We’re Listening

By Dr. Brittany Fremion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

From Scotland to New Haven: An Opera Singer's Journey

Pictures: laurenmcquistin.com

By Lauren McQuistin

Prior to my graduation from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, I asked my head of year what my next step should be. He suggested London, or Wales, but if I really wanted to challenge myself, the United States. Never shy from a challenge, I saw no other option but to buy a ticket. In recent years I told my Professor Robertson, how much his advice meant to me. He told me that while he gives most people the same advice few follow through. Having graduated at the other end of my graduate school experience, I am so grateful for the way higher education in America has enriched my life and would encourage anyone considering it enthusiastically. I was lucky enough to receive a full scholarship and stipend to study music at Yale University. Due to the fully funded nature of the programme, it attracted the most extraordinary musicians across the world, regardless of their socio-economic background. The program sought out musicians that were willing to carve their way forward based on skill and determination alone. Additionally, I gained valuable teaching skills—an experience unique to the American graduate school—though I am first and foremost a performer, I have extensive training in how to teach voice. Throughout my Masters degree I had a private studio of sixteen students, which varied from young undergraduates in the Glee Club, with over a decade of choral training – to graduate school instrumentalists who had never sung a note.  

Being situated on the east coast, the Music School placed me in a centre point for a culmination of cultures to explore. Coming from a small country of about five million, to sixty-five times that was overwhelming but eventually one of my greatest opportunities to network, grow as a musician, and expand my horizons. A singer’s and, indeed a graduate student in most disciplines, journey does not solely exist in the realm of music or subject, there is often a huge component that is based in language and the learning of language. While a history student must be of reading comprehension—especially for research purposes—an opera singer must be skilled in speaking and lyric diction. With the resident linguistic experts, I obtained a degree of fluency in German and Italian, proficiency in French, and started my journey with Russian. Aside from the practical applications, I have lyric diction in Czech and Swedish.  

Working as a teacher for the Yale School of Music allowed me to zone in on my own technique, and really develop my personal pedagogy. A feat that graduate students around the country must face in their respective careers. Having students at the absolute infancy of their musical journey allowed me to install an appreciation and a holistic approach to the voice – one that comes from a desire to create and share an art form that resonates on a profound level. Seeing young students be brave, and risk vulnerability, by exploring the world of singing and performance enhanced my own appreciation for the art from. In my final semester I had a pleasure of watching two of my students perform principal roles in Yale Baroque Ensemble’s production of L’orfeo, which reiterated that my teaching had created a legacy of performers and has already enhanced my studio and garnered public interest in my skills.  

Equally important was spreading my Scottish identity. Being part of the Yale School of Music and all the prestige that is attached to that, was my platform to promote Scottish musicians and artists as viable and vital to the artistic world. The connections and, most importantly, the discipline that I gained has afforded me the standing to make my way in the professional world. During my first audition season I was able to work at one of the top Young Artist’s Programmes in the world, Central City Opera, giving a taste of the young artist lifestyle I hope to inhabit very soon. Another asset to the School of Music is the contacts they have with agents and managers, which meant that in my final semester I had the pleasure of singing for Columbia Records, Barret Artists, and most importantly, the Metropolitan Opera.  

The sheer diversity of cultures that exist in America alone, and the diversity of cultures that America attracts, is a brilliant opportunity to expand one’s world view, and really asses how one moves through the world as a global citizen. The entire world is aware of the issues and advances that are occurring in America, they inhabit the world stage. Being close to them, and gaining my education during them, informed me on how I can be an active member of society, working towards justice and dismantling the systems of oppression that are failing humanity. In my experience I saw a student body who fixated upon this and used the power of their intelligence to mobilise and make small but significant changes that will eventually impact our future. This allowed me to consider how to make my music useful, and meaningful in a broader way, such as performing in benefits for Asylum and Immigration. I would not have had such a tangible contact with this world, and this way to use my skills and talents, if I had not taken the leap to study in America.


Lauren McQuistin is a soprano opera singer originally from Stranraer in Scotland. Including having a very impressive resume and website, Lauren enjoys the simple things in life such as eating out for breakfast, visiting cute coffee shops, and whale watching (although I’m not sure that’s quite as simple!). Studying abroad, teaching, and learning languages have been a vital part in Lauren’s journey to where she is today.

