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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In search of Marion Facinger

Marion Facinger - image provided by Jane Freidson

Marion Facinger - image provided by Jane Freidson

A pioneering historian of medieval queenship only published one article on the subject. What became of her?

By Michael Evans

A few years ago, I was working on a book about the image of Eleanor of Aquitaine. As part of my research, I read the pioneering article written by Marion Facinger in 1968, “A Study of Medieval Queenship: Capetian France, 987-1237.” No academics really did queenship before the 1960s: the assumption that queens were merely passive consorts, valued only as wives and mothers, meant that the concept of queenship as an institution, involving female political agency, was largely discounted. Even today, MS Word flags “queenship” as a typo, emphatically underscored with a wavy red line. Facinger was one of the first scholars to take medieval queens seriously: historian Nina Verbanaz writes that she “first introduced a systematic study of queenship as an office.”

But who was Marion Facinger? Her article changed the study of medieval queens, yet she seemed never to have published again. The editors of a collection of essays on Eleanor of Aquitaine (John Carmi Parsons and Bonnie Wheeler) credited Facinger’s work, and a biography of Eleanor by Marion Meade, to the same author, one “Marion (Facinger) Meade.” Yet I found it hard to believe that Facinger’s scholarly article, and the romanticizing and slightly speculative biography by Meade, were from the same pen. Had Facinger changed direction to write a mass-market biography of Eleanor? It is one thing for a writer to change their style to write for a popular audience, quite another to reverse their entire interpretive approach. And Facinger’s married name was Freidson – maybe Meade was a nom-de-plume? To confuse matters further, Marion Facinger Freidson had also published on nineteenth-century Italian literature.

So I took to email; one of the editors of the Eleanor of Aquitaine volume assured me that yes, Marion Meade and Marion Facinger were the same person. However, Marion Meade told me that no, she was not Marion Facinger. And so the matter was resolved and became a footnote in my book.

I thought little more about it, but I must have mentioned the Mystery of the Missing Medievalist in the medieval graduate colloquium that I taught at CMU a few years ago. One of my graduate students sent me a link to the website of Marion Meade’s daughter, Jane Freidson, who is a ceramics artist in New York. Freidson has produced a series in honor of her mother called the “Ladies’ Room Project.” I had, patronizingly, thought of Facinger as a lost talent because she had not pursued a career in academia, but Freidson’s website reveals that her mother lived a full and active life before and after graduate school:

She served as an army nurse in North Africa and Italy, reaching the rank of Lieutenant. After the war, she entered the University of Chicago on the GI bill and achieved an M.A. and a Ph.D. in medieval history. Her doctoral thesis on French queens in the middle ages is still cited as an early feminist work. She married and became a housewife, raising two children, one of whom had special needs. After a divorce in the mid-1960's, she returned to nursing and worked for decades at Englewood Hospital in Englewood, NJ. She was elected to several terms on the Leonia (NJ) town council where she advocated for environmental issues and against nuclear armaments and war. She loved her family, nature, and intellectual conversation. She was an avid reader, a writer of letters, a gardener, seamstress, baker, birdwatcher, and much beloved by her friends and colleagues.

Like many talented women in the 1950s, Facinger saw her career take second place to that of her husband, the sociologist Eliot Freidson. Jane Freidson told me that after her mother’s time at Chicago they moved frequently, “finally to N.J. in 1957. All these moves were for my dad's career. So everything Marion did on her dissertation was long after she left Chicago - she must have been working from afar.” Facinger’s return to nursing “must have offered a higher salary without all the politics of the ivory tower.” Plus ça change…

In learning about Marion Facinger, I discovered the rich life of someone I had known previously only as the name attached to an article. She may not have made academia her career, but she demonstrates that the work of graduate students can change an entire field – or even create a new one.

I would like to thank the following people for their assistance: Jane Freidson, for giving me permission to use pictures from her website, and providing additional information about Marion Facinger’s life; John Carmi Parsons and Marion Meade for responding to my emails; Derrick English for informing me about Jane Freidson’s work.


Michael Evans is an instructor in History at Delta College, and a former lecturer in CMU’s History Department. He is also the author of several works on medieval queenship including: Michael Evans, Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine (London: Bloomsbury, 2014). For more information or to contact him visit the Delta Faculty page.

An Experience to Remember: CMU’s History Department

By Analiese Guettler

Central Michigan University’s history department has filled my college experience with a wide range of opportunities of which, the opportunity to both learn from and learn with professors, graduate assistants, and my fellow students has been very rewarding. Though I may have my favorite professors, each and every one of them are excited and passionate about the topics and areas of history that they are teaching. All the professors have unique viewpoints and want to share as much of their knowledge as they can with their students. Though each student’s experience is different, my time in the history department was memorable.

One of my favorite classes was History 323: History of Native Americans taught by Dr. Cassidy. The class is a writing intensive and fills a requirement for my degree. Dr. Cassidy herself is an asset to the department. She is so knowledgeable and always willing to help with resources for class projects or final essays. I am always recommending her class to other students, both in and out of the history department, whether they need a Writing Intensive class or not because of how much I enjoyed my experience. The class focuses on the Native American Experience, the Native Ground, and the American Indian Movement.

One of the best assets that the history department has to offer students are their Graduate Assistants. It has been my experience that getting to know one of the GAs in a class and asking them for help is one of the best ways to achieve success—and the grade you want—particularly, when working through material or a class format that is not suited to your particular learning style. On more than on occasion I have walked into one of my Graduate Assistants’ offices and gone over material and difficult concepts in order to make me feel more comfortable. Our conversations have made lecture and doing assignments so much easier; it’s okay to ask for help if you need it! During my experience with History 112 The Struggle for Equality: The United States 1865-Present, interactions with my TA Gillian helped me make sense of the Reacting to the Past pedagogy. She helped me with my reflections and assignments so that the concepts like Marxism and Socialism were more approachable and understandable and for gaining points (PIPs) during the game.

Extract from HST201 Syllabus

Extract from HST201 Syllabus

Because of the nature of my degree, I have tried to take as many different classes with different professors as possible. Since I want to be an educator, I felt that it was important to see all the different ways to set-up classes and then explore what I thought were the strengths and weaknesses of each format. The game-based learning structure in History 201: World History to 1500—taught by Dr. Truitt—was probably my favorite format to learn in. Dr. Truitt allows students to explore different ways of learning and to pick and choose the type of assignments that they want to complete, making it an extremely inclusive class for all different types of learners. Furthermore, it accommodates students’ crazy schedules by giving them a small amount of flexibility when assignments are due. For example, the final in Dr Truitt’s class was game based, which meant that we created a game as a group about our chosen topic of interest and ran it as a class final which was a really cool way of being examined rather than the traditional written exam at the end.

Each and every one of the professors that I have taken classes with focus on getting students involved with not only the material but also each other. We discuss ideas in both group projects and discussion where different views and ideas and how best to approach different topics. Alongside this, we discuss what each student finds particularly interesting about the class. I have found this aspect of classes to be extremely helpful with finding new information, new interpretations, and continuing to expand my knowledge beyond what I have read to also include what my fellow students have to say as well. Overall, I have had a very positive experience and I will continue to encourage other students to take history classes for not only their interest but also to experience different teaching styles.


