Life After Grad School, Part 1

By Kevin T. Hall

When Gillian first approached me about writing for the blog, I agreed happily as it is a great opportunity to explain my job as a historian for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) and provide a brief history of the recovery of U.S. soldiers, who went missing during foreign wars. But more importantly in part two of this post to offer some advice, based on my experiences, regarding what students can do during their studies to be best prepared for the job market.

The DPAA is an agency within the Department of Defense tasked with finding, recovering, and identifying over 81,000 U.S. personnel who went missing between World War II and the Gulf Wars. As a historian in the Indo-Pacific Directorate, the main conflict on which I focus is the Korean War. My main duty involves researching the events surrounding the loss of U.S. soldiers on the Korean peninsula, including the most likely location of their remains. This information partially determines where field teams conduct their searches, supports forensic analysis once remains are recovered or disinterred, and provides families with current, detailed information regarding the loss of their family member. It is truly a meaningful job to not only help account for these missing servicemen who gave the ultimate sacrifice, but also to help provide long-awaited answers and closure for families.

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) located on Joint Base Pearl-Harbor Hickam, Hawaii

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) located on Joint Base Pearl-Harbor Hickam, Hawaii

The recovery of U.S. soldiers’ remains has a long history that dates to the Spanish-American War. Unique to the States, no other country seeks the repatriation of its missing soldiers from foreign soil. Following both World Wars, the American Graves Registration Services (AGRS) worked tirelessly to provide the permanent internment of servicemen in foreign cemeteries, or, if families so chose, the repatriation of soldiers’ remains. While this set the standards for the burial and repatriation of soldiers during subsequent conflicts, it was not until the Korean War that concurrent returns became standard. This meant that the AGRS repatriated remains before the cessation of hostilities—something that had never been done. This change in policy reflected the rapidly changing battle lines, challenging terrain, logistic difficulties, as well as the initial shortage of AGRS members, as every soldier was needed to fight.

During the first several months of war, soldiers are forced to quickly bury their deceased comrades in makeshift cemeteries or even in foxholes. In numerous instances, U.S. forces were forced to leave the dead and wounded where they rested, as enemy forces overran their positions, and withdrawal was vital for their survival. While U.S. forces recorded the location as best as possible, the remains were often gone once they returned. Soldiers’ remains were buried in unknown locations by locals and the wounded were taken prisoner. However, being a POW offered little safety, with numerous examples of torture and murder.

While concurrent returns aids in identification, numerous isolated graves and unknown burials makes accounting for lost servicemen complicated. Even if the isolated graves were clearly marked, the devastation wreaked and often destroyed any recognizable signs and occasionally, locals would move the remains of soldiers to unknown areas. Moreover, any written or verbal account of such burials had to survive the war. While this did hinder AGRS efforts, they were able to recover over 30,000 American service men from 1951 to 1955, and identified over 97 percent of the remains.

The remains ready to be repatriated from Korea were sent to the Central Identification Unit in Kokura, Japan to be processed, identified, and prepared for transport and burial. The task was daunting and overwhelming, as identifying remains could be difficult, and even impossible, given their state and the technology available at the time. It caused families great anguish waiting to receive an update about their missing son, father, brother, grandson, or nephew, and this suffering was further compounded the longer their status remained “Missing-in-Action” (MIA). For the remains that could not be identified, they were interred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii as “Unknowns.”

Currently, the DPAA is disinterring these Unknown Korean War servicemen in several phases to identify them as well as the ongoing investigations and searches in South Korea. While there have been successful exchanges of U.S. remains from North Korea in the past, it has been difficult to conduct investigations there due to tense political relations. Despite this, the North Korean government repatriated 55 boxes of remains in the summer of 2018. These are currently undergoing analysis for identification. There are currently over 7,600 U.S. soldiers still unaccounted from the Korean War.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit a crash site of WWII B-24 Liberator Bomber (44-40332). Where I gained a deeper understanding about the search and recovery missions. This aircraft in particular crashed on the island of Oahu on May 5, 1944, after it departed Hickam airfield. It failed to clear the ridgeline and subsequently crashed, killing all ten airmen (three of whom were actually from Michigan). The airmen’s remains were recovered.

With the sole mission of the DPAA being to account for missing servicemen, relics, artifacts, and wreckage are usually left behind. That is, unless it can assist in identifying remains. After a few mile hike, we had to climb down a ravine to see some of the remaining wreckage. Over the years, the wreckage slid down into the valley below and is very difficult to access. The boot heel discovered is possibly from one of the crewmembers.


