Monday, December 30, 2013

Happy New Year!

Well, hello, readers.

This is Mary--you know, that one grad student who posted back when we first started this blog a year ago and then disappeared from the face of the earth for a little while.  In  my defense, I took my comprehensive exams this past fall, so I really had no presence outside of my books for about 6 months.

On behalf of Erin and myself, I am very pleased to say...WE'RE BACK!  Last year, this blog started as a result of our experiences at the annual AHA meeting, and, as I write this post, I'm getting myself ready to go to Washington D.C. for this year's conference.  I hope to keep the blog updated as I'm there, and then again as we head into 2014.

We started this blog as a place to talk about things that are important to and for graduate students, and we continue with that as our primary goal.  Erin will soon have a post updating us on her "flipped classrooms" experiment.  I can't promise what I will be writing about, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there will be at least one post this semester on the challenge of finding balance.  More than that, though, we want to know what you, our readers, want from us.  What issues are there in your own graduate program?  Where are you in your program?  What challenges are you facing?  What do you need to talk about?

We look forward to continuing old conversations and beginning new ones!  Happy New Year!

Monday, July 29, 2013

My flipped classroom adventure

I'm doing it. I'm flipping my classes. And I'm terrified.

Quite often, students have said they struggle to take notes in class. This past semester I noticed the problem even more, and halfway through the semester, I presented them with the option of flipping the class from that point on. Half of them voted to do so, but I felt that I needed a bigger consensus than that if I was going to change the course structure in the middle. Still, several of them wrote on their end of year evaluations that they wished we'd flipped the class.

Beyond helping my students absorb the information, I've come to understand just how much time it takes to process that information and make connections. I always prided myself on the back and forth, question and answer style of my lectures, but frankly, that just privileged certain students who were able to process the material in the moment or who were lucky enough to have a good background in history.

Even for those students, some of the higher-level questions we ask them to grapple with are just too challenging to be figured out on the spot. I'll fully admit I had to read Good Wives, Nasty Wenches and Anxious Patriarchs a few times to completely grasp the argument, so is it really fair of me to present the argument of that book in a lecture and then expect my students to be able to apply it to the readings for the week just like that?

Even before the evaluations, and the vote on flipping, my students were telling me what they needed.

A student came to my office hours once, and it took me about 5 minutes to realize he just wanted to talk through what we learned in class, rather than grades. He told me that quite often, hours after he left class, he'd put something together in his mind and want to talk about it. He came to talk to me after a lecture on the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the “problem” of the Quakers. Having gone to Catholic school, he wanted to talk through Calvinist theology with me to make sure he understood it. I'm glad he came to office hours, certainly, but I think the whole class could have benefited from that discussion. I encourage my students not to be shy with questions, and I tell them if they're confused about something, they can be sure there's someone else who is too. If that's the case, how do I make sure those questions get asked and that everyone benefits from them?

On another occasion, I got to the very end of a lecture on the Second Great Awakening, and a hand went up. “What's a revival?” I may have actually facepalmed in shame, right there. I didn't know they didn't know what I was talking about, and they didn't know that they actually did know what I was talking about, they just didn't know the term. Since I was going to give that same lecture later that day, I decided to cut it down and start the class by crowd-sourcing (with guidance) definitions for things like “denomination” and “evangelicalism.” Can I configure the class in such a way that they can say “What's a revival?” at a point where it can be more productive?

The clincher came this past semester. In the middle of a discussion of who knows what, a student put up his hand and asked a question. It was one of those questions that hit right in the sweet spot of my knowledge, and I was overwhelmed. The answer to his question was so many things: land, the crisis of masculinity, concepts of individual liberty, marginal men, cities, Mayo Greenleaf Patch! The answer was too big, and in too many dimensions, for me to articulate it as a simple reply. I think I went with “land,” but I'm also sure my students saw me short-circuit with information overload in that moment. The concepts this student was asking about were complex, and he and his classmates were grasping at them. They just needed more time and space to think. Rather than shotgunning can after can of tasty knowledge in lecture, could we decant it and let it breathe?

They've been telling me what they need to learn. Sometimes it takes a while for them to figure it out, but they're figuring it out and they're telling me. I've been trying to listen and adapt within a certain framework, but I'm not sure the framework can accommodate the kind of learning I want, and the kind of learning they are capable of.