Analiese Guettler is a final year undergraduate student who is studying secondary social studies with a concentration in political science and a history minor. She is also part of the Central Michigan University Band. For more information or to contact her:

Email: guett1am@cmich.edu or on twitter: @AGuettler

Discovering Love in a Smallpox Hospital

By Dr. Andrew Wehrman

When I was working on my dissertation, I remember talking to my advisor T.H. Breen about digital cameras in archives and online databases changing the way people research and write about history. Breen quipped, “With all that technology, you should be able to research and write your dissertation in six months, right?” He liked to go to archives with a stack of index cards and write individual quotations and references on each one. The research trips ended with hundreds of cards and he would lay them out as he began writing, which has led to a profoundly productive career. My methods have changed rapidly with technology, and while my research has not churned out faster, it has made my work richer (richer in detail, not money, folks). I will give you an example of how archival photography, online databases, and savvy keyword searching breathed new life into documents that an index card system would likely never have caught.

On one of my first archival research trips in graduate school, I visited the Phillips Library, in Salem, Massachusetts, which has since moved Rowley, Massachusetts. I took photos of the collection labeled “Salem Hospital Records, 1777.” These were detailed medical records of patients in Salem’s smallpox inoculation hospital. While doing my research, I focused on earlier years not expecting these records to become part of my dissertation but photographed them anyway thinking they might prove useful later. I have since found that records like these are exceedingly rare. Most hospital records, especially from smallpox hospitals, did not survive. These were particularly detailed, consisting of 577 patient records spread across two dozen little notebooks and remarkably difficult to read. If you think your doctor’s handwriting is bad, try one from the eighteenth century. The doctor, Edward Augustus Holyoke, listed each patient, their age, and a record of symptoms and treatments given. To make sense of his notes, I created an Excel spreadsheet, to keep track of and draw conclusions about his group of patients.

Among the most interesting details, Holyoke almost always included the number of pocks that appeared on each patient’s body after inoculation. Inoculation—the purposeful insertion of smallpox matter via an incision usually on a patient’s arm—most often resulted in a mild case of smallpox and grant lifelong immunity. This was before the discovery of vaccination, which uses cowpox matter and would confer immunity without the infection (humans cannot spread cowpox). Anecdotally, I knew some patients would get a few pocks, usually on their faces and hands, and in rare cases patients would get hundreds all over their bodies. Under ideal conditions fewer than one percent died from the procedure. Using my spreadsheet, I tracked the number of pocks to look for any obvious patterns. Out of 577 patients, about half received fifty or fewer. Thirty lucky patients received zero, one, or two. However, there were also thirty patients with over a thousand. Only one patient, a baby girl just a few months old, died from the procedure, but other babies went through it fine. There did not seem to be any real pattern for who fared better or worse based on age, sex, race, or family.  

As I was finishing my book manuscript, I came back to these photos and my spreadsheet and began to wonder about those patients with thousands of pocks. Surviving but scarred, did they live long after their inoculations? Were they able to get married or have children? Questions I could not easily answer when I started the project. After an afternoon of internet searching, I uncovered what I think is a love story. I focused my attention on one name in the records: Judith Herbert. Judith was 21 years old when she entered Salem Hospital in spring of 1777 to be inoculated. Hers was a tough case. Although she survived, she broke out with “4 or 5 thousand pustules.” To find out more, I googled “Judith Herbert” in Salem, MA, and found her in several genealogical records available through Google Books and Internet Archive. I even found in Dr. Holyoke’s diary that he attended the wedding of Judith Herbert of Wenham, Massachusetts and Dr. Edward Barnard in 1781. Judith’s marriage was significant since young women and their parents worried that smallpox scars would prevent them finding a husband.  

After finding the marriage record, I found out more about Dr. Edward Barnard. It turns out that he was a Harvard graduate. I knew to search Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, which contains biographical sketches of every student who attended Harvard College from its first class in 1642 through 1774. Fortunately, I did not even have to leave my desk. Volume 18 of Sibley’s is available online via HathiTrust Digital Library. Where I learned that Barnard graduated from Harvard in spring of 1774, helped organize his hometown of Haverhill’s militia company in September, and in October 1775 began studying medicine with Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke in Salem. Barnard was Holyoke’s assistant when his future wife broke out with 5000 pocks in Salem Hospital.

Now, I cannot say for sure that this is when they first met or where they fell in love. But it makes sense that Barnard attended Herbert closely as she battled one of the most severe cases of inoculated smallpox. In my historical imagination, five thousand little cartoon hearts swirled around them—one for each bloody pustule, of course. The scars did not affect a long marriage or a long life but may have affected her fertility. Judith and Edward had just one child together, a son also named Edward. They were married for forty years until Dr. Edward Barnard died in 1822. Remarkably, Judith Herbert Barnard died in 1845 at age 90.

Even though Breen was right that taking digital photos in the archive and searching them against digitized materials online has not made research and writing any faster, I do think it has made it better.


Dr. Andrew Wehrman is a historian of early American history and the history of American medicine at Central Michigan University. His current book project The Contagion of Liberty argues that popular demand for public inoculations during smallpox epidemics in the 1760s and 1770s infected Revolutionary politics and changed the way Americans understood their health and government’s responsibility to protect it.

Twitter: @ProfWehrman

Finding "Place" in the Past

By Camden Burd

M-20 is a not a particularly unique highway. It’s just one of many that crisscross the Michigan landscape. Yet the highway does carry some special significance to me. I drove it often when commuting between my family’s small cabin near Remus (pictured above) and Mt. Pleasant while studying at Central Michigan University. I can still visualize many of the sites along the route. Whether it was the humble façade of the Remus Tavern or the grandiose “Welcome to Mt. Pleasant” painted across the Ann Arbor Railroad Bridge on western edge of town, the familiar landmarks connected me to specific place, time, and experience.

We all have these places: a childhood home, a familiar walk, an iconic tree—even a favorite coffee shop can stir feelings of familiarity, and comfort. Most significantly, though, they create meaning. John Brinckerhoff Jackson, scholar of landscape studies, describes this type of attachment as a “sense of place.” People often transform mundane locations, nameless vistas, and sprawling landscapes into places because of “a lively awareness of the familiar environment, a ritual repetition, [and] a sense of fellowship based on shared experience.” Understanding the significance of a place tells us about the values of people who find meaning in the landscapes, monuments, and activities associated with those particular places.  

Historicizing a “sense place” has been the constant thread of my academic work since I began my MA in History at Central Michigan University in 2012. I first became interested with the study of place when I examined the historical roots of Michigan’s tourism industry in Northern Michigan. I was enamored with the perennial tradition of tourists and cottage-goers that traveled “Up North” for recreation and respite. With guidance from Jay Martin and Brittany Bayless Fremion, I dedicated my MA thesis to the cultural and environmental roots of the still-modern tradition. The core material of that research would later become the basis for my first peer-reviewed article, “Imagining a Pure Michigan Landscape: Advertisers, Tourists, and the Making of Michigan’s Northern Vacationlands,” published in the Michigan Historical Review. Since then I have written on various topics related to “sense of place.” Whether it was an essay describing how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha served as a shared language for progressive-era conservationists to find new meaning in the cutover districts of the Upper Midwest or another article that illustrates how diminished economic activity on the Erie Canal motivated state and national politicians to create a new heritage-tourism industry along the artificial river. I have always started my research with a particular place and study the people who found meaning in it. Like a mirror, the study of the sense of place can reveal cultural assumptions, environmental values, and community values. 

