Skills that Pay the Bills

Some light desk reading

Some light desk reading

Impacting the 9-5 with a History Degree

By Carol Ossenheimer

How anticlimactic life felt when my dream job was not handed to me the day after receiving my diploma (thanks Obama). With student loans looming, the best option for me at the time was to apply my History undergrad where it could really make an impact (i.e. whatever place would hire me). Trading in my late nights researching for days at a desk job did not mean I had to discard everything my history courses taught me. A constant interest for improvement, knack for organizing vast amounts of information, and a global mindset are unique abilities crafted as a history undergraduate and that when applied to any job, can make any history student a valuable member to whatever career path they take.  

When sharing our research and discussing readings in our history courses, we are encouraged to push and challenge the views of our classmates. This was a way for us to find gaps in each other’s arguments and strengthen one another’s critical thinking skills. From this practice, we develop a strong drive for improvement and a curiosity about how the world works. An office can be filled with individuals that are all too comfortable in accepting an outdated process as, “It’s the way we’ve always done it.” I was given that answer at my current job when I asked why everyone was throwing paper into the garbage cans. Shortly after, I talked to my supervisor and now every department in our building has a recycling bin. A small victory, but this is one of many examples where the hunger of a history major to look for new ways of thinking will drive you to seek solutions to problems others may have given up on or have not thought of. You may not always find ultimate solutions to every problem you encounter (welcome to Adulthood), but it is the drive to remain curious and seek improvement that moves your career forward, and may even encourage your colleagues to seek progress in their own work.

No history professor would accept a research paper without detailed evidence and a fine-tuned bibliographic citation. Such expectations craft history majors into tenacious beings when supporting our own arguments. We should take pride in our prowess to traverse fidgety microfilms, fading manuscripts, long-forgotten languages, and any other primary source we can decipher to support our findings. Gratefully I’m no longer required to use Chicago style citation to support my work, but the skill of organizing and interpreting vast amounts of detailed information can have the entire office see you as both a reliable and independent worker.  

 Co-workers are initially spellbound by the amount of emails I’ve kept and archived in my many digital folders, but when they require information from a specific email sent out six months ago, or that PDF the customer sent us last year, who do they seek for assistance? The History Major. Time is money in the 9-5 and being able to supply precise information in a quick manner makes you a reliable wealth of knowledge. Many of your coworkers can feel overwhelmed and bogged down by the amount of information that passes through shared emails, PDFs, Excels, and databases. Staying on top of the extensive amount of information will not only keep you organized and efficient, but make you someone that can work independently with minimal supervision, another company time saver.

A third skill we learn as history majors is the ability to see our lives on a global scale. One example of this would be understanding that other countries your company might work with have different cultures and holidays than we do in the States. This might sound like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised the shock expressions I receive from co-workers when I tell them our Thailand supplier is off for a week in the springtime when we in the States, are not.

Being aware of and respecting the holidays of my non-US suppliers requires me to plan ahead. Should a customer request an emergency order when my Thailand constituents are out of the office, I can support our customer’s needs without having to involve Thailand during their time-off. In return, my non-US suppliers know that my company is closed during the Christmas holidays and plan their needs around our downtime. Having a global mindset and being able to take a step back from ourselves and see how you fit in the world allows success in your work and relationships with those from a different culture than your own.  

While we may not always find ourselves in a job directly related to our field of study, it does not mean that we must abandon all our scholarly skills. There are multiple abilities aside from these three that I have developed from my time behind the tomes and while I do miss the academic ambiance this time of the year, I do enjoy reading a biography these days without needing to write a book review after.

The author out exploring

The author out exploring


Carol is pleasingly employed in the automotive industry as her company’s top Purchasing Planner and Import/Export Consultant. When she’s not on the 9-5 grind or brushing up on her reading, she’s baking, hiking, and saving up for her next travel adventure.