So, I'm going to flip. But I'm pretty scared. So much of the literature out there is based on other disciplines' needs or is about learning at a secondary school level, which isn't the same as college. Moreover, many advocates of flipped learning use videotaped lectures, which I'm not keen on. I've developed a whole series of Prezis that I've written from scratch or adapted from lectures, each one full of those higher-level questions for talking about the next day during class. I've cut down on the already-minimal reading in the class so that I can feel justified in asking this extra time from my students. But will they read the Prezis? Will they take notes? Will daily conceptual discussions and in-class document analysis work? Will they give me that look (you know that look) that says “What on God's green earth are you trying to do?”

The other night, I read this piece in the Chronicle and nearly called the whole thing off. I decided I'd just go back to nice comfortable lectures. But my friend Casey talked me down, and I'm going to go through with it. I know I'm going to talk to my friends in the grad lounge about it, but I'm going to blog about it on this grad lounge too. So, vast internet (or the half dozen people who might read this), thoughts, suggestions, and bits of encouragement would be deeply appreciated.

ETA: Please do not think I'm saying that I have a deep understanding of Calvinist theology.  Rather, I have a basic knowledge and the not-so-fond memories of theologically-induced headaches.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Letters from the Future

My university switched to online evaluations this year, so when a friend showed me Brian Croxall's post on having your students write letters to the future, I was intrigued. Since the online evaluations are done outside of class, the time I normally build into the schedule for them was free, and this seemed like an interesting way to make use of it. To be honest, I also thought I needed a back-up form of evaluation, just in case the experiment with online evaluations didn't work. Less than half of my students completed the university-administered online evaluations, so I'm glad I used an alternate form, but even if my online participation were 100%, I'd still be glad I did these letters.

Croxall asks his students to write a letter to future students in his course, evaluating the instructor, the course, the assignments, and the reading. He also makes his evaluations public, with his students' knowledge, so I was able to see in advance what I might receive. After reading them, I thought that they could be very useful for actual future students, so when I presented the plan to my current students, I told them that I would use their comments publicly. I gave my students 10 minutes in the middle of class in April to write letters to future students about the four elements Croxall outlined. They really took to it, and I was surprised that I had to tell them to stop writing. They wrote so much more than on their standard evaluations, and in this case, more is definitely better.

My course already contained three self-reflection essays, spaced throughout the semester, and I was very pleased to see that they took it upon themselves to be self-reflective in this situation as well. I think that we, as instructors, are often frustrated with evaluations that come down to “I'm angry that I had to take this class and I didn't like that there was work in it.” For some reason, this exercise helped students separate things they didn't like about the class from things they wished they'd done differently. Their comments are really helping me figure out how I can change the class to help them do well in it.

Here are some of the things that emerged:

Lots of surprise at enjoying the class: “I can honestly say I've had a positive experience in History 1501. Being someone who hates the subject, this shocked me.”

Come to class: “The lectures are designed to help you understand the readings.” “In order to succeed in the class, you should definitely come every day and be ready to take notes.” “There are no slides posted online so if you do decide to skip, you'll have to copy someone else's notes which is a pain in the ass.”

Organization (theirs): “The main thing you need to do is to have good organization...” “It requires effort, but Erin never bogs you down with work.” “Don't underestimate the workload that will be required of you...” “Although it might seem like a lot of work, it really is manageable if you start on time and do not do it the night before.”

Organization (mine): “Her lectures are a little disorganized and sometimes jump subject to subject...”

Grading: “Thinkalouds [their weekly assignment] are rigged and the grading system for it is fugged up.”

There will be work:This class is not hard for the material covered, but for the out of class work.” “It's not an easy A, but worth the credits and you might actually learn something too, which is what college is about.”

If you want X, don't look here: “If you like memorizing and being tested on dates and events, this class is not right for you.” “If you like to skip class, this isn't for you.” “Don't take this course if you're banking on memorization to pass.”

And the most valuable piece of wisdom: You can't bullshit a writing assignment that asks you to think critically.”