Of course, a place’s meaning can change over time. Economic forces often disrupt livelihoods and community networks. New technologies shift the nature of work and how individuals interact with each other as well as local geography. Environmental changes can also shift the meaning of a place. Forests fall, rivers become dammed, and the behemoth influence of industrialization commodifies, extracts, and alters landscapes beyond recognition. Therefore, a sense of place can be a valuable lens to study past cultures. How historic groups value, interpret, and use landscape offers historians a unique lens to track environmental, economic, political, and cultural shifts over time. After all, these are the places where people make a home, find work, form identity, and create meaning.

 

Some suggested/favorite readings on Place:

Kate Brown, Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

Jared Famer, On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

John Brinckerhoff Jackson, A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).


Camden Burd received his PhD in History from the University of Rochester in 2019. Before his time in Western New York, he spent two years completing his MA in History from Central Michigan University. During the 2019-2020 academic year Camden will be an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the New York Botanical Garden.

www.camdenburd.com

Is Anyone Really Writing? Everyone is Writing, and No one is Writing.

By Dave Papendorf

There is a strange phenomenon that exists in academia and within the Humanities in particular.  Apparently, every PhD student is writing their dissertation. How industrious of them! They retreat to an airy salon and knock away at their typewriters while feeling the thrill of progress. These students are consistently fueled by the swelling approval of their ever-vigilant supervisors and the pleasant typewriter ding of every line completed on their ground-breaking project.

However, upon closer examination, this proves to be false. In fact, as it turns out, no one is writing their dissertation. Instead they write emails, book reviews, journal submissions, funding proposals, fellowship applications, course syllabi, comment on students’ work, teaching philosophies, job applications, letters of recommendation, conference papers, bibliographies, and exam prompts. After all of this, they are left dejected, despaired, and despondent. To get a job, PhD students need to be doing all of these things. “A dissertation is not enough” the market tells us. Good thing too, after keeping so many plates spinning, who has time for a dissertation anyways!

Perhaps this is too melancholiac of an assessment. After all, people are constantly finishing and defending their dissertations. But surely the sentiments shared above resonate with my colleagues. At least I hope they do, because in my experience pressures mount not only to finish the dissertation but also develop professionally with some ontological crises along the way. In the remainder of this post, I will share a little of my experience as a dissertation-writing, plate-spinning, job-hunting ABD student. Hopefully, we can commiserate together, and my honest reflections can help spur on my current and future colleagues to keep writing. Friends, please receive my unsolicited advice kindly. Most importantly, I hope this post gives non-students a view into the psyche of a late-stage PhD student.

Some of you might recognize me as a previous editor when I had just started “writing” my dissertation. While I have made progress since editing the blog, it has not been as swift as I hoped. C’est la vie. Nevertheless, I have noticed three things about myself as a “writer” that are worth sharing.

An Airy Salon for the Industrious PhD Student

An Airy Salon for the Industrious PhD Student

Despaired, Despondent, and Dejected (ish)

Despaired, Despondent, and Dejected (ish)

1. I am what you might call a “long runway” type of writer. In other words, it takes me a long time to get “off the ground” writing productively (please indulge my aerial metaphor). I need a plan, an outline, a developed structure, and goals to check off and mark my daily progress. This helps me feel as if I am doing something and forces me to come to grips with the reality of my current situation to complete my dissertation tasks (see checklist below). If you cannot simply sit down and write, this might help you. However, it is not a failsafe for all students. I find that when I do get to writing, I write in chunks. Recently, I wrote 13,000 words in nine days, but keep in mind this took two weeks of “runway” time. Alternatives would be short bursts of writing (write all you can over a weekend) or slow-and-steady (write for 50 minutes a day, regardless of quality).

Papendorf Checklist.jpg

2. I am always more successful when I measure my progress in terms of word count rather than number of pages. I write using Scrivener software which measures word count and not page numbers and stores footnotes outside of the text. I find these elements helpful because I think less about overall length and more about paragraphs. Doing so helps me focus on the cohesiveness and effectiveness of my writing rather than numerical values. Overall, this benefits my argumentation and writing quality. On a more metaphysical level, focusing on word count helps me think less about “space” on a page and more about argument.

3. I have developed a schedule-oriented plan to finish my dissertation all the way to my dissertation defense date. I have two plans: one labeled “ambitious” and the other labeled “realistic.” This two-pronged schedule gives me the impetus to be ambitious while not condemning me for being realistic. Ideally, I would finish somewhere between the two. I find that having a large-scale idea of where I am headed in advance to be consoling. Such a plan also helps give me the right “push” when I need it and comforts me when I feel like I should be doing more. Finally, sharing this with my supervisor has been helpful so that we are on the same page and the ever-frightening gap between actual progress and supervisor-expected progress is mitigated.

PapendorfGraphic.jpg

I titled this post sardonically. However, cynicism is often revealing even if just revealing to its source. I suspect that many feel the same way as I do. The industry seems to be heaping more pressures on students so that our focus is diverted from dissertation writing even while, at the same time, doing more tasks overall. So, to restate the titular question, who is writing after all? Answer: everyone is writing, and no one is writing. PhD students, soldier on. Non-PhD students give a dissertation writer a hug. All of us need one.


Dave Papendorf is a late-stage History PhD Student at Central Michigan University and a Special Instructor of Historical Theology at Moody Bible Institute. His research examines the early Reformation in France (1520s-1540s) and the connections between the French and German Reformations during this period.

For more information or to contact him visit his graduate profile.

Celebrating the Summer of ’69 at the CMU Museum

By Caity Burnell

Besides the drilling and hammering sounds from the multiple construction projects, most of campus is quiet in the summer. One exception is CMU’s Museum of Cultural and Natural History in Rowe Hall. School field trips finished up for the year in mid-June, and while museum staff miss seeing school groups, the summer months are filled with various exciting activities. Many visitors come to enjoy the new “Kozmic Clash: Peace, Love, and Outer Space” exhibit, which opened in April 2019. As a collaboration between Museum Studies faculty and staff and Museum Studies/Cultural Resource Management/Public History students, the exhibit celebrates the groundbreaking innovation and creativity of 1969, such as the Apollo 11 moon landing and Woodstock festival. An accompanying hands-on gallery “Feel the Music” is a great space to experiment with music in a fun environment. Visitors can express their creativity by drawing with chalk on “Honey Bear” the VW minibus that is in the museum lobby. This is an exhibit for people of all ages because for some, it is a brand-new topic, and for others it sparks nostalgia and memories from their personal history, such as the record album artwork displayed in the hallway. The research and a personal object from one of the History Department’s faculty members are even on display in the exhibit. Come visit the museum and see if you can spot the object!

Since the museum is a laboratory for students to gain hands-on experience, this was a great learning opportunity for many who work and volunteer at the museum. One, Brad Davis, created an interactive exhibit on the Main Gallery ceiling about the moon landing for the fulfilment of his CRM creative endeavor. He designed a comic book about the Apollo 11 astronauts’ journey with missing pieces of information that visitors fill in by shining a backlight flashlight up to the ceiling to expose the missing words. While this was experimental in nature—to see if an interactive ceiling exhibit worked—Brad found that it is a success after surveying school groups and the public.

PictureD: Brad Davis demonstrating the Interactive Ceiling

PictureD: Brad Davis demonstrating the Interactive Ceiling

This summer the museum is hosting its annual Tour Tuesday series, offering free public programs on Tuesdays in July. The first was on July 9 at the Bohannon Schoolhouse and the beautiful weather allowed visitors to not only spend time inside experiencing a typical 1901-era school day but also go outside and play vintage games. The next three programs are at the museum, held in the galleries and lobby on July 16 (Moon Landing), July 23 (Feelin’ the Music), and July 30 (Habitats and Homes). More information is available on the museum’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/CMUMuseum/.