We’re Listening

By Dr. Brittany Fremion

In fall of 1973, as the leaves began to take on brilliant hues that defied name, a dairy farmer in southwestern Michigan noticed something wrong with his herd. Milk production plummeted and his heifers exhibited strange health problems, such as watery eyes, patchy skin, and loss of appetite. They aborted calves and those that survived would not eat. Over the course of nine months, with much unease and persistence, the farmer, Rick Halbert, discovered the cause of his herd’s ailments: a fire retardant, polybrominated biphenyl (PBB), had accidentally been added to his livestock feed at a local coop instead of a nutritive supplement. But it was not just Halbert’s animals that had fallen ill. Other farmers across the state noticed similar problems with their herds, as well as other animalsswine, sheep, chickens, rabbits, horses, quail, ducks, and geese.[1] Farm families—men, women, and children—started to notice changes in their health, too. Many of their concerns and observations were dismissed by peers or public officials, even as information about the tragedy unfolded. A community member recalled, “they were hurting. And nobody listened to them.”[2]

What Halbert discovered was “a massive exposure,”[3] one of the largest chemical contaminations in U.S. history. PBB had chemically entered the human food chain via farm products—eggs, pork, poultry, beef, and dairy goods—exposing millions of people. When the company that manufactured PBB, Velsicol Chemical (formerly Michigan Chemical), closed its St. Louis facility doors in 1978, it left behind a heavily contaminated community.[4] The Michigan Department of Public Health (now Michigan Department of Health and Human Services) initiated research into acute health effects in 1974 and established a long-term study in 1976 with a consortium of federal agencies. Research into the long-term health effects of PBB exposure is ongoing.[5] Yet, few Americans know about the Michigan PBB contamination or its legacy.

The Michigan PBB Oral History Project documents the history of the PBB mix-up through a series of audio-recorded interviews with community members—farmers, chemical workers, consumers, public officials, researchers, and activists. Each interview is transcribed and audited. Then, a copy of the audio file and transcript are returned to each participant for feedback and clarification. Once interviewing concludes, the oral histories will be donated to the Museum of Cultural and Natural History at CMU and will be preserved in a special research collection made available to community members, researchers, and educators, with the hope that they will be used for educational purposes. These oral histories establish an important and permanent community presence in the historical record. The interviews are emotional in a way that documentary evidence is not—or cannot be. Oral histories are personal. And they are powerful.

Much of this work would not be possible without the support of CMU students, whose involvement also makes this project special. From April 2018 to the present, six undergraduate and five graduate students from history, cultural resource management, and education programs have spent nearly 2,000 hours conducting, transcribing, and auditing interviews, attending community events, and preserving donated personal papers. To date, we have conducted more than 40 interviews with 50 individuals, amounting to almost 60 hours of audio recordings. The students—Lea, Nikki, Candy, Carolyn, Tom, CJ, Emily, Anna, Elizabeth, Luke, and Logan—learned about oral history theory, methods, and ethics in their time working on the project. They also learned a great deal about the ways PBB contamination changed individual lives, communities, industry, and research, and thought deeply about why this history matters.

For instance, Candy, a graduate student in history, observed that “these stories stick with you.” She was moved to tears in a panel presentation this spring, wherein she shared insights from interviews with farm family members. Anna, an education major, wrote, “history, to me, is no longer just about places and ideas you can read about in a book, but something much more personal.” Logan and Elizabeth, education majors, have asked how the history of the PBB mix-up can be made part of Michigan’s educational standards and plan to bring their experiences from the project into their own classrooms.

These students have shared in the pain and sorrow expressed by many community members, as well as celebrated moments of joy and triumph. They have heard the voices of those who, for a long time, felt unheard. Most importantly, they have been good stewards of the past, which seems ever present, as the past is never in the past, especially when chemicals are involved. Their work matters. And the stories they have helped to preserve will make in indelible mark on future listeners. That is pretty incredible.

Many thanks to the community members who have graciously shared their time and memories, whose stories have forever changed us, and to those whose stories we have yet to document.  

We’re listening.

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The Michigan PBB Oral History Project is a collaborative endeavor inspired by community members and researchers at Emory University, which maintains The Michigan PBB Registry, the long-term health study. The oral history project is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Institutes of Health, with additional support provided by the Museum of Cultural and Natural History, Department of History, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Clarke Historical Library, and Office of Research and Graduate Studies at CMU, as well as research partners at Emory University and the University of Michigan.

[1] Michigan Department of Agriculture, “PBB Contamination Status Report,” June 16, 1975, in Dr. Alpha Clark Papers, Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University (accessible by request).

[2] Patrick Muldoon interviewed by Brittany Fremion in Grand Rapids, Michigan, October 10, 2018 for the Michigan PBB Oral History Project.

[3] Frederic and Sandra Halbert, Bitter Harvest: The Investigation of the PBB Contamination: A Personal Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), p. 158.

