Admiration for the Scholar as Citizen

It took a real controversy to nudge me out of hiatus, but I couldn’t let the latest development in the William Cronon saga pass without comment.

If you haven’t been following the case, in a nutshell, the emails University of Wisconsin professor and historian were FOIA-ed by the state’s Republican party. The party intends to link Cronon with the recent Madison protests over collective bargaining rights. Cronon first drew attention in the matter when he posted a brief narrative of the conservative party’s history. The post also happened to be critical of the party, but Republicans insist the inquiry is only to ensure state resources were  appropriately used as Cronon is a state employee. The American Historical Association, of which Cronon serves as President-elect, has done a comprehensive roundup of the controversy.

When I was in grad school, I wrote a historiography essay examining the scholarship and career of Cronon.  I chose Cronon because I was interested in environmental history and Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West was a seminal work in the field, and also served as a valuable introduction to Chicago’s history and its growth. Although I ended up pursuing urban history in my own research, this historiography project was a highlight of my education.

His major works,  Nature’s Metropolis and Changes in the Land were impressive, of course. But what I was most struck with during my research was his philosophy to work as scholar and advocate for the environment as well as history. Content not only to tell the story of people and places of the past, he was, and remains, an advocate for organizations working to preserve the wilderness.

The name of Cronon’s blog is “Scholar as Citizen” which reflects this basic idea: using what history has taught us to create change. As the most recent controversy has shown, such ideas may draw criticism and conflict. Nonetheless, Cronon is willing to take steps that many of us should, but do not, take.

Cronon’s emails were released today. Also released were a letter from University of Wisconsin’s legal department and another letter from Chancellor, both acknowledging Cronon’s cooperation and supporting him. Cronon has since posted a statement on his blog acknowledging the difficult balancing act University of Wisconsin administrators have faced. A balancing act Cronon himself is unfortunately all too aware of in the wake of this controversy.

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This is not a Fellowship

I’ve come across a troubling trend in my (purely casual, ahem) perusal of public history job boards: organizations seeking to fill true job postings through internships or fellowships. The most recent, and one of the most flagrant, I found was posted by the Accokeek Foundation, a small foundation that serves as a steward for portions of Piscataway National Park and the National Colonial Farm in Maryland.

The foundation is seeking a Public History Fellow to help them prepare for their annual African American heritage celebration event. The fellow would “help conceive the theme for the September 24, 2011 event, and will have primary responsibility for all aspects of planning the event, including identifying and contacting potential presenters, selecting vendors, dealing with event logistics, and working with Foundation staff to market the event.”

Accokeek is seeking someone “who wants to work in the field of public history and whose research focus is related to the African American experience in the Maryland/DC/Virginia region.” However, nothing in Accokeek’s advertisement pertains to research or applied scholarship in the field of African American history.

The position described in the ad is an event planner, plain and simple. To market the position to a public historian graduate student or recent grad is a disservice to both professions. The median salary for event planners, incidentally, is about $55,000, according to salary.com. The stipend for this position is $1500 for work completed from March through September.

Accokeek, like other small foundations, must manage meager resources and demand creative solutions to address personnel and funding shortages. Staff at a small museum or historic society should be prepared to wear many hats. Trained, committed historians must move effortlessly between education, reception, development, marketing, and countless other departments. Despite the strain on resources, such organizations should not lose sight of the fundamental purpose of internships and fellowships: to train new public historians and offer new grads and professionals the opportunity to practice their craft in a supported, constructive environment.

The Shaming of a Textbook

I’ve been following the story of the doomed “Our Virginia: Past and Present” rather closely since errors in the 4th grade history textbook came to light last October. The story is of particular interest to me since, you know, I write online educational materials (i.e. online textbooks) for 6th-12th graders. In Virginia.

The Virginia Board of Education has asked the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Patricia I. Wright, for steps to review –and potentially remove– textbooks from Five Ponds Press, the publisher of “Our Virginia” and other textbooks used in Virginia schools.

The statement comes just off the heels of the state’s Textbook Accountability Act, a measure meant to prevent textbook inaccuracies and hold publishers responsible for errors. The Act does not mention the Five Ponds by name, but does address the issues exposed by those textbooks under review.

The Act would require all publishers to:

  • Employ established content experts to review every textbook available for sale to Virginia school divisions;
  • List with each book the content experts that have reviewed it
  • Certify that the content of books for sale to Virginia school divisions in Standards of Learning subjects meet the appropriate mandated content standards; and,
  • Agree to be fully responsible for replacing, correcting, or otherwise fixing any mistakes.

I am particularly pleased by the idea of attaching content experts who have reviewed the material. The Act outlines a strong plan for publishers to ensure accurate information while meeting Virginia’s high education standards. It increases accountability and the sense of professionalism of the product. Content experts who participate in the development and improvement of educational materials should be recognized. Museum exhibits often list curators and writers names to exhibits, and I applaud the practice there as well.

The Act also places small publishers in a precarious position. Virginia attracts smaller publishers, like Five Ponds Press, because it maintains different standards than other states. As a result, the state doesn’t have the benefit of large print runs to save money (economies of scale and all that). A small publisher doesn’t necessarily have the resources of a larger house, and likewise, faces a greater hit if errors occur. By demanding exceptional content and a guaranteed product, the Textbook Accountability Act is Virginia’s attempt to maintain autonomous in education. Whether small publishers can keep up remains to be seen.

