American History or Medieval History

Earlier this week, there was a fun discussion on The Twitters about a job ad that read: New job: “tenure track position: American history OR Medieval history.” At first, like a bunch of other people on Twitters, I was baffled by this (although I could understand easily enough how a department might need one or the other and for now was happy with either). 

After a bit of good natured discussion about it, I got thinking about whether a position of American OR Medieval history could almost as easily be a position in American AND Medieval history. My brain made this leap, in part, because such a position would not feel particular foreign to my experiences as someone with an interest in Medieval history (broadly) and a growing interest in US history. It would also coincide with recent developments in the field. After mulling it over a bit more, I got to wonder whether we might see more of these kinds of positions in the future.

And here’s why:

1. Global Middle Ages. One of my favorite books of the last year is Eleni Kefala’s, The Conquered: Byzantium and America on the Cusp of Modernity (Dumbarton Oaks 2020). I blogged about it earlier in the year. The book compares a literary lament for the fall of Constantinople with a similar pair of laments for the fall of Mexica empire “Huexotzinca Piece,” and the “Tlaxcala Piece.” 

Such innovative comparisons remind us that it is entirely plausible for an individual to have lived through the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the first wave of conquest in the Caribbean and Central America in the early 16th century. In other words, American history, inasmuch as it imagines its beginning with the first journeys of conquest by Europeans to North, Central, and South America is not particularly far removed from an event often associated with the end of the Medieval East. 

Works like Laila Lalami’s 2014 novel, The Moor’s Account, which tells the story of at the Narvaez expedition from the perspective of in 1510 offers a fictional view of the disastrous expedition from the perspective of Mustafa Azemmouri or Estebanico, an enslaved Moor. Lalami’s account plausibly assumes that Estebanico continued to practice many elements consistent with his upbringing in the larger Islamic world. Whether we see this world as “Medieval” or “Early Modern” does not matter much especially once we divorce such terms from narratives grounded in European history and the narrative of European expansion.

Embracing the concept of a global Middle Ages means that it is no longer a contradiction to study Medieval history and American history. Just an an “Ancient historian” might be expected the teach the entire history of the Roman Republic from the founding of the city to the rise of Augustus, so a historian might be expected to study periods defined by, say, the Fourth Crusade and the American Revolution or the Battle of Kosovo (1389) and the American Civil War.      

2. World-Systems. My experience with the intersection of Medieval history and American history did not come from such expansive and, frankly, 21st century readings of Medieval history, but world systems theory (in its plurality of guises). I wish I could claim that my reading of F. Braudel’s The Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II spurred me to think expansively about history and material culture (especially as Braudel’s ideas have been adapted and critiques but works such as P. Horden and N. Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea (2000)), but instead, I started to realize that the study of American history and Medieval history were not so far removed by hanging out with P. Nick Kardulias.

Kardulias is an archaeologist who wrote his dissertation on the archaeology of the Late Roman and Byzantine fortress at Isthmia (which he published as a book in 2005). A quick scan of Kardulias’s publications show his expansive area of research interests that include historic buildings in Northern Ohio, American rock shelters, and prehistoric and historic sites in Greece and Cyprus. Throughout his career, he demonstrated how studying a range of material culture and history contributed to understanding systems that functioned on transregional and even global scales.

His support of my interest in the modern sites in Greece, for example, was absolutely formative and encouraged me to think about broader patterns of human history especially in rural landscapes. Kardulias’s insights, in a general way, informed my work at sites of short term occupation in the contemporary Bakken oil patch in North Dakota and in Greece and Cyprus.      

Of course, one could protest that Kardulias is an anthropologist or an archaeologist, but we shared advisors and while my PhD says History and Nick’s says Anthropology, we still have a good bit in common.

3. Skills and Methods. Common skills and methods often anchor the ability to move between a Medieval and American context and should extent to our ability to teach those fields. As I became more and more interested in certain questions, it became pretty obvious that the skills that I had honed in the Medieval Mediterranean could serve to answer questions in a American context as well.

To be clear, I’m not the first to sort this out. For example, my colleague David Pettegrew has used his data crunching and GIS abilities developed through the study of the Late Roman and Early Medieval Corinthia in Greece and Cyprus to study race, economy, and social change in Harrisburg. Kostis Kourelis, who’s speciality is Byzantine and Frankish Greece, has made meaningful contributions to the history of Greeks in Pennsylvania, my work in the North Dakota oil patch, and in understanding the global scope of the Avant-garde. Richard Rothaus is (literally!) another dean of this kind of thinking as he published a well-respected book on Late Roman Corinth as well as running, for a time, his own CRM company in the Northern Plains and continuing to publish and present on the Bakken, Japanese internment, the Dakota Wars, and so on. 

I know plenty of archaeologists and historians who have meaningful sidelights doing local archaeology, archival research, and heritage. It doesn’t take much time for this kind of work to lead scholars to have feet in multiple specializations. Of course, this isn’t limited to Medievalists and I know plenty of prehistorians and even Classical archaeologists who have done significant archaeological and historical work outside their fields.

