed a funny sign behind the camera to help my slightly manic smile have some enthusiasm to it.   Finally, I managed to upload it to YouTubeThis was it, I would be, well not famous, but you know, popular at least, I’m sure!   Over the next four days, there was around 15 views, and those were from a smattering of friends, and mostly me, from different devices.  As it stands there are over 200 views on the first episode 5 up thumbs and 1 down thumb (I don’t know who that was but I’m going to force feed you hardtack raw, my friend).  That was the hardest part.  Knowing I had put so much effort into it and no one cared.  

Then a schoolteacher friend messaged me to say she had enjoyed the video and that she had used it as part of a lesson plan.  She passed it on to another person who did the same and suddenly I felt better about the whole thing.  I learned from the mistakes in the first episode. The next one was better researched, I brought in a friend to ‘taste test’ on camera, I actually bought a decent video camera and microphone and I fixed much of the oddities of the first video.  Episode two currently has just over 100 views.  Episode three is now up and episode four is in post-production hell. It will be done. 

So, what is the point I hear you ask. Well done, mate, you made a Youtube video that got less views than a French speaking cat trying to get into a house!  Basically, who cares? Well the point is, whilst I am not a YouTube star (yet – I have hope), I love Feeding Under Fire. Public engagement is important for developing wider key skills that are useful both within and beyond academia. Also, having a more varied presentation platform means that you can reach a more diverse audience with your research.  Feeding Under Fire is on my academic CV, it helped me get a job at the Scottish Parliament, and I’m planning to apply for funding to push the series as an engagement project for six months whilst in the post-doc, pre-job wilderness.  Feeding Under Fire is daft, but it’s fun, it’s interesting and it dares to be a little different; also, my kids love it, so why not.  Try it yourself, you never know what might happen, but give me a thumb up when you do, eh?

* Aired on PBS as the Great British Baking Show.

 

Editor's Note: University of Strathclyde is one of our partner institutions. This fruitful exchange has sent many of our PhD students to Glasgow for a year of study, and Strathclyde has sent CMU many students. Simon Walker is a PhD Student at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.  He focuses on the physical transformation and control that British soldier’s bodies experienced during the First World War.     Email: Simon.h.walker@strath.ac.uk

Navigating the Crisis: Set a New Course

By Jennifer Vannette

The crisis of the humanities has been a long lamented point in the academy. As we well know at CMU, budget shortfalls are balanced on the backs of history programs, which then have to cut courses and new hires. As other programs send us fewer students due to their own restructuring and society deems the study of history less important, universities have begun to require fewer credits in history. Additionally, many people view history as less useful to their futures. It’s easy to get discouraged.

The latest issue of Perspectives on History (May 2017) offers two articles addressing the challenges of and failures regarding teaching history. David Pace, in his piece “The History of the Classroom in an Era of Crisis: A Change of Course Is Needed,” begins with the clarion call that “in a ‘post-truth’ age of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news,’ historians must ask fundamental questions about our public roles,” and he argues that we have a moral obligation to defend the institutions of democracy. Pace promotes a change in how we teach history, being sure to move away from memorization and towards reasoning and critical analysis. This is not a new idea, and many historians have already made that shift at the college level. But, Pace, notes that we have a tendency to blame students lack of preparation for college rather than reshaping courses to address the needs of the student body we have.

 The numbers are startling when it comes to fail rates. The companion article in Perspectives, “Many Thousands Failed: A Wakeup Call to History Educators” by Andrew Koch, complied data on 28,000 students from 32 different institutions over the course of three academic years spanning 2012-2015 who were enrolled in a US history survey course. The data showed that about two-thirds of the students earned a grade of a C or higher. But, looking at the demographic variables, the research team saw that race, family income level, gender, and status as a first-generation college student were indicators that predicted the success rate of students in a history class: “…the likelihood of earning a D, F, W, or I grade is lower for Asian Americans, white, and female students who are not first generation, and do not receive a Pell Grant. It is higher, and sometimes significantly higher, for every other demographic group.” And, the failure in one introductory course, like a US survey, increases the likelihood of dropping out of school.

 Koch also criticizes past methods of teaching history. He sees promise in active-learning strategies. But, additionally, he implores historians to take an active role in preventing the negative outcomes for disadvantaged students. Inequality in society predicts inequality in learning outcomes, and we have an obligation to intercede.

Both articles also express worry that part of the fail rates are due to a lack of diversity in the narratives communicated to students. Even though historians have produced a great body of literature that addresses class, race, gender, ethnic studies, religion, and many more interesting facets of humanity, many minority students are not finding themselves represented in the survey courses. We’ve adjusted how we talk to each other as academics, but we are faltering in communication of the rich body of history to students and the public.

Pace and Koch acknowledge the lack of willpower at institutions to make changes, particularly when the results are unknown. We need to try something new, but a university rarely wants to be the first to use an untested method. The work that goes into changing course offerings can be daunting, but there are resources available and a network of historians working on educational research. Change can happen – Yale recently announced that through their efforts of revamping their history major courses and requirements, history is once again the top major at the university.

Both authors offer good starting points for the conversation, and they indicate that we need more creativity. We perhaps need the political determination to challenge the norm (should I say sacred cow?) of historical survey courses. Even when historians have tested new methods, we still cling to the survey lecture structure. Consider the example of how the game-based pedagogy Reacting to the Past has been typically used. The game focuses on one particular historical experience during a discussion section while the chronological survey continues with lectures during two of their three meeting times.

Some historians have begun to approach courses, even university required surveys, with a thematic approach. This can be difficult to do; it’s hard to relinquish the chronology. I know when I taught US Since 1945, although I organized the lectures by themes, I made sure to also balance that with a chronological structure. I’m not sure I went far enough. We have the ability to cover a broad sweep of history while focusing entirely on a single theme. Course examples from the American Studies program at Canterbury in the UK are quite exciting, for example, The Invention of America: Texts and Contexts from 1670 to the Present; Rise of the American Colossus: US Foreign Policy, 1898 to the Present; or, Banned Books: A Literary History of the US. Can we pique student interest better by focusing on a particular theme rather than trying to cover everything that happened over hundreds of years?