Historic Preservation + Muppets!

Preservation blogs and news feeds are all abuzz with word that the new Muppets movie will include a historic preservation plot point. As a preservation enthusiast and a die-hard Muppet fan –color me excited! The new movie is currently in production, and scheduled for release in November of this year.

Gratuitously adorable promo photo of Jason Segal and Walter, a Muppet set to make his debut

Will the couple succeed in helping Kermit get the gang back together? Will the Muppets raise the cash to save the theater? And perhaps most importantly, who will be the first real-life preservationist to assess the Muppets’ effort to recognize the building and complete a National Register nomination with clues from the film in earnest? I can’t wait to find out.

…and a Song in my Heart

Earlier this week, a friend sent me a link to an article about two teachers in Hawaii who have put together nearly 50 videos of pop songs inspired by historical events. Mrs. B and Mr. H (as they are so mysteriously labeled in their profile), use tunes from Beatles, Lady Gaga, and ABBA (it’s a Henry VIII thing–really, it’s great), among others, and set the songs to videos. Some are live action, some are animated –all are clearly done on a budget– but also all are clever. Both really throw themselves into the characters and could be a great resource. I can’t imagine the time and energy commitment to putting these together–completely impressive. Check out the whole collection here.

I don’t know if I would  have posted on it without a greater dose of skepticism, even despite the positive comments on YouTube and Jezebel,  if I hadn’t sat down today to write a brief section on the system of checks and balances. In an “I could use some levity in my afternoon” moment, I decided to consult an old resource: Schoolhouse Rock, more specifically:

I was pleasantly surprised to find that it held up surprisingly well! Catchy tune, clear concept, and that adorable Bill! Will Mrs. B and Mr. H’s work hold up to the classic, and dare I say, timeless, Schoolhouse Rock? Hard to say. Riffing off of pop tunes and heavy reliance on autotune might not have the staying power. Still, it’s great to know that music and learning never gets old.

Digitizing the Humanities? Whatev…oh, wait.

Yes, humanists are indeed using this crazy thing called technology, and none other than The New York Times is onto them! Yesterday the Times published the first in a series of articles exploring “how digital tools are changing scholarship in history, literature and the arts.” Although technology and humanist subjects aren’t an obvious match, the future of both are undeniably linked.

Since the rise of quantitative history in the 1960s, data has quietly and stubbornly crept into the field.  When I first studied history (well after the 60s!), I recall being somewhat surprised to find a whole lot of charts and graphs in my social history readings. I naively imagined most sources consisted of letters, journals, artifacts and other personal items carefully stitched together to draw conclusions about the past. Imagine my surprise (and dismay, to be honest) when I discovered actual numbers in my texts!

I’m certain many historians (and other humanists) feel the same way about incorporating technology in their work. Most of us chose our discipline for some lingering sense of romanticism, not the excitement of tracing the exchange of Thomas Jefferson’s mail via Flash map. However, such a map would not exist without Jefferson’s letters. This map from VisualEyes is an exciting, albeit somewhat clumsy in some of its execution, demonstration of the potential of technology and the humanities.

I look forward to reading the rest of the series and  other examples of how historians and humanists integrate technology into their work.  As many sources in the article confirmed, technology doesn’t exist for its own sake, but to make our work as humans -and humanists- easier.

Life in School and Beyond

Like just about everyone under –and a good deal of those over– 50 I know, I’m on Facebook. I love being able to share pictures, articles, and other day-to-day happenings with people I’m closest to, even if they’re far away. Like so many others (admit it!), I also enjoy getting a peak into the lives of people I wouldn’t otherwise keep in touch with any other way. High school acquaintances, college friends, and former coworkers obligingly post announcements of weddings, babies, and pasta maker acquisitions for all the world to see.

These days, and to no one’s greater surprise than my own, I’ve been most envious of the posts that come from my friends and acquaintances in school. Most of their status updates are the expected (and wholly understandable) wailing and gnashing of teeth about class projects, readings, and general lack of a social life. I remember those days all too well. And I certainly don’t miss staying up all-night working on a paper before going to work, giving the paper a furious re-read at lunch, and then scrambling to print out the final version moments before class in Loyola’s What-do-you-mean-I-don’t-have-any-money-left-on-my-Rambler-card? computer lab.

What stands out to me these days in these posts, however, is how enthusiastic passionate they are in the articles, studies, and status messages they post. I miss that sense of the structured learning and creative process. The reading schedules, guidance of good professors, and the sense of accomplishment at project’s completion all led to the feeling that I was fully engaged in the learning process and the world in general. I’m hoping this blog will continue to help me re-capture that sense of energy and push me to continue to grow as a writer, historian, and educator.

In my current job, I get to read and write every day–about history nonetheless! I am also lucky because I frequently learn about education theory and instructional design from very smart coworkers. Still, something about office life and all that goes with it (the commute, sometimes seemingly endless meetings, and cubicle life in general) can be defeating.

In grad school, I learned how to be a professional student. My new challenge, however, is not letting being a professional stand in the way with my enthusiasm for learning.