Also happening in July is Curious Curators. One of the museum staff’s favorite programs, this special one-day program lets six students entering either fourth or fifth grade experience a day as a museum professional. Their day starts with a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum, they then each work closely with a staff member to create a new exhibit. This year’s participants will each be researching and writing a label about a museum object related to the events and culture of 1969. Other activities include visiting the Bohannon Schoolhouse, touring parts of campus, and then showing their families around the museum at the end of the day.

In between these various programs, staff are busy solving collections conundrums, developing new educational programs, brainstorming future exhibits, and more. Local summer camp groups are visiting the museum including the City of Mount Pleasant Parks and Recreation’s PEAK program and Renaissance Public Academy, whose students are creating their own mini museums using school resource kits borrowed from the CMU Museum. The groups visited the museum and enjoyed discussing how changes in technology have affected peoples’ lives throughout history and looked at old cameras and phones as examples.

While any day of the year is a great time to visit the CMU Museum, summertime is especially wonderful as there are fewer groups and it offers a nice break from the outside heat. The museum is free and open to the public weekdays 8-5 and Saturdays 1-5. CMU requires weekday guests to have a parking pass, which are available at the museum’s main office in Rowe 103 or online at https://apps.cmich.edu/vehicleregistration/guest/default.aspx. To reserve a program for a group, call 989-774-3829 or visit www.museum.cmich.edu.


Caity Burnell is the Museum Educator and Research Collections Coordinator at the CMU Museum of Cultural and Natural History and a CMU Museum Studies Alum. Caity teaches in the Museum Studies program at CMU, including the classes MST 325: Public Programming in Museums and MST 310: Introduction to Museums. For more information on the museum visit the staff page on the CMU website and follow them on twitter or instagram!

  1. Twitter handle: @CMU_Museum

  2. Instagram: @cmumuseum

New Season, New Editor

Author Visiting the Murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts

Author Visiting the Murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts

Just as the seasons change, so must the tenure of editors of the blog. We bid farewell to one editor-in-chief and welcome another. As summer gets under way in 2019 (last of the teens…) I hope that everyone is enjoying some well-earned time off and the glorious weather. While you are taking it easy and hopefully writing, I will be meticulously looking after [Re]collection until the New Year. As such, I am excited to bring you some new content, organize, assemble, and most importantly, showcase these wonderful posts for the remainder of the year.

I would like to thank my most recent predecessor Marcel Haas for his help and navigational guidance. Moreover, I would like to thank his predecessors for maintaining such excellent work, their work ethic and contributions make this a hard standard to live up to, but I shall endeavour to maintain the excellence you are used to.

Let me introduce myself, my name is Gillian Macdonald and coming in the Fall I will be a fourth year PhD candidate in the Transnational and Comparative History PhD program at CMU. Since it is my fourth year, I am hoping to complete a good chunk—if not all—of my research and writing in the coming year. Before coming to CMU, I was a student at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow that is one of the history department’s partner institutions. I completed both my Bachelors Honors Degree and my Master in Research at Strathclyde there. During my MRes year I was approached about attending CMU through the partnership exchange and four years later here I am completing my PhD.

After a year of completing requirements, my historical interests primarily lie in Early Modern Europe, the Medieval World, and the History of the United States with a sprinkling of inter-war Europe. Having read at least a few books in each field I can honestly say I am fascinated. However, my primary area of research lies in seventeenth-century Great Britain. The seventeenth-century is when all the fun stuff happens, there’s two revolutions, they lob off some king’s heads, start an empire, go to war with the Netherlands, France, and countless other places, the fallout from the Reformation takes hold, you name it and it’s happening. My personal interests and research lie in the tail end of the century during the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688-90—very contested name in the historiography—particularly in Scotland. This includes spies, refugees, pirates, and parliamentary legislation dealing with it all.

Over the course of the next few months I am looking forward to sharing experiences and updates as I travel to my archives and burrow into my sources. Hopefully I’ll be able to share some of my exciting finds and struggles along the way as I travel around the little British island that I call home and maybe to some more exotic places. As well as reviewing, sharing, and publishing any and all relevant contributions by our readers! I welcome and encourage all submissions please do not hesitate to drop an email at cmichhistoryblog@gmail.com.

Happy Holidays!

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.

Between Oil and Vietnam: Activists and their Opposition to Angola

by Julianne Haefner

About one year ago I shared my on-going dissertation project “U.S. Foreign Policy towards Angola during the Ford Administration, 1974 to 1977.” In the meantime, I have passed my comprehensive exams and have returned to working on my dissertation. Initially this was quite the struggle. On one hand, I was relieved to have passed my exams and finally be able to work on my dissertation again. On the other hand, I was a bit overwhelmed: I hadn’t touched my research in about six months and had to familiarize myself with my topic again. However, in January, I had a lucky break.  

As I have written previously for this blog, I researched quite a bit of President Ford’s foreign policy documents in the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library last summer. Throughout this research, I had an inclination that activists in the United States would have been active in opposing the intervention. But I didn’t have specific evidence for that. Until one day this past January when I stumbled over the African Activist Archive at Michigan State University. Their online holdings transpired to be a gold mine. I found countless images, newsletter, and pamphlets discussing the dangers of U.S. involvement in Angola and drawing attention to rallies and protests. In this post I want to share two of them: one of them an image from a demonstration in Washington D.C, the other a leaflet promoting a protest march in Philadelphia.

Credit: Southern Africa Committee photo archive (http://africanactivist.msu.edu)

Credit: Southern Africa Committee photo archive (http://africanactivist.msu.edu)

The first image was taken at a demonstration in front of the White House on December 13, 1975. One of the protestors had a sign that read: “If you liked Vietnam you’ll love Angola.” Many activists drew connections between the situation in Indochina and Southern Africa: In both regions the U.S. was interfering in the self determination of countries that had long been under foreign, colonial, rule. U.S. involvement in Vietnam had escalated over the years. This was a fear that many activists had regarding Angola as well. Although there were numerous reports about U.S. mercenaries fighting in Angola, at the time of many of the demonstrations the U.S. had not yet deployed troops to Angola, But activists argued that even though troops had not been deployed, similar to Vietnam this was just a matter of time in the stages of escalation.

The second document is a leaflet advertising two events in early February 1976 connected to intervention in Angola. One of those events was a protest march to Gulf Oil in Philadelphia. Several other oil companies had already secured drilling rights, but Gulf Oil was in 1975 the only company that had already been drilling in Angola. Oil was a particularly contested issue because of the first oil crisis that had taken place in 1973. Activists on the other hand argued for the divestment of oil companies from Angola. Criticism towards Gulf Oil appears in dozens of documents that activists had created. Reading about the criticism towards Gulf Oil reminded me of the divestment movement. As international criticism ramped up against apartheid in South Africa, activists called for the divestment of companies and universities from South Africa. The calls for the divestment of Gulf Oil were definitely not as wide-scaled as the divestment movement, but it is nonetheless interesting to see the similarities.

Credit: Vincent Klingler papers (http://africanactivist.msu.edu)

Credit: Vincent Klingler papers (http://africanactivist.msu.edu)

As I continue to read through the African Activist Archive documents I am sure I will come across more interesting documents. This is then the bottom line for other students working on research projects, no matter if they’re pursuing a PhD, master’s degree, or writing a capstone paper: Sometimes it pays off to aimlessly click around the internet.