4. Reception. Perhaps among the fruitful area of contemporary studies of the ancient and Medieval world is reception studies. This is honestly, not an area where I have much experience other than the regular stream of panels at various meetings. Of course, this isn’t to suggest that I don’t recognize the importance of reception especially as post-colonial state building continues in places like the Near East where the Medieval legacy of these places intersects with political interests anchored in Orientalism. To understand the way in which Orientalist legacies (as one example) have shaped our view of the past involves understanding the histories that produced such views of the Near East. 

Of course issues such as race, gender, and ethnicity (and ethnogenesis) likewise require a foot in both the Medieval and the Modern worlds and cultural, economic, and geopolitical history as well. One can hardly imagine speaking with authority on complex interplay between past views and present policies without being an expert on both.  

5. Teaching. Finally, there is a real sense of urgency in the study of the Ancient and Medieval worlds these days. The chorus of scholars suggesting that our field requires not just significant changes, but perhaps existential ones. This coincides with the changing needs of departments and challenges associated with enrollments in liberal arts and history in particular. 

Being flexible and having a foot in US and the Medieval gives one the ability to both navigate the changing political, disciplinary, and frankly economic landscape of the academy. While this might seem crudely opportunistic or even cynical, I think that it is still acceptable to approach ones livelihood with a bit of realistic strategizing especially at institutions which offer a bit less in he way of insulation for the vagaries of political fortune. I suspect that someday I’ll contribute to our department’s offerings in American history not because I have a deep or profound knowledge of the topic, but to help our department respond to opportunities and pressures from various stakeholders. 

That this might intersect with the growing feeling that the study of the Ancient and Medieval worlds is overrepresented in the academy, is mostly just a coincidence. Times, priorities, and ethical imperatives change with time and maintaining a certain amount of flexibility ensures that one’s knowledge remains appropriate and relevant.  

Three Things Thursday: Teaching, Sevareid, and Rolex

It’s been a long semester and a long (academic) year, but I’m still here, slogging and blogging toward its conclusion. I have the amazing good fortune to have my plate full of exciting, interesting, and stimulating  things to think about this morning and this weekend. Some of these things are probably formative, some of these things are curious, and some are just plain frivolous. In that spirit, I offer this modest Three Things Thursday. 

Thing the First

One of the big things that I’ve been trying to do in my classes this semester is to be more transparent in my pedagogy. In other words, I’m trying to explain why I made choices of material, organization, and assignments in each class. At the same time, I’m trying to give the class a clearer sense of when they achieve certain learning benchmarks. For my intro-level history class this includes things like marshaling specific evidence for their arguments rather than relying on broad generalities or reading primary sources with a kind of sensitivity to authorial voice and perspective.

So far, this approach, which seeks to reveal some of the “mystery” of teaching and learning, seems to be working for the students in my intro-level class. While the hybrid method of teaching, where some students are online and some are in the classroom, presents certain challenges, it is clear that students are developing key historical skills in a more orderly way than in the past when I relied on less transparent approaches to teaching. 

That said, I still worry that making my limited pedagogical goals so clear, leads to students focusing too much on the next step in the learning process rather than a more wholistic view of education. Am I creating an environment where students expect learning to be a series of rote steps rather than the chaotic diversity of encountering new knowledge?

Thing the Second

Right now, North Dakota Quarterly is caught in a liminal state. The next double-issue is at the publisher for typesetting, but we have yet to receive page proofs. This is both an exciting time, in that much of the hard work is done, but it’s also frustrating because I like to synchronize publicizing the new issue with its imminent publication. So what should I be doing to keep NDQ in the public eye?

At the same time, my colleagues and I have been clearing out our offices and stacks of North Dakota Quarterlies have periodically appeared in the hallways. This has led me to leaf through past issues and to sample some of the articles. This week, I read a piece published in 1970, that was the text of a speech given by famed journalist Eric Sevareid at UND’s spring commencement. 

The article is titled “The National Crisis” and reminded me that the current sense of crisis is not new and that there were always voices calling for moderation and order which, intentionally or not, have tended to dampen the spirits of those calling for urgent reform. At my weakest moments, I find myself among those who have decried violence at the expense of understanding its causes. In this regard, Sevareid’s view made me distinctly uncomfortable especially as he counseled caution surrounding some of the very issues—race, economic inequality, and political representation—that have been flashpoints in contemporary society. 

You can read Sevareid’s piece here (with some of my additional commentary).      

Thing the Third

From the deeply social to the entirely frivolous! The watch world is agog at the new version of the iconic Rolex Explorer. To be clear, I’ve never really seen myself as a Rolex guy. Of course, I have admired their design language, their history, and their commitment to producing durable and accurate mechanical watches. At the same time, I’ve often found them to be a kind of “tweener” brand: their cases are not as tech-forward as, say, (LVMH’s) Zenith, (Swatch Group’s) Omega, or Grand Seiko; they do not dabble in the exotic complications of Vacheron, Patek, or Lange; and their designs are not not as flashy or sophisticated as any number of Swiss high end brands. Instead, they’ve tended to trade on their iconic forms and solid mechanics. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great watches, but I’ve never managed to muster quite as much excitement about them as I do other brands (such as Richmont’s Jaeger-LeCoultre or Grand Seiko). 

