In search of Marion Facinger

Marion Facinger - image provided by Jane Freidson

Marion Facinger - image provided by Jane Freidson

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

By Michael Evans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

An Experience to Remember: CMU’s History Department

By Analiese Guettler

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

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

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

Extract from HST201 Syllabus

Extract from HST201 Syllabus

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

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


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

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

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

By Dave Papendorf

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

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

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

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

An Airy Salon for the Industrious PhD Student

An Airy Salon for the Industrious PhD Student

Despaired, Despondent, and Dejected (ish)

Despaired, Despondent, and Dejected (ish)

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

Papendorf Checklist.jpg

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

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

PapendorfGraphic.jpg

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


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

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

Celebrating the Summer of ’69 at the CMU Museum

By Caity Burnell

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

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

PictureD: Brad Davis demonstrating the Interactive Ceiling

PictureD: Brad Davis demonstrating the Interactive Ceiling

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

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

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

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


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

  1. Twitter handle: @CMU_Museum

  2. Instagram: @cmumuseum

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

Nostalgia is not History

by Angelo Moreno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

References

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

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

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

NAFTA – History without Borders

by Scarlet Munoz Ramirez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New to being a TA: Where to start?

by Sam Malby

You’ve just got the news. You’ve been given funding by the History department at CMU, and you’re going to be a Graduate Teaching Assistant. For fifteen seconds you’re ecstatic. Then you come to the realization… you’re going to be a Teaching Assistant. And you have no idea how to teach, how to talk to students, or how to grade. You suddenly realize that you know nothing about anything, and that they will immediately realize that you must be an impostor and will hunt you down with torches, pitchforks, and (this being America) probably some guns. 

But fear not! There is no need to panic, simply take a deep breath and try to calm down.

Let me suggest a few places you can start.

First of all, there are some things to remember before you even enter the classroom.

1.     Don’t try to be someone you’re not. If you’re a cheerful, joke-laden person who always has a smile on his or her face, don’t put on a stern, scary face because you think it’ll give you more authority in the classroom. It won’t. (Don’t be the Grinch, unless you’re naturally a mean, green, grumpy machine). Be natural and do your best to make others feel comfortable around you.

2.     Remember that the aim of a discussion section is getting the students to talk. You are there to guide the discussion; you certainly shouldn’t be talking for 50 minutes straight. You will most likely end up putting yourself and your students to sleep.

3.     It’s perfectly fine to say, “I don’t know.” Just follow it up with “I’ll look that up for our next class” or “can someone check that on their phone or laptop?”

4.     At first, it is better to be overprepared than underprepared. Eventually, you’ll know how much preparation an hour of discussion section requires.

 

Now a few tips on how to improve your teaching skills.

1.     You might think that the go-to person is the professor you are teaching for, but while the professor is high up on the list, the first people most of us turn to are other TAs. These could be those you are working with as well as other TAs in the History Department. A quick discussion with one of them will often help you find a solution to your problem, an idea for your next class, and suggestions on finding resources.

2.     You can of course also discuss your dreams, doubts, and questions with the professor you work for, and usually they are also a great resource for dealing with any difficulties you may have.

3.     If by chance you are an International student arriving during the summer, there is an International Teaching Assistant Workshop. This is a nice place to start and will help you become aware of some of the cultural differences between your country and the United States.

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4.     During the fall semester, the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) provide bi-weekly GTA workshops where they discuss topics such as ‘Starting on the Right Foot,’ ‘Dealing with Issues in the Classroom,’ and ‘Tackling the Demands of Professional and Personal Responsibilities’. Many of these sessions have been a great resource this semester and provide feedback and discussion points throughout the year that will help you reassess your own teaching.

5.     The HST 700 Practicum in College Teaching is a great place to discuss classroom issues and might make you re-consider many of the pre-conceived ideas you may have about teaching.

6.     The professor for the Teaching Practicum in the Fall 2018 semester, Dr. Brittany Fremion, introduced us to a number of books on teaching. For example, Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do can be a great place to start if you’re in need for some ideas.

7.     If you need a quick refresher on a topic or need some information on something you haven’t studied yet, a great place to start is the Crash Course YouTube channel. Their videos on World History and US History are full of information, presented in a fun and easy to understand way.

 

Ultimately, experience is the best teacher. All you need to do is walk into the classroom, stand in front of the class and begin to talk. Not everything will always go to plan, but that is absolutely fine. Over time you will learn to adapt, improvise, and survive. Just remember what Winnie the Pooh says: “You’re braver than you believe and stronger and smarter than you think.”

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.

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.

