Fragments of the Forgotten Past

By Chiara Ziletti

On a quiet and pleasant evening of last summer, I was very busy saving the world from my comfortable couch, when I unexpectedly stumbled across an astonishing example of historical negationism.[1] This event has since prompted in my mind a long sequence of reflections on important history-related topics, such as: historiography and revisionism, methodology, ethic, preservation issues, and pedagogy. 

SQ_3DS_DragonQuest7_enGB_image500w.jpg

To be true, it was not the present world that I was saving, but the one of “Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past.” Let me summarize the story. In the game, you – the hero! – and your party have the power to travel in the past in order to rescue several islands that have been cancelled from your present because of the evil Demon Lord’s schemes. After rescuing them in the past, the islands become available again in the present, so that you can visit them. (And isn’t the historian’s work a hero’s one? Indeed rescuing the past is part of our daily quest!)

In one of your travels to rescue the past of the game, you end up visiting the imaginary village of Vogograd. Here is where the specific example of historical negationism takes place. Long story short, in order to protect the village, the priest had done a pact with the monsters: he would lose his human form, thus looking like a monster from that moment onward, but as long as he lived, the monsters would have not attacked the village. However, unaware of this fact and frightened by the way the priest now looked like, the villagers want to lynch him. After you defeat the bad monsters and save both priest and village with the help of a young boy, the villagers realize what big mistake they were going to commit and decide to erect a monument for you and the priest at the center of the village so that “the terrible truth and their debt would never be forgotten.” All’s well that ends well, right? Not in this case. When you come back to the present and visit the village again, you find out that the monument has been altered. With the exception of one single family, the entire village now proudly believes that they were the ones that in the past saved the priest and the village from both the monsters and a group of bad adventurers (i.e. you and your party). How could that be? After visiting a little bit more the village, you finally find the original inscription of the monument with the help of the village’s children. And even though the adults of the village end up destroying the evidence and continue to deny the truth about the past, the children now know the truth and vow to do their best to spread it. Luckily, not all hope for the future is lost!

You can well imagine my surprise after all this. Indeed, after spending my entire day at the library on history books, the last thing I expected was to experience a firsthand history lesson in the videogame I was playing to relax. Both the historian and the gamer inside me were thrilled! The events of the game shared several similarities, for example, with those described in the 1990 Michael Verhoeven’s film The Nasty Girl and the book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, by Jan T. Gross, which was published for the first time in English in 2001.[2] By touching the crucial and hotly debated issues of collective memory and identity, both these works establish the need of a conscious and continuous thoughtful engagement with the past, even at the cost of having to grapple with uncomfortable historical truths. This is exactly what I experienced in the game!

Even though they are fictional, the Vogograd’s events in the game provide indeed a clear firsthand experience of historical negationism, which – I believe – is more immediate that any book or movie. This made me immediately wish that I could have the students play it before discussing about several aspects of the historians’ job. Indeed, a game-based learning experience with this story would actively prompt several reflections on, for example, what is the proper historical method; why forgery is inadmissible; what are the ethical issues that historians have to deal with; what is the relationship between history and heritage; why historical preservation matters, especially in relation to difficult places and social justice; and why do we need to actively and continuously engage with the past.[3]

The Vogograd experience reminded me once more of how learning can come from anywhere, even when one is not even remotely thinking about it. In the end, games are still one of the most effective ways in which we – sometimes unexpectedly – learn.


[1] With ‘historical negationism’ I intend here a specific kind of illegitimate historical revisionism in which the historical record is improperly distorted to deny specific events that took place in the past.

[2] Recently the case of Jedwabne has come to the international attention once more after Poland passed a highly controversial new “Holocaust Law.”