If you wish to contact her or find out more, visit her web page www.laurenmcquistin.com

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.

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.

Confusion in (and around) the Archive

British Library

British Library

Last week, the CMU History blog went on a short hiatus. The reason was my journey to London, where research in the British Library and the National Archive in Kew waited for me. This second part of our double feature on archival research is a loose collection of experiences in and around the archive.

 

Sad Catalogues, or: A Thief in the Night?

Microfilm could be such a great resource. It can contain a rather large amount of copied source material, doesn’t take up much space, and exudes a certain flair of actual research that reading sources on a computer thousands of miles from any archive just doesn’t have. Microfilm also must be catalogued carefully, ordered, and put into neat boxes for future examination. The downside is, however, that anyone who might want to use microfilm has to look at a lot of material before that hoped-for slide might come up.

Please notice the right side of the screen: absolutely nothing to see here

Please notice the right side of the screen: absolutely nothing to see here

In my case, nothing came up. While looking for an early 18th century London newspaper, I thought I had finally found the issue in question, when it dawned on me that the actual page was missing. The curator who had created the microfilm had surely been aware of that, since he or she had left a neat space in-between the other pages. Perhaps they had hoped that the page would be found one day, and subsequently added to the film. That day seems very far away, however. Since the librarians of the British Library are helpful and very nice, we spent at least an hour going through the catalogue and two separate backup collections to find the missing page. In the end, the librarian had to politely admit that the catalogue had perhaps been a bit boastful in announcing that the British Library held the most important, complete collection of early English newspapers. On top of that, while doing some further research online, the creeping suspicion came over me that the newspaper’s originals were actually held by the Library of Congress all across the ocean where I had initially come from for the purpose of finding those very originals! Now, I don’t know why anyone would take a whole host of early 18th century newspapers and smuggle them over the ocean to the new world, but if that person could please step forward and hand over that missing page, I would be very grateful.

Of course, as we all know, if I went to Washington and found that page, all it would tell me would be things I already knew from other newspaper entries. That’s how 18th century sources always are, you just can’t trust them.

 

An Insistent Donor?

If you are lucky enough to find yourself at a library or archive with an attached museum or exhibition, take the time to rest your brain (and eyes) a little and take a stroll. Often you might see or hear things that can make your day much better.

Shortly after quietly cursing the widespread crime of newspaper theft, I ventured into the heart of the British Library for a nice visit to the Magna Carta. Sadly, the museum didn’t have it on display at that time (and I must be honest in saying that I completely forgot to ask why), but there was a very chipper tour guide who gladly told the interested visitors about another, recently discovered Magna Carta. Apparently, some (very rich) guy had found a box in the attic of his newly acquired (ancient) house (well, palace). He had taken its contents, among them a massive scroll, to the local public library of the town of Sandwich, where the astonished librarians realized that the scroll was in fact a 1217 version of the Magna Carta. According to the British Library guide, the librarians told the lucky finder that he could offer the scroll to the British Library, which would give him 20 million pounds for it. He could also, however, give it to a private collector from America or China, who would surely give him over 100 million pounds! The owner of the scroll, shaking his head, declined both suggestions and simply gave the Magna Carta to the public library – for free. What a man!

The story remained in my head for a couple of days, before I decided to do some more research on it. Strangely, the only article I could find about a newly found Magna Carta in Sandwich dated from 2015 and described how a 1300 version was found in the archive… Which only goes to show that you can’t trust museum guides either.

 

123 Years of Adwa

Celebration of the victory at Adwa, March 1st 1896

Celebration of the victory at Adwa, March 1st 1896

While daydreaming about finding my own treasure worth 100 million pounds, I ventured out into the courtyard of the library for some air, when I was suddenly confronted with a rather large group of people dressed in white and waving Ethiopian flags. Singing and dancing, they made their way towards the library. I decided to walk with them, because I had just researched the Ethiopian-German relationship in the First World War, and out of sheer curiosity. Inside the building, the group visited the “Treasures of the British Library” exhibition, where they gathered around the priceless Ethiopic Bible, the 17th century Octateuch of Gondar. Feeling as if I should know why they celebrated this day, I still had to ask one of the Ethiopian celebrants about the significance of their visit. Beaming, he told me that Ethiopia had never been colonized, and that it had decisively defeated the Italian invasion at Adwa, on March 1st, 1896. Of course, it wasn’t such a coincidence – after all, the day is celebrated all over the world by people of the Ethiopian Diaspora – but I felt as if my struggle in the archive for this day was somehow vindicated. 123 years of Adwa matter, as a sign for the struggle of people all across the world against colonialism, and as a symbol that this struggle hasn’t yet ended.