[4] After closing the St. Louis, Michigan, plant in 1978, Velsicol estimates it paid the state $38.5 million to clean-up. The total cost to date is $480 million and includes Pine River sediment remediation, a radioactive site, and three Superfund sites. The Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force formed in 1998 and mobilized community members to oversee EPA clean-up efforts. It is one of the most successful EPA-designated Community Advisory Groups (CAG) in the country. For more information, visit their website: http://www.pinerivercag.org

[5] According to recent studies, 6 out of 10 Michiganders still have elevated levels of PBB in their bodies (higher than 95% of the U.S. population). For more information about findings and research, visit the Michigan PBB Registry: http://pbbregistry.emory.edu


Brittany Fremion is an environmental and oral historian at CMU. She is the project director for the Michigan PBB Oral History Project, a proud member of the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force, and new board member for the Michigan Oral History Association.

A Family Affair

Michigan’s Mexican-American Migrants

By Ethan Veenhuis

On 12 June 1993, the Frank O. Barrera Chapter of the American G.I. Forum held a ceremony in Flint, Michigan, to honor the Mexican American veterans of the Second World War who hailed from Genesee County. Private First Class Epifanio V. Barajas was one of the honorees that night. Barajas, a member of F Company, 47th Infantry, 9th Division of the U.S. Army during the war, was amongst the most highly decorated Latinx veterans from the state of Michigan. During his time in the army, he saw action in the North African theater, Germany, and France in the initial D-Day invasion force that landed on Omaha Beach. For his service the Army awarded him (among other medals), two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star, and special recognition for his skill as a sharpshooter.

Born in San Antonio, Texas in 1921, Barajas came to Michigan with his family sometime before the war began. The Barajas family worked as migrant farm labor in Texas picking cotton and other agricultural products whenever and wherever they could before following a wave of workers north to the upper Midwest and Michigan. According to the historian Steven Rosales, by the mid-1920s, agricultural workers of Mexican descent made up between “75-90%” of the work force in the sugar beet fields of Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, and, of course, Michigan. These workers came to the region as migrant farm labor. Recruited in Texas these workers were promised free travel, high wages, and in some cases even a house to live in. Many of these promises fell through but were effective nonetheless as workers came by the thousands every year. They settled across Michigan especially in the cities of Detroit, Pontiac, Flint, and Saginaw, where they found work harvesting sugar beets, cucumbers, apples, and cherries. When the United States entered the Second World War, many of these migrant farmers enlisted in the armed forces and served their country proudly.

After the war Barajas returned to Flint, and like so many others in Michigan’s Mexican-American community, took a job working for General Motors, raised a family, and found the better life that his parents had hoped for when they arrived in the early 1920s. Epifanio Barajas’ story is one small part of a much larger tale that began in Central Texas and found its conclusion right here in mid-Michigan. A story shared by thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans who came to the upper Midwest as migrant farm labor seeking the “American Dream” for their families, and wound up contributing significantly to their country in the process. This larger story is the focus of my current research and I plan to build and expand on what Steven Rosales began in his fantastic book Soldados Razos At War: Chicano Politics, Identity, and Masculinity in the U.S. Military from World War II to Vietnam.

Despite pioneering work on migration to Michigan, Rosales’ work on Mexican and Mexican American migration to Michigan is largely limited to the colonia in Saginaw and used in a discussion of life for these workers that lead up to their participation in the Second World War. My research goal and aspirations are to expand the scope of the project and include the rest of the significant Mexican colonias in the state. Furthermore, examine what life was like for these workers and their families leading up to, during, and in the immediate aftermath of the war. By utilizing the lenses of labor, gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, immigration, migration, and cultural expression I hope to offer a more complete picture of our state’s often overlooked and erased Mexican American community during this significant period. It is incredibly important that we continually strive to revisit the moments in our history where entire groups of people have been relegated to the margins and create works that center their perspectives and magnify their voices. Since I quite literally would not be here without my abuelo, Private First Class Epifanio Barajas, telling his story and the stories of thousands of others like him is the very least I can do as a grandson and as a historian.


Ethan Veenhuis is a CMU History Masters Alumnus who graduated in December 2018. Ethan is a dog-dad from Flint, Michigan. His current research expands upon Rosales’ pioneering work, especially the Mexican-American story in Michigan. Further research interests are in Chicano History from the Second World War through the Civil Rights Movement. For more information or to contact him: veenh1ed@icmich.edu

The Japanese Emperor Abdicates

Emperor Akihito walks during a ritual called Taiirei Tojitsu Kashikodokoro Omae no Gi, a ceremony for the emperor to report the abdication ceremony to the goddess Amaterasu, at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan, on April 30, 2019.