The First Year

Image courtesy of Getty Images

Image courtesy of Getty Images

By Dr. Timothy Orr

Hey all, it is an honor to be a guest contributor to [Re]collection! My special thanks to David for this opportunity. 

My name is Timothy Orr, and I am an Assistant Professor of History at Simpson University in Redding, California (Redding has been in the news recently as the location of the very devastating Carr Fire, but thankfully my family, home, and university are all safe). In May I completed my first full year of employment as an Assistant Professor, and it is this period I want to reflect upon in this entry.  As an overarching disclaimer, I feel so incredibly fortunate to have full-time employment in my field, and I am aware of the privilege and rarity of my situation. My below thoughts speak only to my situation and are not meant to imply a universal understanding of each individual’s graduate and professional experiences. 

Before discussing my first year of full-time work, I want to say a very quick word about the job hunt. The job market is the worst.  If you are an academic, then you are very familiar with this fact. There is so much literature on the realities of the job market that I do not feel I can add much to that discussion, but I wanted to mention it because it has continued to affect me as I move into my career, as I will discuss below. 

My first year of teaching has been a strange combination of fulfilled dreams and continued challenges. Every professor I spoke to told me that finishing a dissertation, even while maintaining a steady teaching load, is still significantly less work than the first several years of a full-time position. They were, unsurprisingly, correct. Writing lectures preps, continuing to work on research projects, and beginning to turn my dissertation into a book manuscript competed with meetings, committee work, and extra-curricular activities with students (not to mention suddenly living an area with beautiful mountains and a wife who wants to explore a new one every day she can). It has absolutely been the most work I have ever done in my life and I have loved almost every minute of it. I can remember the first time I walked into a classroom to teach as the sole instructor for that period. I was already well into graduate school and two thoughts plagued me as I did: 1. What if I am no good at this? 2. What if I hate teaching? At the least, I definitely do not hate what I do, and the opportunity to engage students every day in the classroom continues to shape me as a professor. I love teaching, and while there is less time to devote to research, I have discovered the context of being fully immersed in the life of a university provides a framework that helps me better orient why research is such a significant part of our field. Even committee work, which is undoubtedly the least glamorous part of our profession (aside, perhaps, from administrative paperwork), has helped me better understand the functioning of the university and the diverse backgrounds from which my colleagues have arrived at academia. 

There are also new challenges I have faced during my first year of full-time work. I Skyped with a friend who had also just completed her first year as a full-time professor, and we shared very similar experiences—even though she is at a large state university and I am at very small liberal arts university. We have both struggled to find a sense of community like what we enjoyed during our doctoral programs. During my Ph.D. program, I spent five years delving deeply into a subject that I love and, while doing this, I was surrounded by people who love what I love. It is an incredibly rare thing and it created friendships I will enjoy the rest of my life. But full-time work is more isolating. You inevitably spend more time with students than with peers, and colleagues, for a variety of reasons, are less engaged with your work. My friend and I also both experienced periods of existential doubt regarding the humanities and higher education during our first year as full-time faculty. These doubts certainly are not new, but they took new shape as we wrestled with these questions not just in our lives but in the lives of our students. How are we preparing and shaping them and what support, financial and otherwise, will be available to them as they continue on their journeys? 

These new struggles and doubts have been a critical part of this first year. However, I anticipated new problems as I moved into full-time work and their emergence has not surprised me. Rather, it is has been the continuation of old doubts and fears that have affected me most during this past year. The Ph.D. behind my name and the Assistant Professor tag underneath it on badges at conferences has done little to assuage the sense of self-doubt I still experience encountering senior colleagues, or even just colleagues, at conferences. Every line I write and every article I submit still seems woefully inadequate and my imposter syndrome is apparently not impressed with the degrees hanging in my office. But even this is, in some ways, unexpected. The absolute greatest fear in my professional life was, is, and will remain the job market. 

I thought that when I landed a full-time position my constant fear (terror, really) of the job market would be gone, but the terrible reality of it continues to hang over me. With so many academic institutions in very difficult financial straits, new positions are nowhere near as secure as they need to be—and even whole universities are threatened. The tenure deadline also looms ahead and I spend just as much time worrying that I will have to go back on the job market as I did worrying about landing a job when I was on it. Again, I recognize that this unfair as I am incredibly lucky to have a position when so many do not. But it would have been helpful to hear more about the ways things do not change as you transition from graduate school into the academy. It gets harder in all the ways that I expected, but it does not get easier in any of the ways that I hoped. 

