Thursday, August 31, 2006

You know it's good when...

I am teaching an undergraduate reading seminar this semester and got a thrill Monday evening while reading one of the assignments for the class. It was the type of article that actually gave me an adrenalin rush as I thought to myself - 'Damn, this is brilliant.' I even went into class the next day and told my students about how a specific part of the article had 'Knocked me out of my chair.' A few of the nodded... they had apparently gotten the same rush.

Now that I am thinking back on it, however, I can't decide how geeky it is get such a physical reaction from reading a piece of non-fiction. Of course, geeky or not the real sad part is that it happens so rarely. I remember only a few other times when I've read something so illuminating that it actually made me sit up straighter and feel more alive.

Don't get me wrong, I've read lots of history articles that I agreed with, found interesting, and thought were well written. But this is something different.... maybe more primal. This is the feeling that drew me into the discipline (although at the time I was getting that feeling from lectures by my undergrad professors). And it is definitely a feeling that keeps me motivated to do additional reading and research. I just wish it wasn't so rare.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Nightmare on University Street

It is now 14.5 hours and counting until my first Tuesday class of the semester. I still have to finish the syllabus, put some handouts online, and decide on exactly what the % breakdown on the assignments will be. I'm sure I'll end up with a massive headache before the night is over.

This wouldn't be so bad except that I am close to living in reality my recurring pre-school year nightmare. At least once or twice before each semester begins, I have a dream where it is the first day of the semester and I suddenly remember that I have a class starting in just minutes that I haven't written a syllabus for. I end up running around in the dream all stressed out trying to hurry and finish the syllabus while trying to keep the students in the classroom without me in it. Usually I try to accomplish this by making some random student who comes to my office asking where the heck I am to go into the classroom and tell the rest of the students that I'm on my way. I really hate that dream, because the anxiety it produces makes me feel almost as bad as if I REALLY forgot about a class.

I have some colleagues who have recurring nightmares about it being finals week when they suddenly discover they had a class all semester that they never attended. I've heard of other professors who dream about showing up for class and having forgotten to put on their clothes.

Best I can tell, all these dreams seem to indicate most academics have a deep fear that they are going to forget something important about their discipline and that someone will discover that they are frauds. They worry that somehow they unfairly convinced a university to give them a Ph.D. in history even though they don't really understand post-structuralism and never learned what William A. Williams and the Wisconsin School were saying about American foreign policy. I don't know who to blame for this fear - probably graduate school seminars - but I wonder if computer programers or lawyers face this same type of worry?

I plan on taking a couple of Excederin PM before bed tonight. Hopefully that will block out the nightmares. I wish everyone else sweet dreams.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

History Laughs

Classes start tomorrow - I still have a syllabus to figure out for Tuesday. So obviously what I need to be doing is looking for historical jokes. Here are some of the best I've found:

1. I went to a restaurant that serves 'breakfast at any time.' So I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.

2. Jimmy Kimmel said: Historians just found a document that showed a list of liquor George Washington wanted for his New York headquarters, including a key of brandy, a box of claret, a box of fortified wine, a basket of cordials, and two kinds of cheese. So not only was George Washington the father of our coutnry, he also invented the mini-bar.

3. Why were the early days of history called the dark ages? - Because there were so many knights!

4. An angel appears at a faculty meeting and tells the history teacher that in return for his unselfish and exemplary behavior, the Lord will reward him with his choice of infinite wealth, wisdom, or beauty. Without hesitating, the history teacher selects infinite wisdom.

"Done!" says the angel, and disappears in a cloud of smoke and a bolt of lightning. Now, all heads turn toward the history teacher, who sits surrounded by a faint halo of light.

One of his colleagues whispers, "Say something." The history teacher sighs and says, "I should have taken the money."

5. In an American history discussion group, the professor was trying to explain how society's ideal of beauty changes with time. "For example, he said, "take the 1921 Miss America. She stood five-feet, one-inch tall, weighed 108 pounds and had measurements of 30-25-32. How do you think she'd do in today's version of the contest?"

The class fell silent for a moment. Then one student piped up, "Not very well."

"Why is that?" asked the professor. "For one thing," the student pointed out, "She'd be way too old..."

6. A man complains to a friend, "I can't take it anymore."

"What's wrong?" his concerned friend asks.

"It's my wife. Every time we have an argument, she gets historical!"

"You mean hysterical," his friend said, chuckling.

"No, I mean HISTORICAL," the man insists. "Every argument we have, she'll go "I still remember that time when you..."

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Cover of the Rolling Stone

This is long overdue and I don’t know what was going on in May that I missed it, but I am sending my props out to Princeton historian Sean Wilentz who made the cover of Rolling Stone with his article: The Worst President in History?

Sean Wilentz article on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine (May 2006). Posted by Picasa

Sunday, August 13, 2006

A Rumor of War - What a Difference 5 Years Makes

The last time I used A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo in the classroom was during the Fall of 2001. It was on my syllabus before the attack on the World Trade Center. I have assigned it again this year - not so much because I have any ideological message to send out, but more because I rotate the primary source books I assign my survey students and it is Caputo's turn again.