As historians, we know that we are relevant to the conversations that consume society today, and as Pace pointed out, we perhaps even have a moral obligation to do all we can to defend our institutions. With the fail-rate data and the layers of bureaucracy that must be navigated to make changes, it's easy to want to just stay the course. But there are positive signs. Even with STEM promotion, many technology business leaders have said that they seek people with the skills historians have and can teach. (Here. Here. And here.) The work of a course change is daunting, and there are no guarantees. And, still, we should engage in new ideas and try new methods for engaging our students – even if it means killing the sacred cow.        

It’s a TA Life for Me: Living in Greenwich Village

Art Work and Items for game points.

Art Work and Items for game points.

By Gillian Macdonald

“To start with I thought it was terrible, then we got to the game, and oh my god, I had no idea that I knew that much about American history just immersing myself in one person.”

This is the statement that makes being a Teaching Assistant worth it. TA’s are forever talking about teaching assignments and class work –  it’s all part of the experience – and what you tend to find is that either the funny or the heartwarming stories stick out. There are so many great stories when using the game-based learning pedagogy, Reacting to the Past or RTTP. It may seem strange to use game based learning in a history class, but when the documents alone can’t quite get the idea across or grab students attention, it’s a fabulous way to learn. In a wide-ranging survey course designed to teach students American history from Reconstruction to present, “experiencing” a moment often is the best way to explain historical events and help students deepen their understanding of their very unique heritage.

Reacting to the Past: Greenwich Village 1913 is one of those moments. Don’t be fooled by the game aspect –  it is a lot of work; students must take on a historical role and remain in that character for 4 or 5 weeks while trying to achieve their game objectives. Because it is a game, they mostly focus on the winning, but in the end, they have a much better understanding of how historical forces actually work in real life. To play the game, there is a period of set up. However, this is the point where you can lose students. Prepping for the game is work, but once the game gets going it feels much smoother and pretty much runs itself. However, this type of leg work is often something students are not accustomed to and complaints are to be expected. Those who stay end up really enjoying it, especially if they win ;-).

The hardest part for the TA is deciding on the cast. Greenwich Village has the luxury of so many great characters like Emma Goldman, John “Jack” Reed, and Margaret Sanger, to name just a few. Students must know their character inside out. Taking on the role of a historical person requires a multitude of skills – skills they often didn’t know that they had. In order to make their character believable the student must know: who was this person? How did their life experiences shape them? How did the events of the day influence their political views? What did they want and why? The TA on the other hand, has to know all of the characters—everything about them—including how they would react in a multitude of situations. It’s crazy, although now I could tell you all about “Big Bill” Haywood’s trial for murder and how students used this in the game, and more importantly, how and why it was used to make arguments for and against him and the labor faction’s objectives....

This year, the class did unbelievably well. Students went above and beyond – in costume every day, created buttons, posters, paintings – and it showed. The fun part, at least for me, was watching them learn, react, and evolve. For instance, there are a number of surprises in the game (which I won’t spoil) and seeing their faces and how they felt afterward was just fantastic. Students grow confident, learn how to speak out, and express historical opinions in meaningful ways, all while they gain transferable skills. Their journals and reflection papers, which help to try and ground the experience, are where the lightbulb moments happen, and that makes them so fun to read. Students often make connections between what they have learned playing the game and the lecture material. That reflection often creates a deeper understanding of historical forces at work.

This is where RTTP can do things that reading a document just doesn’t do. Students are reading and researching without even really thinking about it because they are immersing themselves in a situation because they want to win! It’s a game after all, experience matters. One faculty member, Dr. Kathleen Donohue told me that students feel RTTP has a lasting impact, particularly when they have played a person who was fundamentally different from themselves. It can be a powerful experience. One student expressed afterwards that it was an eye-opening experience and reinforced his opinions on gender-equality.

Overall, RTTP is definitely a worthwhile experience, but it’s not for the faint-hearted ;-).

But Do I Get to Wear a Hat?: A Day of Historical Interpretation

Fort Abraham Lincoln Cavalry Post Custer House

Fort Abraham Lincoln Cavalry Post Custer House

By Alexander Greff

     UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA; CMU ALUMUS

“Hey – are you the general?” Teenagers are always the one’s who ask first, though many of their parents aren’t far behind. It’s the question I seem to get more often than anything: more than anything about the house, the field equipment, the artillery pieces, or the stables – and it leaves me seriously reconsidering my commitment to grow a 1870s-style mustache. How was I supposed to know my facial hair would bleach in the summer sun?!

It was a grand, old-timey kind of summer that I spent, working as an undergraduate history major at Fort Abraham Lincoln, on the banks of the Missouri River in central North Dakota. It wasn’t my first stint working in public history (though that had also involved a cowboy-esque persona), but it was my most memorable. My work was split that summer between leading tours at a recreated Mandan Native American village site, and the adjoining 19th century frontier fort, which just so happened to be the final posting of George Armstrong Custer (only a Lieutenant Colonel after the Civil War, mind!) before the Little Bighorn. The fort posting also involved full living history -- the men in the blue woolen uniforms, the women in cotton dresses with petticoats and bonnets. Come the festival days of mid July, which involved activities in close proximity to horses, it was hard to tell who suffered most in the heat. And despite precipitous attempts to grow my hair out in a cool, period fashion, it was one of the best history related jobs I’ve had.

Public history is great for getting a real sense of the people’s perceptions of our field. You find out what interests people most about the past, like a real sense of connecting to famous or everyday people. Every time I had to put down my open-fire roasted cowboy coffee and explain to a family that I was not General Custer, but rather his aide dè campe and not fit to wear his fancy buckskins, I’d always get a laugh. Except with the teenagers. They laugh at nothing, but the unease of a docent earnestly describing the purpose of a fainting couch. Then they would laugh, because it meant talking about corsets. And this was public history – the conversation between the fixed stories of historical folks and objects, and the people with all new faces and interests to passed down our dusty road every day. If nothing else, working in public history is like being an improv-academic – you find that every person is interested in something different -- from cast iron cutlery, to the stables, to the firearms -- and that you’re responsible for keeping them entertained and, hopefully, letting them walk away better informed about the past.