[3] There is an incredible number of readings that one could use in class in addition to the game-based experience. For example, when discussing about the historian’s job and method, Rampolla’s A Pocket Guide to Writing in History is an excellent primer, but I can also think of Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft. When talking about forgery, Valla’s On the Donation of Constantine comes to the mind first. On the relationship between history, heritage and fabrication, Lowenthal’s article “Fabricating Heritage” would be a great starter for discussion. Also, chapter 6 of Max Page’s Why Preservation Matters would be a good starting point for reflecting on why do we need to preserve and interpret difficult places. Of course, these are just few suggestions, and the list could go on and on almost endlessly. (And for my dear gamers out there, if you are a fan of RPG and haven’t played DQVII, I highly recommend it! Be ready for a 100+ hours gaming experience.)

Game, Set, and Match! Or: How the History Department Sets Us up (For Success)

By Marcel Haas

The life of a graduate student can be surprising at times. One minute you sit hunched over your desk reading yet another book for this or that colloquium, the next minute you are boarding a plane that is supposed to transport you to a far-away university where you will spend months slowly forgetting most of what you read in that book I mentioned earlier. In a graduate program that is as international as ours, we all end up flying somewhere far away eventually – with all the exciting, frightening, and downright lifechanging consequences. In today’s blog post we will explore a side of CMU’s history department that has been the subject of many whispered conversations: our program’s matchmaking capabilities.

It is easy to imagine how a prolonged stay in a foreign country can either make you dissolve into terrible homesickness, or make you fall in love – with the country, the city, its people, and (maybe, if you are very lucky) that special someone and his or her very special accent. Most of the department’s graduate students at least know someone who fell in love in such a way, and many of them can now look back to long and happy relationships, marriages, and even little ones, which all have grown out of the international exchange program. In whatever way the connection came into existence, it makes many of us perfectly happy “long-distance relationshippers,” mostly because all too quickly our time at the partner institution is over and, as much as we can joke about it, we can only rarely smuggle a full-sized human through customs.

In consequence, the department can from time to time look forward to an international wedding. The latest one of these took place on December 29 last year, when Scarlet Muñoz and Tom Garbe tied the knot in the stunning cathedral of Puebla, Mexico. Tom came to CMU from the University of Strathclyde for his year abroad in 2012. On his very first day in Mt Pleasant he met Scarlet, who had come to Michigan from CMU’s partner institution in Mexico, the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, and who would stay for the PhD. I will refrain from recounting their next five years together – many of us have been there for at least some of this time – but I will point out their amazing commitment to each other.*

With a date set and a place found, the happy couple went on to invite a colourful assortment of guests, starting of course with the two families hailing from Mexico and Scotland respectively, and including professors and friends from all over three continents. The ceremony was an astonishing mix of cultures and faiths, as the Catholic priest reprimanded the Anglicans in the audience for the role of Henry VIII, and as our former Vice Dean Tim Hall and his wife Sheree served as members of the assembled godparents. After emerging from the cathedral into the lively night of Puebla’s beautiful Zocalo – serenaded by the exotic sounds of the bagpipe (at least to the ears of the numerous local bystanders) – the wedding party made their way to the Bodegas del Molino, the historic 17th century residence of the Archbishop Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, where the celebration would last in historical style until the early hours of the morning.

The party continued as international as the ceremony had ended. While the Scottish half of the newly united family taught the traditional Ceilidh dance style to the bemused international audience, the Mexican half did not fall behind in showing their Salsa and Merengue skills. Like the happy couple, party and ceremony had truly become transnational, not in the least also thanks to the history department’s exchange program, which had made their union possible over five years ago. Flying back from Mexico (and back from warm weather into the icy misery of winter Michigan), I wondered who would be the next to fall prey to the graduate program’s matchmaking capabilities.

 

* That commitment ultimately made it possible for the couple’s friends and colleagues at CMU to enjoy a prolonged Christmas holiday in the sun of Mexico, which (at least to my mind) made the last five years definitely worth it.


Marcel Haas is a German doctoral student interested in the political and social relationships of European colonial powers and indigenous peoples in North America. He went to the University of Strathclyde in Scotland for his year abroad, and his heart has been lost there ever since.