By Dr. Jennifer Liu

Rituals filled the day of the abdication of Japan’s Emperor Akihito on April 30, 2019. According to Japanese mythology, the 2,600-year imperial line begins with the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu. At dawn, the 85-year-old Akihito told the goddess he would be abdicating. Later, at the abdication ceremony (which lasted just over 10 minutes), he symbolically ended his reign by returning the “three sacred treasures” (a sword, jewels, and seals) that symbolize the throne. A crowd of nearly 300 politicians, Supreme Court judges, and their spouses attended. The following morning, Naruhito – the new emperor and Akihito’s elder son – returned to the same room at the palace to receive the regalia. Akihito’s Heisei (“achieving peace”) reign ended and Naruhito became the 126th emperor, beginning the Reiwa (“beautiful harmony”) era. Japan’s annual spring holiday, the “Golden Week break,” was extended to ten days to mark the occasion.

The enormously popular Akihito is the first emperor to abdicate in 200 years. The last Japanese monarch to do so was Kokaku in 1817. In August 2016, Akihito, citing concerns about his age and declining health, expressed his wish to abdicate while he was still well and capable. Having been treated for prostate cancer in 2003 and undergoing heart surgery in 2012, he sought understanding in a message to his people and immediately won overwhelming public support and sympathy, paving the way for the government’s approval. With Japan’s Imperial House Law lacking a provision on abdication by a reigning emperor and virtually allowing only posthumous succession, the government enacted a one-time law to allow Akihito’s abdication in 2017.

Akihito, joined by Empress Michiko and members of the royal family, speaks during his abdication ceremony on April 30.

Japan has the world’s oldest continuing hereditary monarchy. Legend dates it to about 660 BCE. Formerly the emperors were seen as living gods, but Hirohito – Akihito’s father – publicly renounced his divinity as part of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. Akihito became the first emperor who was a constitutionally defined symbol with no political power when he succeeded in 1989.

Nevertheless, Akihito was pivotal in helping repair Japan’s postwar reputation. He sought to make amends by traveling throughout Asia to apologize for his country’s wartime atrocities and acted as Japan’s chief consoler during times of disaster including the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that left approximately 20,000 people dead or missing. Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, visited survivors at shelters and were generally heralded by the public for their compassion in helping the battered nation recover.

The succession leaves only three heirs to the Chrysanthemum Throne: Akihito’s younger brother, Prince Hitachi; Naruhito’s younger brother, Akishino; and Prince Hisahito, Akishino’s only son. Japan’s current law forbids women from inheriting the throne. Should more female family members relinquish their royal status upon marriage to a commoner, as stipulated by law, it will be more difficult for the imperial family to carry out official activities. In retirement, Akihito no longer performs official duties. Known by the title joko (emperor emeritus), he and Michiko have moved into Togu Palace, a smaller royal residence in Tokyo.

Naruhito is taking the throne at a time when Japan faces numerous challenges, including plummeting birthrates and a declining, aging population. The country is making efforts to open itself to foreign workers, change Japan’s brutal, entrenched work culture, and reduce gender inequality. The emperor has no power to address any of these issues directly, but he can set an important tone. Analysts have been scrutinizing Naruhito’s previous public statements for hints of what his reign might look like. He has indicated that he believes the monarchy should adjust to modernity and is likely to continue emphasizing pacifism and war remembrance as well as continuing his father’s efforts to humanize the throne.

Naruhito delivers his first speech after his ascension to the throne on May 1.


Dr. Jennifer Liu Demas is a Professor of History at Central Michigan University. Dr. Liu specializes in the political and social history of twentieth-century China, particularly education, youth culture, student protest, and ethnic identity. Her current project, Indoctrinating the Youth, examines the Nationalist (Guomindang) government’s attempts to inculcate political loyalty through youth groups, compulsory military training, and secondary school curriculum from 1930–1960. For more information and to contact her please visit her faculty page.

Parliamentary history in the Pyrenees

71st ICHRPI conference, Andorra, July 2019

By Martin O’Donoghue

2019 marks the 600th anniversary of the convocation of the Consell de la Terra, the first parliamentary assembly in Andorra – a picturesque country of 78,000 inhabitants nestled in the Pyrenees mountain range straddling Spain and France. A co-principality which boasts both the Bishop of Urgell and the President of France as its two princes, it has a rich parliamentary history with the Consell de la Terra first given privilege in 1419.