Kevin T. Hall is a recently graduated PhD from the Central Michigan University Department of History. He received his doctorate in 2018 under the supervision of Dr. Eric Johnson. He has now moved to Hawaii to work for the DPAA. His book: Terror Flyers: The Lynching of American Airmen in Nazi Germany is forthcoming with Indiana University Press.

We’re Listening

By Dr. Brittany Fremion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Parliamentary history in the Pyrenees

71st ICHRPI conference, Andorra, July 2019

By Martin O’Donoghue

2019 marks the 600th anniversary of the convocation of the Consell de la Terra, the first parliamentary assembly in Andorra – a picturesque country of 78,000 inhabitants nestled in the Pyrenees mountain range straddling Spain and France. A co-principality which boasts both the Bishop of Urgell and the President of France as its two princes, it has a rich parliamentary history with the Consell de la Terra first given privilege in 1419.

It was thus fitting that the International Commission for the History of Representative Parliaments and Institutions came to this idyllic location for its 71st conference. Founded in 1936, the Commission is dedicated to the dissemination and publication of research on the history of representative and parliamentary institutions. As a global scholarly body, its conferences feature papers delivered in English, French, and German or in the language of the country where the conference is held.

This year’s conference was hosted by the Consell General, Andorra’s parliament, and discussions reflected key themes including the evolution of representative assemblies to democratic parliaments, parliaments of small states/microstates, forms of representation, and the internal organization of representative assemblies. Over three days, the conference featured papers from eighteen countries in Europe, Asia, and North America with a special reception hosted by the parliament and a cultural tour of sites of historical and architectural interest. Happily, in an academic environment of often ever-increasing fees, the conference was free to attend, and the schedule was excellently organised with the reception offered by the parliament allowing delegates the chance to visit the old parliament building and meet some current Andorran politicians.

The Commission’s events are a great opportunity to highlight the opportunities offered by international conferences where particular themes and phenomena explored in a local or national context can be compared and interpreted in the context of emerging research on parliaments and assemblies. The Andorran setting provided an ideal environment for discussion of micro-states and smaller states and the evolution of their legislatures. The numerous anniversaries marked in 2019 (not least those of states emerging after the First World War) provided intriguing departure points for detailed analyses of a range of case studies. Other noteworthy themes emerged from discussions such as the influence of certain constitutional or parliamentary models on neighbouring states and the comparison of the behaviour of chambers, clerks, and parliamentarians in different geographical and temporal contexts.

Both the content of papers themselves and the opportunities to meet and discuss research with a diverse range of scholars helps to reflect not only the importance of themes in parliamentary history like localism and the use of parliamentary questions but also more practical issues such as how funding proposals and projects based around studies of parliamentary history can be constructed. From my perspective, it was an opportunity to reflect on the centenary of the Dáil – the lower house of the Irish parliament which first met a century ago this year. My paper dwelt on the role of Dáil representatives who had previously served as Irish nationalist MPs at the London parliament in Westminster. The post-war election in December 1918 saw a changing of the political guard in Ireland as Sinn Féin defeated the Irish Parliamentary Party, meaning that those who served in both the British parliament pre-1918 and the native parliament afterwards were rare, but were often distinctive parliamentarians and served as reminders of the older political tradition in the new state. This paper drew on my forthcoming book, The Legacy of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Independent Ireland, 1922-1949 and it was a pleasure to present this work on a panel with fascinating papers on the use of parliamentary motions in the early years of Finnish independence and the construction of the post-war Italian constitution.

The generous timetabling of the session also allowed ample time for enjoying the wonderful town of Andorra la Vella and the breath-taking scenery of the surrounding areas. In addition to meeting members of parliament and enjoying the Consell General’s hospitality, other delegates even managed to fit in work at the state’s national archives! The Commission offers generous scholarships for early career scholars to attend its conferences though its Helen Maud Cam bursary each year. As can be seen from the ICHRPI’s website, conferences are hosted by impressive institutions in beautiful locations and as a member of the International Committee of Historical Sciences (CIHS), the Commission’s next congress will meet in Poznan, Poland in 2020.