This week’s release of a new version of Rolex’s iconic Explorer (the watch famously worn by Sir Edmund Hillary on his ascent of Mt. Everest) actually got me excited. While I’ve not seen one in the metal (and it seems unlikely that I ever will considering the idiosyncratic nature of the Rolex distribution practices and the generally middle class character of most of my friends and colleagues), I’m honestly smitten by the single press photograph released by The Crown. The deep black lacquer dial, the 36 mm size, the very solid (if unexceptional) movement, and the slight reduction in price make it something that I’m sure I’ll covet for many years to come. For the record, I’m ambivalent about the tone-town variant. I like that it exists, but I have no need to see it.

Check it out here.

Narrating History

This weekend I spent some time exploring the city-state of Ravicka, which is the center-piece and setting for Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series of books. These books are really remarkable and as close to reading a dream as anything that I’ve ever read. The settings and characters shimmer in the yellow light of the city-state and flicker in and out of focus, situations are ill-defined, but luxuriously detailed, and the plot is often unresolved and indistinct. In fact, Gladman remarks in the afterword to Houses of Ravicka, that readers tend to assume that the author knows how the plot of a book will resolve. This shapes how we read a book, understand its structure and organization, and anticipate its resolution.

The stories that Gladman tell do not resolve themselves easily. Often the plots are almost impossible to trace amid the dream like oscillations, temporal  and spatial leaps, and lapses and gaps. This does not make these books frustrating, but is part of their allure. In fact, the imaginary city-state of Ravicka with its unusual customs, strange language, and shifting topography offers a remarkably realistic encounter with the past. The places and events of Ravicka fail to resolve in either detail or plot. Archaeologists, at least honest ones, know this situation well.

These books remind me of some recent conversations with my fiction editor at North Dakota Quarterly, Gilad Elbom. He bemoans the current state of fiction that all too often models itself – consciously or not – on popular media particularly televisions and films. Attentiveness to detail and setting, consistency of characters, and a resolving plot characterize so much contemporary fiction which seeks to tie together  the strands of the story into a tidy package (perfectly appropriate for contemporary attention spans, formats, and media diets). In many ways, the kind of fiction that Gilad decries is the opposite of what Gladman writes. 

The significance of Gladman’s work and Gilad’s critique for historians and archaeologists is that it reminds us that there are alternatives to the prevailing forms of narration and emplotment. I have begun to think that these alternatives are particularly important for our 21st century world.

Recently, conversation on social media about conspiracies theories has fascinated me. There seems to be a prevailing, but largely misguided view that a more rigorous presentation of facts will somehow subvert the power of conspiracies. I suspect the problem, however, is not with facts, but with our predilection for certain kinds of narrative. Conspiracy theorists see their world as one where disparate plot points resolve themselves into a narrative arc that is not only consistent, but also predictable and understandable. This consistency, despite the often unrealistic premises upon which it is based, lends a kind of veracity to the conspiracy theory. This veracity does not come from its similarity to our lived experiences (which rarely resolve themselves at all and often elude our ability to discern detail and recognize consistency, but rather from its similarity to forms of emplotment found in the media and, more importantly, in how we present history.

I’m not the first to observe efforts to emplot conspiracy theories and history according to popular modes of narrative. In fact, Hayden White wrote a massive book that essentially argued the same thing. More than that Kim Bowes, in her recent article on the Roman economy, noted that the recent vogue for big books often sought to explain long term historical trends — the rise of the state, the dominance of capitalism, the emergence of “the West,” the fall of the Roman Empire — as the products of single causes which range from climate change to disease, political instability, or technological innovation. Even the most casual observer of history recognizes these kinds of big books, typically written by men and offering big explanations for emergence, rise, decline, and collapse. These books, as Bowes notes, often massage data to fit their models and often rely on circular reasoning to advance their grand claims that nevertheless appear compelling to many readers.

When these grand models refuse to coincide neatly with the specific situation at one site or another, we often casually recognize this as the kind of variation that might be expected from any grand model (or, paradoxically as an exception that proves the rule). Thus the details that often refuse to cooperate with any kind of plot simply drift to the side as problematic and irreconcilable with the existing narrative. Gladman’s Ravicka series, particular the first novel, Event Factory, is suffused with this kind of detail. In fact, the entire book consists of details that are in some ways irreconcilable.  

Our tendency to explain away details that we can’t reconcile to our grand narratives is not simply a characteristic of big history and archaeology, but also, unsurprisingly, conspiracy theories. When an abundance of irreconcilable details appear, we sometime find ourselves needing to revise the narrative to accommodate them. That said, we rarely question the need for these kinds of narratives in our scholarship or in our media. 

In fact, we still crave these narratives in our popular media. We want the grand stories characteristic of Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Lord of Rings, and Larry Potter. We want them so much that we overlook the inconsistencies and fixate and develop details that the authors are constantly resolving into their grand narratives as if to convince us that their worlds are real.

Of course, we do this as historians and archaeologists as well. I keep thinking of my efforts to understand the archaeology of Polis on Cyprus, for example, and the desire to align it with the narrative of Late Roman decline on the island (or, as often, demonstrate that it somehow subverts that narrative). The challenge that I can’t help thinking about now is that my dependence on this narrative (and the assumption that it’s authors know how the story ends) contributes to a view of the world that resolves as conspiracies and popular media does rather than what reflects our lived experiences. 