Reminded of the ongoing validity of historical research, the need to comb through every attic in search for new documents, and the connections between historical study and living commemoration, I went back into the bowels of the library. I still needed to find that page, after all…

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.

History from the Dark Room

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by Hugo Zayas-González

Among those who in an amateur or professional way like to study the past it is well known that documents are their raw materials. Archives and historical libraries have been developing paper-based as well as digital collections, and by taking advantage of technological advances made efforts to keep them in usable conditions. Such is the case for Clarke Historical Library which launched a still ongoing program in 1967 to preserve local newspapers from Michigan communities. In this way, Clarke Library is not only striving to keep “the single most important record from which a community can be documented” usable, but also works to make this material available for a global scholarly community through its Digital Michigan Newspaper Portal. In simple words and paraphrasing a current academic expression, through this portal Clarke Library is setting Michigan local history in a global perspective.

In addition to the intellectual content found within the newspapers, there are technical reasons for preserving them. A definition of preservation says that it is “the protection of cultural property through activities that minimize chemical and physical deterioration and damage and that prevent loss of informational content.”[1] Therefore, the primary goal of preservation has to do with prolonging the existence of cultural property through two types of activities. On the one hand, there are those activities aimed at preventing damage to paper-based collections by storing them in proper buildings with suitable humidity and temperature conditions, and designing a disaster plan. On the other hand, treatment, replacement, and reformatting are the proper activities that address existing damage. In the case of Clarke Library’s newspaper project, it is mostly focused on protection through reformatting both its own and other publishers’ collections. However, Clarke Library’s project focuses not only on damaged or historical newspapers. It is remarkable that through its continuing program they are microfilming contemporary issues as well. At this moment, for instance, they are filming last year’s issues of the Clarkston News, the Cheboygan Tribune, and the Gaylord Herald Times among other titles.

Newspapers from the nineteenth century onward are printed on inexpensive, machine-made, wood pulp paper that was not manufactured for longevity, which makes it necessary to protect newspaper collections through microfilming and digitizing projects. Even though we are living in an increasingly digital world, digitization and digital preservation do not make traditional preservation methods unnecessary. Digitization is simply another option in the preservation toolkit, especially since preserving digital objects long term still presents inherent difficulties. Although microfilming has now become the least user-friendly medium for access to newspaper collections, this technique of preservation provides a master copy from which relatively inexpensive duplicates can be easily made. Furthermore, unlike digital media which requires computer access, microfilm can be read by the naked eye with only a light source and magnification. Digitization consists of making digital copies of non-digital objects, and one of the main disadvantages concerns the continuing change in technology (software and hardware) which affects the user’s expectations.

Thus, the Clarke Library’s DigMich Newspapers project faces the requirements of global and digitized users but still grounds its digital copies on microfilming from the dark room…

[1] Northeast Document Conservation Center, NEDCC, “Preservation 101,” https://www.nedcc.org/preservation101/session-1/1what-is-preservation

What is in a Syllabus?

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by Julie Haefner

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching in Bochum, Germany

By Dr. Carrie Euler

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spooked by Comps?

By Chiara Ziletti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Language Learning for Academics Part. 1 : Choosing your Teacher

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By Emily Sieg and Willi Barthold            

Learning a foreign language while pursuing a Master’s or PhD can be a difficult challenge. The amount of work and commitment it takes to truly master even just the basics of a foreign tongue seems especially overwhelming when you are busy with coursework, comps, teaching, or research. However, language learning can be of great benefit beyond just fulfilling your program’s requirements, since it not only offers the opportunity to immerse yourself into a different culture and become more aware of the meaning making capacities of language but might also help you to receive research fellowships abroad and enhance your research abilities. This two-part post will thus try to offer some assistance for academics that seek to learn a foreign language, may it be for the purpose of research or simply to broaden your personal and professional horizon as a scholar.