Martin O’Donoghue is a lecturer in Irish and British History at Northumbria University and a member of the ICHRPI. His upcoming book is The Legacy of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Independent Ireland, 1922-1949 and will be published by Liverpool University Press later this year. For more information or to contact him see his contact details at Northumbria or on twitter: @ODonoghueMartin

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In search of Marion Facinger

Marion Facinger - image provided by Jane Freidson

Marion Facinger - image provided by Jane Freidson

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

By Michael Evans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Finding "Place" in the Past

By Camden Burd

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

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

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

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

 

Some suggested/favorite readings on Place:

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

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

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


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

www.camdenburd.com

Summer Intensive and Accelerated Masters

Downtown Mt. Pleasant

Downtown Mt. Pleasant

Tuition goes up year after year, but several jobs still require graduate level education. The history department has a solution that will save students time and money -- the Summer Intensive MA. The Summer Intensive is just what it sounds like (truth in advertising!); it offers a way for students to complete the requirements for a Master of Arts degree by taking courses in the summer. If you have not taken any classes at the Masters level, you can complete the thirty-hour degree in three summers, two if you are willing do some additional coursework during the academic year.

For undergraduates who are planning ahead, the news gets even better. If you know you want to earn a Master’s degree, you can enroll in the Accelerated Master’s Degree program and earn up to twelve hours of graduate credit while still an undergraduate.  You pay for the credits once but you count them twice, once for your Bachelor’s and then again for your Master’s.  If you combine the Accelerated MA with the Summer Intensive, you can finish your degree in two summers.

What does this look like? Well, say you are an education major. Once you have finished your BA and lined up a job, you stay in Mt. Pleasant for six weeks in the summer to begin your masters. Then it is off to your first year on the job.  The following summer you return for another six weeks of coursework and you are done!  The Accelerated MA/Summer Intensive combination gives you the best of both worlds.  You go on the job market without a grad degree but then have an MA in hand in as little as one year after graduation!

Summers are intense but they are fun, too.  Dive into cutting-edge scholarship one day and head to to the Lakeshore or a national park to do field work in public history the next.  Analyze primary source material or debate a history classic in the morning and then hone your teaching skills with a course on game-based learning pedagogy in the afternoon.  

The Summer Intensive plan allows you to save time -- you would either avoid taking two full years away from a job to be in school or be able to progress faster than slowly taking a course here or there as your job allows -- and it saves you about $7000 overall. If you have questions about the program, direct them to Dr. Kathleen Donohue, Director of Graduate Studies.

Maps as History

1988 Road Atlas, Rand McNally

1988 Road Atlas, Rand McNally

By Jennifer Vannette

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Defense of History: A New Blog Feature

Paul Revere sounding the call. Boston.

Paul Revere sounding the call. Boston.

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

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

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

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

Navigating the Crisis: Set a New Course

By Jennifer Vannette

The crisis of the humanities has been a long lamented point in the academy. As we well know at CMU, budget shortfalls are balanced on the backs of history programs, which then have to cut courses and new hires. As other programs send us fewer students due to their own restructuring and society deems the study of history less important, universities have begun to require fewer credits in history. Additionally, many people view history as less useful to their futures. It’s easy to get discouraged.

The latest issue of Perspectives on History (May 2017) offers two articles addressing the challenges of and failures regarding teaching history. David Pace, in his piece “The History of the Classroom in an Era of Crisis: A Change of Course Is Needed,” begins with the clarion call that “in a ‘post-truth’ age of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news,’ historians must ask fundamental questions about our public roles,” and he argues that we have a moral obligation to defend the institutions of democracy. Pace promotes a change in how we teach history, being sure to move away from memorization and towards reasoning and critical analysis. This is not a new idea, and many historians have already made that shift at the college level. But, Pace, notes that we have a tendency to blame students lack of preparation for college rather than reshaping courses to address the needs of the student body we have.

 The numbers are startling when it comes to fail rates. The companion article in Perspectives, “Many Thousands Failed: A Wakeup Call to History Educators” by Andrew Koch, complied data on 28,000 students from 32 different institutions over the course of three academic years spanning 2012-2015 who were enrolled in a US history survey course. The data showed that about two-thirds of the students earned a grade of a C or higher. But, looking at the demographic variables, the research team saw that race, family income level, gender, and status as a first-generation college student were indicators that predicted the success rate of students in a history class: “…the likelihood of earning a D, F, W, or I grade is lower for Asian Americans, white, and female students who are not first generation, and do not receive a Pell Grant. It is higher, and sometimes significantly higher, for every other demographic group.” And, the failure in one introductory course, like a US survey, increases the likelihood of dropping out of school.

