Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Question of the Day

If FDR came back as zombie would he still have polio? Or is there something about being undead that would give him back the use of his legs?

* Max Brooks has written World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which is describe on Amazon as a"future history." It sounds like all the future oral interviews were done with non-zombies. I hope Brooks realizes that future graduate students will critize him in their seminars for not taken into account the Zombie perspective in his work.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Every Administration I've Ever Worked For

It would be funny if it wasn't so true. See the original cartoon here.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

History Takes Over at the Movies

I went to see Stranger than Fiction* today (which has nothing to do with history) and was surprised that every single preview featured an upcoming film based on a true story or set in a historical time period.

First was We Are Marshall. This film follows the rebuilding of the Marshall football team after most of its players and coaching staff were killed in a plane crash.

Second was a preview for Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, which is about the decline of the Mayan civilization.

Then they showed a preview of The Pursuit of Happyness. This movie is based on the true story of Christopher Gardener, a successful stock broker who worked his way up from the bottom of the industry while raising his toddler son and being homeless for a time.

They also showed a preview for Night at the Museum. This one is a bit of a stretch, but it is about the exhibits at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History coming alive at night. Apparently, Robin Williams has a fairly big role in the film as Theodore Roosevelt.

Add these to the currently playing Bobby (about the assassination of Robert Kennedy) and The History Boys and it seems like Hollywood is in love with history.

Why is this important?

I think it serves as a great reminder that what historians do - tell stories - explain why people's lives are significant - contextualize the past so that it makes sense to present - is interesting to a number of people. Film makers wouldn't produce these pictures if people didn't care about them. A lot more people are drawn to history than we see in our classes or who buy our books. I think historians can take some comfort from this - or be really depressed about it.

(* In Stranger Than Fiction a English professor plays a major role in the film. This professor says at one point in the film that he is teaching 5 classes and directing 2 graduate theses. What I want to know is what college with Ph.D. students has professors who teaching more than a 2/2 load? I mean come on!)

Friday, November 24, 2006

Cold War Toys

I found these photos while surfing around the internet. I never really thought about the relationship between children's play things and cultural attitudes of the time period they were produced until I saw them. Of course like movies or TV shows or other popular cultural artifacts, it is not surprising that the concerns and worries of society make their way into what gets marketed to the youngest and most impressionable.

Given this understanding, what makes more sense during the Cold War years - as public fears about the development of atomic bombs sweeps the nation - than to sell kids Chutes Away a airplane toy that allows children to drop yellow plastic bombs into targets. What a great toy for Santa to leave under the Christmas Tree. The entire family can come back from Christmas mass and pretend to destroy the world. (As I reexamine the box - maybe the kids are dropping parachutes and not bombs. Although it doesn't make any sense to drop parachutes to people on the ground - what are they going to do with them? Maybe this is a Berlin Airlift type of game.)

Of course, should your family fail to annihilate communism through atomic bombing and the red hordes infiltrate the U.S. government, then you might need to purge American society of undesirable socialist influences. Apparently, Milton Bradley did not think that HUAC committee action figures would be a big seller, so instead kids in the fifties were provided with an example of how the French got rid of their trouble makers.

I wonder who is in charge of developing inappropriate historical toys for children? In the politically correct times we live in, should I worry about my local ToysRUs selling a Tar and Feather the Loyalists Goo Machine or a Rosenberg Espionage Easy-Bake Electric Chair. At least someone else thinks it is a real threat - since on YouTube.com there is a spoof commercial for Jihad Joe.

All joking aside, I do think "Cold War Era Children's Toys" is a cultural history project just waiting to be embraced.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Naughty American History

Apparently, www.naughtyamerica.com is a online sex(uality?) site that is promoting its services through a game called "Naughty American History." In this game for every American history question you answer correctly the 'professor' removes one item of clothing.

I am embarassed to say that I only got my professor down to being shirtless, before I stumbled on a 'Whig' question.

I can't imagine such incentives ever catching on with either current history students or professors. In all my years of taking history classes, with the vast majority of my professors, I would more likely study to make sure they kept their clothes on - rather than take them off.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Big Increases In the Starting Salaries of History Majors

Never thought I'd see history listed as one of majors that experienced big increases in average starting salaries -- but according to CNNMoney.com that is exactly what happened last year. The starting salary for new history majors rose by 4.2% the same as the percentage increase for business administration/management majors.

I can just picture the line outside of my door on the Monday after Thanksgiving as everyone wants to now sign up to be a history major. I just won't mention that fact that although history majors and business administration majors saw the same percentage increases in starting salaries that the average salary for history majors (33,071) is a little over $8,000 less than the average salary for those in business (41,155).

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Historian in the News

While some of my students have probably compared sitting through my lecture on the creation of the Second Party System to being in hell, I have never actually warned any of my students that they were headed for the nether regions if they didn't accept J.C. as their personal savior.

There is at least one historian in New Jersey, however, who apparently spends his time "lecturing students more about Heaven and Hell than the colonies and Constitution."