As I looked over the book questions that I will ask the class, however, I am struck by just how differently these question sound today than they did five years ago. For example, one of the questions that I asked them had to do with how in the midst of conflict men could lose control - burn down a village, kill civilians, etc. - given these circumstances I wanted them to consider whether or not soldiers should ever be tried for murder. My students had good, if a little dispassionate, answers five years ago. When I ask that question this fall in the light of Haditha and Abu Ghraib will they think that I am making some political commentary? Will they wonder if I am anti-war?

The last question I asked my students five years ago was: "Considering the savagery and blind destruction described by Caputo, is there any justification for fighting wars to defend abstract political ideologies?" At the time I thinking about the ideological fight between capitalism and communism. If I asked that question today, I bet my students would think about the struggle between democracy and totalitarianism. Or some might just be offended that I am suggesting that the war is ideological and not in our best interest for national security.

I am probably going to drop the question completely. I most likely will ask instead: "What are the most significant similarities and differences between the war in Iraq and the Vietnam War?" I can't help but wonder, however, if I am switching questions based solely on intellectual merit. Changing the question is a way of acknowledging the new context that I am asking my class to review the Vietnam War in. At the same time it seems a bit cowardly. If it was a legitimate question five years ago, is it still not legitimate today?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Not Just an F - but an XF!

I love the University of Charleston's new policy of giving students an not just an F if they fail a course because of cheating or academic dishonesty, but giving them an XF. I think this sort of grade is a much needed corrective for students who think that cheating is worth the risk of getting found out and failing the course. Now not only will a cheating student fail the course but they will have that shame plastered on their transcript, perhaps permanently. Sure its not as good a branding them with a big XF on the forehead, but its a start.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

History Quote

Okay, King of the Hill tonight had a little quote I think we should all remember as time to prep for classes quickly approaches:

"If we don't learn from the past, what's the point in having one?" - Peggy Hill.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Presidential Watch - Day 26

My presidential watch came to an end today. The President took a tour of my building with the Dean and Provost showing him around. Not the most informal way to get around campus, but maybe that will come with time. I think the fact that he was most recently an administrator in North and now he's in the much more informal South that he'll adjust eventually (or head back North).

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Public and the Professor

The NYT had a recent story on what college students compared to the public thought were the top problems on campus. It was interesting to me that few of the what the student's thought were problems had little to do with the educations they were receiving in the classroom. In fact the only educational problem that made the list came in at the bottom with only 10% thinking that the top problem was academic cheating.

If you look at what the general public saw as the top problem on college campuses 3 classroom issues made the list. 10% of the public saw low educational standards as the problem, 8% viewed political bias in the classrooms as the top problem, and 6% believed that incompetent professors were the problem. (See graphic below)

If you asked the professors who I work with what the top problems are I think you get a range of answers including too many administrators, underprepared students, and poor faculty pay.

I wonder why the general public has such a poor view of what goes on in the classroom compared to college students and professors? Do professors in the public's mind rank just below lawyers, politicians, and used car salesmen in the category of an untrustworthy/sneaky professional? Why isn't the AAUP out there signing deals with Vogue or Hollywood to try and fix our image problem? Come on Dan Brown, write a book about a smart college professor that doesn't piss off all the Christians. Someone remind all the political pundits that go off on college professors that Condi Rice and Henry Kissinger both taught college before becoming Secretary of State. Someone come up with a plan to win back the public's respect for what occurs in the college classroom.

Graphic - What are the top problems on campus? Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Playing the History Card - Revisited

I wrote a post a while back (it got deleted and I can't find a copy of it), where I discussed 'playing the history card'. I described 'playing the history card' as when politicians, journalists, pundits, etc. try to support whatever point they are making by referencing some historical analogy. For example, when someone argues that Israel's military won't be able to defeat Hezbollah guerrillas because "history teaches that regular armies are unable to dismantle guerilla armies" just like when the U.S. military could not defeat the Vietcong. This is the kind of reasoning I like to refer to as 'playing the history card'. It is similar to when lawyers play the 'race card' during trials.

Just for fun I decided to see who was playing the history card today:

1. Thomas Sowell, argues that: World War II history shows cease-fires only aid enemies (BTW, this is my nomination for the next Carnival of Bad History)

2. Editorial in The Standard, argues that: The failure to consolidate the Kenya/Uganda railways is hurting the public because railroads are invaluable players in economic development (especially during the European industrial revolution)

3. Press Release on demonstrates that: Football special team units need more practice than the rest of players because history shows that almost half of NFL games are decided by seven points or less

4. Larry Zolf on CBC News argues that: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Middle East foreign policy is not based on being Bush's toadie, but on a long history of Tory's being pro-Israel

5. Editorial in the Portsmouth Herald argues that: Nevada's caucus should not be placed between that of Iowa and New Hampshire (thereby giving Nevada more power in deciding the Democratic candidate for president), because history demonstrates that % of Nevada residents who vote is less than the % of New Hampshire residents who vote