Some of the complaints about the class appeared more often than others. That grading complaint was, much to my surprise, the only one I received in this forum. The complaints about lecture speed and organization were more frequent, and not unexpected. I talk too fast, I know, and I'm working on it. The comments about my lecture organization interest me. My lectures are fully planned out, outlined, organized to the max...from my perspective. If my students don't see the connections, though, I need to find a way to make them clearer. 
One thing I realized this semester is that no amount of organizing, slowing down, and repeating can make a complex historical concept easier to understand. Sometimes it just takes time to understand the intersection of race and gender in 17th century Virginia or the ramifications of the land crisis at the turn of the 19th century. I'm planning on flipping my classes in the fall (stay tuned for posts as I figure that mess out), so I hope that approach might help my students work through connections at their pace, not mine, while still allowing me to challenge them.

Much of the advice they gave their counterparts in the future is advice that I give them at the start of the semester, but I think it's different coming from them. In the fall, I plan to give my new students excerpts from these letters. I'm hoping that it will mean more coming from them than it does coming from me.

I think I'll make the “letters to the future” assignment a permanent part of my classes, giving my students even more time to do it in the future. I highly encourage my colleagues to consider adding it to their rotation, even if they're currently teaching assistants.


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Grad Student's Guide to Good Archival Practices

[This guest post comes from my colleague Mike Limberg, a grad student in the UConn history department working on early 20th century U.S. foreign relations.  He offers a guide to good archival practices that serves as an excellent primer for those new to archival research and a good refresher for those of us who end up kicking ourselves for the sloppy research practices of a few summers ago.  Not that I know anyone in that situation.  Ahem.  Just a reminder that this blog is always open to submissions from graduate students, and we welcome posts on just about any topic relevant to the experience.  Simply email us at -Erin]
Thanks to Erin and Mary for letting me guest post! Much as I'd like to run an academic blog of my own, I've discovered that finding the time and energy to do so is really hard. Hopefully I will make a contribution here every now and then.

This year, I've had the pleasure to serve as the semi-official mentor to a couple of new grad students who also work with my adviser (part of an initiative which our History Graduate Student Association has helped encourage for at least the last few incoming cohorts of students). I found myself talking about archive strategies and etiquette with them recently, and thought it might be a discussion worth moving to a larger forum. Using archival sources is integral to being a history graduate student, but I've found that learning how to find and access archives can be very opaque or haphazardly taught. I sort of learned as I went, starting with a few days in the National Archives as an undergraduate where I really had no idea what I was doing. I took a long time and a few different research projects as an undergraduate and a graduate student to understand how archives worked and evolve better systems for keeping track of what I found. As a result, I wanted to share some tips for things I've figured out how to do and ask for tips from others to get new ideas as I look ahead to a summer of dissertation research.

Finding Archival Sources

Figuring out what primary sources exist and where they are can be easy... but might also require a lot of time searching online catalogs, talking to archivists, and emailing to find privately held collections. The nature of history research varies widely enough that I will stick to generalities here. Archives come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from the big institutions that most of us use to local historical societies to individual people who can contribute oral histories and their personal collections (Archive Stories, edited by Antoinette Burton, is one volume that pushes historians to expand the definition of an archive, think about how archives are put together, and examine who shapes what materials end up in collections. It would be really interesting to hear from some colleagues who have worked in acquisitions and collections management to hear their perspective for a future DGL post!)

The easy first step is to mine the footnotes and bibliographies of the secondary sources you're reading as background on a project. That gives a sense of what others working on an established topic have used, which you might be revisiting or re-reading from a new angle.

Spend some time searching Google and the WorldCat catalog for the names of people or organizations you've identified. WorldCat includes listings for a number of archival sources. Google can turn up a ton of unrelated material, but can also turn up collections that authors in the pre-Internet days missed. Older published primary sources that once you may have had to request via ILL or visit a reading room to view are increasingly available via Google Books as well.

Investigate databases and search programs. ArchiveGrid is one potential useful database for finding material; it's dedicated to collecting and and collating information about the location of sources. A beta version is accessible for free through their website. Your institution's library likely subscribes to a number of databases dedicated to finding or presenting primary sources, such as scanned copies of newspapers or state papers. Check these out, and ask questions of your library's history specialist if you have one. He or she may know of databases that exist but your school lacks the money to subscribe to; these may be something you can check out by visiting a larger, better-endowed school nearby.