Sometimes this goes awry and chaos becomes the teacher. On one day, with a particularly large tour, my colleague led the way under the line of cottonwood trees in front of the main house. From the back of the group there was little time to warn him of the six-foot long bull snake sliding out of the branches before it landed on his head, sending half the students running back towards the parking lot. “How lucky were these students?” I thought, nobody else every gets to join us in directly reliving all the parts of living on the frontier. Snakes were only one of the frequent interactions with the conditions of the past that, at least through terror, compelled visitors to think more about their own relationship with history…and how to safely approach a guest book laid across an outdoor veranda. (Another story, but I’m sure you can guess…)

Most days, working in public history was about taking all the mundane parts of the past and being given the chance to remember that history is full of weird things that interest people. The public historian is in the unique position not just to reach out to, but also to engage with the public in a way that research and writing doesn't often allow. And it's a great opportunity to remember the people (alive or long passed) who first interested you in history and to pass that opportunity on. So mind the snakes, grab some cowboy coffee, and try not to let the handlebar mustache distract you too much from jumping into history!

Reflective Teaching

By David Papendorf

As most of us know, the way that graduate students in history survive is by teaching—or at least that’s what our stipends pay us to do.  It can be both incredibly frustrating and rewarding to teach undergraduate students. However, I think too often in a moment of frustration or the busyness of our schedules, we can get caught up in a false dichotomy of crediting a bad class experience to “bad” students. It becomes so easy to chalk up classroom disappointments and poorly-written papers to disinterested, under-equipped, underachieving, and lazy students that we can easily mistake student performance as the ultimate judge of classroom success.  Alternatively, we can just as easily chalk up great classes to brilliant students and not attempt to understand exactly why things went well.

While I think it important to focus on the students’ experience, we must also not let our highs and lows of teaching be dependent on student response and energy in the classroom as the only metric. By examining each class through the prism of our teaching with some reflective method of evaluating our teaching, we can more readily find what works and doesn’t work and adjust our teaching plans accordingly.

Troubleshooting and diagnostics are incredibly important in reflecting on why the classroom experience went poorly. It can be difficult to think through why things went the way they did.  But I think we owe it to ourselves and our students to take a few minutes and reflect on each class.  I have learned from a former mentor and professor of mine one tip that I have tried to implement.  He suggested I write four sentences after every class/section/seminar summarizing the overall effectiveness of the class time.  This summary should include not just an evaluation of the class time, but at least one success and one area for improvement.  Each summary, he suggested, should be class specific and could even use the names of students directly.  He then suggested that, when preparing for the next week, I should consult these short summaries in order to be more reflective in my preparation.  When I have done this, I have found it extremely helpful. 

Think of it this way: we sometimes have our students write journals following class time to synthesize and summarize their experience.  New methods of pedagogy have taught us how helpful this is for long-term retention and synthesis of new information.  Let’s turn the pedagogy back on us to make us better teachers. This is one way, I believe, that we can begin to grow as instructors.

The Personal is Historical: Opportunity and Loss in the American West

Women on the Oregon Trail

Women on the Oregon Trail

By Shannon Kirkwood

Many years ago, I read an article about women’s experiences on the Oregon Trail. The authors expected to find that these women experienced a new level of freedom and equality on the trail that they lacked at home because they were performing essential and similar tasks to their male counterparts. That this was their expectation is not surprising, given that the article was written in 1975 – the halcyon days of the ERA, when work and notions of equality were at their peak convergence. Instead, the authors found that moving west was not viewed as an opportunity for equality, but as a process of loss for women. In relocating, they lost their families, their friends, their houses – everything that defined their identities and self-worth. They even lost their personal belongings, since china dishes, musical instruments, and heavy pieces of furniture were the first to be off-loaded along the trail as inessential. Generally speaking, moving west meant opportunity for men, and loss for women.

As it happens, I now live near the trailheads of the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the California Trail, and the Mormon Trail. The women who traveled westward on these famous trails had to pass through the area where I live on their way. My own relatives (my grandfather’s grandmother) came through this way and landed in Southeast Kansas, three hours from my house. Knowing the history of the area has highlighted for me in a very personal way all of the things that have changed in the last hundred and fifty years, and all the things that haven’t. Like those women before me, I have moved here from Michigan not for myself, but for my husband’s job. While I didn’t have to leave my stand mixer or the couch somewhere along I-70, I did have to leave behind my friends, my colleagues, and my sister. When my son was born three months ago, nurses asked repeatedly if I had a support system – anyone that could help us out – and were quite distressed when I answered, "No, we’re new here." It wasn’t anything like giving birth in a sod house, days-ride from the nearest neighbor, but the isolation was very real all the same.

What has changed since the 19th century are my own expectations from family life. The women who traveled the Oregon Trail did not expect equality, which is why their household objects were so important to them. The tea sets and the pianos represented a domestic domain where they had authority and autonomy, which they lost along with the actual possessions. Today, I expect a certain level of equality – we both do housework and we both have identities outside of the house. But even that is gone now – we are in an arrangement like that of generations past. My husband earns while I stay at home with the baby. This is has been one of the hardest and most surprising losses for me. I have never not worked. Ever. Much of my identity has come from my work.

While I am grateful for the fact that we can afford for me to stay home, I am also envious of my husband. He gets to teach, mingle with co-workers, and even grade papers, while I spend all day with someone who, for all that he’s cute, doesn’t realize that his feet are connected to his body. Not the most intellectually stimulating environment for someone with three degrees and working on a fourth.

Luckily, I have the benefit of historical insight for this time in my life as well. Yes, I am feeling more of the personal losses. But I know that it won’t be that way forever. I take comfort from the fact that I will go back to work at some point, and from the fact that I am not the first woman to feel torn between family and personal ambition. I just keep reminding myself it is possible to overcome these obstacles, and that women have done it in the past – with less support from their husbands and more children. Like the women who passed here before me, I feel the loss of what I left behind, but like them, I continue on this path knowing it holds promises for the future. This is just a weigh station on the road.

 

  

The Pedagogy of Hope: Continuing the Conversation

Brittany B. Fremion

Editor's Note: This is a follow-up post to last week's The Pedagogy of Hope.