“A Room with a View”

View of Florence. Photo Credit: Chris Hopcraft

View of Florence. Photo Credit: Chris Hopcraft

By Chris Hopcraft

12 March 2018

Italy. Italia. The land of the Romans. This is now my third excursion into ancient territory, perhaps built by the Gods themselves eons ago.

I remember my first trip here as if it were yesterday. I was only barely 22; only a child in the grand scheme of the world. I was one of the privileged few to participate in the “Grand Tour,” which was simply a life-changing experience brought to me by CMU’s own Department of History. My guides? Drs. Smith and Harsanyi, two esteemed professors from which I have learned so many valuable lessons about the world.

Back then, I was a little shy, one could say. At least, the rest of the trip participants who were to be my best friends over the next three weeks would have said so. Indeed, I had no ability to attend the “meet and greet” sessions offered prior to the trip; therefore, I met all of them for the first time on the day of departure.

It was midday in May, which is in my opinion the best month of the year based on temperature alone. It was, by many standards, perfect. I remember seeing a large group of people wearing CMU attire, and I began to walk up to them. They had to be my study abroad group. Now, as part of my shy behavior, I do find myself to be exceedingly sheepish in situations like this, that is, meeting groups of people for the first time. To this end, I decided to, perhaps somewhat awkwardly, ask my new friends if I could leave my bag with them while I explored the airport. While it earned me some curious stares, they happily obliged. My shyness sort of, but not entirely, went away right after this, as my new friends were immediately accepting of me. Not long after, we boarded a flight for Rome via Amsterdam.

Our first foray into the fast pace of Rome was to immediately be swept into a taxicab against the advice of our esteemed doctors of history, who had suggested the Leonardo Express as the best option to transit into the city centre. The driver, though smooth-talking and fast-moving, did not take advantage of us in any way; we were safely deposited in front of our hostel in short order with each of our wallets having fourteen less Euros in them.

Now, this was my first experience with international travel altogether, much less in a hostel. Between the noise, the somewhat unkempt demeanor of the place, and the curt behavior of the staff, I believe that I found myself being quite angrily critical of the lodging in the journal which we were to keep daily. How foolish I was! Nine years later, I can look back and laugh at my attitude back then. I didn't realize it at the time, but the lodging was adequate; probably I was only out of my comfort zone.

We began our Grand Tour the following morning, quite early in fact. I for one had not become accustomed to the time difference yet, but we had to push on. Our entire class was at stake. Fatigue became a thing of unimportance as we entered the Roman Forum and began our first lecture by Drs. Smith and Harsanyi. We had, ourselves, become a part of history at that moment, for only a small percentage of the world can ever say that they could see history come to life in the way that it did on that morning.

Indeed, I had never experienced anything quite like that before or since. It was simply breathtaking to have the ancient monuments looming overhead while our esteemed professors were placing them in the framework of our class. I am convinced that if all classes were presented in this manner, the entire graduating class of every year would be the Valedictorian.

As I write this now, I have the distinct pleasure of doing this same thing for my wife in just two days. How amazing it will be to take what I had learned in the Forum nearly nine years ago and provide for her the same experience that I had. For her, things will come alive as they did for me.

Back in my own Grand Tour of nine years ago, by the time in which we transited from the more chaotic atmosphere of Rome to Florence, I started feeling more at ease. It was here that I began to become great friends with my classmates.

Each lecture seemed to be more engaging than the last, as the settings for each meeting became even more grandiose and awe-inspiring. I remember quite clearly a time when we were to read passages from Forster’s A Room with a View and discuss them, and of course the breathtaking place at which we held our class discussion was perhaps the best view in the entire world at that moment: a location named Fiesole. Our professors, in choosing that exact place, had again succeeded in bringing history alive before our very eyes. It was the type of thing that CMU’s numerous study abroad programs were known for, and this was no exception.