However, it does seem to say something that my greatest dissatisfaction with my profession is the threat that I might not get to do it. There are a lot of layers to my fear of being forced back onto the job market. I have concerns about finances, failure, and relocating, but the primary fear is that I will not be able to continue to do the work that I love—and I think that is a rare and fortunate thing.

Elementary Social Studies: Missing Historical Context

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By Jennifer Vannette

Over dinner one night, my son, who is in fourth grade, informed me that he had learned all about the Underground Railroad. I encouraged him to talk to me about what he knew, and his knowledge of the system of escape from slavery was quite good. Just when I thought I might be impressed with his education thus far, he stumbled when I asked him what life was like for a slave. Why did some try to run away? He told me all about what crops were grown on plantations. That was all he knew about a slave’s life.

The unfortunate reality of the American educational system is that we tend to avoid difficult topics. Talking to students about the horrors of forced labor and being sold away from your family is hard, and so it’s glossed over. When that happens, we are left with an unclear understanding of why slaves ran away and why something like the Underground Railroad existed. It allows space for racists to claim that people of African descent just didn’t want to work or someone with as much wealth and access to education as Kanye West to suggest that slavery was “a choice.”

Soon after that conversation, I was deeply curious to look at his social studies textbook when it came home so he could study for a test. The book, Michigan: Adventures in Time and Place, published by McGraw-Hill in 2001* had a feature section about how the Fugitive Slave Act affected a Michigan town that was home to an escaped slave family. In a narrative style, the book described how a man discovered the African-American family’s status and sought to turn them over to the authorities. The town rallied behind the family and eventually helped them to flee into Canada.

The book calls the section “Two Different Viewpoints” and layouts of the argument like a debate.  On one side of the page the headline reads: Michiganians Should Have Obeyed the Fugitive Slave Law; and on the other side the headline reads: Michiganians Should Not Have Obeyed the Fugitive Slave Law. Details of the Fugitive Slave Act are given, and also part of speech by the mayor in which he argues that slavery is immoral.

While none of the provided questions are particularly good at helping students better understand the dilemma faced by Michiganders, even more problematic is the last of the follow-up questions: “Which side do you think made the stronger argument? Why?” Slavery is and was objectively wrong. One cannot craft an argument that makes slavery okay, so to set this up as a debate between different viewpoints for contemporary students is disturbing. I commend the commitment by McGraw-Hill to teach the difference between opinions and facts, but I cannot fathom why they would scaffold a child to take up the argument that following the Fugitive Slave Act was the right choice.

Obviously, Americans rationalized and justified the inhumane enslavement of another group of people, but just because they found ways to convince themselves their position had merit does not mean that school children in the 21st century should be contemplating the question in the same manner. There is no argument here. The Fugitive Slave Act expanded slavery beyond the boundaries of slave states and forced people who did not agree with the “peculiar institution” to uphold the rights of slaveowners even within the borders of free states – a point the book does not clearly make.

Elementary school students are also taught about law and order. So, to present to them the choice between following a law and breaking a law without fully presenting the context of slavery and the reality that the Fugitive Slave Act essentially expanded slavery to free states against the wishes of those citizens, sets the students up to potentially think the moral choice was to follow the law. It should never, under any circumstances, be suggested to students that any law upholding slavery was moral or just.

These fourth graders have not learned that the United States has had to overturn unjust laws in our history. The process doesn’t seem very dynamic when one scans their reading materials. No wonder most Americans have a poor understanding of the systemic injustices of our nation, which have existed since the beginning and still do today.

I can have these conversations with my son, and I can help him to confront the darker part of our history so that he can have a fuller understanding of how he got to where we are today. But what of the other students? Attempts at neutral language only serve to confuse the issues and leave students uncertain about our history. 

 

*That this book is so incredibly out-of-date, having been published before 9/11, is another problem for another blog post. I will mention, though, that our district does not have funding issues, and still they don’t purchase new materials.


Jennifer Vannette once served as editor of [Re]collection before graduating from Central Michigan University with a PhD in History in 2017. You can follow her on Twitter @jenvannette.

Fragments of the Forgotten Past

By Chiara Ziletti

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The End is Nigh

It's the most wonderful time of the year ... finals and grading! Woo! .... no?