The roundtable I participated in at the American Society for Environmental History conference at the end of March focused on ways instructors find hope in environmental history narratives in their courses. And I certainly work to incorporate research I present and learn about at conferences into my classes. In an effort to bring what I learned at this particular gathering to a wider audience, I offer this follow-up post.

My roundtable, “The Pedagogy of Hope: Teaching Hope in the Environmental Classroom,” featured instructors in environmental studies and history programs. Each presenter brought a unique perspective and strategy for finding hope to the roundtable. Jim Feldman from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh frequently checks in with his students after discussing particularly taxing topics in his environmental studies course. He works hard to engage current events and demonstrate to students that sustainability is “not a narrative of decline, it’s a narrative of hope.” Sarah Hamilton, now at Auburn University, talked about a course she taught at the University of Michigan in 2014, wherein students developed an environmental history of Detroit. By working directly with community leaders and members, her students recognized the significance of community action groups and the power of individuals to bring about change locally. The collaborative endeavor increased student empathy and demonstrated that “change is ongoing and they can be a part of it” (check out the course website: https://detroitenvironment.lsa.umich.edu). Amy Kohout uses post-apocalyptic fiction in her American environmental history course at Colorado College. Her use of Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, for example, creates opportunities for the discussion of hopeful narratives and what fiction may do for the study of history: it presents “the wide range of possible futures.” Finally, George Vrtis from Carleton College assessed the state of the field and its historiography, pointing out that while “hope is a feeling, not an intellectual enterprise,” it is important to kindle hope to help students understand the environmental challenges we face. He contended that there are hopeful narratives in environmental history and that instructors can identify them by designing discussions that encourage students to find themes that inspire them. 

Finding hope in environmental history—or any field, really—is important. Hope drives interest and cultivates passion, which in turn provokes a response. I took my first environmental history course as an undergraduate at the University of Saint Francis, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The instructor, also my advisor, assigned William Cronon’s Changes in the Land and William Ashworth’s The Late, Great Lakes. The class, and these books in particular, made a profound impression on me. I learned about the transformation of the American landscape both before and after European settlement, and the “death” of Lake Erie in the 1960s. I was astonished that the field rose out of the environmental movement in the 1970s (in fact, these activist roots are what first drew me to environmental history). I became interested in environmental issues, joined the Sierra Club, and helped establish a nature preserve on campus for Earth Day. I went to graduate school, first for a MA in history and then a doctorate. Now I teach my own environmental history class. The point is, I channeled any anger and despair I felt about the environmental present in 2003 and translated it into action. In turn, I have found hope (see previous post).

Following the short presentations by roundtable participants, audience members contributed to the conversation by bringing insight from their own experiences. Some of the questions they raised include the following, which I leave to you:

1)    How can one find hope in global environmental histories or histories typified by more tragic narratives? (I’m thinking of histories like Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts.)

2)    Is there danger in overemphasizing hope? (This question was prefaced by the revelation that a prominent historian once told a student that “environmental history is depressing, so it should be.”)

3)    What other strategies enable instructors to teach empathy and hope?

The Pedagogy of Hope

By Brittany B. Fremion

Part of my job (and joy) as a professor and historian is to be actively engaged with the community of scholars in my field and to contribute to its growth outside of the immediate university setting. One of the primary means of doing so is by participating in academic conferences. The major organization for environmental historians hosted its annual conference at the end of March in Chicago. I had the good fortune of being part of one of two roundtables dedicated to finding hope in environmental history. The title of my panel, which focused on hope in teaching, was entitled “The Pedagogy of Hope,” whereas the other revolved around scholarship, “Hope in Environmental History” (check out the conference program here: http://aseh.net/conference-workshops/2017-conference-chicago-1/conference-program).

In his 1993 presidential address to the American Society for Environmental History, William Cronon identified a key challenge of teaching environmental history: the subject often evokes despair in students. Noting that this emotion seemed neither personally nor politically useful, Cronon called upon environmental historians to communicate the field’s lessons in a more hopeful key. Nearly twenty-five years later, the two roundtables will consider how effectively environmental historians have answered this call. My particular roundtable will feature instructors who have worked to bring hopeful narratives and strategies into their environmentally-themed courses (taken from roundtable abstract).

In my upper-level comparative environmental history course (HST 302) at CMU I have worked to identify ways that reinforce the positive components of my field, despite the persistence of narratives of decline that seem to characterize it (i.e. the looming theme of ecological collapse at the hand of humanity). In order to do so, I often stress that knowledge, as the adage goes, is power. Knowledge of history in particular enables us to make better, more informed decisions in the future, to understand how we got to be where we are, and why multiple perspectives matter. This is particularly important when it comes to environmental issues. We must understand how and why ecosystems have changed in order to develop creative responses to address those changes. The environmental historian plays an especially significant role in helping us recognize our power to dramatically alter the world we inhabit.

The vehicle that carries conversations about the power of individuals to incite change in my classroom is, perhaps oddly, Daniel Quinn's Ishmael (1992). Quinn’s philosophical novel is the first book students read for my course and often their favorite. This work of fiction reorients readers’ perspectives so that they recognize their place within nature, not as separate, through (spoiler alert!) a series of telepathic conversations between a gorilla and student—purposely unnamed or assigned a gender, an effective writing strategy that enables the reader to identify as the student. The conversations are largely driven by questions raised by Ishmael, the gorilla, who is the teacher in this story. One of the first questions he asks the student is about his/her culture’s “creation myth,” to which the student responds with certainty that it is no myth. But Ishmael proves him/her wrong by juxtaposing the human story of creation with that of a jellyfish (you’ll have to get your hands on a copy of the book to better understand why). The moral to this story, and others, is that the Earth exists for no one species in particular; that we, as humans, may not be the pinnacle of creation. Ishmael also points out that we are subject to the laws of nature, challenging the human assumption of control over the environment. As a result, he is able to emphasize that humans, as powerful members of ecosystems, must be better stewards. In the end, he teaches the reader “how to save the planet—from ourselves. With this knowledge, we have the power to change our lives and save the world.”  