It was thus fitting that the International Commission for the History of Representative Parliaments and Institutions came to this idyllic location for its 71st conference. Founded in 1936, the Commission is dedicated to the dissemination and publication of research on the history of representative and parliamentary institutions. As a global scholarly body, its conferences feature papers delivered in English, French, and German or in the language of the country where the conference is held.

This year’s conference was hosted by the Consell General, Andorra’s parliament, and discussions reflected key themes including the evolution of representative assemblies to democratic parliaments, parliaments of small states/microstates, forms of representation, and the internal organization of representative assemblies. Over three days, the conference featured papers from eighteen countries in Europe, Asia, and North America with a special reception hosted by the parliament and a cultural tour of sites of historical and architectural interest. Happily, in an academic environment of often ever-increasing fees, the conference was free to attend, and the schedule was excellently organised with the reception offered by the parliament allowing delegates the chance to visit the old parliament building and meet some current Andorran politicians.

The Commission’s events are a great opportunity to highlight the opportunities offered by international conferences where particular themes and phenomena explored in a local or national context can be compared and interpreted in the context of emerging research on parliaments and assemblies. The Andorran setting provided an ideal environment for discussion of micro-states and smaller states and the evolution of their legislatures. The numerous anniversaries marked in 2019 (not least those of states emerging after the First World War) provided intriguing departure points for detailed analyses of a range of case studies. Other noteworthy themes emerged from discussions such as the influence of certain constitutional or parliamentary models on neighbouring states and the comparison of the behaviour of chambers, clerks, and parliamentarians in different geographical and temporal contexts.

Both the content of papers themselves and the opportunities to meet and discuss research with a diverse range of scholars helps to reflect not only the importance of themes in parliamentary history like localism and the use of parliamentary questions but also more practical issues such as how funding proposals and projects based around studies of parliamentary history can be constructed. From my perspective, it was an opportunity to reflect on the centenary of the Dáil – the lower house of the Irish parliament which first met a century ago this year. My paper dwelt on the role of Dáil representatives who had previously served as Irish nationalist MPs at the London parliament in Westminster. The post-war election in December 1918 saw a changing of the political guard in Ireland as Sinn Féin defeated the Irish Parliamentary Party, meaning that those who served in both the British parliament pre-1918 and the native parliament afterwards were rare, but were often distinctive parliamentarians and served as reminders of the older political tradition in the new state. This paper drew on my forthcoming book, The Legacy of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Independent Ireland, 1922-1949 and it was a pleasure to present this work on a panel with fascinating papers on the use of parliamentary motions in the early years of Finnish independence and the construction of the post-war Italian constitution.

The generous timetabling of the session also allowed ample time for enjoying the wonderful town of Andorra la Vella and the breath-taking scenery of the surrounding areas. In addition to meeting members of parliament and enjoying the Consell General’s hospitality, other delegates even managed to fit in work at the state’s national archives! The Commission offers generous scholarships for early career scholars to attend its conferences though its Helen Maud Cam bursary each year. As can be seen from the ICHRPI’s website, conferences are hosted by impressive institutions in beautiful locations and as a member of the International Committee of Historical Sciences (CIHS), the Commission’s next congress will meet in Poznan, Poland in 2020.


Martin O’Donoghue is a lecturer in Irish and British History at Northumbria University and a member of the ICHRPI. His upcoming book is The Legacy of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Independent Ireland, 1922-1949 and will be published by Liverpool University Press later this year. For more information or to contact him see his contact details at Northumbria or on twitter: @ODonoghueMartin

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Home Sweet Home

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by Marcel Haas

All good things must eventually come to an end. As academics, perhaps more than anyone else, we live in a world of short terms. We leave home after High School, start undergrad educations that lead us across country and back, only to take up further education, different courses, shorter stays. We travel abroad, circle back, leave again, always searching for the next degree, the next completion of projects. Each of those projects seem to be the ultimate undertaking, until they’re over and done with, every time. After graduate courses loom PhDs and post-docs. They are followed by yet more short-term employments. Great projects, new funding, renewed fascination? Maybe along the way we lost hope, faith in ourselves, a belief that there will be an end to uncertain project jumping. Maybe we regained those hopes, faiths, beliefs somewhere as well. In any case, the wheel moves on, and we with it.

What I wanted to say was that there is no end, although we promise our families every time we come home for the holidays that exactly this end is so very near. The next degree, that next project, those last publications… Of course, in all this uncertainty and enforced flexibility, we can strive. We don’t have to fail the tests that are thrown in our paths periodically. And so we march on, homeward bound.