A Year in the Life: Requirements, Sanity, and Being ABD

by Gillian Macdonald

While knowing what I was signing up for when I applied for the PhD program at CMU back in 2015, the scary parts (by scary parts I mean comprehensive exams mostly) seemed far off in the distance to be tackled by a more mature version of myself when the time came. After spending a glorious summer in Mount Pleasant in 2018, the third year was suddenly upon me. Just like that two years of preparation had vanished. As many of you know, the third year is usually about the time when grad students start to freak out because of comprehensive exams, prospectus writing, AND completing all of our language requirements to continue in the program. On top of that there is the graduate assistantship for the year. Sounds daunting, right?

I had heard enough stories from former grad students and those who were ABD already about exams to not only give you nightmares but also to know that there were mixed reviews.

*Piece of advice: don’t ask too much about it beforehand, it’s never going to be as bad as you make it out to be in your head.*

What studying didn’t prepare me for was the ever-looming dread that starts to hit you as the date approaches. However, your advisors will not let you sit the exams unless they think you are ready for it. Chiara Ziletti’s earlier blog post about exams (Spooked By Comps?) covers this better than I ever could.

Something I learned from this year, it’s okay to ask for help and TAKE A BREAK once in a while. Comprehensive Exams are one thing but your sanity is another, and arguably more important. I certainly spent a lot of my summer studying, and it paid off, but I am not sure I could have endured the tour de force that is third year without a few trips across Michigan or to the local watering hole to let off some steam. Thankfully, I have a wonderful cohort of friends—more like a graduate student family—that tell you when it’s time to step away from the notes and take a breather. More often than not they’re invariably right and sometimes you need some outside perspective. Or just a walk outside of the office that you will habitually be cooped up in furiously studying notes and mind maps to boot.

Looking back, I think the most stressful part of my third year was in the Spring semester. In hindsight I probably should have started writing my prospectus earlier (but that’s why hindsight is 20/20). However, having said that I might not have had my lightbulb moment about what I wanted my dissertation project to be. While this year was challenging—exams, deciding on a concrete dissertation project, passing two language requirements—it was also very rewarding. Not entirely academically so but being published for the first time is a nice bonus (even if it is a little book review).

Now onto the hard part, actually writing the dissertation. And so, I am off on my archival travels across the great Atlantic Ocean to a little bit bleary and rainy United Kingdom to scour the documents for my project. In parting, your grad school comrades are there to help. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice and lean on them when you get tired. If your friends are anything like mine, they won’t let you fall.

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.

A Question of Narration

London Bridge from the Southwark side, c 1751  (source: telegraph.co.uk)

London Bridge from the Southwark side, c 1751 (source: telegraph.co.uk)

Imagine the scene.

A handsome man dressed in a finely worked frock and greatcoat leaves a stately home in London’s aristocratic quarters. Assisted by a servant in an immaculate uniform he climbs into his carriage – a gift from his wife’s father. He doesn’t have to tell the driver of the carriage where to go, the servant knows well. After all, he had driven his master to the palace every morning of this past week. The servant is proud of his duties. Since the news of his employer’s promotion had arrived last week, the man had been able to brag to the other customers of the Kings Arms Inn that he would surely receive a pay raise now. So far, the man in the back of the carriage had made no inclination of actually paying him more, but the day would come, the driver was convinced. His employer was a good man, better than most lords and politicians in the city. Inside the carriage, the handsome man smiles to himself, while the scenery of London rushes past. His promotion had been no surprise. For two years, he and his wife had worked to gain the ear of the Queen, and had used their influence to make their way into her inner circle. Private talks in the royal chambers had followed. Now, he was Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, and able to direct the daily business of the Queen herself. On top of that, she had given him a place in the cabinet, unheard of for a man of his position. The Whigs had cried foul, of course. They were terrified of his influence. Godolphin himself had told the Queen that with him being Lord Chamberlain – a Tory! – Parliament would be soon dissolved and general elections a given. The man in the carriage grows excited while he thinks of the prospect. How hard had his friends in the Tory party worked to regain power from the bloody Whigs! For ten years, Great Britain had fought the French in the War of the Spanish Succession, with no end in sight. With Tories back in control of Parliament, they would bring an end to further escalation. Public opinion was on their side, the man in the carriage muses, when the driver brings the horses to a sudden stop. They had arrived at their destination, St. James’s Palace. The handsome man – whose face barely shows the marks of the fifty years he had lived – steps out of the carriage and heads towards the gates. Still smiling, he – Charles Talbot, the Duke of Shrewsbury, and newly appointed Lord Chamberlain of Queen Anne’s Household – makes his way into the audience chambers on the 19th of April, 1710, to announce the arrival of four savage visitors from the Queen’s American Colonies.

Talbot was deeply embroiled in political manoeuvrings, questions of status, and his personal relationship with the Queen. He did not think much of the four Indians he had to announce as part of a small distraction in today’s business.

Portland Place in around 1796  (source: telegraph.co.uk)

Portland Place in around 1796 (source: telegraph.co.uk)

Looking back three hundred years, I am inclined to disagree with Talbot. In fact, while history has largely forgotten the charming Duke who wormed his way into the Queen’s graces in the summer of 1710, it has not forgotten the four Indians who had “undertaken a long and tedious voyage” to see their “great Queen.” In the meeting of kings and queens, the English aristocrat became a bystander. He surely would not have been happy about that.

.              .              .

The narrative in the beginning of this post was cobbled together from my current research. While looking at the journeys of indigenous people of Africa and America to Europe, I have stumbled upon a number of stories seemingly no one has told before. The bystanders of great events – with all their ambitions, dreams, fears, and politicking – have always fascinated me. In fact, the reason for choosing Indigenous travellers as the focus of my research came from their poor treatment in older historical narratives. Too often they had been passive observers. Nevertheless, in recent decades, historians have worked hard to focus their analyses and narratives on those so harshly overlooked.

The stories I wanted to tell focused on Indigenous historical protagonists who came to European courts and played the colonial empires for fools. In my mind, the colonial officials suddenly became bystanders, marginalized people themselves. Which brings me to the little exercise at the beginning of this post. I had already shifted attention away from the Europeans before, now I wanted to see how the day of the Indigenous visit would have played out for one of those passive bystanders. This time, the person without agency would be Charles Talbot, the Duke of Shrewsbury. What he thought and did on the 19th of April, 1710, tells us little about the Indigenous travellers. Indeed, he didn’t have much (if anything) to say about them, he was not aware of their status and historical significance, and, after the audience, his mind was taken up with very different issues – those of personal advancement in her Majesty’s service.

The purpose of the little exercise was thus to shift focus freely, dealing with historical figures as individuals before their titles and status muddles our modern perception of their actions. Talbot was as much actor in the earlier narrative as was his driver, both initially nameless, reduced to their personal ambitions. We could write the same scene about everyone in attendance during the audience, freely shifting focus and attention from person to person. The question that emerges is one of narration, however. How far can we go to narrate history? I consciously chose to open the narrative as I would a theatre script, because narrative often plays out as a scene would. We need to be careful, indeed, not to confuse narrative and historical events. Both have separate purpose and cannot be conflated. Writing historical narrative helps visualize history, but must not replace the analysis of an event. Vice versa, only analysing what people sometimes mistakenly assume to be dry historical facts can often be unrewarding. In short, narration helps us understand an event, while at the same time confronting us with the perspective of a previously chosen cast of characters. Playing out a scene – be it while writing or reading it – can make previously hidden motivations visible.

