Wrapping it up with Thomas Aquinas

SOD-0128-SaintThomasAquinas-790x480.jpg

As the semester and year come to a close sadly so does my time as the editor of [Re]collection.  Though there are still a few weeks before the end of the year, this is the last time that I will write a personal post on this blog.  Therefore thought I ought to give a few words of salutations before passing the torch to the more-than-capable Marcel Haas.  I have learned a lot in my six months as editor and have greatly appreciated all of the authors and readers that make this blog a point of interest. I could spend the rest of this post describing the mechanics that go into editing and managing a blog:  copy editing, working with peers and senior colleagues, managing deadlines, keeping an eye out for tone of writing, scrambling to get the final touches on a post, and much more.  But I am sure that many of you are familiar with this process already; in fact, I can imagine a great deal of our readers are academics themselves and are therefore all too familiar with these processes (and more).  So rather than spend any more time on these matters, I have decided I am going to share a parting story from my own research and teaching interests.  My hope is that this story will be interesting and serve properly as parting words for my time as editor.

In May of 1244, Thomas Aquinas decided to leave his cushy life assured of future ecclesiastical appointments and to join the Dominican order.  Perhaps this change of heart is all too close to some of our own lives – leaving a life of potential financial and professional success for headier pursuits (i.e. signing up to spend half a decade of your life getting a PhD).  As he left, Thomas utterly stunned his family who worked so hard to set him off on the right track.  Regardless, Thomas followed his calling and trudged on.  In fact, he did not trudge at all – he became one of the most prolific writers in medieval European history.  Historians estimate that, during his prime, he was producing two to three novel-length volumes per month.  Most readers will likely recognize Thomas’s name from his life’s work, Summa theologiae– a tome that addresses over 4,500 theological questions and was meant to replace the outdated Sentencesof Peter Lombard. Curiously, though, Thomas never finished his magnum opus.  This fact is curious because Thomas simply decided to stop writing seemingly out of the blue.

On December 6, 1273 (not that long from today’s date, albeit 745 years later), Aquinas is reported to have said, “After what I have seen today, I can write no more, for all that I have written is straw”. Historians are not sure exactly what it was that Thomas saw and why exactly he had such a dramatic change in perspective.  Dying three short months later in March 1274, some speculate whether it was some sort of medical diagnosis.  Nevertheless, Thomas stepped away from his enormously productive career at the height of his powers.  More critically though, he did not finish what seemed to be his life’s work. Thomas’s halt in writing has fascinated historians and theologians for years, and it remains puzzling to this day.

Gentile_da_Fabriano_052-e1531256417890.jpg

I share this story not to draw any parallels between the theological giant Thomas Aquinas and my own time at [Re]collection. Nor do I plan to offer any new answers as to Thomas’s sudden stoppage of writing.  What I find most fascinating about this whole story is how Thomas continually displays what he thinks is a realistic perspective on his own legacy.  He is reflective and even self-deprecating as he halts his projects to engage in more contemplative pursuits.  This is especially true if he did not know that he would soon pass away just a few months after ceasing writing.  A general point of application that I draw from this story, and, by extension, offer to you as readers is to have the proper perspective as you reach the end of the year.  Whether it is with professional goals, writing projects, grading, or end-of-year holiday hustle, be sure to not overestimate how critical every detail is. Remember that you will always experience a mix of failure and success – perfectly embodied, I believe, in my time here as the editor.  If even Thomas Aquinas gives himself a thoughtful critique and reflection, so can you too.  So, as I wrap things up in the next few weeks, I hope that the posts over the past few months have been a little more than “straw”.  At the same time, I know that it has been a productive season.  Thank you all for all of your support – especially former editor Chiara Ziletti and everyone in the History Department at Central Michigan University.  Finally, I wish my colleague and future editor Marcel Haas all the best in the coming year – viel Glück mein Freund!

Spooked by Comps?