Maybe archaeologists and historians would be well served to read more works like Renee Gladman’s and think about not only the media that we produce but what we consume as well.  

Notes on Being a Graduate Director

For the last four or five years, I’ve had a strange position. I serve as graduate director of three programs which have more or less stopped admitting students. Our department currently has, on the books, an MA in History, a DA in history (which is a Doctor of the Arts, a teaching doctorate), and a PhD in History (offered jointly with our colleagues at NDSU). Three years ago, we lost funding for our graduate program as part of a larger budget cuts and austerity program at the University of North Dakota. At that point, we decided to press pause on admitting into our program To be fair, we do have a few doctoral students continuing to wend their way through our program and a handful of recidivist MA students working to finish their degrees.

This week, though, this situation started to change. The Graduate Committee at the University of North Dakota approved a heavily revised MA program. These revisions included a new 4+1 offering which would allow a student to start their MA after 60 undergraduate credits and complete it in one additional academic year. While the revised program still has to make its way through the university curriculum committee, I anticipate no difficulties there. We also continue to have no funding which means that we have no GTA positions and no tuition wavers, it will likely attract a certain kind of student who is unlikely to get support from other institutions. That being said, we anticipate that our MA program will serve this population well and provide a distinctive take on the History MA. 

Here are some thoughts about our new MA:

1. Limiting Required Classes. Previously our MA was like most graduate degrees: a Byzantine series of requirements and tracks that involved not only the synchronization of a number of courses, but assumed that how we imagined our degree best reflected our students expectations and needs.

With this revision, we’ve moved in the opposite direction and will require only four courses: (1) a historiography class, (2) a methods class, (3) a portfolio class (more on that later), and (4) 3 research and writing credits.

2. Built on the framework of our BA. Historically, our MA program was quite distinct from our BA program. Instead of content or methods focused classes, we shifted to rather more open ended research seminars and graduate reading classes that emphasized historiography as much as historical content knowledge.

In truth many of our students were ill-prepared for this change. More than that, many of our students found even directed research and intensive reading in the complex historiography of a period, issue, or approach to be so different from their undergraduate experiences that it was not only undesirable, but also not conducive to student success. 

Our new MA will cleave more closely to our BA allowing students to transition from  undergraduate approaches to history to graduate style reading and writing courses. Our graduate students will enroll largely in upper division undergraduate classes. We will, of course, expect more writing and reading from our graduate students, but our hope is that the content oriented framework of our undergraduate curriculum will help our students make the leap to graduate level work more successfully. (And elevate the game of our undergraduates as well!) 

3. Non-History Electives and Internships. Historically we have imagined our MA a gateway to a doctoral program in history, but looking back, we realized that relatively few of our students decided to go in that direction. Instead, students have used their MA as a foundation for secondary school teaching, at museums and other cultural institutions, in the non-profit world, and elsewhere. We decided to include the option for as many as four classes being outside our department or up to six credits worth of internships. This will allow our MA to dovetail more neatly with the kinds of “outcomes” that many of our students realize and allow them to get some experience outside the classroom while still a student.  

4. Portfolios, not Theses. We’ve also finally put the MA thesis out of its misery. In its place we’ve adopted a portfolio that will include three papers. One will be an article length research paper (8000-10000 words), another will be a conference paper length work on a different topic (3000 words). The final paper will be a reflective essay or a personal statement which might be useful on the job market or as a gesture toward “closing the loop” on the MA.

5. Managing Faculty Workload. The other advantage that this lighter MA program has is managing faculty workload. Because we won’t offer as many distinctly graduate classes and we’ll support (and encourage) our students to take classes outside of the department, we will not have to develop and offer as many new graduate level classes. The portfolio will also be less of a burden than the sometimes multiyear commitment to a Master’s thesis. As our department continues to shrink and the institution’s commitment to programs in the humanities wavers, we want to do all we can to manage our little corner of the campus as carefully as possible. Morale will not improve any time soon, but being attentive to faculty workloads certainly does make a difference in our daily lives as teachers, scholars, and colleagues.

In the end, our new MA program might not make much of an impact on the status of our department on campus or the character of graduate education in history in the field. We do hope, though, that continuing to invest in a program like ours, which even without funding will be more affordable than many “post-bac” style programs, will reflect our ongoing commitment to offering high-quality graduate education to underserved populations. As more and more “second” and “third tier” universities pull the plug on their small MA programs in the humanities, students from areas that these programs served are left without many alternatives. They are unlikely to be admitted or well-suited to elite graduate programs in the humanities which have started to reduce the number of seats available in an effort to balance supply and demand.

We hope our program will continue to serve as a step up program for students in our region as well as give students looking to continue their education in history for either professional or personal reasons an attractive and flexible opportunity. 

War, Influenza, and the University

This is crossposted with the NDQ blog which you can (and should!) explore here.

Like many people, I’ve been watching the spread of coronavirus with a combination of fascination and shock. Watching a virus traverse the world via our dense network of travel, community, and institutions is a remarkable reminder of the vital global flows that make our situation possible. It seems to speak to something fundamental to the late 20th and early 21st century.  

At the same time, the spread of the virus draws me back to an article in the NDQ archive that describes the onset of the influenza epidemic on the campus of the University of North Dakota in 1918. In the waning months of World War I, influenza ripped through the Student Army Training Corp stationed at UND. By the time it ended, 29 student cadets had died.   

