A Facebook Live Event: Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is continuing to experiment with digital and new media by hosting a Facebook Live event with Eric Burin. He’ll discuss his recent edited book, Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College which brought together over a dozen scholars from across the disciplines to discuss this history of the Electoral College and how it worked in the most recent election. Dr. Burin will be on Facebook Live to talk discuss the book and to take general questions and comments about the history and significance of the Electoral College in American politics.

To make this happen, we’re teaming up with our friends at the North Dakota Humanities Council. They suggested it, I’m working on figuring out how to do it, and we’re both going to promote it. A little prodding by the NDHC folks in Bismarck, and we’re moving into the social media world. Check it out, Picking the President has its own Facebook page now!

If it’s me, the Humanities Council, Eric Burin, and The Digital Press, then you definitely should participate, and here’s how:

First, go and download Picking the President for free at The Digital Press or if you really want it a paper copy, ordering on via Amazon.

We’ll be broadcasting on Picking the President’s Facebook page starting a 1 pm (CST) February 21st. To ask questions, use the hashtag #PickingthePres on Twitter or Facebook or comment here on this blog or over the blog post on this event on the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota web site.  

Here’s Dr. Burin with Abe Lincoln:

Burin and Licnoln

Adventures in Podcasting: Caraheard Season 1, Episode 7

Or “History Will Be Heard, But via Archaeology of the Recent Past, Not Your Study of the Oppressed Black-Haired Irishmen with Excessively Large Canine Teeth.”

This weeks podcast is early and short, because we are super-excited about some audio and podcasting we will be doing from the 7th Annual Cyprus Lecture and North Dakota Premiere of Atari: Game Over.  If you can’t make the premiere in Grand Forks on 9 April, you can watch the documentary on XBox Video, or Netflix.    Atari: Game Over  has an IMDB rating of 7.2 from 368 (!) users, and you can watch a video review of the video by two dudes here.   

Listen to the Cyprus Research Fund Lecture Live HERE. And be sure to celebrate our sponsors: The Cyprus Research Fund, The College of Arts and Sciences, and The North Dakota Humanities Council.

 

AtariGameOver share2

But, first, Bill and Richard discuss historians who have become concerned that they have lost their public, and how public activities and outreach, like a crazed dig in Alamogordo, NM might address that issue.  We also discuss whether the Archaeology of the Recent Past is an outreach gimmick, or whether it is something that is helping the science of archaeology grow.  For our jumping off point, we discuss/attack/mock a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education: Thomas Bender, How Historians Lost Their Public.

Bill makes the case that specialized studies full of technical language are appropriate, and that calls to be less-specialized can be condescending, and lead to dumbing down the discipline. He points out that specialization is good in cancer doctors, but somehow bad in historians, and that makes no sense. Being accessible doesn’t produce new knowledge, Bill notes, technical and specialized writing does. Richard sort of agrees, but argues that there is plenty of room and opportunity for historians to break out of their uber-specialized cubbyholes if they want, and if they don’t want, they shouldn’t complain. The public aren’t crying out for more historians to engage them, as they have so much to watch and read from other sources, says Richard. Rather an insecurity within historical communities generates these cries. Bill notes that there is also real push back from funding agencies about outreach, and that is cause for concern. We seem to end up agreeing that there is a need and room for general practitioners of history and specialists in history, and perhaps there is no crisis at all.  Bill, however, suggests that he sometimes expects people to pay attention to him, while Richard is resigned to never being heard.

Richard admits that he started working on the archaeology of the contemporary world because he thought it would be easy (for outreach and students), but he has since been converted to thinking that it actual has significant contributions to the field. Bill discusses ways archaeology of the recent past has been done and applied to actually make the world a better place right now, especially studies of trash. Bill questions whether outreach via the recent past is useful, or is it so bizarre, like digging up Atari cartridges, that it is just a novelty and actually diminishing rather than enhancing dialogue with the public. Richard and Bill discuss how such projects can wind up with other professionals not taking the work seriously.  Richard talks about some work that has been done on the archaeology of fraternities, and how the The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi is so very relevant right now. Richard claims that winners try to solve problems through outreach rather than trying to be a policy wonk. Bill talks about how non-exotic archaeology can be effective help produce responsible citizens. We digress into a brief discussion of the potential iconography and archaeology of UND Fighting S___x Ice Dragons (?) logos and paraphernalia.  We close by referencing Andrew Reinhard’s bleeding-edge venture into Archaeogaming.