By Chiara Ziletti

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

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

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

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

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

Chiara Ziletti - Image blog post comps.jpg

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

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

Thank You for the Music

The Little Prince  by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

By Chiara Ziletti

In the past six months, my weeks have been rhythmed by the publishing of a blog post here every Tuesday. I still remember how nervous I was when I published my first blog post: “Will people like it? Have I done everything correctly?” As an anxious novice editor, these and many other doubts crossed my mind, but little by little I became more and more self-confident. However, with the beginning of July my appointment as the editor comes to an end. It is time to pass the baton to our new editor, David Papendorf. I am sure he will do great, and I cannot wait to read the new blog posts that he will publish. However, I have to admit that now that the time has come to leave this position I have bittersweet feelings. Indeed, the time I spent being the editor of [Re]collection has meant a lot to me. As the fox says to the Little Prince: “It is the time you spent for your rose that makes your rose so important.” For these six months the blog has been my rose, and I leave this position with the same mixed feelings that a parent would have when seeing off his own grown child. You know your child is going to be fine, but you cannot avoid being nostalgic. Therefore, in this last blog post that I get to publish, I would like to reflect on what being an editor means to me, what I have learned, and express my gratitude for this wonderful opportunity that I had.

As I mentioned, the first times I was publishing a post, I was quite nervous because there is more work behind the scenes than one would expect. Being an editor means that you are the one responsible for the content published on the blog, but this does not mean that you merely have to copy and paste what the authors send you. In my time as the editor of [Re]collection, I had, for example, to keep contact with the authors, think of possible interesting topics for future posts, decide what to publish and when, edit (and rarely write) blog posts, fight with technology (indeed, who does not fight with the computer’s programs, the printer, or else occasionally?), manage the social media accounts, and refresh my knowledge of copyright laws and what fair use is (especially when it comes to images posting). All this requires organizational skills, decision-making, relational skills, a good amount of resourcefulness and initiative, attention to the details, consistency, a more than good command of grammar and style, critical thinking, keeping an eye on current events that might make for a good blog post, and much more. Therefore, I am glad that I had the opportunity of being the editor of [Re]collection because it has allowed me to grow professionally and strengthen my proficiency in all these fields.

However, an editor does not go too far without his authors. Therefore, I want to thank every person who wrote something for the blog, you are what makes this blog alive and so interesting. I loved to meet and work with you, be it in person or just via email. Thank you for cooperating with me, writing your posts, and patiently complying with my suggestions and edits. I enjoyed reading you posts, and I learned something from all of you. Indeed, getting to read from different authors is one of the best things of this job because not only you discover new thigs on several topics that otherwise you might not know or think about, but you give the authors the opportunity to reach out other people with their work.

Lastly, I want to thank the history department for giving me the opportunity to be the editor of [Re]collection. Similarly to the conference (IGHSC) that our PhD students organize, I believe that [Re]collection is a great opportunity that not so many other history departments offers yet. Indeed, organizing conferences and being responsible for a publication are as much part of the academic world as reading, teaching, and writing. Alongside the transnational program, the conference and the blog are what makes our PhD program truly exceptional. Having the opportunity to get out of our bubble by meeting other international students and scholars, becoming good friends, and having the possibility to reach out to the wider public and showing what we do is, indeed, invaluable. I am happy that we get to build bridges and connections.

I hope those who have been reading the blog so far have been enjoying it and finding good content. I, for sure, leave this position with much more than I started with, both professionally and as a person. Even if it is time for me to move on to a new adventure, [Re]collection will always have a special place into my heart. For this reason, I beg your pardon for this final, oversentimental post. I would like to give my final thanks to Jennifer Vannette. Thank you for training me, your suggestions, and support, they meant a lot to me. To Dave, “in bocca al lupo!” And as always, we welcome your submissions. (^_^)

Powers Hall: Then and Now 2

powers hall.jpg

By Chiara Ziletti

Did you know that Powers Hall is the fourth oldest building existing on campus and it is connected to some important events of US history? Last semester I took Dr. Fremion’s HST 681 Historical Preservation class, and the final project consisted in writing a mock nomination for the National Register of Historic Places, which lists the historic and archaeological places worth preserving and protecting in the US. After some thinking, I decided to write my mock nomination on Powers Hall. I knew a little bit about its history, also thanks to Jennifer Vannette’s post on this blog, but I wanted to do more research and see if I could find additional information about the building on campus in which I spend most of my time. I can say that my research paid well: I was able to prove that despite few changes, the exterior of Powers Hall retains its overall integrity; it was curious to see how much the interior changed since it was first built; and I found connections between Powers Hall and the broader events of US history, which will be the focus of this post.