Below is an excerpt from O.G. Libby’s article on the work of North Dakota’s colleges and universities during the Great War published by NDQ in 1919.

You can read more from NDQ’s archive here.  

O.G. Libby, “The Work of the Institutions of Higher Education” NDQ 10, Number 1 (January 1919), 61-80.

The work of the S.A.T.C [Student Army Training Corp] unit had hardly begun when the student body was overtaken by an epidemic of influenza which caused suspension of all classes by quarantine October 8, and finally of all but the most necessary of camp duties. Following the establishment of the quarantine in Grand Forks as well as at the University the street cars were stopt at Hamline avenue and guards were stationed at every University entrance for the control of traffic and the exclusion of the public from the University campus. On the thirteenth of October, Sunday, a large number of the students reported as sick of the influenza at the base hospital establisht in the Phi Delta Theta house and at the emergency hospital on the third floor of Budge Hall. The number of patients increast so fast that by the following Tuesday the military headquarters were removed to Davis Hall and all the students rooming in this dormitory were transferred elsewhere as rapidly as possible. By the end of the week pneumonia began to develop among the patients and the University found itself in the grip of the worst epidemic in its history. Lieutenant Jesse H. McIntosh was camp physician during the existence of the S.A.T.C. unit. During the epidemic he was assisted by Dr. James Grassick, University physician, who had his headquarters at Budge hall. The women patients at the University were cared for, principally, at a temporary hospital in a nearby cottage. Dr. H. E. French, Dean of the University School of Medicine, had charge of all these cases and was able to deal so successfully with the epidemic that he lost none of his patients.

Lack of adequate hospital facilities on the University campus led to undesirable overcrowding, and since no provision for this contingency had been made in advance the most fatal consequences followed. The largest number of patients was cared for in Budge Hall, and that the mortality there did not run higher is due solely to the professional skill and untiring devotion of the head nurse, Miss Mae McCullough. Immediately on being placed in charge of the nurses at this hospital, near the close of the first week of the epidemic, she introduced every device that her long experience had shown her to be useful in such emergencies. The hospital record of every patient was kept at his bedside accessible to the nurses and doctors. Every patient had abundance of fresh air, but screens were placed over the windows so as to avoid dangerous draughts. The cots were raised on specially made blocks so as to render the care of the patients easier for the attendants. A diet kitchen was installed where proper food could be prepared under the most favorable circumstances. Relays of Grand Forks women, chosen from those most able to assist her, workt day and night under her directions to save the worst cases and to prevent further development of the most dangerous phase of the epidemic. The citizens of Grand Forks responded to every call for help. The day and night shifts at Budge Hall were conveyed to and from their homes in autos even during the worst weather. Meals were brought out every night to those who went on duty in the evening. When the head nurse called for volunteer doctors from the city to serve at the hospital during the night, at which time the regular physicians were not on duty, there was no lack of response. The services of the Red Cross were placed at the service of the University by its representative, Mr. C.C. Gowran, while the chairman of the University War Committee, acting as his volunteer assistant, helpt to discover the needs of every one and to fill them promptly. With all the care that could have been lavisht upon them, the patients would have fared badly but for the medical supplies and other material daily brought from the Red Cross headquarters at Grand Forks. Within the S.A.T.C. unit itself the medical students gave freely of their utmost as nurses’ aides while the details of military orderlies did their work loyally under the most trying circumstances. The remarkable severity of the epidemic in every part of the country makes the record of its ravages of special interest. How a number of other institutions met and combatted the scourge is given in brief at the close of this sketch. Appended to these summaries is a table of the statistics for each institution that furnisht the facts.

Near the close of the epidemic the War Committee sent the follow communication to the President:

In view of the severity of the recent epidemic and the constant danger of a renewal of its ravages, in view of the trust reposed in us by the parents of the students in attendance at the University and for the purpose of more fully utilizing the service of the medicalmen of Grand Forks City and County, it is recommended by the University War Committee:

1. That a joint medical committee be formed by voluntary association for the purpose of taking into consideration the special problems arising from the spread of the epidemic at the University S.A.T.C camp, this committee to consist of the medical army officer of the camp, the Dean of the University School of Medicine, the Grand Forks County Health Officer, the City Health Officer, and the chairman of the Commercial Club Health committee.

2. While, from the military situation, it is recognized that the function of this committee must be purely advisory, it is strongly urged that the committee, acting for the whole state constituency of the University, consider every phase of the public health situation connected with the S.A.T.C. camp life, and to that end it is suggested that the committee be subject to call by any one of its members.

As events turned out, there was no renewal of the epidemic but it was felt that there was now a well-digested plan on file so that any future emergency might not again find us wholly unprepared. S.A.T.C. class work was gradually resumed during the first week in November. The general quarantine on the city and University
was not removed, however, and the outside student body did not return for work. As only six weeks remained of the first quarter, the class work was altered so as to cover, as far as possible, the courses for the entire quarter. The signing of the armistice on November 11 and the subsequent order for demobilization put an end to the S.A.T.C. organization and opened the way for a resumption of regular University work.

Against the Epic?