 Koch also criticizes past methods of teaching history. He sees promise in active-learning strategies. But, additionally, he implores historians to take an active role in preventing the negative outcomes for disadvantaged students. Inequality in society predicts inequality in learning outcomes, and we have an obligation to intercede.

Both articles also express worry that part of the fail rates are due to a lack of diversity in the narratives communicated to students. Even though historians have produced a great body of literature that addresses class, race, gender, ethnic studies, religion, and many more interesting facets of humanity, many minority students are not finding themselves represented in the survey courses. We’ve adjusted how we talk to each other as academics, but we are faltering in communication of the rich body of history to students and the public.

Pace and Koch acknowledge the lack of willpower at institutions to make changes, particularly when the results are unknown. We need to try something new, but a university rarely wants to be the first to use an untested method. The work that goes into changing course offerings can be daunting, but there are resources available and a network of historians working on educational research. Change can happen – Yale recently announced that through their efforts of revamping their history major courses and requirements, history is once again the top major at the university.

Both authors offer good starting points for the conversation, and they indicate that we need more creativity. We perhaps need the political determination to challenge the norm (should I say sacred cow?) of historical survey courses. Even when historians have tested new methods, we still cling to the survey lecture structure. Consider the example of how the game-based pedagogy Reacting to the Past has been typically used. The game focuses on one particular historical experience during a discussion section while the chronological survey continues with lectures during two of their three meeting times.

Some historians have begun to approach courses, even university required surveys, with a thematic approach. This can be difficult to do; it’s hard to relinquish the chronology. I know when I taught US Since 1945, although I organized the lectures by themes, I made sure to also balance that with a chronological structure. I’m not sure I went far enough. We have the ability to cover a broad sweep of history while focusing entirely on a single theme. Course examples from the American Studies program at Canterbury in the UK are quite exciting, for example, The Invention of America: Texts and Contexts from 1670 to the Present; Rise of the American Colossus: US Foreign Policy, 1898 to the Present; or, Banned Books: A Literary History of the US. Can we pique student interest better by focusing on a particular theme rather than trying to cover everything that happened over hundreds of years?

As historians, we know that we are relevant to the conversations that consume society today, and as Pace pointed out, we perhaps even have a moral obligation to do all we can to defend our institutions. With the fail-rate data and the layers of bureaucracy that must be navigated to make changes, it's easy to want to just stay the course. But there are positive signs. Even with STEM promotion, many technology business leaders have said that they seek people with the skills historians have and can teach. (Here. Here. And here.) The work of a course change is daunting, and there are no guarantees. And, still, we should engage in new ideas and try new methods for engaging our students – even if it means killing the sacred cow.        

The Pedagogy of Hope: Continuing the Conversation

Brittany B. Fremion

Editor's Note: This is a follow-up post to last week's The Pedagogy of Hope.

The roundtable I participated in at the American Society for Environmental History conference at the end of March focused on ways instructors find hope in environmental history narratives in their courses. And I certainly work to incorporate research I present and learn about at conferences into my classes. In an effort to bring what I learned at this particular gathering to a wider audience, I offer this follow-up post.

My roundtable, “The Pedagogy of Hope: Teaching Hope in the Environmental Classroom,” featured instructors in environmental studies and history programs. Each presenter brought a unique perspective and strategy for finding hope to the roundtable. Jim Feldman from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh frequently checks in with his students after discussing particularly taxing topics in his environmental studies course. He works hard to engage current events and demonstrate to students that sustainability is “not a narrative of decline, it’s a narrative of hope.” Sarah Hamilton, now at Auburn University, talked about a course she taught at the University of Michigan in 2014, wherein students developed an environmental history of Detroit. By working directly with community leaders and members, her students recognized the significance of community action groups and the power of individuals to bring about change locally. The collaborative endeavor increased student empathy and demonstrated that “change is ongoing and they can be a part of it” (check out the course website: https://detroitenvironment.lsa.umich.edu). Amy Kohout uses post-apocalyptic fiction in her American environmental history course at Colorado College. Her use of Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, for example, creates opportunities for the discussion of hopeful narratives and what fiction may do for the study of history: it presents “the wide range of possible futures.” Finally, George Vrtis from Carleton College assessed the state of the field and its historiography, pointing out that while “hope is a feeling, not an intellectual enterprise,” it is important to kindle hope to help students understand the environmental challenges we face. He contended that there are hopeful narratives in environmental history and that instructors can identify them by designing discussions that encourage students to find themes that inspire them. 