Okay, so maybe not the most wonderful time, but there is a light at the end of the academic tunnel. You are almost to that glorious freedom where you will (convince yourself) you have all kinds of time to get all the things done. So, to help you reach the end of the semester I will, in the words of blogger Kylie Soanes, "give unsolicited advice to other academics. Preferably in blog form. Don’t say anything helpful."*

  • Hydrate. This is your marathon. Prep like it's one. You know, what? Carbo-load too. Just in case. It might not help with grading, but pasta is delicious.
  • Psyche yourself up by stacking all the exams and papers so you can visualize the completely reasonable amount of work to do. Then weep quietly. Regroup. Take at least half your stack and hide it in your desk so you feel like you have already made progress.
  • Be elated when you reach the end of your pile of grading. Weep quietly again when you open that desk drawer and find the other stack.
  • Netflix. Search for historical anomalies in Stranger Things and call it work. You are a historian after all, and television show accuracy is important. Plus it will give you something to talk about at the next holiday party.
  • Only check your email once a day so you don't get bogged down. Okay, maybe once in the morning and once in the evening. Or, perhaps just once each time you need a break. You know what? Just stay logged in.
  • Avoid social media. Except to post about your progress and tiredness and your ruminations on why society expects grades as a metric. What does it all mean anyway!?
  • Write a blog post for your favorite blog. *ahem. (This won't help your progress, but it will help mine, so...)
  • If all else fails just remember that the reality is most students aren't coming back to pick up the final anyway, so limit your notations and get it done.

You are almost to the finish line (to keep our marathon analogy going) and you're doing great! In the immortal words of Dory, "Just keep swimming..." Aw, man. There went the marathon analogy.

* I mean it's probably not helpful, but you never know.

Shouldn't Academics Respect Empirical Evidence?: The Tech Debate

planning-a-user-interface-1230857-640x480.jpg

by Jennifer Vannette

Read any report or op-ed in which the author suggests that use of tech in the classroom may not be as helpful as one would like and immediately the comments section roars to life with a loud, angry protest. Recently I read a brief piece about why a professor chooses to rewrite things on a white board as opposed to using PowerPoint. Cue the angry defensiveness in the comments section telling this professor that she must be terrible at her job; there is always an assumption of incompetence if a person values a low-tech method over high-tech. Tech is associated strongly with progress, and so those who offer a contrarian view are often told to step aside. Here's one thing that is fascinating in light of academic emphasis on evidence: study after study has shown note-taking by hand leads to greater understanding and retention and yet many academics (and students) still insist that the evidence is wrong and laptops are best. Deeply troubling, it seems academics are particularly guilty of ignoring empirical evidence in favor of their own anecdotal belief that that tech is better, and that disregard of evidence runs contrary to our values as academics. Case in point, recent commentary in Chronicle of Higher Education.

One of the most contentious and perpetual debates regarding tech is the use of laptops or tablets for note-taking. From students, most of the anecdotal evidence comes from those who insist that they cannot later read their own handwriting or those that have a learning disability that impairs their ability to keep up with notes during a lecture. I'm certain those are real concerns. Yet the evidence suggests that the majority of students benefit from turning off the laptops, and since there are structural supports in place for students with disabilities, I'd like to suggest we turn our focus to the majority for a moment -- most of our students can take notes by hand. Their real barrier is simply lack of practice.

The most recent and most cited study was conducted by Pat Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer and released in 2016.  Consistently they found the same results. They wanted to discover whether or not students processed and retained information better with or without a laptop. What is not in dispute is that students who take notes on a laptop tend to type verbatim notes. This means that they collect much more of what was said during lecture. Students who write notes by hand cannot keep up with verbatim notes and tend to have to process and be selective. This indicates more mental processing, but it also means less collected information. Mueller and Oppenheimer acknowledged that studying comes in two parts: the encoding hypothesis says that when we are involved in the act of taking notes we are engaged in mental processing that helps us learn and retain information, and the external-storage hypothesis that suggests notes are important for a student to look back on and study again.

The Mueller/Oppenheimer study had multiple parts so they could try to address these different components. Hundreds of students from UCLA and Princeton were asked to watch TED talks on a wide variety of topics and take notes. Some did so by hand and some by laptop. Students who used laptops took significantly more notes than students with pen and paper, so the question is whether or not that helped. The students then were tested on how well they remembered information. When it came to basic facts, both groups did well, but when it came to conceptual questions, the students who used a laptop did significantly worse. 

Okay, so verbatim notes might not help. So, in part two of the study, Mueller and Oppenheimer coached the laptop note-takers to not take verbatim notes. Use the laptop, but don't just type everything you hear. It turns out that it is difficult to control the impulse to take verbatim notes when the tool is at your fingertips. The results of the tests were the same.

But there is the external-storage hypothesis, so to make sure no stone was left unturned, the students in a third study were given the chance to study from their notes before taking the test. The idea being that because they had more collected information, with enough time to review it, they might perform better than hand note-takers who had less material to review. But, still, the hand note-takers out performed their laptop note-taking peers.

