Wrapping it up with Thomas Aquinas

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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his life’s work, Summa theologiae– a tome that addresses over 4,500 theological questions and was meant to replace the outdated Sentencesof Peter Lombard.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.

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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!

Adventures and Conferences

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By Marcel Haas

If you ever wondered whether immersing yourself fully into academia is a good idea, this week’s post has some ideas that might convince you to do so. Let me begin by saying that I truly enjoy going to conferences. Think about the fact that the university allows you to go on a short holiday where you meet some interesting people, make great new friends (who can also be quite influential and helpful), and all you have to do is give a short presentation and listen to why people think that you should use different sources. Conferences become even more enticing when they are held in a different country than the one in which you are currently working. In my case, that foreign country was Mexico, and that conference the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory (of which I am a shiny new member). 

Right away, I felt the rush of oncoming adventure when my plane touched down on the runway of Oaxaca’s Xococotn Airport and I emerged into October’s tropical heat. The conference took place in a comfortable hotel a little outside the city center, which commanded a magnificent view of the valley. Oaxaca is an incredibly beautiful place that boasts architecture from the Spanish colonial era as well as modern art, markets, and restaurants that overlook the tremendous sight of ancient Monte Alban. The latter truly feels like the city of the gods it was meant to resemble. Built entirely upon the peak of the central mountain of the valley (which had been razed to create a massive plateau), it surely takes its place besides Mexico’s other archaeological highlights such as Teotihuacan and Palenque.

As a center of art, culture, and history, Oaxaca was the ideal place for a very special conference. The Society for Ethnohistory is generally focused on examining the history of Indigenous peoples of the Americas, but more specifically highlights the agency and achievements of Indigenous people in interaction with the colonizing Europeans (the latter part is mostly due to the source availability of course). In South Mexico, this focus allowed conference attendees to experience the region’s history while presenting their new research on exactly that. Coupled with the brilliant organization by the colleagues of UNAM and Oaxaca, the proximity to world-renowned archaeological sites (apart from Monte Alban, also the fascinating former Zapotec city Mitla is only a short cab ride away) made the conference week very special.

Besides its historic relevance and culinary excellence, it seemed to me that Oaxaca (and Mexico specifically) had also been chosen as a political statement in the face of increasing xenophobia in the United States. The choice reaffirmed the close connection of the Society with Mexico (especially considering that the “American” in its title does not simply refer to the US!), and the importance of Mesoamerica for the study of Indigenous peoples and the history of the continent. Importantly, a fiery speech by the outgoing president of the Society, Matthew Restall, emphasized the need for empathy for the suffering of other people, especially Indigenous women who have been the target of violence for centuries. 

After five days of talks, presentations, round tables, receptions, and late-night chats, the conference came to an end. Exhausted, amazed, laden with ideas and photographs, I finally made my way back to Michigan. The week in Oaxaca had been special, but also a perfect example of the experience we as graduate students, early career researchers, and even established scholars can have at one of the many conferences throughout the academic year. Alright, why aren’t you applying yet?

 Oaxaca, 2018

Every Four (or Forty) Years

Joe Gaetjen is lifted by fans and the American support team following the victory on June 29. (Credit BBC.com)

Joe Gaetjen is lifted by fans and the American support team following the victory on June 29. (Credit BBC.com)

By Marcel Haas

It is World Cup season! Of course, while most soccer-loving people have directed their steady gaze towards Russia and the fate of the 32 teams there in action, Americans celebrate a future event. On Wednesday, one day before the kick-off of the 2018 tournament’s first match between hosts Russia and the hopefuls from Saudi-Arabia (spoiler alert, Russia won 5:0), the FIFA voted to give the 2026 World Cup to a joint bid from Canada, Mexico, and the US. With a whopping 60 out of 80 matches played in stadiums around the United States, American fans truly have something to look forward to in these hard times. Following the infamous 1950 tournament in Brazil, the US had to overcome four decades of drought in which the Soccer team featured in as many World Cups as the proud but minuscule nation of Andorra (that is, zero). The country celebrated a 1990s’ revival topped with the hosting of the 1994 World Cup, but disappeared again from the World Cup stage this year. This second US drought will definitely end at the latest in 2026, since host nations are automatically qualified for the competition.

Why am I harking on about the failure of the US national team and about soccer, the sport Americans love to hate (unless they win, in which case it is the pastime of champions, of course)? Because it is good to remember some of the more surprising victories in the midst of all that doom and gloom. Maybe, when studying the history of one of these dramatic sporting upsets, one can even find new hope and a good story, such as the US team’s monumental victory against the vastly superior English on June 29, 1950. Really, it is for this reason that we study comparative and transnational history, I would argue.[1]

In 1950, England was amongst the greatest footballing nations on the planet. The United States, however, was not. England’s players were famous worldwide, professionals in their chosen sport. The Americans, you guessed it, were not.[2] Although they had survived the qualifying tournament the year before, in 1950 in Brazil the world expected the Americans to get a good thrashing by the English. The latter had gone on an exhibition tour through North America just before the World Cup, where they had effortlessly dispatched an American national team with 1:0 in New York. In the group stages of the competition, they met the US again, besides the hopeful Chileans and the composed Spanish. The Americans played their first match against Spain, scoring early on through John Souza and defending valiantly around the Belgian-born center back Joe Maca, before going down 3:1 in the final ten minutes. England did better, and defeated now rather hopeless Chileans 2:0. Meeting the Americans for the second match, the English would go through had they won the match. In one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, however, the English team, hailed as “Kings of Europe,” could not bring the ball past the American goalkeeper Frank Borghi. On the other side, Haitian-born Joe Gaetjens somehow headed an effort by Walter Bahr on goal. The ball went into the net marking the greatest victory of any American sports team.[3] Following the goal in the 37th minute, a barrage of English shots was fired towards Borghi, who jumped, rolled, and dived to snatch each and every one of them. “As the game went on, we got a little bit better and they got a little bit more panicky,” Bahr said later about the game. “Nine times out of 10 they would have beaten us. But that game was our game.”[4]