Finding hope in environmental history—or any field, really—is important. Hope drives interest and cultivates passion, which in turn provokes a response. I took my first environmental history course as an undergraduate at the University of Saint Francis, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The instructor, also my advisor, assigned William Cronon’s Changes in the Land and William Ashworth’s The Late, Great Lakes. The class, and these books in particular, made a profound impression on me. I learned about the transformation of the American landscape both before and after European settlement, and the “death” of Lake Erie in the 1960s. I was astonished that the field rose out of the environmental movement in the 1970s (in fact, these activist roots are what first drew me to environmental history). I became interested in environmental issues, joined the Sierra Club, and helped establish a nature preserve on campus for Earth Day. I went to graduate school, first for a MA in history and then a doctorate. Now I teach my own environmental history class. The point is, I channeled any anger and despair I felt about the environmental present in 2003 and translated it into action. In turn, I have found hope (see previous post).

Following the short presentations by roundtable participants, audience members contributed to the conversation by bringing insight from their own experiences. Some of the questions they raised include the following, which I leave to you:

1)    How can one find hope in global environmental histories or histories typified by more tragic narratives? (I’m thinking of histories like Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts.)

2)    Is there danger in overemphasizing hope? (This question was prefaced by the revelation that a prominent historian once told a student that “environmental history is depressing, so it should be.”)

3)    What other strategies enable instructors to teach empathy and hope?

Active Politics is the Study of History*

By Trent Wolf (Class of 2015)

I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in History and Political Science, and since then, I have worked as a legislative assistant to State Representative Frank Liberati in the Michigan Legislature. Politics can be understood as simply a web of interconnected relationships: connections between legislators or between elected officials and voters, for example. In practice, no piece of legislation is passed in a democratic system without relationships being established between politicians, just as no elected official wins their campaign for public office without building and maintaining relationships with voters. The difficult, and nuanced, aspect is untangling all of these relationships through using the same skills historians use to untangle the hidden realities of humanity’s past.  Using this lens, politics can be viewed as history unfolding in real-time.

The most obvious, and potentially less direct, application of my studies in history would be simply understanding the historical context to the reality we live in today—something I believe too many in our society go without. Public policy and politics are intrinsically intertwined with our historical past. Basic understanding of historical facts impact the way in which laws are written and also influences the way in which politicians talk about their ideas and project those ideas to the public. Additionally, historical understanding, or lack thereof, directly defines the ways in which constituents perceive politicians and their ideas.

More directly, though, by employing the research skills learned through studying history—such as source analysis, aggregating analyzed historical data, and effectively communicating the story that data illustrates—I was able to develop a important set of skills that I use every day to be effective at my job.

For example, when performing historical research, secondary sources are used to provide context to a given topic and primary sources—such as speeches, letters, songs, poems, illustrations, and memoirs—are used to gain a better understanding of a topic, which allows a researcher to expand upon the known historical record. Similarly, in public policy and politics, we use secondary sources to frame societal problems and policy solutions, such as data on income inequality or school performance. Then primary sources, such as constituent communications, firsthand political information from elected officials, or forms of support from stakeholder groups, are combined with the secondary source information to gain a broader understanding of an issue and how it might be solved.

With this in mind, the same skills of thoroughly vetting sources and knowing that multiple perspectives must be gathered to gain a credible understanding of an issue or topic are directly used in both politics and history. For instance, in the same way historical research should not be told through the lens of one historical figure, one document, or one perspective—in politics you must also gain as much primary source perspective as possible to be able to effectively craft policy and campaign messaging. Additionally, I fully believe that individuals who study history properly are able to gain a sense of “open-mindedness,” or are more able to objectively analyze the information they are researching, which is sorely missing from our political system that has been ravaged by partisan hyperbole and ad hominin attacks.

I credit all of my experiences as a student of history for where I am today. In so many ways, those experiences have become directly linked to who I am as a working professional trying to better the world in which we all live as well as an individual and the way I view the world. In both history and politics, critical thinking and analysis as well as being able to think in new, creative ways are key to being able to contribute to the historical record or pass legislation.

*Polybius, The Histories, vol. 1

History Matters: The Skills I Learned

By Emily Lint (Class of 2015)

Today, like most days, I thought about my time spent in history classes at CMU. I am currently halfway through my first year teaching at West Senior High School in Traverse City, MI. I teach economics. When I accepted the job in Traverse City near my family at the school where I student-taught I was thrilled. At first I wasn’t sure how my history training would apply to teaching Economics, but not too far into my first planning day in a hot classroom in the late summer I realized I would have plenty of opportunity to use my history training teaching economics. I learned far more than content from my history professors at CMU, and the non-content skills kicked in right away.