The first connection is the one between Powers Hall and the New Deal. The works to build Powers Hall – originally Keeler Union – started back in 1938 thanks to a grant from the Public Works Administration. The Public Works Administration was a New Deal government agency active from 1933 to 1939. In those years, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted a series of domestic policies to address the continuing disastrous economic and social effects of the Great Depression, which had started in 1929. Among these policies, the Public Works Administration provided funds for the construction of public works. In this way, it provided means of employment and helped to revitalize American’s economy, society, and industry. Therefore, Powers Hall provides a great local example of the far-reaching and significant effects of President Roosevelt’s domestic policy.

The years between 1942 and 1944, in which Powers Hall housed Navy V-12 cadets, provides another connection between the building and events of national and international significance. During World War II the United States needed more commissioned officers; therefore, the government created the Navy V-12 program to provide candidates with the education they needed. Central Michigan University, which at that time was known as Central Michigan College of Education, was among the universities that participated to the program. This connects Powers Hall not only with another governmental program but also with World War II and the US participation to it.

The ballroom in Powers Hall is still used to host several events and speakers every year; it would not be surprising if you attended one or two as well. Did you know that James (Jesse) Cleveland Owens (1913-1980) was invited to speak there? Jesse Owens was a famous African-American track and field athlete. He is mostly known for winning four Olympic medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. He was invited to speak for the 3rd Annual All-Sports Banquet, which took place on May 4, 1955, in the Keeler Union Ballroom. When he attended the Banquet, he also brought with him a 16mm black and white film of the Olympic Games in Berlin to show to the audience. Because of his extraordinary athletic performances, Owens is very well known, and his participation to the Banquet was a great event that linked Powers Hall to the broader national and international sports history.

In addition to all these important connections, it is important to remember that Powers Hall is the fourth oldest building still existing on campus. It is in the same block as Grawn Hall, which was opened in 1915; Warriner Hall, which was opened in 1928; and Smith Hall, which was opened in 1934. Since Grawn Hall has gone through significant different expansions and renovations, its architectural integrity is heavily compromised. However, Warriner Hall and Smith Hall retain most of their integrity. Therefore, alongside these two buildings, Powers Hall documents the history of Central Michigan University – our history! – by providing one of the best examples of the first buildings constructed on campus. This year marked the 125th anniversary since the foundation of CMU. If you are curious about the history of the buildings on campus and would like to know more, I recommend browsing the Clarke Historical Library’s website; it has plenty of information on each building. I would also encourage everyone to take a trip to the Clarke. It is always worth seeing in first person all the primary sources they have documenting CMU’s history!

Fragments of the Forgotten Past

By Chiara Ziletti

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

SQ_3DS_DragonQuest7_enGB_image500w.jpg

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

What a Government Shutdown Means for Researchers

A screenshot of the warning message that appeared on the National Archives Catalog website during the government shutdown.

A screenshot of the warning message that appeared on the National Archives Catalog website during the government shutdown.

By Chiara Ziletti

Due to the shutdown of the Federal Government, National Archives facilities are closed, websites and social media are not being updated or monitored, and activities are canceled, with some exceptions. Check Archives.gov for details.

During the weekend I was duly completing my assigned research for my Historical Preservation class, and I came across this message multiple times. The first time I read this warning was while checking the National Archives Catalogue, but I later run into similar messages on the National Park Services and on the Library of Congress websites.

It seems that the latest government shutdown that begun at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, January 20, has luckily come to a resolution with the approval of a short-term spending bill. A federal government shutdown has undoubtedly negative repercussions on the entire society, though some effects might be more evident than others, and the impact is not the same for everyone. But what does a government shutdown mean for researchers? How does it affect their work? As an international student which has been in the U.S. only for few years, I must admit that I never had the occasion to reflect about these issues until I literally stumbled across all these messages of closure on the websites I needed to use.

The first time I saw the message about the closure popping up in my web browser I was a little concerned, but I soon realized that in my case the disruption was going to be minimal, I was lucky. I was looking for the list of the National Register of Historic Places, trying to understand which buildings in Mt. Pleasant are included in the inventory, and the shutdown did not prevent me from finding the information I needed. However, until they start updating their websites again, the remote risk that the information I found might be incomplete still exists, and the accuracy of my research is somehow impaired. Furthermore, the fact that I did not have major problems does not mean that other historians came out from this unaffected.