I had a lovely breakfast with a (at the time) PhD candidate on the day of her successful dissertation defense. Describing her life in Montana, she told me that so many people in the college town where she lived were “epic.” That seemed like a particularly apt word for folks who lived in state known for its mountains and big sky. 

Later that morning, I put in Earl Sweatshirt’s new EP, Feet of Clay. The entire EP runs to just over 15 minutes. It mostly consists of Sweatshirt’s characteristic stream of rhymes lyrics over a looped sample and beat. There are few breaks and no choruses. The entire EP is mercifully devoid of pretense and, despite it’s Biblical title, grandeur. It’s the opposite of the epic. 

Mami Wata, shawty blew the fish out
Piscean just like my father, still got bones to pick out
For now let’s salt the rims and pour a drink out

Taking nothing from the sincerity of the EP’s lyrics. Like his previous album Some Rap Songs, which stretches over the luxurious 24 minute mark, Sweatshirt reflects on the loss of his father, his own coming of age, and the challenges of success.

I put my fears in a box like a prayer that you won’t read
Spirited Away the whole thing
Peerin’ away, I won’t leave
See you starin’ into old beefs

This circumscribed scope sets it apart from so much of the recent output in the hip hop scene. Sweatshirt’s biblical allusion does not appear to symbolize some kind of monumental conversion that might warrant an entire album as in Kanye West’s contemporary Jesus is KingFeet of Clay’s lyrics are compelling:

Depending how I play my cards
The wind whispered to me, “Ain’t it hard?”
I wait to be the light shimmering from a star
Cognitive dissonance shattered and the necessary venom restored
As if it matters if you think it matters anymore

But they are not going to be taught in private college art history classes. They don’t explicitly challenge patrimony, racism, or capitalism. At 15 minutes, Sweatshirt’s EP doesn’t push you to consider existential themes along the lines of Kamasi Washington’s 3-hours masterpiece Heaven and Earth. It’s not a concept album, a statement, or a gimmick. To circle back: it’s not epic.

This semester, in a small graduate seminar, we concluded the semester by reading John Brooke’s Climate Change and the Course of Global History: a rough journey (2014), Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s The History Manifesto (2014), and numerous texts that refer to Daniel Lord Smail’s On Deep History and the Brain (2009), Manuel De Landa’s A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History (2011), or various other works that seek to narrative history on a monumental scale. These works are exciting, to be sure, and their scope and scale are intoxicating particularly to those of us who often spend our lives worrying about the distribution of broken ceramic sherds or history at the level of the decade or century. Moreover, their willingness to engage in big issues from climate change, to race, capitalism, colonialism, and violence, presses us to understand the immense scale of various oppressive regimes and systems. 

At the same time, these works are strangle distant from our daily experiences. It is possible, of course, to understand how choices we make contribute to deep history and patterns of injustice, inequality, and pain, but epic scale of these processes often can lead to a compromised sense of agency. On the one hand, maybe this is the goal. By revealing the vastness of our problems, we distribute the responsibility from our own shoulders as denizens of the 21st century and, instead, share the burden with our past. Our inability to escape our present allows us to live in a tragic moment. 

On the other hand, revealing how past decisions have shaped the present tempts us to be more deliberate while still reminding us that whatever our choices will inevitably have negative consequences for those who will invariably see the world in ways much different from our own.

Earl Sweatshirt’s EP, on the other hand, offers us 15 minutes of the explicitly non-epic. Seemingly scaled to the human attention span, it offers relief in the realm of the momentary and the personal. This doesn’t mean that it’s not deep, that it’s not meaningful, and that it’s not significant. In fact, Sweatshirt’s lyrics are on point, the production is tight, and the EP is rich with wordplay, sincerity, and history. By casting aside epic pretensions for even just for 15 minutes, it reminds us that the contemporary world, circumscribed by our own horizons, does exist even if it’s not all there is to the world.


Afterword: The entire concept of the EP in the digital age is great. There’s no reason for the EP to exist today, of course. It originally referred to a kind of vinyl pressing that was shorter than the LP and usually spun at 45 rpm and were 7-inches rather than 33-1/3 for 10-inch LPs. This conscious reference to an analogue past complements the every-day scope of Feet of Clay and strips from it some of the monumental hype that an LP requires. 

Teaching Thursday: Teaching by the Book

When I first started teaching, I was convinced that I didn’t need no stinkin’ textbook. I dutifully created my own primary source reader and pulled together a motley gaggle of secondary reading to use in my survey level class and upper level classes.

As the years have passed and I’ve acquired a dose of humility, I’ve come to realize that many textbooks offer a far more substantial and, generally speaking, informed foundation for the classroom. There remain reasons not to use textbooks, of course, that range from their cost to issues of compatibility, length, and presentation. But for most of my classes, there’s a book that does the job better than I could and at a reasonable cost.

Sarah Maza’s Thinking about History (Chicago 2017) is one of those books. 

This fall, I’m re-writing my History 240: The Historians’ Craft class. It’s a mid-level course that is required for all of our majors and minors. In the past, I’ve split the class between a 7 week course on historiography culminating in a mid-term and a 7 week course on research methods, culminating in a prospectus. Next semester, I’m dividing the class into thirds, with 5 weeks on historiography, 5 weeks in special collections, and 5 weeks on writing a prospectus.