Scientific American reported that another key point in this study was that all the laptops were disconnected from the internet so as to eliminate that potential factor in the results, but in most classrooms students who use laptops can be distracted by the internet. The journal reported one study that determined 40% of all students with laptops are distracted and another law school study that showed a 90% distraction rate. The obvious implication is that those on a laptop were already disadvantaged in their ability to remember material based on their note-taking strategy so when you add in the distractions posed by easy internet accessibility, it's hard to see this as a formula for success.

Even though we need to acknowledge that students have different needs when they enter our classrooms, the evidence is clear that technology has drawbacks. No matter the fancy PR and futuristic appeal, it turns out that taking notes by hand leads to better education outcomes. And isn't that the business we are in?

Mueller admitted that it's a hard sell to get students to put down their tech devices, but she suggests that maybe with improving technologies like LiveScribe with stylus and tablet applications, perhaps the gap can be bridged. For myself, I've taken to presenting students with the evidence on day one and then I let them make their choice. In my last class of about 25 students, only three chose a laptop. 

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.

Expanding into Public Scholarship

Unessays by Ashley Woodworth (left) and McKayla Sundberg (right)

Unessays by Ashley Woodworth (left) and McKayla Sundberg (right)

By Jordan X. Evans

How can we as scholars, educators, and historians engage with students and the public in the age of “alternative facts” and constant funding cuts? This is of utmost importance to us at CMU because in April the University decided to cut nearly ten percent of the financial operating budget for the College of Humanities, Social & Behavioral Sciences. A recent article in The Chronicle by Keisha N. Blain and Ibram X. Kendi, “How to Avoid a Post-Scholar America,” attempts to answer some of those questions. One of their suggestions was to become public historians: pull ourselves out of the archives, conferences, libraries, labs, and the historical jargon. Our history department has already started to engage in this through activities like Reacting to the Past. where students gain an appreciation for how complicated history is by placing themselves within a historical moment. Through the use of RTTP students also learn to critically think about historical events in a fun way. Teaching critical thinking skills in a game brings value to the students and our own classrooms.

However, this is one step; what are some other methods and activities we can do to reengage and fight against the world of alternative facts? Instead of engaging in a highly specialized field that is nearly inaccessible for the public, we as historians must become the defenders of truth, critical thinking, and history. If we take seriously Blain and Kendi's call to become public scholars, what might that look like?. Public scholars engage with people in unique ways, for example; giving public lectures, editing and creating blogs, and inventing interesting and different ways to publish scholarship. The focus is on accessibility, not demonstrating your impressive vocabulary. Can we as historians capitalize on alternative methods to combat alternative facts inside of and outside of the hallowed walls of our university?

On April 21, CMU hosted Dr. Ari Kelman as a speaker for our Blackburn Lecture series. During his time on campus he spoke about his new project with co-author Jonathan Fetter-Vorm the creation of a graphic novel called Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War. The book tells the real history of the American Civil War in a graphic novel-style format – , full of pictures and simple language, it would be highly accessible to the public. Kelman’s project is following in the footsteps of the award winning graphic book series March, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell,  which traces the history of John Lewis during his struggle in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. March exemplifies a singular narrative that traces one story, captured in a fun, easy, and insightful way. Following Kelman’s visit, the use of graphic novel style to bridge the academic and public worlds lingered on my mind. If we could incorporate them then how do we start creating work like that in our own classrooms?

Dr. Christopher Jones, a visiting assistant professor at Brigham Young University, answered that question by sharing a series of photographs on Twitter documenting his students unessays. An unessay is meant “to break open the corral of the traditional essay and encourage students to take a different approach to the assignment. It requires some creativity” (emphasis added). One picture is a collection of four paintings that depict “the near-erasure of all but white men from American history + efforts to correct that record”. A Landscape Management major “drew up ‘landscape blueprints’ to depict clash of cultures b[y] Powhatans and English in 17c Virginia”. Scholars should keep in mind that students working on their undergraduate degrees come to learn carrying their own unique talents and interests. Using unessays could be one way to keep them engaged in a class they may otherwise lose interest in. In addition, assigning work like this can challenge us as historians beyond the classroom to be more creative and make work like graphic histories.

As the country becomes ever more entrenched in a battle of facts and alternative facts it falls on us to remember our duty to engage and teach in ways that the public and undergraduates will value, understand, and share. Are we doing that effectively? If we cannot easily say yes, then what more can we do before this ten percent funding cut becomes twenty percent next year? Scholars must defend truth, critical thinking, and history, not just in our academic sphere but with the public as well, by using methods previously scoffed at before historians become a matter of history ourselves.

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.