As graduate students enrolled in a German PhD program, we – the authors of this post – not only have a good grasp of typical graduate students needs and interests when it comes to language learning, we also would like to share with you our experience as instructors of German who often have PhD and Master’s students in their classes. Since one of us is a native speaker of German and the other a native speaker of English, in this part we would like to discuss the differences between taking a course with a native or non-native speaker of the target language and the pros and cons of each, in order for you to be able to assess what you want or expect out of a language course and help you choose the right one. 

If you are in the luxurious situation to be able to choose between a native and non-native speaker as your teacher when you pick a language class, your first intuition might tell you to go with the native speaker. Who would know a language better than someone who grew up speaking it every day in the country in which it is actually used? Knowing teaching practices and styles of native and non-native speakers, however, makes this choice a less obvious one. In fact, native and non-native teachers bring in very different perspectives and qualification when it comes to teaching and these differences can become both advantages and disadvantages for your language learning experience, depending on your individual needs and preferences.

Let’s start with the native speaker as usually most people’s first choice. The advantages are quite obvious, as the native-speaker usually not only has a good command of the language in all its varieties, but, as a member of the foreign discourse community, will also be able to shed light on the various cultural contexts in which the language is used in specific ways. The native speaker will teach you colloquialisms that the textbook does not know, enrich your learning experience with real-life anecdotes that demonstrate the use of language in context, and provide you with a sheer endless vocabulary knowledge that allows you to gain an understanding of not only one but multiple ways to achieve communicative purposes in the target language. This high degree of linguistic flexibility comes with a high degree of accuracy regarding assessment and error correction. The native speaker sees and hears every mistake. It is an old saying that one learns by making mistakes, so this accuracy will raise your awareness of areas in which you still need to improve and thus will have a positive effect on your language acquisition process. 

The high attentiveness to mistakes, however, might also very quickly turn into nitpicking, which brings us to some of the disadvantages of the native speaker and areas in which the non-native speaker can shine. While the latter might be lacking some of the abilities that we have just outlined as features that distinguish the native speaker, the non-native speaker in contrast will be better able to give you feedback on your performance in the foreign language that prioritizes aspects that are most essential for meaning making. In other words, this means that while the native speaker might see more mistakes and easily gets hung up on them, the non-native speaker knows which mistakes need to be pointed out at that particular moment in your learning process and which will stop occurring by themselves once you master the most essential literacy skills. Not limited to instances like this, it is precisely the personal experience as a learnerof the foreign language that the non-native speaker is able to draw on in order to scaffold your language acquisition productively. Native speakers often lack essential theoretical knowledge about the grammar of their own mother tongue, simply because they never had to study it consciously. The non-native speaker, on the other hand, went through the same learning process as his students at one point in his life and should thus have a comprehensive command not only of grammar rules but also of how to convey and instruct them most effectively. 

When just starting a language, it thus may be to your advantage to take a course with a non-native speaker. While the complex language used by the native speaker can be a great source of inspiration, some students might prefer the non-native speaker’s pragmatic language use that allows him to single out the most essential words and phrases without overwhelming students with an unmanageable sea of choices. Furthermore, what the non-native speaker might lack in comparison to the native speaker’s comprehensive knowledge of the language is often impressively compensated by their precise knowledge of grammar choices. Yes – your non-native speaker might make mistakes that the native speaker would not, but if you want to know how to avoid mistakes, the non-native speaker will more likely be able to advise, whereas the native speaker will say “no, we just don’t do that.”

We hope that this post has given you a new perspective on the advantages and disadvantages of both native and non-native language instructors. In the next post, we’ll discuss some strategies for language learning to help you once you’re already in the classroom.

5 Tips for every PhD student's Partner

By Sara Papendorf

Many of the posts on this blog come from the point of view of those in the academic world. I thought it might be interesting (and helpful) for some readers to describe several experiences of a PhD student from a completely different point of view – the view of a partner. My name is Sara Papendorf, and I am the partner of Dave Papendorf, your favorite blog editor.  I am not an academic, but I’ve lived through the process and, therefore, have some tips to share.

To provide some context, my life as the partner of a PhD student started back in 2014. After much discussion about our future, Dave and I decided that he should pursue a PhD in history. Thus began the long hours of filling out applications. Dave applied to a number of different programs in the Midwest. I still remember how exciting it was getting letters in the mail from the different universities he applied to – honestly, I think I was more excited than Dave was! I have always been the mail checker in the family, so Dave had to kindly ask me to not open any letters without him. I obliged his request......well......basically. There were several times when I held a letter up to the light to try and see what it said. In fact, this was how we discovered that Dave was accepted into the program at CMU. It was a very exciting time for us!