At some point further down the road, our group had traveled to Nîmes, France, as a continuance of the Grand Tour. It was around this time that I had become a bit homesick, and quite weary of the differences between the United States and the European Union. “My God,” I thought. “How can people survive without free refills? Will these portion sizes ever increase? What of this cellular service? Surely, this is not the third world.” Follies and ignorant thoughts by a first-time traveler.

All of these years later, I suppose that things haven’t changed much. There are still no free refills, and the portions are the same. The cellular networks, however, are much improved and data-friendly these days. As one exits their comfort zone and makes an attempt to experience a culture different from their own, it becomes a gratifying experience in which one’s own cultural awareness is heightened and enriched. These differences, though jarring at first, ultimately became a testament to my own ability to adapt.

And in fact, as our tour drew to an end, I found myself coming to terms with the differences I had found between the United States and Europe. Perhaps the beauty of the sites had something to do with it. It might have been the real-life lectures and discussions we had participated in, on the steps of so many timeless monuments. I do know that without the opportunity to participate in this program with my beloved History department, I would have never had the chance to broaden my horizons in that way.

Since my fabled CMU Grand Tour of 2009, I have been back to Europe six separate times. I graduated from CMU with a Bachelor’s of Science in History and could not be prouder to say so. I got married, and I now have the pleasure of sharing this experience with my wife in many of the same ways that I did so many years ago, down to staying in the same area in Rome as we originally did.

Where would I be without my original Grand Tour? Perhaps many dollars richer, and certainly a less well-rounded off individual. It was an experience that could never be repeated or replaced; one of the heart that stays with a person for their entire life. As I pass this experience on to my wife, and later to my children, I have the distinct happiness of always remembering where I came from: from the hallowed corridors of Powers Hall, Central Michigan University. Together, we all made history.


Chris Hopcraft graduated from CMU with a Bachelor’s of Science in History in 2011. His interests include filmmaking, photography, and entrepreneurship. He owns his own sales business specializing in satellite phones and other satellite communications equipment. He is currently developing several film projects and in the process of creating his own media company.

Fragments of Women’s Lives

Catherine Flanagan of Connecticut Delivers Her State’s Suffrage Ratification to the State Department. 1920.  Library of Congress .

Catherine Flanagan of Connecticut Delivers Her State’s Suffrage Ratification to the State Department. 1920. Library of Congress.

By Tara McCarthy

I tell myself that my next project will have plenty of sources available—that I will choose something I know has sources—manuscript collections, but in the end, I doubt this is the case because I find myself drawn to study women who didn’t leave much behind. I am convinced that I will be able to find something anyway. We will see. But this women’s history month, I would like to reflect on the risks and rewards of studying obscure women. There is indeed something very rewarding about uncovering the everyday, the rank and file, and the forgotten.

I have just completed a book manuscript. I spent many years on it, but I still found it hard to let go of the research without being able to answer all my questions. I have to accept that many aspects of these women’s lives will never be known. In fact, even though I have created file folders for each of them, sometimes I can’t even find them in the census; sometimes, I can’t tell you very much at all. These limitations are true for many historical topics, but women are hard to trace, and working class or immigrant women left very little behind. Still, I confess that I enjoy the digging, and digitized newspaper databases have really opened up possibilities to find new leads—as long as women made news. Few did, but since I am looking for activists, I am occasionally lucky enough to find organizations, meetings, and speeches. Of course there are limitations to using newspapers too, but some of the women in my forthcoming book only came to life when I stumbled across them in the press. They left no other sources.