In the end, both teams left the 1950 World Cup with one victory each: the Americans, tired by their efforts against Spain and England, crashed 5:2 against triumphant Chileans, and the depressed English lost 1:0 to Spain. The English team was ridiculed upon their return. People had first believed the reports of 0:1 to be mistaken and missing another number to make it the more appropriate 10:1. The Americans, on the other hand, treated their team possibly even more harshly. The players returned to no reception, no big news or hero’s welcome. Instead, the nation had more or less forgotten about its biggest sports victory the moment after it had happened. Finally, in 2005, the movie The Game of Their Lives was released to an absolutely horrendous reception (bad reviews and basically no viewers). Although honoring the feat of the US team, it was full of historical errors and artistic licenses (and an overall bad movie, I might add).

The 1950 victory over England is a typical underdog story, including the unlikely participants, the tragic heroes, and the hurt pride of the favored.[5] Of course, England would triumph in 1966 with their only World Cup title so far, while the United States disappeared from the World Cup stage until 1990. There are always the next four years, however. Failing that, in 2026 no one can take the US participation from them, and at least so far, no one has the team anywhere near the title. Another underdog story then, maybe?

 

[1] And what is more comparative and transnational than a FIFA World Cup? Correct, nothing.

[2] However, the US team’s captain in the fateful match against England was Ed McIlvenny, a Scotsman who had played seven matches for Third Division Wrexham A.F.C. The latter was not exactly the crown of English soccer.

[3] I realize that this is a highly subjective statement, but I remain convinced of it. Even the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” pales in comparison. If you think otherwise, email me at haas1m@cmich.edu and please explain why I should like Baseball, Basketball, or American Football.

[4] Cited in: Angelo Clemente Lisi, A History of the World Cup, 1930-2006 (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2007), 53.

[5] Especially Joe Gaetjens' life story would make for a great movie.


When CMU doctoral candidate Marcel Haas doesn’t write blog posts, he tries to research something for one of his other upcoming projects.

Game, Set, and Match! Or: How the History Department Sets Us up (For Success)

By Marcel Haas

The life of a graduate student can be surprising at times. One minute you sit hunched over your desk reading yet another book for this or that colloquium, the next minute you are boarding a plane that is supposed to transport you to a far-away university where you will spend months slowly forgetting most of what you read in that book I mentioned earlier. In a graduate program that is as international as ours, we all end up flying somewhere far away eventually – with all the exciting, frightening, and downright lifechanging consequences. In today’s blog post we will explore a side of CMU’s history department that has been the subject of many whispered conversations: our program’s matchmaking capabilities.

It is easy to imagine how a prolonged stay in a foreign country can either make you dissolve into terrible homesickness, or make you fall in love – with the country, the city, its people, and (maybe, if you are very lucky) that special someone and his or her very special accent. Most of the department’s graduate students at least know someone who fell in love in such a way, and many of them can now look back to long and happy relationships, marriages, and even little ones, which all have grown out of the international exchange program. In whatever way the connection came into existence, it makes many of us perfectly happy “long-distance relationshippers,” mostly because all too quickly our time at the partner institution is over and, as much as we can joke about it, we can only rarely smuggle a full-sized human through customs.

In consequence, the department can from time to time look forward to an international wedding. The latest one of these took place on December 29 last year, when Scarlet Muñoz and Tom Garbe tied the knot in the stunning cathedral of Puebla, Mexico. Tom came to CMU from the University of Strathclyde for his year abroad in 2012. On his very first day in Mt Pleasant he met Scarlet, who had come to Michigan from CMU’s partner institution in Mexico, the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, and who would stay for the PhD. I will refrain from recounting their next five years together – many of us have been there for at least some of this time – but I will point out their amazing commitment to each other.*

With a date set and a place found, the happy couple went on to invite a colourful assortment of guests, starting of course with the two families hailing from Mexico and Scotland respectively, and including professors and friends from all over three continents. The ceremony was an astonishing mix of cultures and faiths, as the Catholic priest reprimanded the Anglicans in the audience for the role of Henry VIII, and as our former Vice Dean Tim Hall and his wife Sheree served as members of the assembled godparents. After emerging from the cathedral into the lively night of Puebla’s beautiful Zocalo – serenaded by the exotic sounds of the bagpipe (at least to the ears of the numerous local bystanders) – the wedding party made their way to the Bodegas del Molino, the historic 17th century residence of the Archbishop Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, where the celebration would last in historical style until the early hours of the morning.

The party continued as international as the ceremony had ended. While the Scottish half of the newly united family taught the traditional Ceilidh dance style to the bemused international audience, the Mexican half did not fall behind in showing their Salsa and Merengue skills. Like the happy couple, party and ceremony had truly become transnational, not in the least also thanks to the history department’s exchange program, which had made their union possible over five years ago. Flying back from Mexico (and back from warm weather into the icy misery of winter Michigan), I wondered who would be the next to fall prey to the graduate program’s matchmaking capabilities.

 

* That commitment ultimately made it possible for the couple’s friends and colleagues at CMU to enjoy a prolonged Christmas holiday in the sun of Mexico, which (at least to my mind) made the last five years definitely worth it.


Marcel Haas is a German doctoral student interested in the political and social relationships of European colonial powers and indigenous peoples in North America. He went to the University of Strathclyde in Scotland for his year abroad, and his heart has been lost there ever since.