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Fast forward four years later to July 2018, and Dave is currently in the writing stage of the program. As for me, over these past four years, I would say that I have learned much about being the partner of a PhD student.  If I were to provide you with any advice, here are some tips that I have found helpful: 

Tip 1: Expect challenges

Anyone who is currently working on or has completed a PhD program knows that the life of a PhD student is not for the faint-hearted. There are huge milestones in any program – being accepted, passing comps, completing one’s dissertation, defending one’s dissertation, and securing a job – not to mention that each milestone is filled with its own set of tasks to complete.  It has been important for Dave and me to recognize that this stage in our life is not permanent, just temporary and to expect that there will be difficult times throughout each major milestone.  Keeping this outlook has allowed us to pace ourselves, take one day at a time, and enjoy ourselves along the way.  

Tip 2: Show interest in your partner’s work

Frankly, I never had much interest in history during my academic years.  I much more enjoyed math and English.  It’s quite comical that my partner has such a great interest in history.  Even though I am not a huge history fan and it takes some focus to learn about history, I have discovered over the past several years that Dave appreciates when I take an interest in what he is working on.  My interest in his work doesn’t have to be a big ordeal; questions as simple as, “What are you reading about now?” or “What did you discuss in your colloquium today?” can go a long way.  I actually find great joy in hearing Dave describe what he is learning because I can tell that he truly enjoys doing what he does.  Last year, Dave taught his first course, which was medieval history.  At the beginning of the semester he asked me if I was going to attend any of his lectures. Looking back, I think he was half joking and half serious.  However, I was able to attend two lectures, and I know taking the time to attend really meant a lot to Dave.    

Tip 3: Be spontaneous. 

There are times when your partner will need to do something to take their mind off of the grind academia - studying for comps, reading primary sources in sixteenth century Latin (I might be speaking from personal experience here ;-)), or editing the same chapter of their dissertation for the fifty-second time.  From January to June of this year, Dave and I lived at the Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG) located in Mainz, Germany.  The IEG has dormitory-like living – single rooms equipped with a sink, shared kitchen space, and shared bathrooms. Over the six-month span, Dave and I both worked in our room every day.  I am sure you can imagine how easy it would be to go stir crazy working in a small space. To help keep us sane, we often took spontaneous walks along the Rhine River.  There were a handful of Saturdays where Dave and I intended to tackle several items on our checklist; however, instead of working, we decided it would be better for our quality of life to set aside our mile-long to-do-lists and spend some time enjoying each other’s company and enjoying our German surroundings. Sometimes an unplanned trip to get gelato or to the market was just what we needed.  And you don’t have to live in Germany to follow this tip – find some spontaneous fun that works in your locale!

Tip 4: Be supportive

Throughout the past four years, consciously attempting to be a supportive partner has been an important component of my role as Dave’s partner.  Supporting Dave has taken on many forms, and I have learned that sometimes being supportive is more about listening to Dave describe his concerns and struggles rather than offering my best solution to a difficult problem.  Honestly, this is one thing that has been the most difficult for me to do but has meant the most to Dave.  Lending a listening ear has often provided Dave with the support he needs to keep plugging along.  

Tip 5: If you get to travel, take advantage!

During the second year of Dave’s program, we spent the academic year living in Newcastle, England.  Knowing we would be in the UK for quite some time, we decided to book several trips to various locations across Europe – Belfast, Rome, Geneva, Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, and Edinburgh.  While these trips could get prices, I would say that our experiences (seeing the spectacular views of Giant’s Causeway, walking the streets of ancient Rome, taking a ferry ride down the Amsterdam canals, and touring the catacombs in Paris……just to mention a few) were worth every penny.  I can honestly say that we made the most of our time in the UK and have no regrets.  Throughout all of our travels, we have discovered some simple ways to save money:  choosing to stay in an AirBnb rather than a hotel, packing a lunch (and dinner…and breakfast), and searching for deals on cheap European airlines (EasyJet and RyanAir). Traveling with Dave has been such a great privilege as he is often able to explain some of the history behind many of the things we have been able to see when traveling abroad.  As someone who was born and raised in the Midwest, I would say it’s often easy to get wrapped up in visiting places in the US. Don’t get me wrong, the US has much to offer, but the world is quite a big place.        