.              .              .

If you agree of disagree with my take on historical narrative, I would be happy to see comments either here or on our social media platforms.

An Amazing Adventure in the Archives in Arkansas

by Samuel Malby

This year I was lucky enough to get a research grant from the graduate school, as well as funding from the department to go on a research trip to the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. The first step of the process was of course planning ahead of time. I was looking for documents related to immigration policy over the course of the Bill Clinton administration (1993-2001), but also looking more specifically at primary sources that dealt with immigration detention.

William J. Clinton Presidential Library (credit: Time Magazine)

William J. Clinton Presidential Library (credit: Time Magazine)

First, I used the online Finding Aids to look up what useful documents were available, and what boxes I wanted to look at while I was there. Second, and perhaps the most important step was to contact the archivists and inform them of my plans to visit the archives. They emailed me back with a ton of information, supplementary sources they recommended I look at, and informed me that they had digitized a few of the sources I had mentioned and that those were available online. Therefore, before arriving at the archives I had a list of everything I wanted to look at, and this made the entire process so much easier once I got there.

I flew into Little Rock on a Sunday and had four days in the archives (Monday to Thursday) before flying home on the Friday.

On the first day, I arrived at the archives as soon as they opened at 9 a.m. I only had a few days and thousands of documents to get through, so I did not want to waste any time. I informed the security guards at the entrance that I was here for research and they let the archivists know that I was there. Then the archivists came to find me and took me through a long corridor and up some stairs into the archives themselves. There, as it was my first time, they explained the process, the rules, and the regulations. I received a visitor’s badge, a locker key, and a research card. Next, they took me into the research room and gave me my first cart with ten boxes (ten is the maximum they can give you at any time). On my list I had 34 boxes to get through in four days, but I had no idea how long it would take me. I therefore started off with the most important ones. It is important to prioritize especially if your time is limited. On the first morning, I only got through one box. I needed to speed things up. As I had so much to get through I was not really reading documents, I was mostly just taking photographs of all the useful documents I had before me. For the first few boxes that were related specifically to immigration detention, that meant taking pictures of everything. Some of the first ten boxes were filled exclusively with email exchanges between administration officials. While I am sure some of these contained interesting information, I decided it would be more beneficial to look through other material first and come back to these if I had time (Spoiler Alert: I did not).

Little Rock, Arkansas (credit: gettyimages)

Little Rock, Arkansas (credit: gettyimages)

Between 12 and 1 the archives closed for lunch, so I went to find food. I had lunch at the 42, the restaurant situated in the Clinton museum, on one of the lower floors. As a true Englishman, I had fish’n’chips with a dark chocolate cheesecake with fresh fruits and a strawberry coulis for dessert. The dessert was hands down one of the best desserts I have ever tasted, it was fabulous!

After lunch I headed back up to the archives. I got through box two, and over the course of the day took 1521 pictures. By the end of the day I had a record of all the documents related to immigration detention in those two boxes.

On the second day, I went straight into the research room this time. I started to look at the email boxes, but there were just too many, and the process was too long. I skipped ahead to the final boxes on my first cart of ten boxes. They were mostly about former IRA members who were going to be deported. This was both remarkably interesting and quite unexpected. Who knows, maybe I will be able to find out what happened to them and write something about that one day! Once I got through those, I was done with cart one. The next cart started off with one of the boxes I was most interested in. From what I could see online, it looked like it would be particularly useful for my research and contain lots of critical information. In the end, however, it was very disappointing. It of course contained some relevant stuff but mostly documents that I knew were available elsewhere. However, one of the other boxes I was not expecting to find much in turned out to be a gold mine! Jam-packed full of interesting documents, juicy sources, and controversial material, this was the kind of stuff I was hoping to find.

Back in the 42, I had lunch with one of the other researchers. He was a retired professor of History from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, looking for sources related to narcotics. Over lunch he told me about his interactions in his youth with drug dealers in Colombia and had many other interesting stories to tell. At the end of the day, I took advantage of the heat and the sunny weather to go sight-seeing and took a two-hour walk along the Arkansas River trail.

On day three I went through some more boxes. I found lots of documents on Operation Gatekeeper. It was sunny and warm, so I had lunch outside on the patio at 42 again. I resisted the temptation to get dessert but decided I was going to have one tomorrow to celebrate my last day here! In the afternoon I got a new cart with 10 new boxes. Most of those contained useful and relevant sources. In the evening, after the archives had closed, I headed to a coffee shop to start drafting my article and simply enjoyed being in a city for a change.

On day four, I woke up to thunderstorm and rain. This meant that getting a cab was harder than usual as there were fewer drivers about. My driver that morning was Darill who was originally from Trinidad and Tobago. He was a big soccer fan, so we talked about our favorite soccer clubs and players (and how bad Man United are, everyone knows that!). He also talked about how he was also a musician who played steel drums.

On my final day at the archives, I continued to work through sources. By this point, thanks to my earlier prioritization I was mostly looking at documents that were less related, so I spent a little more time deciding what to skip over, and what to focus on. My aim was to get through it all before I left. I made timely progress and had almost finished cart three out of four by lunch on Thursday. At the restaurant, I ate with the researcher Eduardo again. As it turned out, he was half-Colombian and half-Argentinian. We talked about soccer (the theme of the day), and national allegiances. He was an Argentina supporter, and we talked about soccer rivalries and European football. He also talked about his experience of the military Junta in Argentina in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He was a remarkably interesting guy!

After lunch I quickly moved onto cart four. There was some interesting material, but time was running out. I had to decide what to take photos of and what to not get bogged down in. I rapidly got though my final cart and finished my final box with about three minutes left on the clock!

In the evening, the weather was nice, so I went for a walk through the city and eventually stopped off in a bar that had hundreds of beers available. I sat down and drank a few of them and enjoyed my last evening in Arkansas. Life. Was. Good.

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.

You have to be There to Believe It: History Comes Alive

The Beinecke’s Gutenberg Bible

The Beinecke’s Gutenberg Bible

by David Banas

Spring Break. That semi-magical time full of the hope of freedom for undergraduates and the false hope of it for graduate students who will invariably be writing term papers or, perhaps even worse, grading term papers. While there is an emphasis on working over Spring Break, especially in graduate circles, there is still nonetheless time during most of our Spring breaks to do something relaxing or exhilarating. The latter came for me on a surprise, last minute trip to Connecticut and New York where I was confronted face-to-face with the idea of history coming to life. Most time when one tosses the phrase “history comes alive” around in the CMU History Department, it generally refers to the methodology of game-based learning. However, there is another, older, and perhaps more established way in which history has been made accessible to generations of the public and historians alike over the past two and a half centuries: museums.

On my trip I visited two such institutions. In addition to the rich primary sources that the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscripts Library offers, it presents something even more valuable to the public (or even the historian not studying Medieval and Early Modern history): an enormous glass display filled with examples of their rare collections, visible for every visitor. In addition to the large display of the collection, the Beinecke has several individual display cases with invaluable books scattered around the library. What struck me the most was the Gutenberg Bible, one of only five in the United States and of twenty-one remaining in existence. I was instantly drawn back to my undergraduate years when Dr. Rutherford had repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Gutenberg Bible to the point of making it an ID term on his Renaissance history final exam. And here I was, face-to-face with the oldest, western, printed book in history. In that moment, I forgot all the greater surrounding details that Dr. Rutherford had sought to impress upon my memory and instead was enraptured by the beauty and majesty of this work and the book’s heavy Fraktur font. For me, history came alive as I experienced not only the object in its larger historical context but also its sheer beauty.