Check out the institutions people are involved in. Famous people often donate their papers to their alma maters or, if they've worked for an important organization or government administration, have materials as part of those collections. Individuals may have papers as part of this sort of collection without it being immediately apparent via web search.

A tip throughout your search, and through the following steps- keep track of where and how you search and what you identify as a possible source along the way! This can keep you from replicating too much of your earlier steps if you have to search over multiple sessions.

Archive Pre-Planning

Once a useful collection is located, start planning what a visit to that archive would entail. Check the archive's website for their hours of operation and any potential disruptions- holidays, renovations, etc.- that might affect when you visit. Look to make sure there are no special restrictions on the collection you hope to examine, like requirements to get prior permission from the collection's source. Note their policy on scans, copies, and digital camera use (more on that later). Often reading rooms are open to the public, but other times accessing an archive requires prior appointment. Many archives store the majority of their materials off-site, so even if you can freely access the reading room you may need to request materials online or by phone at least a day in advance of your visit.

Selecting Materials to Examine

You've identified a relevant collection of papers- great. Finding aids and help from archivists let you figure out what you need to specifically examine, since generally you won't have to look at everything a person wrote or an organization saved. Most larger archives have lots of their finding aids online, and this makes the process much easier. Established collections of paper material are typically stored in folders within archival boxes, or possibly in bound volumes. Often these are stored off-site and must be requested in advance, which is why trying to identify exactly what you need and planning ahead will be a vital way to make your archive trip more productive. Try to correlate the date range or correspondents or topics you know you're interested in with the organization of items laid out in the finding aid. Sometimes the only way to know for sure what you need is to look at a detailed guide to the material when you get to the site. Trying to contact an archivist to get help and advice in advance can be very hit or miss; sometimes it might help you easily determine what to look at or even lead to finding new collections, other times you may not even get any response. But it is worth trying.

Basic Archive Procedure and Suggestions

This will vary considerably depending on the archive, but the standard practice is for the researcher to leave all items other than pencil, computer, and camera in a locker outside the reading room. Once inside, you check with an archivist or staff member to get your materials. If this archive does not have an online request system, this may require filling out paper call slips. The archive staff will retrieve your materials while you wait in the reading room and deliver them to your seat. Rules generally require that only one box be on the table at a time, and only one folder out at a time. This ensures materials stay secure and helps keep them in order.

Keep careful track of what items are from which place. Create some sort of system to delineate folders, boxes, etc. and information about author, date, and other information for individual items. It's also not a bad idea to jot a few notes about the main content of even areas of a collection you may not need just then; you may need it down the line as your project evolves or as you move on to another.

Digital cameras have changed how historians work in archives; it's now more common to take as many photographs as possible during a shorter time in the archive and go through them in depth at a later time. Doing this is very depending on the camera policy of the archive, however, so be careful to check in advance. If you do take a lot of pictures, try to have some sort of system that helps identify which images match which item. A suggestion is to try to include the labeled edge of the folder of documents, or include a piece of paper with that information noted. Trying to match up pictures and items later on, particularly with hundreds or thousands of images, is extremely hard to do. Back up your photos frequently as you work, not just at the end of the day. Also, bring two sets of spare batteries. It's really no fun to be in the middle of a 100-page document and frantically trying to coax out the last ergs of power with begging, pleading, and amateur voodoo.

Most researchers now use laptops to take notes, so think ahead about your power supply needs and whether any peripherals (like a mouse) would help. Save your working documents often. Most archives also have wifi access available, so uploading copies of your notes and photos to a cloud server every now and then is a great idea; a portable flash drive is another option for a backup. It's generally accepted and safe to leave your laptop and materials at your place if you take a lunch or stretch break, but check with the staff.

Be courteous and polite to the archive staff. Express gratitude for their help with your research requests and try not to get too torqued if something goes wrong or isn't how you expected. This doesn't mean you have to suck up, but archivists who like you or see you as a professional are much more willing to help you and go the extra mile to make sure you get what you need. They might even be much more willing to direct you to a good local place for a bite of lunch when you take a break. Sometimes archivists will be less helpful than you'd like, or even actively impede your work despite your best efforts. But this is less common.