 


The Links to things we talk about:

That obscure website where you can buy HISTORY books – Amazon.com.

Charles Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (for FREE).

Stacy Camp’s Teaching With Trash: Archaeological Insights on University Waste Management.

Rathje and Murray, Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage.

Here is some coverage of the director of the NEH calling for that agency to become more focused on humanities for the public good

Laurie Wilkie, The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi: A Historical Archæology of Masculinity at a University Fraternity.(Be sure to enjoy the hilariously nitpicky Amazon review, from (surprise!) a member of the fraternity from 50 years ago).

National Science Foundation grants being questioned, as covered by scientists and a non-scientist.

Get your no longer Fighting S____x, not yet Ice Dragons (?) UND wear and paraphenalia at the Sioux Shop.

A handy bibliography of Contemporary Archaeology.

Black-Haired Irishmen – quit being racist.

Big Canine Teeth –  really, quit being racist.

Andrew Reinhard’s IMDB Page.

Three Calls for Papers: Slow, Public, and Craft

If you just managed to submit your abstract for the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting and still have some energy before classes start in earnest, then I have a few possible, last minute calls for papers to fill up the idle hours.

The great thing about these opportunities is that they all look to a shorter form of writing (6000 words or less!) and position themselves in the relatively uncharted (academic) territory of creative non-fiction and less formal, professional writing. 

Slow. Feel free to circulate this to your creative non-fiction types who are not archaeologists. The call is for a special edition of North Dakota Quarterly that I’m editing with Rebecca Rozelle-Stone of our department of philosophy and religion. We’re looking for thoughtful, interesting, and critical perspectives on the “slow movement” as well as fiction. I’m working on a more systematic and cohesive version of my slow archaeology screed. The contributions should be no longer than 6,000 words and will be peer-reviewed. This is due October 1!

Public. The Joukowsky Institute at Brown is hosting a competition for accessible archaeological writing and inviting everyone in the world to contribute an entry. The goal of the contest is to highlight high quality archaeological writing that nevertheless preserves the complexity and excitement associated with the archaeological process. The papers should be between 5000 and 6000 words and are due September 1. There is also a prize of $5000 for the best paper and that paper and the eight runners-up will be published. I can’t help but thinking that this is the kind of competition that should be crowd sourced. All the contributions should be made public and some kind of voting system should be put in place (perhaps like the system put in place for SXSW panels). After all, it seems like this kind of competition should be judged by someone other than the faculty and students from the Joukowsky who have generally focused on academic writing! 

Craft. Like last fall, I’m hosting a series of blog posts (short(ish) articles  on “Archaeology and Craft” here on my blog. With some luck and coordination, I hope to crosspost them over at Then Dig. The plan is to get them out as a short volume within a year via the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. The contributions can be any length, but since they start on a blog, I generally nudge folks to keep them under 5000 words. Of course, we can always split longer posts into two or more parts. Drop me an email if you want to contribute. I have a few contributions already, but I like to have five or six before I start to post them regularly. 

I just realized this weekend that I’m officially under contract as of August 15, so I need to start to get focused on my official sabbatical “to do” list (and a post on that will be forthcoming). Hopefully these opportunities will give you productive distractions as the grind of semester looms!

What History Can Learn from Public Philosophy

This past week, our department came to the realization that we have to do more to improve our visibility on campus. In general, we are an active, engaged, and professional department, but we largely keep to ourselves and focus on our own work, our students, and being good colleagues and citizens of academia. The university is beginning a process of reflective critique and involves the prioritization of programs across campus. Our fear is that without increasingly our profile on campus, we will slip between the cracks in the process and lose the modest resources that we have at our disposal.