CMU’s history department made me a better thinker. I learned that historical events do not exist in a vacuum. Context is everything. I learned how to think about topics in their place in the grand scheme of things.  My experience with examining different angles of historical topics translates into my teaching every single day. I try my best to make sure my students understand concepts with context and can see how to apply what they learn to their lives every single day.

CMU’s history department made me a more well-rounded person. In my American history classes especially, I learned the story isn’t as simple as I had been told. When you’re telling the story of people, there are always lots of perspectives to consider. Likewise, every kid has a slightly different perspective and different set of experiences they carry with them into my classroom. Remembering to consider other perspectives has helped me get to know the dozens of kids who pass in and out of my room every day. 

CMU’s history department made me a better public speaker. As my time in the program progressed the classes got smaller and smaller and the opportunities to sit back and listen became fewer and farther between. Eventually I was forced to speak up. Small class sizes, accessible professors, and great content helped me become more comfortable speaking out. In my own classroom, I try to emulate those professors who brought me out of my shell. Incorporating elements of “sticks and carrots” that got me to talk in college into my own classroom has allowed me to witness the blossoming of students who offer incredible insight to classroom discussions every day.

Finally, CMU’s history department made me a more confident person. Every experience tackling original research, working on projects with professors, attending conferences, and presenting my work made me feel more and more confident with my ability to take on the world. Standing in front of 33 teenagers for the first time was less intimidating because I had already stood in front of far more people than that. Teaching content was less scary because I knew how to tell a story (even if it turns out the story is about economics). So much of what I feel comfortable doing today comes from the confidence instilled in me throughout my time with CMU’s history department.

I am grateful for so much about my time with CMU’s history department. The life lessons and skills I picked up along the way are the gifts from the CMU history department that I am most thankful for.

 

Adventuring in England

Wesley at his ancestoral home

Wesley at his ancestoral home

By Wesley Reynolds

Over the past five months, I have enjoyed my time studying at Newcastle University in Newcastle, UK. I have had the amazing opportunity to see the four corners of England -- not just the cities but the picturesque landscapes of rural England. I have fallen in love with the countryside, and through it, England’s people, national characteristics, and habits have seeped into my consciousness. Newcastle has turned out to be the perfect location for learning about England. It’s close to everything.

I am staying with a family just south of Gateshead (Newcastle’s sister city) in a little stone farmhouse; the perfect inspiration for higher learning. Bus fare is more than worth the opportunity of being introduced to England through the eyes of a traditional English family with connections both to Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

My host family is distinctive from the mining Geordie vernacular culture of Newcastle, but, for me, this has been an excellent match. They have instructed me in the finer social arts of inculcating an English sense of reserve, eating and drinking properly, posture and gestures, and even have helped me develop a southern English accent. There is a wonderful church and seminary here with many linguists, scholars, and people with real servant hearts. I have an amazing new home for study!

In addition to course work, I have been able to focus intently on my research on London coffeehouses. I visited the first coffeehouse in Oxford, and spent two weeks at the British Library in London and the National Archives in Kew investigating various primary sources. Accessing archives in England is an experience all of its own! Maybe for another post.

Most of all, I am enjoying the time I have off campus and discovering the culture. I am immersing myself in "old England”: Northumberland castles and farmland, the Lake District, York, Durham, Oxford, London, rural East Anglia, and pastoral Somerset. The Lake District is the most dramatic and inspiring landscape I have seen. It is a land of rock, fern, and waterfall; wild and unkempt, but still close to the mortal heart, with gradual shifts in lighting and subtle textures. The daylight in England touches the green grass with a golden hue and the moderate temperatures and frequent rains impart a certain gentleness to the country. Some of my favorite moments have been among the sheep meadows of Hexham, Northumbria; jumping over stone stiles and running along country paths. Passing along the Great Western railway through Bath and Bristol into the more gentle southwestern hill country of Somerset, I had the opportunity to stay in my old family ancestral manor house of Cothelstone. The red stone and soil seems now a part of me, and I will never forget awaking to a far green country spread out below my stone-framed, latticed window. In the southeast, the land is flatter and more suited for tillage. I stood on the runway from which my grandfather lifted off with his B-17 bomber in the Second World War. Up to Scotland sometime this semester!