With this post, time has come for me to acknowledge the end of my tenure as editor of this blog. It also is time, however, to say goodbye to nearly six years of CMU, of living in Mount Pleasant, flying in to MBS Airport, and taking the Indian Trails bus South. It is goodbye to taking and teaching classes, grading and being graded, learning, studying, and editing side by side with fellow undergraduate, graduate, and PhD students, as well as professors. We had a good run, didn’t we?

The end is no such thing. For a couple of days I have sat around my temporary house back in Germany, thinking of how to say goodbye to America, six months after actually leaving the country. In truth, I had said goodbye then and there, subconsciously dragging it out until today. Of course, I haven’t yet finished my dissertation, not defended, not published my book. Therefore, we could argue that nothing really has come to an end. I just live somewhere else now. Like everyone else I have met along the way, I have also now moved on, back across the Atlantic, back home.

I’m not completely sure what the future will hold for me. I know that I will move to a different city in Germany, get married, find a new job… at the same time as still thinking about my Indigenous travellers, who, a little like me, went on journeys across the ocean to find out what was beyond. Like me, they also came back. To say it in the words of the immortal Mötley Crüe, “I’m on my way, Home Sweet Home.”

……….

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I want to end at least this post on saying thank you. Thank you to all those professors, assistants, custodians, and guardian angels of Central Michigan University who have made my last five years worth living in Mount Pleasant. Thank you to my friends and fellow travellers. You know who you are. Thank you to my students who listened patiently while my English became gradually better and worse again. Thank you for late emails, early reminders, the occasional criticism, advice, and praise. It was all appreciated and I will miss it and all of you dearly. I’ll see you when I see you.

Lynn Hunt on Why History Matters Now More Than Ever: An Enthusiastically Biased Report

by Dr. Gregory Smith

When I volunteered to write a brief report on Lynn Hunt’s keynote address for the 2019 International Graduate Historical Studies Conference, I knew enough to expect a tour de force. (Anyone who has encountered Professor Hunt’s work has learned to expect tours de force.) But it was only in the days leading up to the conference, when I finally got a chance to finish her excellent book History: Why It Matters (Polity Press, 2018), that I started to suspect her talk might upend my other expectations.

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Frankly, I was expecting a jeremiad. When I see a title like “Why History Matters” I expect to hear something like the voice of one crying in the wilderness, telling us to take courage in the face of (1) a gathering storm where our words will likely be ignored, effaced, or taken out of context; and/or (2) a world of declining history enrollments, where people equate a liberal arts degree with un(der)employment or “useless” skills, no matter how often and loudly we cite decisive evidence to the contrary.

Fortunately for those of us present and for readers of this post, Professor Hunt’s address was emphatically not a jeremiad. Instead she argued persuasively that historians make a demonstrable difference, that the world (our world) is in no more danger of ending than it was twenty or thirty or fifty years ago, and that we should not give up on interpretation or epistemological self-scrutiny in the face of “alternative facts.” “Why History Matters Now More Than Ever” also featured a brilliant thumbnail sketch of postmodern theory – the kind of perfectly distilled summary that makes graduate students wonder why their teachers didn’t just say so in the first place —- and closed with an exemplary Q and A. Current and future professionals take note: this is how to do it.

On the major point, Professor Hunt reminded us that history matters because ordinary people listen and respond to how historians interpret the past. No, seriously, they really do! The last few decades have witnessed wide-ranging and non-trivial changes to the way Civil War history is taught in American schools, for example, even in those states where “revisionist” history textbooks were most resisted in the 1980s and 1990s.[1] There are many reasons not to be satisfied with the status quo, but in the midst of culture wars and literal wars it is easy to forget that professional historians have made a lasting difference. Crucial claims that used to be “controversial,” such as the role of slavery as primary cause of the Civil War, have become commonplace. Inclined to focus on how long it took, historians often underplay the more important fact that it happened in the first place.

In the aftermath (or in the midst) of “post-truth,” historians might also be tempted to give up on the critical self-evaluation that has always been a feature of the best sort of history. After all, isn’t postmodernism at least partially to blame for the rise of alternative facts, echo chambers, and the legitimizing of conspiracy theory?[2] Some might go farther still and eschew interpretation (at least temporarily) in favor of establishing “what actually happened”: historians as fact-checkers awarding Pinocchios. To all this Professor Hunt says “no.” It is the wrong response, and a self-defeating one. Facts are important, and historians know what to do to establish and debate the basic evidence. But interpretation remains central to the enterprise. Particular interpretations can be more or less persuasive than others, and we can still have meaningful debates that are not reducible to power-plays, aesthetic taste, or individual whim.