Dürer’s Portrait of Erasmus

Dürer’s Portrait of Erasmus

After being hauled around for nearly an hour and a half around a semi-frigid New York City by my girlfriend and her friend who were hell-bent on seeing all of New York in a day, we finally arrived at the end of Central Park with a rather large and imposing stone building in front of us: the MET. The MET—officially known as the Metropolitan Museum of Art—has several interesting exhibitions of which we visited the Byzantine and Medieval art collections (because my girlfriend said so). The collection that stood out to me was “Relative Values: The Cost of Art in the Northern Renaissance,” which, as the title suggests, focused on pieces created by such master craftsmen as Adriaen de Vries, Hans Daucher, and Albrecht Dürer. Despite all the previous sections of beautiful art, this section—Dürer’s works in particular—held my profound interest. On all of his works—just like the Renaissance textbook I had read when I was a baby-faced freshman had claimed—was Dürer’s famous signature of a large, block capital ‘A’ straddling a smaller, capital ‘D’. I was again confronted with history truly coming to life. Having a historian in a rather dry and boring textbook explain to you how Dürer signed all of his works does not compare to not only the sensation of being a mere few inches away from something so old and important but also the thrill of the opportunity of trying to find his signature on every one of his works in the Met’s exhibition. Describing an item or painting is one thing. Actually seeing and experiencing the beauty of it in person is quite another.

Maso Finiguerra's "Hercules and Antaeus"

Maso Finiguerra's "Hercules and Antaeus"

When people complain about history being boring and merely a collection of dates, I point to experiences such as the ones the Beinecke and the MET afforded me to make history truly come to life. Closer to home, the Clarke Historical Library provides students and the local Mount Pleasant community with the same kind of experience that the MET and the Beinecke gave me over Spring Break. The Clarke’s most recent Hemingway exhibition is on the same magnitude as the Met’s and Beinecke’s collections in that Ernest Hemingway as a person truly comes to life, especially while reading such works as the Gamble letter, a letter to Hemingway’s friend and commander during the First World War. One can feel the true character of the man, seeing the beauty of his handwriting, or some of his choice phrasing (the “fleshpots of Charlevoix” readily comes to mind).

In an age in which history and the humanities face budgetary cuts and restrictions, museums and historical libraries offer us a glimpse as to why we deemed history important in the first place. They can also show the public the beauty and importance of historical artifacts and give visual aids for many generations to enjoy. By writing the history of museum pieces such as Hemingway’s letters or the Gutenberg Bible we as historians can do our part to make history come to life.

Assets and Obstacles of Researching Transnationally: Using Archives in the U.S. and in Europe

by Alessandra Magrin (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow)


Having been required to use a large number of archives in two different continents during my joint research assistantship for the Buffalo Bill Center of the West (Wyoming) and PhD research at the University of Strathclyde (Scotland), I thought that talking about my experience and giving out some practical advice could be of use to some of the students in the Comparative and Transnational history program at Central Michigan (of which Strathclyde is one of the partner universities). Coming from a background in Foreign Languages and Cultural Studies, I had little previous experience with collections, foundations, or national archives (both in the U.S. and Europe) when I began this project, and—in all honesty—I would have treasured a few pragmatic tips on how to approach and what to expect from each of them. So here I am, I hope this post can help some of you avoid a total ‘research freak-out’ when you are thousands of miles away from home and from your beloved supervisors.

Let me begin by saying that participating in a big transnational research group such as the ‘Papers of W.F. Cody’–researching the life and times of Buffalo Bill Cody—was no doubt a thrilling experience, but also a challenging one. And while meeting international scholars (such as Patricia Nelson Limerick, Louis Warren, Robert Rydell) was electrifying, so was getting a shock from the Microfilm machine in the National Library of Rome, alas not in the same way.

 

American Archives:

Denver Public Library, Colorado

Denver Public Library, Colorado

Regardless of the picaresque journeys to get there— long transatlantic travels with plenty of missed connections and the odd interstate bus ride with Greyhound (Laredo-Denver, I’ll never forget you)—I have to admit that my experience with American archives was, luckily, always ‘easy peasy’. As some of you might already know, research collections are carefully indexed in most major American repositories, and a thorough preliminary search will make you fairly certain that your hunt will be successful. Professional archivists working in specific collections will also provide invaluable help, so make sure to reach out to them and explain precisely what you are looking for. They might be able to show you additional material on your topic which is contained in boxes that, for whatever reason (a misleading nametag or vague description), had escaped your initial search—as it happened to me in Denver Public Library. Generally, the staff working in large archives and libraries is abundant, and the distribution of the material and the opening times are user-friendly, with some repositories operating also during the weekend. This will allow you the chance to use your time at the archive to the fullest, especially if you are on a tight schedule due to long commutes. Furthermore, an increasing number of museums and archives now have digitized copies of some of their items, which, in some instances, will remove the need to actually visit the archive—at least for some time. This brings me to a tip that will save you some trips to Europe: Major American archives (Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, Newberry Library, Huntington Library, Archives at Yale and Stanford Universities) have copies of collections and documents held in European archives. So, even if you are researching a ‘European topic’, it is worth to first take a look in US archives as they are generally rich in European collections. However, the downside is that this material has probably been studied extensively before, and, unless you approach your topic from a particularly revolutionary angle, you take the risk of not being wholly original in your study. So, if the aim of your research is to examine original or little-known documents or to uncover previously unpublished primary sources, my recommendation is to cross the pond and start rummaging in some dusty European archive!

 

European Archives:

And this is when the challenges began for me! The way archives function in Europe varies from country to country, from institution to institution, and even from whether the archive is state-funded or financed by a private foundation. The organization of British archives and libraries is the one which resembles most the American system. The British Library, the National Archives, the National Library of Scotland, and the British Film Institute archive all have professional and semi-professional staff to assist users in their search. Several holdings are available digitally to users, both on and off site (including index cards, manuscripts, and newspaper collections). Besides that, the distribution of documents is frequent, and normally very quick. On the other hand, the reproduction of material can be rather costly (printing and scanning) but taking copies with your own devices for study purposes is allowed and it is free—although check how many pages of the documents/books/stills you are allowed to copy, each archive implements different policies.

Milan State Library (Italy)

Milan State Library (Italy)

When it comes to archives in continental Europe, the rules and organization change significantly. First of all, do not expect to always find staff who understands and speaks English. Although this might be more common in archives in some central-northern European countries (the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, parts of Germany, large French archives like the BNF in Paris), it is much more infrequent in central-southern and eastern European countries. You are researching a transnational topic, so ideally you would already have some skills in the language of the country you are visiting. If you don’t, I strongly suggest getting a research assistant/fellow PhD student/friend who is a fluent speaker (or, even better, who is based in the country) to assist you during your archival visit. The best way to achieve this is to meet international students, at university, during conferences or summer schools – so make sure you polish your networking skills!