For example, Mary Donnelly worked for the socialite and suffragist Alva Belmont. She ran a suffrage lunchroom for Belmont in New York City where working women came for an affordable meal. She had previously been a matron at the Queens County jail where she was fired (I don’t know why), but later she accused the jail of abusing female prisoners. There is a lot more to this outspoken woman’s story, but I doubt I will ever find it. Another Catholic suffragist, Sara McPike, led the St. Catherine’s Welfare Society and became an active supporter of the Democratic Party. She believed that the votes of Catholic women could help protect against radicalism, revolution, and changing gender roles. Frances Perkins (who served as Secretary of Labor under FDR—the first woman to hold a cabinet position) described McPike as a “troublemaker” who accused those she disagreed with of being communists, but she also acknowledged the importance of Catholic women’s support for the suffrage movement. Kate Hogan was a lawyer and a teacher, who led a New York’s teacher organization in the fight for an equal pay law in the early 20th century, but she died of pneumonia in her first year. I hope to return to her story, but fear that I will not find much.

These are just a few of the activists that I have been trying to trace. They were all Irish American; they appear rarely (or not at all) in current scholarship, and their stories are incomplete. They could never be the subject of a biography or even an article, but collectively their stories do show a rich history of political organization and participation by women who were asking for equal rights and equal pay. They made significant contributions to women’s history, at least on the local and state level. I began this project to show that Irish American women sought to shape their communities through political activism, and I found more women than I expected, even if what remains of some of their lives is only fragments.


Tara McCarthy is an Associate Professor of History at Central Michigan University and the author of Respectability and Reform: Irish American Women’s Activism, 1880-1920, which is coming out this month from Syracuse University Press.

A Passion for the Gothic

the beautiful drawing of the 15th century misericord from the Norwich Cathedral on the cover of the book was done by Robert's daughter Leah.

the beautiful drawing of the 15th century misericord from the Norwich Cathedral on the cover of the book was done by Robert's daughter Leah.

By Robert A. Faleer

For more than twenty years, I have been very actively involved in extensive research on structural and decorative medieval church woodwork in the British Isles, including iconographic aspects of the carved imagery. I recently fulfilled an invitation to make a presentation to Dr. Brittany Fremion’s HST 120 course to discuss several aspects of that research. I have made similar guest presentations for a number of other courses on campus in the Department of History as well as other academic disciplines. What made the presentation for Dr. Fremion’s class unique was her request that I also include why I have ultimately focused my research on ecclesiastical woodwork, and how I initially became interested in medieval church architecture. This offered me an interesting opportunity to explore, and ultimately explain how and why I developed such a passion for this line of research.

I have been intensely interested in the ecclesiastical architecture from a very early age, and particularly in churches built in the Gothic style. As I was growing up on the east side of Detroit, I attended Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church at the edge of the historic Indian Village neighborhood, a place of worship built in 1925 in the English Gothic Revival style. One of the great joys of my childhood in that church was singing as a member of the youth choir in the large balcony at the rear of the sanctuary nave every third Sunday of the month. This wonderful vantage point allowed me to view the entire magnificent vista of the church, including the enormous soaring pipes of the Skinner organ, and the great oak-encased pulpit and choir loft, all surmounted by the great limestone Gothic archway framing the entire front chancel of the church.

As beautiful as the chancel of the church was to behold, what truly fascinated me were the massive timber trusses of the hammer beam roof. Each corbel stop of the beam-ends features a carved crowned figure representing one of the Apostles who holds out in front of him a shield on which is emblazoned the symbols of his faith and martyrdom—the heavenly crossed keys of St. Peter, the saltire cross of St. Andrew, stones and flaying knife showing St. Bartholomew’s manner of death, etc. Of particular interest to me, though, was the wooden apostolic figure that bore a shield with no symbol, only a dark blank square. This was the figure of Judas Iscariot. My young eye frequently wandered to that betrayer of Christ—why was Judas, such a profane Scriptural figure, included among the most holy patriarchs of the Faith? That question and the mystery surrounding it always remained in the back of my mind, waiting for an eventual answer many decades later.*

As a child and adolescent, Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church served as just one of the inspirations for the development of my great interest in medieval churches. Early in my life, I had also developed deep and driving passion for “things British,” which spurred my desire not only to visit the UK, but also to live there for a time if possible. In my junior year as an undergraduate at Central Michigan University, I was afforded just such an opportunity. I successfully applied to perform half of my student teaching as part of CMU’s very first foreign student teaching program, which had been arranged with many K-12 equivalent schools in the southern English cities of Winchester and Southampton. I was assigned to teach English Literature and History in a boy’s grammar school, Peter Symonds College, in Winchester.

