Archive for May, 2008

May 3rd 2008
Want glamour and exotic travel? Be a historian!

Posted under American history & childhood & students

Last week, I was invited to talk to a class of third- and fourth-graders about what it’s like to be a historian.  I was pretty sure I and my line of work would be about as exciting to these kids as a lecture on tort reform, or monetary policy, or the line-item veto.  But, these kids were into history–my 30-minute guest spot lurched closer to 60 minutes, and many hands were still in the air when I stopped taking questions.  (That’s just a random photo of a classroom–it’s not Historiann at the head of the class.)

According to the questions I got that day, and the thank-you notes they all wrote me, here are the things that really impressed them about being a historian:

  • The opportunity for glamorous travel!  (Seriously.)  This was really exciting for them–to think that I had to travel as far away as Boston, Maine, Chicago, Los Angeles, and even across an international border to Quebec to do my research.  I told them that I wanted to do research in Paris, and one of the children wrote sweetly, “I hope you get to Paris someday!”  Their excitement about travel struck me because for me, being a historian is not about movement, but about being stationary–that is, spending a lot of time sitting indoors in a library, archive, or my own desk, albeit sometimes at libraries in Chicago and Los Angeles, and archives in Boston, Maine, and Quebec.
  • There are historians writing books about every place in the world!  (Related to opportunities for glamorous travel.)  African history really got a few of the children excited.  I think this was a revelation for them because the hook for my visit is that they’d been doing a class unit on local history, so the teachers hadn’t connected the dots yet to world history.
  • In colonial America, girls and boys were taught to read but only boys were taught to write, and enslaved children were forbidden to achieve any form of literacy.  That blew their minds, as people who were still very close to the achievement of literacy, and who were taught literacy in a way that made learning reading and writing inseparable.  Most of them mentioned that in their thank-you notes as the most interesting thing I had taught them.
  • One kid even worked himself up to an epistemological crisis!  Toward the end of the questions, he asked, “But, how do we know that history is, you know, the truth?”  His classmates started to ridicule him for complicating something that to them seemed pretty straightforward–historians read the sources and tell us what they say, right?  I shushed them and he perservered:  “I mean, how do you know that your sources are true?”  That blew me away–he got to a place in 45 minutes at the age of nine that many of my undergraduate university students will never go. 

Once again, I was humbled by the work that schoolteachers do.  This class was incredibly well-prepared for my visit, and it’s amazing to think that teachers do that every day not just in one subject, but in five or six of them, in addition to dealing with learning disabilities and any social or family problems the students might have.  The children were all unfailingly polite, although some were clearly more interested than others.  One of the things that took a few minutes to get used to was the constant fidgeting in the students–in an adult audience, fidgeting is a major sign that you’re losing them and it’s time to wrap things up.  But in an audience of eight- to ten-year olds, they all fidgeted, even the ones who were clearly very interested and asked me lots of questions. 

At the end of the class, the teacher said to the children, “Now when you heard we would have a historian come to our class, you probably got a picture in your mind about what a historian might look like.  Does Dr. Historiann look like the picture in your mind?”  Immediately, all the heads started shaking violently–I was a little taken aback.  When I asked them what was so different about me, one little boy half jumped out of his seat and waved his hands consolingly, “You’re different–but in a GOOD way!” I think they knew I was a woman before I visited–I got the impression that they thought I would be older, more serious, and more formally dressed.  (I wasn’t slovenly, but I wasn’t wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase.)  I’m just wondering where their ideas about historians have come from that already by the ages of 8, 9, or 10, they have a picture in their minds about what we look like.  But, some of them may have seen a documentary with the usual, not terribly diverse array of talking heads on PBS or The History Channel.

One boy, whose mother works with a Historiann family member, told his mother that the kids thought that I was prettier than they thought a historian would be.  (I was flattered until I remembered that kids that age all think their mothers are pretty, so consider the source.)


May 2nd 2008
Peer review or smear review? Reflections on a rigged system.

Posted under Gender & jobs & publication & race


Historiann has been thinking a lot about peer review lately.  It seems, as in the old nursery rhyme, that peer review is like the little girl with the curl right in the middle of her forehead:  When it is good, it is very very good, but when it is bad, it is horrid

At its best, peer review helps writers avoid making dunderheaded factual errors and points them to other sources to help bolster their arguments.  When it’s done by generous and intellectually engaged reviewers, it helps writers sharpen their arguments, tone down (or rev up) their prose, and to see more big-picture connections and implications of their work that even the writers couldn’t see until someone slightly more expert than they are pointed it out.  What’s not to like, with a fair and humane group of supportive senior scholars freely sharing their wisdom with their (usually junior) colleagues?  Furthermore, having one’s work reviewed by supportive senior scholars is a really great way of making new friends and influencing influential people.  I’ve had that experience a few times–and I’m truly grateful to the people who lent their time and expertise to make me a better historian.

Well, that vision of peer review is very much an ideal, in the way that a 2-2 load at a wealthy institution with brilliant students and lots of leave time is an ideal that most of us will never know outside of our dreams.  Peer review is fraught with opportunities for abuse, deception, and caprice.  And, when either getting or keeping a job is on the line, that means that the misuse of peer review is not just a playful game of Chutes and Ladders.  Here are some of the major problems I’ve seen firsthand or heard about from friends and acquaintances:

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May 1st 2008
Arise, ye prisoners of starvation, and make merry while ye May

Posted under American history & European history & Gender & jobs & women's history

Some people celebrate May Day like this, with May Poles, and white dresses, flowers, strawberries and cream, plays, singing, and drinking, drinking, drinking:





While other people commemorate it like this:

by calling it International Workers’ Day, with red flags, marches, calls for for justice, songs of solidarity (and perhaps drinking, drinking, drinking).  It’s good to hear that some people are celebrating May Day as a day of worker solidarity, with marches against the war and for immigrant workers’ rights.  And let’s all hope for a violence-free day in Los Angeles.  (h/t to reader John Burke for the inspiration and news on this year’s labor actions in San Francisco.)

It’s interesting to note the simultaneous revival of Elizabethan May Day revels at elite women’s colleges in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the emergence of May Day as International Worker’s Day, which was founded in 1891 in part to commemorate the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886.  I suppose those wealthy industrialist fathers of students at Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, Vassar, and Mount Holyoke were very interested in turning May Day into a spring festival that celebrated a romanticized European past rather than present-day industrial labor.  There are also interesting class and gender issues at work here in this juxtaposition, with the gentle Elizabethan tradition being revived among elite college-educated women (not that these “New Women” weren’t also subversive in their own way, of course), versus the workers’ holiday, which was usually depicted in a way that centered on laboring men, as in the image to the right.

Greenpagan has lots more examples of the iconography of International Workers’ Day from around the world in the twentieth century.  Most of the images are of male workers, but there’s an Italian postage stamp that includes a women among a trio of workers, as well as a Chinese poster that includes a woman laborer.


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