Maza’s book is divided into 6 chapters each of which poses a simple question that is nevertheless fundamental to historical research. The first chapter is titled “The History of Whom?”; the second “The History of Where?”; the third, “The History of What?”, and so on. She grounds her consideration of each question in post-war historical work with the occasional dalliances in the first part of the 20th century. She supports her arguments with just enough footnotes to be effective and not so many as to intimidate the undergraduate. The prose is engaging and chapters are short enough to be digested efficiently. The most important thing, however, is that Maza frames historical methods in the development of past practices. In other words, history itself is not ahistorical and our methods are inscribed with the challenges and developments facing scholars in the past and present. In short, the book would be an almost ideal companion to my revised History 240 class (or any undergraduate historical methods course)!

It does have a few drawbacks, though, which is less with the book and more with its compatibility with my class.

First, Maza does not really engage with ancient or medieval historians in a serious way. Thucydides and Tacitus make cameo appearances, but Medieval practices and scholars do not. Renaissance and Enlightenment historians and philosophers do appear but mainly as historical context rather than points of attention in their own right. This pains my ancient historian heart a bit, but also reflects the reality of students who are pretty uncomfortable with ancient texts, their conventions, the names, and their approach to understanding the past. It may be that the omitting ancient and Medieval history from the book makes the entire project more approachable for students. 

Second, the final section of the the book is titled “Fact or Fiction?” In it, Maza explores the influence of postmodernism on historical thinking and writing with particular attention to the work of Natalie Zemon Davis and Hayden White. She considers the debt of historical writing to fiction and the role of literary tropes as well as the potential and limits of the historical imagination. She also addresses the issue of fraudulent historical work and details a few instances in recent memory when historians fabricated or misrepresented sources. The juxtaposition of rigorous postmodern scholarship with fraudulent historical analysis is meant to challenge the student to consider the limits to historical thinking. It also, however, suggests that somehow postmodern scholarship is less credible that other forms of historical work not because its dependence on jargon, reluctance to unpack traditional causality, or even genre defying approaches to understanding the past, but because it somehow flirts with misrepresenting the past or deception. 

If I were writing the book, I’d be far more tempted to consider the continuum that ranges from postmodern works to the increasingly ubiquitous presence of history in popular media. It seems that both are informed by a desire to tell new and different stories about the past and in many cases embraces – explicitly – the ironic turn which challenges our expectations for how history works. 

That being said, the book is very good and will almost certainly appear on my History 240 syllabus this spring. In fact, it’s so good that I’ll probably follow Maza’s lead and reduce (or maybe even eliminate) my treatment of ancient and Medieval texts. The real trick will finding the right primary sources to lead students beyond the book and allow them to encounter first hand the major contributors to our modern discipline.

Revising my Graduate Methods Course

This fall, I’m teaching a small graduate methods class. We originally designed the class as the first class an incoming MA student would take from our department. The first half of the class was a discussion of historical practices and the second half consisted of two-week, mini-courses offered by various members of the faculty on their specialization (oral history, archival research, ethnohistory, material culture, et c.). Next semester, I’m offering the class to two prodigal graduate students who are returning to our program after a few years away. They don’t really need to meet the department as much as get a tune up on what’s going on in the discipline and get back into thinking, reading, and writing at a graduate level.

Since I’ve been pretty out of the loop in terms of the academic study of the past, I partly crowd sourced my syllabus and got some great advice. You’ll obviously be able to see the books that make clear my rather olde skool background (and those that have been recommended to me from “the crowd”) and I recognize that it is a bit dated in places. I’m still fishing for something that does a nice job of considering digital practices for historians.

Here’s the syllabus so far:

Week 1: Introduction to Graduate Research

Umberto Eco, How to Write a Thesis. Translated by Caterina Mongiat Farina and Geoff Farina. MIT Press 2015.

Week 2: Introduction to Historical Thinking

Sarah Maza, Thinking about History. University of Chicago Press 2017.

Week 3: Introduction to Critical Theory

Elizabeth Clarke, History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn. Harvard University Press 2004.

Week 4: History and Globalization

Lynne Hunt, Writing History in the Global Era. Norton 2014.

Week 5: History and Identity

Kwame Appiah, Lies that Bind Us: Rethinking Identity. Profile Books 2018.

Week 6: History and the Environment

John Brooke, Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey. Cambridge University Press 2014.

Week 7: Activist History

David Armitage and Jo Guldi, The History Manifesto. Cambridge University Press 2014.

Week 8: Materiality, Heritage and Decay

Caitlin DeSilvey, Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. University of Minnesota Press 2017.

Teaching Tuesday: The End of the Semester

Usually by the end of the spring semester I’m a bit frazzled and ready for the start of my summer reading and writing time. This semester, however, I managed to stay more or less on top of things which left me surprisingly relaxed and while tired, not particularly overwhelmed. 

It has also given me more time than usual to reflect on my semester and the two class that I taught: History 240: The Historians’ Crap and History 101: Western Civilization I (Online). Both versions of these venerable classes will be retired after this semester. In the case of History 240, it will be replaced with a “High Impact Practice” class that will involve the students spending substantially more time in UND’s Special Collections in the library. My online History 101 class should have been retired a few years ago, but for one reason or another kept getting rolled out. This time, however, really is the last time, and there is a kind of symmetry as I also shut down my large “Scale-Up” style 101 class which I last taught last fall.