Another cause for cheer, and re-evaluation: Professor Hunt observed that public interest in history is as high as it has ever been. History museums, sites, parks, television – all are being consumed in numbers that present a bracing contrast to recent declines in history majors. Among other lessons is the fact that people who want history will get it from somewhere: professional historians ought to be playing an instrumental role in answering the demand.

The author and guest speaker, Dr Lynn Hunt

The author and guest speaker, Dr Lynn Hunt

I, for one, was convinced on almost every point. (I am not sure I quite share Professor Hunt’s long and broadly optimistic view on social media. She thinks it need not be any more negatively disruptive than other revolutions in the history of human communication, whereas I suspect that the invention of writing and printing are as different as they are similar to the sudden concentration of knowledge, power, wealth, and proprietary algorithms in the hands of an extraordinarily small set of people in California and Washington.)

But the best final summary and recommendation I can make, for those who were present and those who couldn’t make the talk, is to read History: Why It Matters. To list all the things I love about this book would be to write another blog post (or ten), but I cannot endorse heartily enough its observations about the universality of history-writing (pp. 48–52), its warning that “one day our histories will look just as incomplete” as the older work whose limitations we so often (and rightly) challenge (p. 55), its warnings against “presentism” (p. 111), and a set of almost-final words that reflect my own understanding and experience of history as well as anything I have ever read: “What do we learn from the past? For me, it is above all else respect for those who came before us” (p. 112).

  1. Jacey Fortin, “Texas Students Will Now Learn That Slavery Was ‘Central’ to the Civil War,” New York Times, November 21, 2018.

  2. Among many possibilities, see Matt McManus, “The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism,” Quillette, May 17, 2018; Carole Cadwalladr, “Daniel Dennett: ‘I begrudge every hour I have to spend worrying about politics’,” The Guardian, February 12, 2017; and a rejoinder by Aaron Hanlon, “Postmodernism didn’t cause Trump. It explains him.” Washington Post, August 31, 2018.

IGHS Conference Recap

by Erik Noren

As a former graduate student at Central Michigan University, and current PhD candidate at Wayne State University, I was recently invited by the leadership of the International Graduate Historical Studies Conference to come up to CMU to serve as a commentator. It was an honor to be given this responsibility, and I also learned a great deal from the panels during my stay. 

Acting as commentator on a conference panel was quite the learning experience. Just as a teacher learns their subject material far better after teaching, one also learns much more about a paper after engaging with it critically. I enjoyed hearing the presentations by Julianne and Kristian at my panel, but reading their papers beforehand had given me a better grounding in their respective subjects. Julianne’s presentation on the Ford Administration’s involvement in the Angolan Civil War in the 1970s was very intriguing, discussing it through the lens of the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, and international economics. Kristian’s work explored the history of the Equity, a farmer’s union that formed in 1902 and helped pave the way for larger organizations to follow. In both cases I couldn’t be a passive member of the audience, but instead had to constantly follow the material. Even if the criticism towards a paper is minor, writing comments can be quite challenging.

Thankfully, my visit did not stop at providing comments. Instead, I was able to attend other sessions and learn from those other panels. Following that, I was able to reconnect with several familiar faces. It had been a couple years since I had spoken at the IGHS conference and it was good to be back. My earlier time at CMU was a significant period in my development as a historian. I earned my MA in History here back in December 2014. Walking through those familiar halls brought back old memories. Some of those memories included my time as a Graduate Teaching Assistant for Dr. Donohue, the informative classes I took with Dr. Euler, Dr. Harsanyi and many others, and also the great conversations I had with my fellow colleagues. Even though some of my old colleagues were not on campus that day, it was good to meet up with some of the current graduate students in the department and learn about their interests.

Another part of the conference that is definitely worth highlighting was Dr. Lynn Hunt’s keynote address. Her examination of the recent role of social media was very interesting. In many cases it resonated with her previous work Writing History in the Global Era, in which she stipulated that writing history from below requires a familiarity with how people think and act. Even though I was not able to talk to her for very long, I still enjoyed meeting such a fantastic scholar in person. In my own classes I have often used the short Bedford books as useful ways to introduce students to primary sources, and Dr. Hunt is at the top of the series’ advisory editors. To conclude, I found my short visit back to CMU for the IGHS conference to be both eventful and rewarding. I hope in the future to be able to return to the conference as a commentator or presenter. The scholarship in my panels was top-notch, and I look forward to seeing more good work in the future.