He got caught because one of his students taped his class lectures.

I have nothing more to say about this New Jersey historian, except that this makes me even more wary of podcasting. Who knows how what I might consider to be just a cute little analogy (like comparing the Bay of Pigs Invasion to a naked man getting beaten to death at a party) might get taken out of context if heard on a podcast.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Grading Exams

I am usually pretty laid-back when it comes to grammar while grading exams. I tell my students that as long as they write sentences that make sense and put them in something that looks like a paragraph, I'll be satisfied. I never bother with misspellings or fragments during timed exams because I'd rather they concentrate on demonstrating that they know and understand the material.

Usually, this works out fine and I have no trouble recognizing FDR, WWI, or even the symbol for 'women'. However, I do think New Zealand is taking things a bit too far. The year New Zealand students are going to allowed to use text-speak to answer questions on the national exam. So instead of spelling out complete words they can use U for you, txt for text, and D-bag for Douche-Bag (see this post if you don't think a student would never use that in an exam).

I think this is going a bit too far. Not because I think that text-speak is going to bring down civilization as we know it, but because how the heck are the graders/professors going to know for certain what the student is trying to convey? Does everyone but me recognize these terms? Is there even a standard interpretation of them?

I propose we all stand up to the text messengers and demand that our students continue to use vowels appropriately and if you don't like it -- FU.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Academic Leadership in the Department of Defense

While I realize it is stretching it a bit to refer to Secretary of Defense nominee Robert Gates as an 'academic', he does qualify in some ways since he is as a history Ph.D. and the president of a university. After a little checking, I discovered that previous Secretaries of Defense fit the mold of an academic even better than Gates.

First was James Schlesinger, a Ph.D. in economics who taught at the University of Virginia, before serving as Secretary of Defense under Nixon from 1973-1975.

Second, Harold Brown, a Physics Ph.D., who had only a short teaching stint, but eventually ended up as Jimmy Carter's Secretary of Defense from 1977-1981.

Third was Les Aspin, a Ph.D. in economics (and a BA in history), who taught for several years at Marquette. He was Clinton's Secretary of Defense from 1993-1994.

William Perry, Bill Clinton's Secretary of Defense from 1994-1997, had a Ph.D. in math. However, as far as I could tell, he never had an academic appointment.

A Historian for Secretary of Defense

I was pretty shocked by the news that Donald Rumsfeld is resigning as Secretary of Defense, but that doesn't come close to matching my shock that his replacement could be current Texas A&M president and historian Robert M. Gates.

Gates received a master's in history from Indiana University in 1966 and his Ph.D. in Russian and Soviet history from Georgetown University in 1974. These are two high ranking history programs so I couldn't help but be a little impressed at these credentials.


Although it doesn't look like he ever spent any real time in the classroom behind the lectern, I wonder if he will be the first 'academic' to serve as Secretary of Defense? There have been lots of academics who have held the Secretary of State job, but I can't think of any who have served in this capacity [although I'm going to go research it ASAP]. It should be interesting to see how someone like Gates can combine his practical experience from the CIA and other government positions, with his historical understanding of how the world operates.

Looks like I'll have to add another name to my list of famous historians if Gates is confirmed.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Presidential Celebrity Doppelgangers

Okay... this is what happens when you have too much time on your hands. I ran George Washington's picture through a face recognition program that claims to match pictures up to their celebrity look-alikes. The results were surprising. Apparently the celebrity that most looks like Washington is Takeshi Kitano - the 5' 5" Japanese actor and director. Who would have guessed?

Of course, once I got started down this path I couldn't just stop with Washington. Therefore, I loaded up a picture of Abraham Lincoln into the face recognition program and what do you know - out popped Jean-Michel Jarre - the French composer and music producer. Yuck.

I decided to give it one more shot and put in a picture of Warren G. Harding - reputedly one of America's best looking presidents - and imagine my surprise to discover that if Yitzhak Rabin and Madonna had ever had a child, he would look a lot like Harding.

I would also like to know what Bill Clinton and John Ashcroft would think about being 68% celebrity matches for Harding.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Happy Birthday Warren!

It is Warren G. Harding's birthday today. He was born Nov. 2, 1865 and died while in office in 1923. Although the country deeply mourned Harding, soon after his death tales of corruption in his administration began making newspaper headlines. Ever since, historians have ranked Harding as the worst president in history.

Dr. History, however, has a prescription to get Harding out of the historical basement. It is time for a bit of revisionism.

Let us take the main charges against Harding and see if we can spin them:

1. Unable to stand up to his corrupt friends
  • Loyal man, who remember those who got him to the top.
2. Stupid
  • Not an intellectual snob
3. Took too much of a laissez-faire attitude about running the country
  • Able to delegate authority to experts
4. Too fond of big business
  • Valued private enterprise
5. Unfaithful
  • Open to new experiences
6. A drinker (during Prohibition no less)
  • Far-sighted

Now how can any man you can describe as far-sighted, open and loyal ever be voted America's worst president?