During the three months in early 1974 in which I lived and taught in that very medieval city, I went nearly every weekday to Winchester Cathedral after school to enjoy the quiet and unwind from teaching. I eventually became acquainted with many of the cathedral staff members, as well as some of the volunteer guides, all of whom taught me a great deal about the structures and the symbolic aspects of that great church. The single event, though, that acted as the true catalyst for my interest in medieval church woodwork was the day that one of the guides got permission to allow me into the choir stalls, where she showed me the early 13th century carved oak misericord seats that had been used for centuries by clerics and choristers. Misericord seats were cleverly designed to fold up and down like theater seats, the difference being that when the misericord seat is folded up, there is a projecting corbel ledge that allowed the clerics to rest their posteriors while mainly standing through the eight daily devotional services prescribed by the monastic Rule of St. Benedict. In other words, the upturned misericord seat allowed the clerics to stand in reverence, while simultaneously putting them at ease through those long daily services!

My personal “discovery” of misericord seats, and the elaborately carved figures that are invariably found underneath their corbel ledges, is what ultimately drove my interest—my passion—for medieval church woodwork. Upon reflection, it was a long-simmering passion ignited quite by chance by a single choir stall visit. Since then, I have traveled to many medieval cathedrals, priories, abbeys, collegiate, and parish churches in England, Wales, and Scotland, spending much time examining and photographing their structural and decorative woodwork. My proudest accomplishment resulting from my research has been the publication of my reference book, Church Woodwork in the British Isles, 1100-1535: An Annotated Bibliography (2009), published under the Scarecrow Press imprint by Rowman and Littlefield.

 

*During my years of research, which has included extensive explorations of carved symbolism and iconography, I came to realize that the church buildings were constructed as a representation of both the spiritual and the temporal world—God’s entire universe, if you will. To the medieval mind, holy imagery, which has always been predominant in medieval churches, could not exist without the context of the profane imagery also sharing these spaces. The representation of evil, of the pagan, and even of the obscene were regularly incorporated into the physical fabric of each church in order to serve as a spiritual warning and a potent reminder to actively seek the holy, and by doing so, avoid eternal damnation.


Robert Faleer is faculty reference librarian in the CMU Libraries, where he has served as an academic librarian for 39 years. In addition to his book mentioned above, he has written several peer reviewed articles on various topics, and he has presented scholarly papers on this specific subject at the annual meetings of several scholarly conferences, including the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, and the International Medieval Congress.

"That's Me"

By Jordan X. Evans

As Black History Month comes to an end, and the hype around the Black Panther film is in full swing, the conversation about representation must reemerge. In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was a landmark case for the United States in which the Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. During the trial, Doctors Kenneth and Mamie Clark showcased their series of experiments known as the "doll tests." Essentially the experiments highlighted how black and white children, as young as three years old, described black dolls with bad qualities and white dolls with good qualities. The Clark's concluded that "prejudice, discrimination, and segregation" created a feeling of inferiority, which harmed African American children's sense of worth and their self-esteem. Recently the discussion about representation in media has echoed many of the same discussions that occurred 60 years ago, and it partially explains why there is such fervor around the latest Marvel film.

The duality of American history is one of ideals that speak of freedom and equality for all, while simultaneously barring people of color and women from participating in the democratic process. Simply put, America has a problem with racism and exploitation, which has been so profitable that it has allowed discrimination, sexism, racism, and bigotry to continue into the 21st century. This becomes evident if we examine how the media have historically been representing black people. The origins of modern American cinematography, in fact, owe dues to Birth of a Nation (1915) which was a film that showed black people as fried chicken eating, no shoe wearing, animalistic beings that just wanted to have sex with white women.