The discussion sparked by this book leads students to recognize the significant roles they play as members of campus, regional, national, and global communities—that the knowledge and skills they have acquired in my class (and others) should extend into their daily lives. They have the power to bring about change, whether it’s doing something seemingly nominal (like buying organic fair trade products, recycling, or using public transportation) or recognizably significant (supporting environmental initiatives, engaging in social activism, and/or writing policymakers). This self-awareness is in itself transformative and empowering. And it certainly gives me hope.

Without Faith: Church Interactions

By Jonathan Truitt

This week has been a lesson in irony. This is no reflection on my students or my family, they have all been awesome. Rather, it is on the state of other responsibilities within my professional and personal life. I am a colonial Latin American Historian. My research focuses on indigenous interaction with the Catholic Church in colonial Mexico City. I am not actually interested in whether or not the indigenous population believed in the faith, but rather I’m interested in their day-to-day interactions with it and how those interactions influenced the rest of their community. To put it simply I am trying to remove religion from an examination of religious life. I know what you are thinking, what good is this? The short answer is that the Catholic Church, in order to serve the Spanish faithful in the manner in which they were accustomed, a whole lot of requirements needed to be met in order to operate, and there simply were not enough Spaniards to keep it functioning, so they needed the indigenous population to plug the very large gap.

To place it in more modern terms I think about this interaction in the ways in which people who live in a company town, like Midland, Michigan -- home of Dow Chemical -- interact with the company on a daily basis even if they don’t work for the company. Simply stated a lot of infrastructure needs to be in place to support the people who work for the company. That reaches beyond the business itself and includes everything from supporting a good school system to recreational activities. Whenever the company opens a new plant somewhere they have to make sure they have the infrastructure in place. If they don’t, it can still work, but the results are going to be mixed. This is the very basic version of what I spend my time thinking about when I am not grading, playing with my children, sitting in meetings (though truth be told I am sometimes thinking about this while I am in meetings), working on developing game-based pedagogy, or meeting with students and colleagues.

So where is the irony? My book is written and the press has had it for almost a year at this point. Rather, I should say the presses, plural, because it has been jostled between presses with changing partnerships. They are still very interested in my book and this past Tuesday asked me to make some edits based on a reviewer’s comments on my conclusion. They would like the corrections by the end of next week. The reviewer is having difficulty understanding the premise of my book. The idea of studying people’s interaction with something rather than their actual belief is apparently a hard sell. Here is the irony. My book is reflective of my own interaction with the church. I am not a religious person, yet I attend church regularly with my wife who is a devoted Christian and wants to raise our children in the Christian faith. I am currently getting ready to head to church with my boys (my wife has gone on ahead as she plays hand bells and has a performance today). When I get to church I will be helping out in the nursery, next week I will be at a personnel committee meeting for the church (on which I serve), I have just finished leading an eight-week educational course for children at the church, and have been asked to create a special discussion group on immigration, also for the church. I am a member and many of the people at the church know my views. I value the community and support them in many things and they support me. In my interactions with the community my belief doesn’t matter, but my actions do. This is the very thing that I study and somehow I haven’t made it clear to the anonymous reviewer that my book isn’t about belief, but about the day-to-day interactions, even though I live it. So, as I sit here preparing to take my kids to church I wonder, have I sold you?

Blackbodies and White Lies

Max Planck, 1933

Max Planck, 1933

By Matthew Vannette, Associate Professor of Physics,                                                                                                                                                 Saginaw Valley State University

In the late 19th and into the early 20th centuries, physics had a problem.  The way scientists understood the world at that time could not explain why hot objects, like iron in a blacksmith's forge, glow the precise way they do. Such glowing objects are called blackbodies, and the light they emit is blackbody radiation. The spectrum (how bright the light is at each color) of a glowing body shows a bright peak at middle wavelengths, and gets dimmer at very long, infrared wavelengths and the shorter ultraviolet to X-ray wavelengths.  The particular wavelength where the peak is observed depends on the temperature of the object - higher temperature means a shorter wavelength for the peak.  At the time, Rayleigh's* analysis, using the accepted -- and very successful -- model of light as an electromagnetic wave, predicted that the spectrum should get continually brighter as the wavelength gets shorter, with very short wavelengths being infinitely bright, irrespective of the object's temperature.  Since brighter light means more energy, an infinitely bright light at any wavelength implies that every object gives off infinite energy. 

Rayleigh's result was so wrong it is termed the "ultraviolet catastrophe."  Then, in 1900 a young German physicist named Max Planck settled the matter by introducing energy quantization, the first step toward quantum mechanics.  This was an entirely new way of thinking about things, and it straight-forwardly prevents the infinite energy Rayleigh's model predicts.  Physics was saved.  The idea was so radical that even Planck felt it had no physical basis and that someone smarter would come along and correct it.  But, it solved the problem.

This is the story we tell physics students about the development of quantum mechanics and modern physics.  It has a nice feel to it.  Very scientific method-y, if you will.  And it's a lie.  Planck was not solving the ultraviolet catastrophe known to the rest of the physics community.  Planck's first paper on the subject was published in January of 1900 (though not read at a conference until October of that same year), and he was motivated by a small discrepancy in the long wavelength limit.  Rayleigh's was not published until July 1900.  It just so happens that Planck's work provided a good model over the entire spectrum.  Unless Planck had worked out the ultraviolet catastrophe himself, he could not have been trying to correct for it. And if he had worked it out, for some reason, he chose not to publish. Perhaps he refused to present a model that gave such bad predictions. A core tenet of science is that if the model does not match the data, it cannot be correct, except in a very limited sense.

Understanding the motivations of a researcher is very important. It can reveal subconscious biases that may have led to inadvertent mistakes or omissions. If a particular researcher, then, has the weight of authority, those mistakes and biases can become part of our culture. Even for scientists, it is important to know our history so that we can examine our intellectual forebears honestly. Many years ago, a mentor of mine at Boston College, Andrzej Herczynski said that Einstein was an ordinary genius -- well beyond what our normal minds can expect to achieve -- but Planck was a transcendental genius. We can appreciate Planck's contribution more fully when we realize that he solved a problem well before the rest of the physics community knew there was a problem to solve, and scientists can have a greater understanding for how research and theories are developed.