So there is an instrumental value to promoting the work of our department and working to engage a more diverse audience than our academic peers. This week my colleague and neighbor Jack Wienstein published an article titled “What Does Public Philosophy Do?” (pdf) in a volume of the journal Essays in Philosophy that he guest edited. The article focused on the question in its title, but offers useful challenges to  some basic assumptions about the public humanities in general. I think this article puts forward some useful points of consideration as we move forward as a department to make our work more visible and to expand its impact.

In general, once historians move beyond the idea that making our work publicly visible is pandering to the uneducated and unspecialized, we have viewed our work as vital to creating better citizens of a democracy. Historians have hoped (to generalize) that by creating a more inclusive, dynamic, and complex past, we can create more reflective citizen invested in creating a future that both carries forward the best of the past and seeks to redress historic wrongs. In short, the historical method (such as it is and whatever that might mean) produces a valid and usable past to inform decision making in the present. By presenting our work in public and expanding who has access to the tolls of a professional historian, we dream that we can make inform how the democracy functions and make our world better. It has, of course, vaguely troubled students of history (even in my introduction to the historians’ craft class) that despite our best efforts, historical actors rarely seem to learn from the past or, if they do, it is not in a consistent predictable way.

Jack’s article noted that there has never been any convincing link between public philosophy and more sophisticated, consistent, or rigorous political awareness. In fact, he noted that surveys have shown that Americans tend to respond unpredictably even to issues subjected to sustained engagement in the national media and involving basic historical “facts” salient to political decision making. In other words, deliberate critical engagement with historical issues does not lead the general public’s ability to conclusions consistent with careful historical analysis. Walking a “birther” through the process of evaluating historical evidence is not likely to change his or her mind.

Moreover, Jack points out that claims by philosophy (or any of the humanities) to produce “better” citizens are deeply problematic. At least some part of our modern democracy depends upon the idea that we are intrinsically capable of participating in the political life of the community. The idea of being better or worse at being a citizen would imply the there are those whose participation in the political process would be less valuable because they are not citizens of the better sort. This is anti-liberal.

In many ways, Jack’s critique of public philosophy can apply to how historians have approached engaging the public. If historians or philosophers are not engaging the public to create better citizens, but there remains practical and real benefits associated with raising our profile in the community, we need to find ways to articulate what it is that we do when we step out of our offices and into the public sphere.

Jack cleverly parallels the work of the public philosopher with that of the drug dealer. His job is to try to get people hooked on philosophy and to cultivate it as a particular form of entertainment. He does not mean this to trivialize public philosophy and he clearly regards it as a more healthy form of entertainment than say crack cocaine. His arguments are complex and don’t entirely align with what we do as historians, but they do give us a start. The entertainment value of public philosophy provides a point of entry for a range of experiences:

“It models thinking, is individualistic not collective, it is built on personality not ideas, is passionate and not detached, and advocates for people not ideas. It seeks to prepare ground for future philosophical endeavors, and while the questions asked may be about any area of life, knowledge or inquiry, it should become obvious that public philosophical investigation skews towards the individuals who happen to be there. Most public philosophy involves examination of one’s own personal life. It is about self-knowledge before it is about anything else.”

Of particular utility for historians is the idea that public philosophy models thinking. The philosopher lays bare the process of engaging ideas by standing in front of an audience and taking their comments, observations, and ideas seriously. Modeling thinking then becomes one take-away and positions the audiences’ encounter with public philosophy as less of a collective act of community building and more of an individual act of contemplation. Watching the public philosopher think and understand, begins a process of normalizing reflective thinking that carries on after the event. To affect this the public philosopher has to reveal themselves as much as their ideas to the audience.  The audience has to see the philosopher as someone who is not so different from themselves. Making careful, critical, and reflective thought visible gives the audience permission to reflect in their own lives and, as he summarizes: “public philosophy creates the groundwork for philosophical reflection in personal life with the hope and that this reflection may inspire future wide- ranging conversations about culture and meaning in life.”