Since Birth of a Nation, films have continued using racist tropes to garner profits financially while subconsciously teaching people how to view others based on those images. Consider the fact that in 89 years the Academy Award's – commonly referred to as the Oscars – has only given five best actor or actress awards to African Americans. Also, it is worth noting that the first award given to an African American was for "best actress in a supporting role" to Hattie McDaniel for her role as a subservient Mammy in 1939. The films that receive the most attention and awards are led by white people, and the few times that black people have won the prestigious best actor or actress awards, they have had to play a bad cop, a megalomaniac dictator, a handy fieldsman, a troubled piano player, and a struggling mother. When viewed together as a whole, it is clear that America views African Americans as troubled people who are better playing the role of an antagonist, a damaged person, or the help.

While African Americans have historically been portrayed as 'less than,' white Americans can see themselves as a savior of a magical world in Harry Potter, the heir to the throne of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings, a technological genius in Iron Man, and Earth's adopted superhero in Superman. This has perpetuated the negative perceptions that were uncovered in the Clark's research. The tests have, in fact, been recreated numerous times since the 1940s, and the results are still alarming, children still view black as bad and white as good.

For the first time in 2018 Black America gets to share in the same unbridled happiness as every other child who looked at Harry Potter or Hermione Granger and could say, "They look like me." Finally a story about black people who remain unbothered by colonialism, it's violent tendencies, and one that is purely centered on black people. Black children like my cousins Israel, Azanna, Zion, and Zuri will grow up being able to dress as superheroes who look like them. Azanna and Zuri will be able to see black girl magic at its finest in someone like Shuri, the smartest person in the Marvel universe. Zion and Israel will see themselves as kings and not monsters that want to devour white women. For this one moment during Black History Month, people like me were able to look forward to the future with a smile and not have to be reminded of a history that has devalued our existence. For that I have to say thank you to the cast and directors of the Black Panther, who allowed a historian to imagine a future where the next generation of historians will write of the triumphs of everyday black superheroes.

Photo Credit:  Tom Beland ,  That's Me .

Photo Credit: Tom Beland, That's Me.


Jordan X. Evans is a scholarly activist that attends Central Michigan University. Currently he is studying abroad at the University of Bochum in Germany. He studies American History as a Masters Student, with a focus on African American history in the 20th Century. Currently Jordan is in the process of writing a thesis that will explore the rhetoric, ideologies, and history of the X-Men comics. He can be followed on Twitter @The_Jordan_X.

A Call for Historians to Confront the Issue of Misappropriation

Schreck, V.G, photographer.  Melody , ca. 1902. Photograph. Retrieved from the  Library of Congress .

Schreck, V.G, photographer. Melody, ca. 1902. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

By Ryan Warriner

Happy African American History Month! February is a time for all of us to recognize and celebrate the culture and contributions of African Americans. It is my belief that African American History Month is especially important for historians. We dedicate our lives to the study of the past and how it connects to the present, but so often even today, African Americans are left out of the narrative. So, I would like to take this opportunity during African American History Month to discuss the issue of cultural misappropriation.

This past fall, I had the opportunity to complete my capstone research project with the history department, and my paper – Misappropriation of African Culture in the United States: the Banjo – looks at the issue of how society misappropriates African Culture, using the banjo as a case study.

For the purposes of my paper and for this post, I will define cultural misappropriation as the taking, by the dominant cultural group, of aspects, traditions, or artifacts, of a cultural minority without understanding, appreciating, or respecting the minority’s culture. This is my own definition based both on current definitions and my own research that I conducted for the paper.