*British physicist, Lord Rayleigh, John William Strutt

 

 

 

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Archive

Steer Clear of the Swans. British National Archives, Kew, UK (Photo Credit: Jennifer Vannette)

Steer Clear of the Swans. British National Archives, Kew, UK (Photo Credit: Jennifer Vannette)

By Jennifer Vannette

We talk about archival work as if it’s always important and serious. To be fair, it mostly is. But sometimes it can be a comedy of errors. Every archive trip is different and every archive you visit has its own rules, style, and vibe.

When I was studying in the UK, I needed to use some Foreign Office papers, which are housed at the National Archives in Kew. I successfully navigated my train south to London and then the Underground out to Kew and was feeling very pleased with myself as I used my smart phone’s GPS to help me find my lodgings and then walk to the archive the next morning. I was there too early, but it was a beautiful day and the grounds were lovely so I wandered around and enjoyed myself. The doors opened, and I walked up to the desk to ask where to go. I still don’t know why they were surprised by my question, but they pointed me to the coat room. In this room, there were all sorts of helpful directions posted about using the lockers, what you could take into the reading room, and the clear bags you would need to use to carry your supplies. They also had umbrella stands, which although immensely practical for the UK, were still a fun novelty for an American. Basically, this room told me everything about using a locker -- something I have know how to do since middle school. The instructions were about to get less clear.

It took awhile to shove everything in the locker and sort out what I could take with me. Feeling a bit warm from my labors of shoving a backpack and coat into the too small locker, I nevertheless felt ready to get to work. There were signs pointing up the stairs to the reading room, so I started climbing. I came to a landing and found a billboard-sized sign emblazoned “Start Here.” So, I went up to the desk to start.

It turns out that that is not where one begins. Of course not. That would be silly. So, up one more flight of stairs I found a little room where I had to fill out more paperwork, sign more things saying I wouldn’t steal stuff (I had already done this once online), and then wait for my photo to be taken for my Researcher’s ID. Now, at this point I had walked a mile and a half to the archive, wrestled with my locker, walked up two flights of stairs and was super confused about where I was supposed to be. You can imagine how great that picture turned out.

ID in hand, I was sent back down stairs. But not as you might have guessed to the “Start Here” sign. Nope, I had to go to the other side of that floor and go through security. (I still don’t know who actually starts at the desk with the sign. It remains a mystery.) I went to hand over my bag and computer for inspection and dropped the bag; the contents spilled out. I walked through the security barrier and set off the alarm. I was sent back through twice and finally it was okay. At this point the security guards and I are having a good laugh because it was just so ridiculous. It was the start of our ongoing bit. You know, the classic “not you again!” bit. I was a hit with security.

The National Archives houses vast amounts material and hosts so many researchers that it’s no wonder they have really modernized the process. I checked in and was assigned a table at which to sit, and my table number corresponded to my locker number where they would deposit my requested materials. To request materials, I went to a computer bank and swiped my ID. That brought up my table/locker number and then any materials requested would automatically be linked to my number. It was pretty cool. When I finished with a box of materials, I took them to a return desk. The only downside is that unlike smaller archives, there was no personal attention offered by the archivists. And, unlike the security guys, they weren’t very friendly. I discovered that somewhere I lost my pencil (probably when my bag spilled) and the archivist-on-duty would not loan me one. He helpfully suggested I buy a new one at the gift shop. The souvenir pencils were £2 a piece. So helpful.

From the outside, it might look like researchers seem calm, cool, and collected, but some days it's really difficult to not feel foolish. That first day at the National Archives was one awkward moment after another. Every archive is different, so no matter how many you visit, it's just hard to predict what is going to happen. The best thing to do is roll with it and learn to laugh at yourself.

Active Politics is the Study of History*

By Trent Wolf (Class of 2015)

I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in History and Political Science, and since then, I have worked as a legislative assistant to State Representative Frank Liberati in the Michigan Legislature. Politics can be understood as simply a web of interconnected relationships: connections between legislators or between elected officials and voters, for example. In practice, no piece of legislation is passed in a democratic system without relationships being established between politicians, just as no elected official wins their campaign for public office without building and maintaining relationships with voters. The difficult, and nuanced, aspect is untangling all of these relationships through using the same skills historians use to untangle the hidden realities of humanity’s past.  Using this lens, politics can be viewed as history unfolding in real-time.

The most obvious, and potentially less direct, application of my studies in history would be simply understanding the historical context to the reality we live in today—something I believe too many in our society go without. Public policy and politics are intrinsically intertwined with our historical past. Basic understanding of historical facts impact the way in which laws are written and also influences the way in which politicians talk about their ideas and project those ideas to the public. Additionally, historical understanding, or lack thereof, directly defines the ways in which constituents perceive politicians and their ideas.

More directly, though, by employing the research skills learned through studying history—such as source analysis, aggregating analyzed historical data, and effectively communicating the story that data illustrates—I was able to develop a important set of skills that I use every day to be effective at my job.

For example, when performing historical research, secondary sources are used to provide context to a given topic and primary sources—such as speeches, letters, songs, poems, illustrations, and memoirs—are used to gain a better understanding of a topic, which allows a researcher to expand upon the known historical record. Similarly, in public policy and politics, we use secondary sources to frame societal problems and policy solutions, such as data on income inequality or school performance. Then primary sources, such as constituent communications, firsthand political information from elected officials, or forms of support from stakeholder groups, are combined with the secondary source information to gain a broader understanding of an issue and how it might be solved.

With this in mind, the same skills of thoroughly vetting sources and knowing that multiple perspectives must be gathered to gain a credible understanding of an issue or topic are directly used in both politics and history. For instance, in the same way historical research should not be told through the lens of one historical figure, one document, or one perspective—in politics you must also gain as much primary source perspective as possible to be able to effectively craft policy and campaign messaging. Additionally, I fully believe that individuals who study history properly are able to gain a sense of “open-mindedness,” or are more able to objectively analyze the information they are researching, which is sorely missing from our political system that has been ravaged by partisan hyperbole and ad hominin attacks.

I credit all of my experiences as a student of history for where I am today. In so many ways, those experiences have become directly linked to who I am as a working professional trying to better the world in which we all live as well as an individual and the way I view the world. In both history and politics, critical thinking and analysis as well as being able to think in new, creative ways are key to being able to contribute to the historical record or pass legislation.