Porting these ideas to practice of history in the public sphere is not straight forward. Public history has taken on the trappings of a sub-discipline with all those conceits. Public philosophy, in contrast, is more raw and intimate and personal and open-ended. As a department full of historians without the burden of public history (as a sub-discipline), I wonder if we’d be well served to think carefully about Jack’s ideas. To consider public history as a moment where we can show the community what we do as part of who we are. Rather than falling back of problematic platitudes about making better citizens or building “a sense of community” (whose community? for whom?) we can communicate the idea that doing history is one way to mediate between the individual and the community. The entertainment value of public history gets people into the room and our job is, to use Jack’s phrase, “to prepare the ground and to let people figure it all out on their own. I turn the dirt and watch what grows.”

Imagined Battlefields on the Dakota Prairie

It was really fun to see Aaron Barth’s maiden major publication this weekend in The Public Historian 35 (2013): “Imagining a Battlefield at a Civil War Mistake: The Public History of Whitestone Hill, 1863 to 2013”.  He tells the story of the monument at Whitestone Hill in North Dakota. The monument marks the spot of a particularly heinous assault on a group of Native Americans in September 1863 by Alfred Sully and commemorates the death of some 20 Union Soldiers in the clash. The monument was set up in 1909 as part of a larger project to demonstrate the triumph of “white civilization” and to integrate North Dakota more fully into a national narrative that made the Indian Wars the Western equivalent of the Civil War.

WhitestoneHill

Among the more interesting tidbits in this well-researched article is that the founder of the Whitestone Hill monument was a Congressman Thomas Marshall who cut his teeth as a banker, surveyor, and mayor for the town of Oakes, North Dakota. The link between governing, surveying, and settlement is interesting in a North Dakota context as so many towns were established on a speculative basis. The creation of a monument and the surveying of the battlefield contributed to the larger project of defining the North Dakota landscape and partitioning it into understandable parcels that represent economic, commemorative, and administrative area. In short, it is poetic that a surveyor would be interested in creating a commemorative landscape in the state.

A series of murals dating to 1912 at the nearby Dickey County Courthouse in Ellendale further reinforced the place of the monument within the North Dakota landscapes. The various images present the history of the region showing Native American hunters, early European settlers, and thriving farms. The north elevation of the mural shows the “battle” of Whitestone Hill embedding this event within a path from hunters to settled farmers in the area.

Soon after the monument was erected (and almost certainly during Sully’s life), the circumstances of the “battle” came under dispute and a critical conversation emerged surrounding the ruthless acts of the Union troops. Theatrical productions and public comment introduced counter-narratives that challenged the view within 5 years of the monuments dedication. A local clergyman, Rev. Aaron Beede declared the battle a mistake and wrote a play giving voice to Native American perspectives on the event. Barth argued that this play was the first step in publicly articulating an alternate view of the events at the battle.

I wonder if there was a slightly earlier precedent: on the first Memorial Day event at the monument, the University of North Dakota’s own Orin G. Libby provided a lecture titled “Our Earliest History.” Libby was a student of Frederick Jackson Turner and was generally sensitive to Native American history in the region. Perhaps Libby’s address provided the first critique of the site’s controversial history. Libby was also an important member of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, which met around the same time on UND’s campus. This group sought to emphasize local history, historical sites, and the core values of what would be formalized as public history many years later. If any comments existed amidst his voluminous papers, it would have been a valuable addition to this nice article.

By the 1940s, a plaque commemorated the Native Americans who died at the site. By the 1960s, commemorative events featured individuals who represented the Native American perspective. Of course, the continued use of the term “battlefield” to describe the site ensured that earlier narratives continued to influence the site’s commemoration.

One thing that is notable about this article is that it relied rather heavily on official account drawn from textual sources. Barth is a historian, so I appreciate his wide-ranging research into the history of the site, but he’s also an archaeologist. With a site like a monument, as I am sure Aaron knows, dissenting opinions often appear outside of the view of texts. I finished the article wondering whether the monument ever served as a place of protest for Native American groups or as a location of mourning for the massacre that it commemorated. The signs were and are likely subtle. Object left behind, the faint traces of gathering, and alternate rituals that subvert the intended message of the site.

As he continues to research this site as part of his dissertation, I’ll be excited to see how his work develops. And check out his blog here.