Saturday, December 30, 2006

Historians are the Best Teachers

A study done by E Solutions Data recently showed that most students find historians to be the best teachers. I don't find this surprising at all, especially since I made up the numbers for the survey.

If you would like to make up your own statistics to prove something, go here.

Airport History Lesson

So have you ever been minding your own business at the airport, when you over-hear a father trying to explain to his son why Gerald Ford is the only president to never be elected. But instead of feeling good that someone is actually discussing history in a more or less social situation, you are getting pissed off because the father is getting the history part all wrong. And you want to jump in and correct him. You want to make sure the kid understands that the reason Ford is different than the other vice-presidents who took over for a president in the midst of his term and then never got elected on their own (ie Andrew Johnson & Chester Arthur), is because Ford never even got elected VICE-PRESIDENT. He was appointed after Nixon's first Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, had to resign because of corruption charges. However, because it would be completely rude to jump on the historical soap box and point out to the kid that his father doesn't really know his history, you bite your tongue, shake your head and, offer up a little apology to whatever American history teacher eventually gets that kid in class and has to try to dissuade him of 10+ years of historical misunderstanding.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

History Major Makes History

Ohio State history major, Bobby Knight, made history last night when he tied Dean Smith's record of 879 wins as a basketball coach. Knight currently coaches at Texas Tech University, but he also had successful tenures as a coach at Indiana University and the United States Military Academy. I'm not sure how much his study of history helped him succeed on the basketball court, but it is another great example of how history majors can do well at so many different careers.

I remember hearing while I was in graduate school that Knight actually taught a history class while he coached at IU. I haven't located any evidence to support this memory - but if it is true, I would sure love to see his syllabus. Something tells me it would be pretty hard-core political/economic/social history. I also bet he didn't get 10+ emails at the end of the semester from students begging to get their grades raised or have kids walking into class 10 minutes late. Who would dare? He might fling a chair at you.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Avoiding the Walk of Shame

If I graded like Daniel Solove, I'd never have to do the Walk of Shame again.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Walk of Shame

Well, I just completed the faculty equivalent of the "Walk of Shame." (For the uninitiated, the Walk of Shame is what my friends from undergrad called the morning walk from a frat house back to the girls' dorms after a night of debauchery.) The faculty Walk of Shame is what happens at my current institution when you fail to get your grades in on time. The registrar in some sick little mind game, turns off the computerized grade entry, forces you to print off a hard-copy of your grades, and then maks you walk them across campus and hand-deliver them to the registrar's office.

Unfortunately, the Walk of Shame is only one part of the whole ritual of humiliation that the registrar's office puts you through if your grades are late. Today, for example, grades were due at 10 a.m. By 10:15, the registrar's office had call the Dean's secretary to give her a list of offending faculty members who were late turning in grades. The Dean's secretary then sent an email to the Dean, my chair, and me informing me that the registrar was waiting for me grades. At noon, the Dean then showed up at my office door telling me that the registrar was waiting for my grades and what could he tell her about when they would be finished. I don't know what happens if you don't get your grades turned in after the Dean shows up at your door (maybe hired goons?), because I finished by 12:30 and walked the grades over the registrar's office. Of course, the coup de gras is the disapproving look you receive from the registrar's secretary for making their jobs more difficult (because everyone knows that the difficult part of the end of the semester is not grading your 100+ exams in under a week, but compiling the grades and posting them for the students to see).

Friday, December 15, 2006

Historians Will Judge

I heard it again this morning on NPR - the phrase I despise the most - "History Will Judge." The story was focused on Donald Rumsfeld's last day in office and the commentator argued that despite the fact that Rumsfeld is the second longest serving Secretary of Defense in history, how history will judge him depends a lot on the outcome of the war in Iraq.


I understand why many people (including some historians) find comfort in the phrase "History will judge", because it suggests that there is no interpretation involved, that the facts will just reveal the truth to future generations. It suggests that you can't argue with or appeal the judgement of history. History is Omnipotent.

However, we all know better. Historians will decide how to portray Rumsfeld in the future. And most likely the portrayal of him will change over time. There won't be ONE historical judgement but many.

Moreover, even the facts will change, or at least the facts that historians have access to will change. Government documents will become available, Rumsfeld's and Bush's papers will be opened, records in Iraq will be searchable and all these things will change how historians will judge the soon-to-be former Secretary of Defense.

Historians shouldn't be embarrassed by this, we shouldn't be scared of letting people know this, we should embrace it and shout it from the rooftops. History does not judge - Historians do!