*Polybius, The Histories, vol. 1

A German in Scotland ... via Michigan

Rainy Glasgow Cathedral   (Photo credit: Gillian Macdonald)

Rainy Glasgow Cathedral   (Photo credit: Gillian Macdonald)

By Marcel Haas   

Rain is pelting down as I walk down Glasgow’s Cathedral Street, heading towards the Gothic outlines of the High Kirk of Glasgow I can dimly make out through the dark clouds. I walk a bit faster, stepping around scores of students hurrying out of the rain and into the Andersonian Library. One last desperate dash and I am in the foyer of the University of Strathclyde’s Lord Hope building, which houses the School of Humanities and my primary domicile, the Department of History. I rummage around in my once again chaotic shoulder bag, before my hand emerges triumphantly clutching the key card I need to enter the secretive chambers that hold my desk, the graduate school. Finally, I slump down behind the computer screen and start typing, “Rain is pelting down…”

   I came to Glasgow in June 2016, having fled the continental warmth of the German summer only to be attacked by even more sun over Scotland. (Thank you, global warming!) Luckily, Glasgow’s well-deserved reputation for beastly weather had come through in the end, and I enjoyed some lovely wet days while moving into my new apartment in the city’s eastern borough of Dennistoun. My new home was both a relatively quiet residential area, and a continuously up-and-coming hipstertopia, including snazzy cafes and traditional Italian restaurants, second hand shops and quite a few liquor stores. Needless to say, I instantly fell in love.
 

   My little picture of Glasgow might confuse my surely enormous readership. “Why in the name of all historical research is this guy in Scotland?” some will ask, “And why should we care?” Those are excellent questions! Insulting, but spot on. Well, I am (perhaps rather obviously) a graduate student at CMU. Besides being one of the lucky few graciously given the chance to pursue the increasingly longish goal of the PhD, I took (even more pleasingly) the opportunity to spend one year at one of CMU’s prestigious partner institutions, at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom (at the moment), European Union (not much longer, but hopefully soon again). Besides the prospect of living in yet another beautiful country, I had a good reason to be excited to move: I could do research on my dissertation topic at the very location where everything happened three hundred years ago! Granted, you, my fair reader, will only understand my exhilaration if you know that I study the relationship and first contact between Native Americans and the European empires, especially Great Britain, in the 18th century. There, I just told you. I hope you are appropriately excited for me.
 

   And so it goes that this increasingly wired up German made the grand journey from Michigan to Scotland (with a lengthy stop at his parents’ house in Jena, Germany) in a fashion reminiscent of the one made in the opposite direction by so many Scots during the last couple of centuries. In slightly less historic fashion I took a plane of course, which made the voyage considerably less arduous. (1) Scotland is now the third country where I studied and lived. It certainly is the prettiest. I say that with all due honours to Michigan, but there are few places on earth that can beat the view of Ben Nevis through the clouds, the winding road through Glen Coe, or the crushing waves around the Orkney Islands. (2)
  

 In my time here I have visited some of the best archives and academic institutions in the English-speaking world, and – all friendly hyperbole aside – they have helped me immensely to achieve some of my research goals. The British Library and the National Archives in London are only a (admittedly lengthy) bus ride away, Edinburgh’s Scottish National Library and Record Office are close-by, and Glasgow University holds an impressive special collection of 18th century documents. (3) Once the research stage is done I am also planning to attend and present at least at two large conferences in London and Edinburgh.
 

   This year has been (and still is) a revelation for me in terms of sightseeing and history, archival research opportunities, the bustling life at one of the busiest and best universities of the United Kingdom, and – last but not least – Glasgow’s culture. I know it is an often-used buzzword, but coming here has truly allowed me to broaden my horizon and gain new perspectives. (4) The people here are lovely, the food great, the drink (well if you have heard of Scotch Whisky, then no more words are necessary), and the university is racking itself to accommodate its foreign students’ academic needs. If this is not enough to make you come and see for yourself, then I do not know what would convince you.


(1) Except for the flight from Germany to Glasgow for which I enlisted the help of a certain Irish low-budget airline. They did not give me water on the plane. I had to buy it. Imagine my outrage!

(2) I am exaggerating only a wee bit when I say that one can hardly throw a stone without hitting a historic site on the Orkneys, be it 5000 year old stone circles like the Ring of Brodgar, or the Viking settlements at the Brough of Birsay. Seriously, if you are still reading this and not busy booking your flight to Scotland, you might hate history.

(3) The University of Glasgow’s campus is also a dead ringer for another famous, yet sadly fictional campus for the education of young wizards.

(4)There is a rather simplifying phrase in German, “Reisen bildet,” which literally means “travelling educates.” Obvious, yes, but also true. Sometimes both can be right.

History Matters: The Skills I Learned

By Emily Lint (Class of 2015)

Today, like most days, I thought about my time spent in history classes at CMU. I am currently halfway through my first year teaching at West Senior High School in Traverse City, MI. I teach economics. When I accepted the job in Traverse City near my family at the school where I student-taught I was thrilled. At first I wasn’t sure how my history training would apply to teaching Economics, but not too far into my first planning day in a hot classroom in the late summer I realized I would have plenty of opportunity to use my history training teaching economics. I learned far more than content from my history professors at CMU, and the non-content skills kicked in right away.

CMU’s history department made me a better thinker. I learned that historical events do not exist in a vacuum. Context is everything. I learned how to think about topics in their place in the grand scheme of things.  My experience with examining different angles of historical topics translates into my teaching every single day. I try my best to make sure my students understand concepts with context and can see how to apply what they learn to their lives every single day.

CMU’s history department made me a more well-rounded person. In my American history classes especially, I learned the story isn’t as simple as I had been told. When you’re telling the story of people, there are always lots of perspectives to consider. Likewise, every kid has a slightly different perspective and different set of experiences they carry with them into my classroom. Remembering to consider other perspectives has helped me get to know the dozens of kids who pass in and out of my room every day. 