The odd thing about teaching a class for the last time is that they invariably leave behind a sense of disappointment. I know that my classes can be better and when I teach a class each semester or even every year, I have some hope that I can revise and improve what I do in incremental ways. After the last class, however, there’s nothing left to fix. In hindsight, the class appears to be just a rambling, slewing, careening hulk of small changes duct-taped together with hope. 

The next time that I teach either class will be in Spring 2020. My Western Civilization class will be a 40 person, 1-day-a-week night class. I really liked the flipped lecture style of my Scale-Up version of the class and will probably look to do something in that format. It not only promoted a very high degree of student engagement, but also was fun. As for the focus of the class, however, I’ve started to think about asking the students to engage with the topic of “Western Civilization” in a more critical way. Too much of my class leaves implied the continuity between our “Western” world and Classical antiquity. This approach to understanding the roots of the contemporary world not only is complicit in historical colonialism and imperialism and racism, but also the startling rise in the so-called “alt right” in the 21st century (here’s a nice primer on the historical development of the term). The problematic associations with the concept, in fact, threaten to unmoor the entire project of the humanities and require some remediation even if it’s just framing the conventional narrative of Western Civilization as a space for critical engagement rather than a fixed body of knowledge. 

The way that I’ve imagined my History 240 class likewise calls for a bit of revision. Currently I divide the class into two sections. The first half is a 7 week course on historiography from Homer to the present; the second half is a practical crash course on historical research that culminates in a prospectus. In the new version of this class the historiography section is compressed to a four week module. As a result, I need to rethinking the priorities of this section of the class. Is it really vital to link modern historical writing to Herodotus and Thucydides? How do I balance global historical writing with (North) American traditions? If I have only 8 classes and readings for students at the 200 level (that is lower-mid-level students) what should I make sure that every student reads?

One of the more intriguing challenges associated with revising these classes will be the curious new rigidity imposed on our contracts at the University of North Dakota. For various reasons (that seem to have nothing to do with faculty work and everything to do with bean counting), each class on our contract can only count for 10% of our total contract time. That means, if we assume a 50 hour work week, that each class can count for no more than 5 hours per week or 90 hours per semester. When classes are in session, each class runs for 2.5 hours and meets 16 times, so that accounts for approximately 40 hours of contract time. If we factor in 30 minutes of office hours per class over 17 weeks, that’s another 8.5 hours. If we assume another hour per week or so grading over the course of the semester, that’s 17 more hours, and it brings our total hours per class to 68.5. That leaves 21.5 hours to prep the new course or at our 50 hour week, just a little over 2 days. This seriously limits how creative I can.

It goes without saying that I’ll violate the terms of my contract by working more than 10% of my time on each of these two classes.  

Politics, History, and Change

Just a short post this morning as I have a mountain of grading to wade through before my class this afternoon.

I was intrigued this morning by a short Op-Ed by the historian Michael Lansing titled “On Dead White Men and the Politics of Minnesota’s History” in the Minnesota Post. Lansing argues that for as long as U.S. history is being written, interpretations of the past have changed. Recent cries of “revisionism” by members of the Minnesota legislature, then, ring pretty hollow. Lansing sagely points out: “This phrase is a contradiction in terms that reveals how little the detractors know about the actual practice of history.” 

Historians deal with interpretations and evidence and not matters of fact. There is little objectionable in this claim, of course, but I do wonder whether it’s useful in practice. While it goes without saying that historians are always trying to revise past interpretations of the past, for our own sanity (and the good of the cause) we tend not to dilate on the ephemerality of our interpretations. In practice, historians and their friends in the archives, in historic preservation, in publishing, and in teaching, like to think of our contributions to society as persistent, if not permanent. It is easy enough, of course, to hold to contradictory ideas in our head. Our contributions are lasting, but not necessarily fixed. At the same time, we’d like to imagine that we’re not going to reinterpret slavery, for example, as “not really all that bad” or argue that giving women the right to vote “was historically a mistake” or something along those lines.

The general public, for whom Lansing’s editorial was intended, likewise tend to see certain things about the past as rather fixed. In fact, as historians we’re horrified to see the rise of Alt-Right movements who seek to valorize the Confederacy or Nazism. As much as we embrace the idea that the past is dynamic place constantly open to reinterpretation, revival, and revision, we also insist that certain aspects of the past demand a kind of orthodoxy. Among historians, this orthodoxy is fortified by our methods, but even the most rigorous historian will admit that our methods are not as locked down as we might wish for the social and moral weight that we place on our conclusions.

In the end, nothing that Lansing said was wrong or inappropriate or even really problematic. More than that, he’s a good historian and his argument in his Op-Ed are important. I still wonder, however, whether stating his case as he did runs the risk of undermining the authority of historians by emphasizing the fundamental tension that has bedeviled historical thinking since antiquity: the past is always change and historical thought produces only ephemera. The real value of history, to my mind, is not that (as Lansing quotes Becker): “Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time,” but that our conversations, arguments, and agreements about the past — no matter how painful, problematic, or positive —  afford an distinctive opportunity to assess and establish what we believe.