The reaction that I receive when telling people about this paper is often of amused surprise. Amused because people usually view the banjo as somewhat of a comical instrument, and surprise because very few people, myself included prior to this project, know that the banjo did in fact originate in Africa. It came to the US in the minds and memories of slaves that were ripped from their homes and families by slave traders and brought to the Americas.

We do not think of the banjo as an African instrument because we associate it with the white American South and rural Country music.  And so, the question that I really tried to answer in my paper was “How did we get here?” How did the banjo go from its African Origins to its association with white people?

In my paper, I identify four eras in the misappropriation of the banjo that map the progression of the instrument from its African roots to the banjo as a white instrument.

The first era spans from the 1600s until approximately the mid-1800s. This is the era of the banjo as a source of recreation and community for African American slaves. During the period of the Transatlantic Slave trade, it was quite common for African Americans to be forced by slave owners to work on a plantation where no or very few people spoke the same language. This is due to the vast number of languages and dialects in Africa. However, one thing that was much more common across the African Continent was musical tradition. Musical instruments, like the banjo, and musical styles were more widely shared than spoken language. Therefore, this is how many African American slaves fostered a sense of community amongst themselves. It was a slight reprieve from the horrid living conditions and back-breaking labor.

The second era spans from the early 1800s into the early 1900s. This is the era of the Banjo as a source of freedom and income for African Americans. As more and more states began to outlaw slavery, many African American slaves ran to the north in order to obtain their freedom. However, due to entrenched and pervading racism, many still struggled to find work, and so many turned to performing as a way to make a living. For example, in his account Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northrup recounts that he used the violin to make money with the intention of buying his freedom. Much in the same way, other African Americans used the banjo. During the time of the Fugitive Slave Acts, there were many ads posted that offered descriptions of how to identify runaways, and very often included in the description was a line about how the man or woman played the banjo.

The third era spans from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. This is the era where the banjo takes on a much different meaning as a source of oppression for the African American Community. It is in this era where racist blackface minstrel shows began to gain in popularity across the country. These “comedic” musical shows made African Americans the punchline. Center stage in the caricaturization of African Americans was the banjo. This is when many in African American communities began to reject the instrument, and for good reason.

The fourth and final era spans from the early 1900s to the present. This is the era where the banjo is considered to be a symbol of the white rural south, country music, and the region of Appalachia. While minstrel shows eventually declined in popularity, the banjo did not. Many white Americans who played the banjo in minstrel shows while in blackface took to the instrument outside of that setting. This is the beginning of how we understand the banjo today.

The issue at hand is not that white Americans play the banjo, the issue stems from the misappropriation. Cultural misappropriation creates forgotten and unknown histories, and specifically the cultural misappropriation of African traditions serves to diminish the role that African Americans played in the historical narrative of the United States.

We historians have such a unique and exciting opportunity to discover these forgotten and unknown histories. These are places where we can add something significant to the historical narrative. Not only is that an exciting prospect, and something many of us desire, but I also believe that it is part of our obligation as historians to combat misappropriation. African American History Month should serve as a reminder that there is still much to be studied and uncovered. February should function as the catalyst, but the work should extend beyond the confines of these twenty-eight days.


Ryan Warriner is a senior at CMU studying Secondary Education with a double major in History and Social Studies with a concentration in Political Science. In addition to his studies, Ryan is a Resident Assistant in Thorpe Hall, the Presenters chair for the Teach to Reach Conference, and winner of the 2018 Robert Newby Award for Diversity Efforts. Ryan’s paper “Misappropriation of African Culture in the United States: the Banjo” will be presented at the 2018 Student Research and Creative Endeavors Exhibition (SRCEE) on April 11th from 1-4pm in Finch Fieldhouse. If you have additional questions regarding this post or would simply like to know more about the cultural misappropriation of the banjo, Ryan can be emailed at warri1rt[at]cmich.edu

To Preserve and Protect: Fostering Public Awareness in Shared History

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 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 easily 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).