CMU’s history department made me a better public speaker. As my time in the program progressed the classes got smaller and smaller and the opportunities to sit back and listen became fewer and farther between. Eventually I was forced to speak up. Small class sizes, accessible professors, and great content helped me become more comfortable speaking out. In my own classroom, I try to emulate those professors who brought me out of my shell. Incorporating elements of “sticks and carrots” that got me to talk in college into my own classroom has allowed me to witness the blossoming of students who offer incredible insight to classroom discussions every day.

Finally, CMU’s history department made me a more confident person. Every experience tackling original research, working on projects with professors, attending conferences, and presenting my work made me feel more and more confident with my ability to take on the world. Standing in front of 33 teenagers for the first time was less intimidating because I had already stood in front of far more people than that. Teaching content was less scary because I knew how to tell a story (even if it turns out the story is about economics). So much of what I feel comfortable doing today comes from the confidence instilled in me throughout my time with CMU’s history department.

I am grateful for so much about my time with CMU’s history department. The life lessons and skills I picked up along the way are the gifts from the CMU history department that I am most thankful for.

 

Adventuring in England

Wesley at his ancestoral home

Wesley at his ancestoral home

By Wesley Reynolds

Over the past five months, I have enjoyed my time studying at Newcastle University in Newcastle, UK. I have had the amazing opportunity to see the four corners of England -- not just the cities but the picturesque landscapes of rural England. I have fallen in love with the countryside, and through it, England’s people, national characteristics, and habits have seeped into my consciousness. Newcastle has turned out to be the perfect location for learning about England. It’s close to everything.

I am staying with a family just south of Gateshead (Newcastle’s sister city) in a little stone farmhouse; the perfect inspiration for higher learning. Bus fare is more than worth the opportunity of being introduced to England through the eyes of a traditional English family with connections both to Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

My host family is distinctive from the mining Geordie vernacular culture of Newcastle, but, for me, this has been an excellent match. They have instructed me in the finer social arts of inculcating an English sense of reserve, eating and drinking properly, posture and gestures, and even have helped me develop a southern English accent. There is a wonderful church and seminary here with many linguists, scholars, and people with real servant hearts. I have an amazing new home for study!

In addition to course work, I have been able to focus intently on my research on London coffeehouses. I visited the first coffeehouse in Oxford, and spent two weeks at the British Library in London and the National Archives in Kew investigating various primary sources. Accessing archives in England is an experience all of its own! Maybe for another post.

Most of all, I am enjoying the time I have off campus and discovering the culture. I am immersing myself in "old England”: Northumberland castles and farmland, the Lake District, York, Durham, Oxford, London, rural East Anglia, and pastoral Somerset. The Lake District is the most dramatic and inspiring landscape I have seen. It is a land of rock, fern, and waterfall; wild and unkempt, but still close to the mortal heart, with gradual shifts in lighting and subtle textures. The daylight in England touches the green grass with a golden hue and the moderate temperatures and frequent rains impart a certain gentleness to the country. Some of my favorite moments have been among the sheep meadows of Hexham, Northumbria; jumping over stone stiles and running along country paths. Passing along the Great Western railway through Bath and Bristol into the more gentle southwestern hill country of Somerset, I had the opportunity to stay in my old family ancestral manor house of Cothelstone. The red stone and soil seems now a part of me, and I will never forget awaking to a far green country spread out below my stone-framed, latticed window. In the southeast, the land is flatter and more suited for tillage. I stood on the runway from which my grandfather lifted off with his B-17 bomber in the Second World War. Up to Scotland sometime this semester!

The Future of the Past

By Sandy Planisek

Technology and teaching history don’t often cohabit the same paragraph but twice this month they made a joint appearance in history news.

AHA’s Perspectives on History magazine introduced a series of online digital textbooks being created by West Point Academy that feature hyperlinks and moving battle maps.  These amazingly rich books, designed specifically to teach West Point students war strategic and tactical thinking, make it possible to actually follow troop movements during battle.  When accompanied with extracts from leader thinking, it is possible to follow the goals, implementation, and outcomes of classic historical battles.  University faculty can test drive one of these books by going to West Point History of Warfare

PBS Digital Studios has just released a new virtual-reality movie shot in 360-degrees about the famous Battle of Antietam.  Focusing on two brothers on opposing sides and dying simultaneously during the battle, this cutting-edge, short movie emphasizes the emotional strain of war.  The entire movie entitled My Brother’s Keeper is only 10 minutes long. (Watch it using Google Chrome or Firefox and use the 360-degree arrows at the top to look around.)

While cultural history may dominate in our classrooms, it is war history that can attract the funding for cutting edge technology.

Welcome

Historical studies… a good excuse to travel. St. Andrews, Scotland

Historical studies… a good excuse to travel. St. Andrews, Scotland

Welcome to this new space created by the Department of History at Central Michigan University. Okay, it’s technically a blog but we like the word 'space' because we hope this becomes a participatory community — a place where you can engage and contribute. 

[Re]collection is a completely new project of the history department and it will certainly evolve over time. Why the name [Re]collection? Mostly because Greg secretly abhors the word "blog," so we had to avoid that. But in all seriousness, we selected a name that evokes the many aspects of life as a historian and historical studies in general. Memory and recollection are an intimate part of studying the past, but even more than that the name evokes the act of collecting evidence and information (Re: collection). It is a space where current and former faculty, students, and friends of the department can gather and share the work that is important to us. We hope you will soon find it an indispensable place for department news and connections. 

[Re]collection will feature posts by faculty, grad students, undergrads, and alumni on a variety of topics. We will offer discussions about teaching, get a glimpse at research in progress, get the insider's view on studying abroad, and learn about what in the world people do with their history degrees. Part of what we plan to do is to pull back the curtain, so to speak, and show people what it is like to study, teach, or otherwise engage with our discipline.

To contribute, send a post that is 500-800 words to Jennifer at cmichhistoryblog@gmail.com. You can check out the 'Submissions' tab for more details. No need for a lot of academic jargon. Your post can tell a story, explain a teaching strategy, or seek to foster further discussion about a potential research avenue. Perhaps you want to share about an archival trip or explore public history. Maybe you are knowledgable about digital humanities or the ever-changing job market.  Be creative with your ideas. To build this community we need your contributions. 

Greg Smith, Jon Truitt, and Jennifer Vannette