Take into account that opening times often don’t include weekends, especially in countries like Germany, Italy, and Spain where everything shuts down on a Sunday, and that some archives might close as early as 5pm. Also, the distribution of material is sometimes limited to specific days and even specific times of the day (just mornings or just afternoons, or, for instance, only between 9 and 11 am and between 2pm and 4 pm), and that some material needs to be booked a few days before the day of delivery because it comes from an external warehouse (as in, for example, the antique newspapers collection of the National Library of Florence). So, a preliminary thorough check of the archive website and borrowing rules are fundamental—also to make sure you don’t get there on a national holiday or when the archive is closed for restoration (which happens often in archives held in historical buildings). It is good practice, especially in smaller archives, to preemptively announce your visit via email to the curator/archivist responsible for the specific collection you need to use. The staff will normally be able to prepare the material for you and reserve a space in the consultation room. Indeed, you will find that certain archives, despite housing generous collections, have very restricted spaces for the consultation and only accept visits via booking.

Don’t expect to find ‘cutting edge technology’ in all the repositories, especially if they are state-funded archives or libraries (which in certain European countries are notoriously underfunded, and understaffed). Internet and computer access are now generally available everywhere, but probably the Microfilm machines will be from the 1980-90s (don’t be like me and make sure you always dry your hands well before you use them, otherwise get a good life insurance). After years of lagging behind, the digitization of archival material, and especially of newspapers, is now efficient in several major European archives. However, most state-funded repositories have gargantuan collections and only a fraction of their holdings is online.

The situation is usually better in the archives of private foundations, which might have smaller holdings but are equipped with professional archivists with meticulous knowledge of their collections. In my personal experience the document retrieval process was always quick and efficient, so my advice would be to privilege this type of archive and go to state-funded archives if the items you are looking for are only held there.

So, as a rule, you do have to face a number of challenges when you decide to research in European archives. Arm yourself with a lot patience, never lose confidence in your abilities and keep persevering. Having a flexible mindset will help a great deal when you are there. Sometimes you just have to accept that certain things are beyond your control and, no matter how well organized you are, the unexpected will just happen (like when I was in Rome and my archive suddenly shut down due to the first snowstorm hitting the ‘eternal city’ in 27 years). However, I am certain that the rewards, especially for transnational scholars, outnumber the obstacles. Europe is a goldmine for historical records and the chances to come across some truly original material, or at least sources that have never before been studied by English-speaking scholarship, are extremely high. This will make a whole lot of difference in the quality of your research and, eventually, in the way your work will be received by the scholarly community.

The Mayflower Conundrum

The Pilgrim Fathers boarding the Mayflower" (Painting circa 1754) Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

The Pilgrim Fathers boarding the Mayflower" (Painting circa 1754) Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

by Marcel Haas

Judging by the onslaught of advertisement for genealogy kits, quick tests to find out one’s genetic heritage, there is a rapidly growing market for selling and buying knowledge of our heritage. Of course, many of us have grown up with stories of family history: Grandparents talking about the struggles of their lifetime, parents reminiscing about holidays when they were little, and even stories of our own – the first love, the last cigarette, and the latest conference trip to Europe. Beyond our immediate memory, however, few families (at least in Germany) record their history in writing. Maybe they keep letters and postcards, perhaps some aunt or uncle keeps a record of a near-mythical great-grandmother born in the mid-nineteenth century, but on average it would be hard to find anyone with complete knowledge of their ancestral history.

In America, the situation looks slightly different, at least judging from several encounters and conversations I have had over the years across the United States. Here, many people will refer to a specific ancestor from a long-gone century that crossed the oceans to come to the young United States (or the British colonies). They can also add an exact description of their genetic ancestry. More than once, I saw faces light up with delight when I answered the question of my nationality with “German,” only eclipsed by the heartfelt joy in explaining to me that they, too, were “German.” In a few cases, people I talked to were even able to tell me about the very German ancestor who had come to the US. Now, I don’t want to sound dismissive. Of course, I understand the value of oral histories transmitted in families, and I can see in the history of a country like the United States, shaped so heavily by immigration, the reason for a hunger for genealogical knowledge. Nevertheless, I cannot but feel a slight discomfort when dealing with such ancestral stories.

One of my most memorable exchanges happened just last year, while I stood at the counter of a grocery store in Mount Pleasant. My accent had peaked the interest of the guy next to me in line, and he was overjoyed to hear that I was indeed German, like him, as he told me. In fact, he explained, his family had traced his direct ancestry to one of the people traveling on the Mayflower! Of course, I was a bit sceptical, considering that the Mayflower Puritans were mostly English. I did not want to be pedantic, so I let him tell me his story, paid, and left the store. Identity is a complicated and sensitive matter, and he was surely entitled to decide his own. However, the encounter remained with me, if only for the strange mix of self-declared German and Mayflower ancestry.

For one, if the ancestor he identifies most with was on the Mayflower, why did he immediately emphasize his being German with me? How did the English Mayflower ancestor and “Germanness” correlate (let alone the fact that in 1620, there was no Germany in sight)? And above all, and that is really the subject of this post, what were his other 65,535 ancestors doing in 1620?

What emerges, is a simple problem of mathematics. If one assumes a generation to be around 25 years, then someone born into my generation is 16 generations removed from someone old enough to have been on the Mayflower. In general, anyone alive today would be directly descendant from a total of 131,072 people alive since 1590. Since that does not count siblings, cousins, and their respective relations, the grand total of relatives each one of us must have over the course of only the last four hundred years should be roughly around 400,000. (I admit, this is only my lazy estimation.) Thus, only considering ancestors alive in 1620, besides his ancestor of Mayflower fame, our friend from earlier could be proud of 65,535 other people. Some of them lived probably all over Europe, in Sweden and Finland (many of whom came to Michigan in the 19th century), in France and Italy, Poland, Russia, North Africa, Asia, and Great Britain. (Again, this is based on my lazy generalization. If I would speculate based on historical movements this post would be a small book.) A good amount of his ancestors in 1620 were most likely living across North America. Arguably, the great majority of his ancestors must have been poor, some were rich, a few of some fame. Some might have died in debtors’ prisons in England, some of the plague, some of the ague in Michigan. Some might have been Moravians, some Jewish, maybe some were Muslims, and some believed in non-Abrahamic religions. Perhaps one of his ancestors really came with the Mayflower.

These are ten generations. I gave up looking for a chart with sixteen generations, probably because that wouldn’t have fit on my house front. (This can be bought at Masthof Books. https://www.masthof.com/)

These are ten generations. I gave up looking for a chart with sixteen generations, probably because that wouldn’t have fit on my house front. (This can be bought at Masthof Books. https://www.masthof.com/)

Looking at these numbers, one cannot but feel overwhelmed – and confused. After all, we cannot possibly all have 65,536 ancestors in 1620, as the total number of original ancestors would be larger than the number of people who ever lived on this planet. The consequence is simple: At some point in time, the chances are high that we are all related somehow. That one nameless ancestor from the Mayflower likely features in the family trees of millions of Americans alive today – people who would identify as Anglo-Saxon, Hispanic, African American, Native American, Asian American, and more. Ultimately, one ancestor in 1620 is nothing compared to the people we are today. While it is surely fascinating to know that someone of our blood line did great things, it is also important to remember that all of us come from a rather small number of Homo Sapiens about 350,000 years ago.

Disclaimer: As my worried fifth grade teacher can confirm, math is not my strong suit. I have assumed the average duration of 25 years for one generation. Others have used 30 years or 32 years. If I would change my earlier example according to these calculations, the number of direct ancestors in 1620 is quite a bit lower. However, since I haven’t counted the people related to my grocery store friend in 1620 (as in cousins, siblings of ancestors, and their offspring), I believe I have used fair numbers. If I did make a mistake, please let me know (or comment below).

 

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.