Nostalgia is not History

by Angelo Moreno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

References

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

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

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

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

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by Amy Greer

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

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

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

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

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

NAFTA – History without Borders

by Scarlet Munoz Ramirez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is in a Syllabus?

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by Julie Haefner

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching in Bochum, Germany

By Dr. Carrie Euler

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

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

Apartment Building.jpg

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

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

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

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

Obama Center, African-American golf, and Chicago

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

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

By Dave Papendorf

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

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCT3AgEo9Xs&feature=youtu.be

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

Spooked by Comps?

By Chiara Ziletti

Boo! Is this a ghost? Nah…it is just a past editor paying a quick visit! Did I scare you? Halloween is around the corner, but one of the things that probably scares graduate students the most are their comprehensive examinations. And indeed, it is quite understandable: lists of books that seem never-ending for each minor/major fields, hours and hours of reading and studying, written and/or oral components to pass… probably even the most confident of us would have at least one or two moments of insecurity, hesitation, anxiety, or even just frustration. I know it is a truism, but if you get in a graduate program, it is because you really like what you study, and that is why you are so scared of failing. There is a huge emotional investment lying behind comps, and as a consequence, sometimes it is hard to think rationally and objectively about the whole picture.

I passed my comprehensive examinations last summer. I am really glad I did it, not just because it was an important milestone for my academic career, but also because it was a significant experience from which I learned a lot as a person. And now that I see some of my colleagues getting closer to the date of their exam, I would like to share a couple of thoughts and suggestions to encourage them:

1.    Do your best; in this way will have no regrets and you will feel less anxious. Your best changes from day to day. One day you will feel at 120%, the other you might be tired and maybe sick. I had a moment when I was preparing for my exam in which I was not feeling well at all, and this really concerned me at first: how am I supposed to pass the exam if I feel so sick that I have almost zero energy and can barely study? What I decided to do at that moment was to simply approach one day at a time, doing the best I could with the little energy I had. Would that be sufficient to pass the exam? I could not be 100% sure, but in this way, I was sure that I would not have any regrets. Every day I put forward my honest work.  This might have not been much sometimes, but it was reassuring, and it really helped me to have a calmer and more objective mindset when the day of the exam approached. In fact, I was able to think that no matter the situation, I had always been working hard. This really reduced my levels of anxiety. Since I am sure you are already doing your best, you just need to realize this and see it in a more objective light.

2.    You know more than what you think. One of the most common feelings right before taking an exam, written or oral, is that you do not remember anything. I know this feeling very well, but after taking so many exams, I learned that it is just an apparent sensation. Your knowledge is all there with you, lurking in a corner of your brain just waiting for you to summon it. As soon as you will hear or read a question, everything will come back to you and you will just need to organize it to give your best answer. 

3.    Experiment and find your own method to prepare for the exam. When I started preparing, I spoke with other graduate students that had already passed it to hear how they managed their long lists of books. It was interesting to learn how they did it, and I experimented for a while until I found the best way for me. All this involved a lot of compromising, which was a huge learning lesson for me, since I tend to be too much of a perfectionist. After trying to take notes on the computer, making notecards, getting stuck reading books for too long, and so on, I saw that the best thing for me was to take hand notes for each book. This forced me to summarize, and in general I remember better the things that I write by hand. Additionally, once the date of the exam drew closer, I did mind maps for each major topic I focused on. This truly helped me to further summarize and visualize what I absolutely needed to remember. We are all different, so keep trying until you find the best method for you.

Chiara Ziletti - Image blog post comps.jpg

4.    Let’s be objective: your professors will not let you take the exam unless they think you are ready. Trust them; they might be intimidating sometimes, but they are not sadistic individuals throwing you into a kamikaze mission while secretly hoping that you will blow up. They care about you and have a lot of experience. This will help you reduce your anxiety and stress when thinking about the exam. In addition to this, each professor will privilege certain aspects over others; talk with them and see what they want you to focus on the most when preparing for your exam: this will significantly help you when going through your huge lists of books. 

I know it is not easy, but the more you try to think objectively about the exam, your knowledge, and the work you put forward to it, the less anxious you will be. This was a lifesaver for me. Probably the day of the exam you will still be a little bit scared, but do not let the anxiety freeze you. Take that jump, and as soon as you land, you will realize how dangerous it was to stay still.

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.

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).