Dress professionally. This doesn't mean you need a suit and tie or the female equivalent. Most archives have no real dress expectations, and you will likely see the whole range from suits to shorts and sweatpants (I was rather shocked about this my first few days researching at Harvard). But looking nice is a nice reminder to you that you're here as part of a job and give a little boost of confidence to cover jitters about figuring out the system. It signals to the staff that you are serious about being there and working. There is also the chance you might run into someone you know professionally, like a senior scholar whose work you have read three times or a member of your own department's faculty. Consider what would be comfortable to sit in for hours at a time, and bear in mind that reading rooms are often fairly cold (though occasionally too warm!). I usually go for dress pants and a dress shirt, tie optional.

When you are done researching, let the staff know you are heading out. If you will return the next day or even within a week or so, generally the staff will keep your materials in the reading room for you so you don't have to request it again.

Good practice is to spend a few minutes as soon as possible after finishing work going through your notes and files. Make sure everything you produced is saved and filed somewhere you can find it. Make a backup copy or two. Try to take a few minutes to jot some summation notes about the types of material you went through that day, what seemed most important, what preliminary conclusions jumped out. This will be really hard, particularly after an 8 or 10 hour day staring at documents and even more so if you then have a long commute back home or to your hotel. I really don't do a great job of this yet myself, particularly on days when I travel to archives in Boston. But it's a great way to jump-start your thinking and analysis.

So there are some tips. I don't pretend to know all the tricks, and would love to hear from others about their suggestions for what else should be added to this guide. But hopefully this is something that might be helpful for grad students just starting their archival work, or even for advanced undergrads.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Trigger warnings in the history classroom

Since a colleague alerted me to it last week, I've been mulling over Ruxandra Looft's guest post at Shakesville on trigger warnings in the classroom.  A lesson on the recent use of sexist language by a German politician led her to consider how and when to use trigger warnings with her students.  A taste:

But what happens when a student is trapped in a classroom where a discussion brings up terrible and traumatic memories? How can a student easily and subtly remove herself from that moment?

I have thought about prefacing our discussions with a trigger warning introduction to the class but I question how effective that would be. By saying that we are going to discuss topics of a sensitive nature that may make some people uncomfortable and offering students the chance to leave, aren't the very students meant to be spared then singled out and isolated in front of the entire class? While well intentioned, that offer seems useless at best and marginalizing at worst.

The other option? Steering clear of volatile topics in the classroom and playing it safe. But by not talking about harassment, the sorry state of gender equality, and the heroic efforts put forth by activists seems akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There has to be a better way. But how does one work trigger warnings into the classroom lesson plan? How does a teacher effectively and sensitively negotiate topics that require trigger warnings and how are escape options presented in a sensitive and appropriate manner to students whose past traumas follow them into the classroom?

Looft's questions, and the countless anecdotes shared in the comment section, made me think about the ways that I might be failing my students, and how I might create a more welcoming and productive environment in the classroom. 

Teaching the first half of the U.S. survey leads me through some pretty thorny topics, but the one that often concerns me the most is the pervasive sexual violence perpetrated against black women, particularly the enslaved.  As part of a larger conversation on patriarchy, the sexual prerogative of Anglo-American males is a vital part of understanding the social and cultural history of the United States.  But at this point, I'm sadly too aware that every time I teach this class, there are students sitting in front of me who are the victims of sexual violence, and I shouldn't force them to confront their trauma anew in my classroom if they aren't comfortable doing so. 

At the start of the semester, I tell my students that we'll be talking about things like rape, but I don't think that's good enough.  Looft is right to argue that delivering a more specific trigger warning at the start of a class period is even worse; no student can excuse themselves without drawing attention in that situation.  I think it's incumbent upon me to start placing information in my syllabus alerting students to discussions of triggering material.

I do think, however, that refreshing that trigger warning in the classroom and setting the tone for the day can be important and productive.  The unease some students feel discussing topics like rape can lead to uncouth, immature comments that make everyone uncomfortable, and I'm the first to admit I'm terrible at handling those situations.  When a student makes an immature remark about rape, no matter what their motivation, I feel like I've been punched in the gut, and all of my teacher training disappears.  But our obligation as teachers is to make the classroom a safe space by laying the groundwork early and nipping problems in the bud, as I started to learn in my first semester leading discussion.  Not knowing how to deal with a student's inappropriate and misogynistic behavior, I hoped it would go away, only to have another male student in the class ask me at the end of the semester why I hadn't done anything to stop someone who was poisoning the learning environment.  None of my excuses - I was a new teacher, I didn't want to create a scene, I was as intimidated by this person as my students were - should have kept me from doing what was right, and I am still ashamed by how much I failed my students that semester.