These tips are by no means scientifically proven. They are just the things that have worked for me and Dave over the past 4 years. I expect (and hope) that some, if not all, might be encouraging to you as well!

Artificial Intelligence: Is There Any Possible Application to History?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcasts: Listen, Create, Engage

By Jennifer Vannette

Podcasts are getting quite a bit of attention lately, but they really aren't new. In 2008, the American Historical Association (AHA)'s blog featured podcasts as an alternative teaching method. The article suggested that podcasts provided a great way to listen to lectures outside of a classroom setting. This is indeed one type of history podcast.

Over the last decade, many more podcasters have offered a whole host of new material. Some are still based on presenting a stand alone lecture while others deeply explore long arcs of historical events, such as The Fall of Rome. Still others explore the quirky side of history by highlighting stories you may not have heard in history classes such as the dark history of Hollywood on You Must Remember This or the travails of the high seas on The History of Pirates. There are so many interesting facets of history that podcasters tackle to the delight of public audiences. Seriously, just google history podcasts and you be offered many different lists of the "best."

Then there are also podcasts that appeal to those of us in the profession. The Organization of American Historians (OAH) has its own podcast to compliment their journal. Each month last year Ed Linenthal, the executive editor of the Journal of American History interviewed a guest about the article he or she had recently contributed to the journal. Another approach by some of our own grad students at CMU (two current and one alum) discusses all the things we talk about with other grad students -- navigating school, teaching, professional networking, and more. I Was Told There'd Be Food is a great introduction to grad school life or a place to go for ideas and commiseration.

History departments are also finding ways to involve faculty and students in creating podcasts. A highly regarded offering that has been active for awhile, 15 Minute History, comes from the University of Texas at Austin faculty and grad students. It is what it sounds like -- brief episodes that cover a wide range of history. The faculty of University of Oxford also have a similar podcasts, and they have some general history and a few more specific podcasts such as Stories, Spaces, and Societies -- Globalising and Localising the Great War. These can be an excellent method of public engagement for faculty and grad students alike. The very specific topics are a great place to engage with the research of your specialization.

There is also the possibility of incorporating podcasts in the classroom. Not only can students gain deeper understanding of material if we assign specific podcast episodes in addition to (or instead of) a reading assignment but we can also consider having students produce a podcast episode as an alternative to a paper or other project. Free recording software is available to download from the internet and then all it takes is a pair of earbuds with built in microphone (standard with most phones now) and our students have what they need.

Podcasts can be listened to while driving, while exercising, or doing chores. When you search for podcasts, you will find wide enough variety to suit all tastes. While we listen, we can brainstorm methods for incorporating as an alternative teaching method. So, go explore the wide world of history podcasts.

Maps as History

1988 Road Atlas, Rand McNally

1988 Road Atlas, Rand McNally

By Jennifer Vannette

I love maps. I've always been drawn to them. I spent many hours as a child happily entertaining myself by studying the road atlas on long car trips. Maps tell stories and offer all sorts of interesting little rabbit holes down which to get lost. They can also help teach history in a visual, dynamic way.

With so many new digital archives available, we now have access to maps of nearly everything we might want to teach. The David Rumsey Collection, the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas, the Newberry Library Map and Cartography Collections, and Stanford University Spatial History Project are excellent resources available for historians.

John Pickles, a geographer with interests in social power and maps, suggests:

maps have the character of being textual in that they have words associated with them, that they employ a system of symbols within their own syntax, that they function as a form of writing (inscription), and that they are discursively embedded within broader contexts of social action and power.

Teaching with maps not only can help students visualize the trade routes of the British empire, the westward expansion of the US, or the ways religions spread, maps can also be used to teach primary source analysis. Students can learn to interrogate what the map depicts, who made the map, why they made the map. Other questions suggested by the National Archives lesson plans include: "What did you find out from this map that you might not learn anywhere else?" and "What other documents or historical evidence are you going to use to help you undertand this event or topic?"

Maps help us orient history in time and place. Visualizing space can be very powerful.

In Defense of History: A New Blog Feature

Paul Revere sounding the call. Boston.

Paul Revere sounding the call. Boston.

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

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

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

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

The Future of the Past

By Sandy Planisek

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

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

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

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