I am thinking about walking around with this bag at the AHA just to get my point across.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Pinochet - The Human Rights Debate

In 1975, Richard Bloomfield, an analyst for the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs suggested that if the United States stood up for Human Rights in Chile it would not be acting out of the "emotionalism of a bleeding heart", but rather out of hard-headed realism.

Bloomfield argued that instead of worrying about whether Chile "the dagger-pointed-at-the-heart-of-Antarctica" had a government hostile to "the globe's greatest superpower", the Ford Administration should worry primarily about gaining the support of Congress, which was needed "for other aspects of our Latin American policy (e.g. Panama) and, indeed, for our foreign policy in general." Bloomfield also speculated that U.S. support for Human Rights might prevent further alienation of American young people with their government.

Despite Bloomfield's attempt to turn traditional Cold War understandings of what was in the best interest of the U.S. on its head, Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford continued to support the Pinochet regime. The Secretary of State even assured Chile's leader that when the administration did speak out about "human rights in general terms, and human rights in a world context" that "[t]he speech is not aimed a Chile." And while U.S. Intelligence Agencies estimated that over 1,600 civilians had been killed and 13,500 had been imprisoned during the coup that brought Pinochet to power, Kissinger believed that in the minds of Pinochet's American critics his "greatest sin was that" he "overthrew a government which was going Communist."

I think Bloomfield's main point is a good one to remember. The U.S. needs to constantly reevaluate its priorities and its understanding of what is in the country's best interest, even if that means thinking out-of-the-box when it comes to issues of national security, democracy, and stability. In the light of the Baker report and the resignation of Rumsfeld, I hope that even basic political assumptions are now being questioned.

(For more information on the relationship between the State Department and Pinochet's government, go to The National Security Archive.)

Monday, December 11, 2006

Acting Smarter Than You Really Are - The Academic Edition

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame has come up with a list of how to act smarter than your really are. He offers some good general advice, like not talking much, agreeing with what other people say, learning some big words and using them in sentences, etc. While this might be good enough for the typical person to convince their friends and family that they are smart, an academic needs an entire different list of ploys to convince his or her colleagues that they are smarter than they really are.

Here are some options.
  1. Teach an honors class. - Even if you weren't in honors yourself in college, just teaching a class of really bright kids makes you seem smarter than them.
  2. Keep lots of obscure theoretical books on your shelf. Used copies are best, because it they look like they been read diligently even if you've never bothered to open it up.
  3. Learn all the different ways to call something "pedantic" and use these terms when discussing works by popular scholars.
  4. Be cynical. For some reason, most academics equate cynical with worldly and smart. So look for the negative and hidden agenda in everything some other department, the college's administration, or the government suggests.
  5. Wear glasses. Tell people that you used to have 20/20 eyesight until graduate school. They will think you've read your way to being near-sighted.
  6. Hang some obscure Bizzaro comic on your office door. People won't get it and they'll be too embarrassed to ask you what it means.
  7. Get your news from some alternative news source (not NPR or CNN or the New York Times) this way you will always have an opinion on things, but people won't recognize that you stole it from someone else.
  8. Adopt an absent-minded professor persona. If you forget little things like meeting times, where you parked your car, how to use the internet, etc. it suggests its because you have bigger and more important theories on your mind.
Adopt these behaviors and before you know it your colleagues and students will think you have an impressive IQ.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Timeline Games

I found a site that has a couple of games that allows you place historical events in their correct timeline. One game is about the U.S. Presidents and there is another about Rome.

Even better than just playing the games, however, it lets you add in your own historical timeline game. I added the Cold War game. Sorry about the cruddy colors, don't know what I was thinking!

Friday, December 01, 2006

How New Is Government Tracking of Risky Americans?

One of the big news stories today is about how the U.S. government is assigning risk scores to Americans who travel internationally. If your risk score is high enough you get flagged as a possible terrorist or criminal.

Barry Steinhardt, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, is quoted in most of these stories as saying: "Never before in American history has our government gotten into the business of creating mass 'risk assessment' ratings of its own citizens."

I'm not sure that Mr. Steinhardt is correct about this. While the current program is probably the most massive example of government tracking its citizens as risks, my own research on U.S. women peace activists during World War I suggests that the government has a long history of deciding that certain behaviors by its citizens are indications of possible threats and then tracking/monitoring those people who fit the profile.

I think if the ACLU wants to challenge this international traveler risk assessment program, the way to go about it is not to argue that it is unprecedented. Rather, they should look at similar programs in the past and whether they were successful or instead diverted resources from pursuing real risks. I know that the time and money spent tracking female peace activists turned out to be fruitless to maintaining American security during WWI. Although it did provide a secondary benefit to postwar administrations since information had been gathered which could be then be used to discredit those who opposed American defense policies after the war.