Primary sources are the foundations on which historians build their research, and even though several institutions have been digitalizing more and more primary sources in the past years, visiting archives in first person to access the sources remains a crucial and valuable step in the work of any historian. As a consequence, the closure of important institutions such as the Library of Congress and the National Archives have a significantly disruptive potential for anyone dealing with material being preserved in those places. I guess that researchers planning a trip to these institutions should start taking into account federal spending bill deadlines in order to avoid losing precious funding. The temporary cancellation of activities and events taking place at these institutions – especially those of educational significance – is also a considerable loss for those who were planning to visit them in these days.

Lastly, it is important to remember that a government shutdown negatively impacts both the entire research world and higher education. On January 18, for example, Nature published online an article explaining the major effects that a shutdown would have on federally funded scientific research. Several researches would be sent home, and important projects would be temporarily halted. Similarly, on January 22, Inside Higher Ed wrote that a protracted shutdown would more likely affect the processing of grants and funding, leaving researches and colleges without money.

It seems that for now the lawmakers have come to a compromise. We managed to avoid the worst effects connected to an extended shutdown, and we are back on track. Let’s hope we will not have to go through this again anytime soon.

New Year, new editor

Chiara visiting the Yerebatan Sarnıcı in Istanbul. The cistern was built in the 6th century under Justinian I. The cistern was also one of the locations of the 1963 James Bond movie  From Russia with Love.

Chiara visiting the Yerebatan Sarnıcı in Istanbul. The cistern was built in the 6th century under Justinian I. The cistern was also one of the locations of the 1963 James Bond movie From Russia with Love.

By Chiara Ziletti

The holiday break has been great (probably even more than great if – like me – you love having a lot of time to read on the couch), but the new semester is finally here. It is time to roll up the sleeves, put away all the decorations, and get ready for this new adventure.

My name is Chiara Ziletti, and I have the pleasure to be the new editor of [Re]collection. I come from Italy, and I am a third-year student in the Transnational and Comparative History PhD program here at Central Michigan University. Allow me to introduce myself.

Back in school, my relationship with history was one of “love and hate.” Something in it attracted me (for example, I have always loved visiting museums and historical places), but most of the time the amount of dates to be memorized discouraged any deeper approach to it beyond the basic “let’s study to pass the test.” After high-school, I decided to study Italian Literature at University of Pavia (which was founded in 1361, more than 650 years ago!), and it was during those years that I discovered my passion for history. Classes like philology and history of Italian Language had already captivated me. I loved to understand why and how Italian had evolved from Latin, but the real breakthrough was the Early Modern European History class. It was while taking that class that I realized how much I actually enjoyed studying history despite being very bad at remembering dates. This happened because for the first time a professor made me realize that history was more than just sheer memorization. Finally, someone was teaching me about broader historical events and concepts. Thanks to that professor, I became aware – borrowing from Fernand Braudel – of the longer and broader social, economic, and cultural trends and forces beyond the history of events; and I was fascinated. I loved the deeper understanding coming from the combination of these different historical planes; and those aspects of human history capable of transcending time conquered my imagination. After that experience, I began to take more and more classes in history, enabling me to deepen my knowledge and understanding of both the past and our own reality (all this enriched by the development of critical thinking and writing skills).

Following my bachelors, I earned my Masters Degree in European History (again from University of Pavia). During my Masters, I also had the opportunity to do a four months internship in Istanbul with the Erasmus Placement program. Istanbul is a big and chaotic city, but it is also fascinating and full of history. Therefore, even though I was doing my internship at Maltepe University on the Asian side of the city, I had the opportunity to go visiting all the historical sites on the European side over the weekends – what a dream!

After obtaining my Masters, my personal adventure brought me to CMU, where I was admitted in the Transnational and Comparative History PhD program. Here I furthered my training as a historian, and soon I will have to take my Comprehensive examination (for a taste of the fear, imagine Darth Vader approaching on the notes of the Imperial march). In addition to this, I also had the opportunity to work as a Teaching Assistant for the Department of History (an enriching experience), and now I am the new editor of [Re]collection after Jennifer graduated last semester. I want to congratulate her on her success. Furthermore, I want to thank her for her wonderful job here in the past year. If I feel more confident about my future work here, it is thanks to the solid path she traced.

I wish everyone a happy new year and the best for this new semester. As always, we continue to welcome your submissions!