Reflecting on that episode, there are a few conclusions I can draw.  First of all, I think it shows that we never know who our classes are going to impact in this way, making trigger warnings all the more important.  Secondly, I think it's clear that trigger warnings shouldn't just be stated or included in the syllabus.  Instead, we might talk with our students about what they are and why they are important.  After all, if an affected student chooses to attend a class knowing what will be discussed, he or she should enter a classroom where the sensitive topic - rape, lynching, or the wounds of combat - will be treated with respect by the teacher and the students. -Erin

Friday, February 8, 2013

"I’m sorry if anyone in Connecticut felt insulted by these 15 seconds of the movie..."

After Joe Courtney called Lincoln's filmmakers out for presenting Connecticut's legislators in a historically inaccurate manner, screenwriter Tony Kushner has responded in an open letter in the Wall Street Journal.  He returns fire, appropriately noting that Connecticut's electoral support of Lincoln was not nearly as high as Courtney claimed, using the scholarship of CCSU's Matt Warshauer for support.  A valid point, certainly.

And yet the issue at hand, the voting record of Connecticut's congressmen, is addressed as follows:

We changed two of the delegation's votes, and we made up new names for the men casting those votes, so as not to ascribe any actions to actual persons who didn't perform them.  In the movie, the voting is also organized by state, which is not the practice in the House.  These alterations were made to clarify to the audience the historical reality that the Thirteenth Amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn't determined  until the end of the vote.  The closeness of that vote and the means by which it came about was the story we wanted to tell.  In making changes to the voting sequence, we adhered to time-honored and completely legitimate standards for the creation of historical drama, which is what Lincoln is.  I hope nobody is shocked to learn that I also made up dialogue and imagined encounters and invented characters.

One of the things that stands out to me in this apology-that's-not-an-apology is the issue of "the story we wanted to tell."  This has been one of the issues with Lincoln from the beginning; inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin's work, this movie had a specific interpretation (what historians would call the story they wanted to tell), and it would have been different had it been inspired by another scholar's work on Lincoln.  In choosing this interpretation, the people involved in the film did something similar to what we do when we write lectures.  We know the argument we want to make to our students, and we pick accounts and evidence that help us make that argument.  We are not supposed to make up evidence to support the argument we want to make - if we could do that, lecture writing would be much easier.

Kushner says, rightly so, that this is a work of historical fiction.  The story they wanted to tell was a national one, focused around one man and one amendment, and the changes made could be made, apparently, because this wasn't a story about Connecticut and its "tangled regional history."  Kushner says that the changes made to Connecticut's voting record are not so bad because he also changed the names of the congressmen, all in service of telling the story.  I find it very hard to believe that a Tony-winning writer and Oscar-winning director didn't have the creative capacity between them to tell the story they wanted to tell without actively falsifying the historical record in this particular way.  While I am the first to get on my high horse about how New Englanders don't know their own region's racist past (and present), for Kushner to say we're all overreacting about these 15 seconds is deeply problematic and rather patronizing.  -Erin

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Spielberg's roll call called on the carpet

Spielberg's Lincoln has been endlessly discussed by historians, and I have read many articles and roundtables on the subject.  I went to see it on New Year's Eve with my father, who rarely goes to films, but was interested in going when I raised the prospect.  We both found it deeply moving, and its clear explanations of some thorny 19th century political issues made me cheer.  We saw the film in a theater in a small town in New York, because our neighboring small town in northwest Connecticut doesn't have one, and I heard a crowd of New Yorkers and Nutmeggers gasp in surprise when the vote began and a Connecticut congressman voted against the amendment. 

I will admit, I didn't know how the Connecticut delegation had voted, and I was quite willing to believe it was split, and Spielberg had included it to drive home the existence of New England racism.  Now Joe Courtney, who represents most of Eastern Connecticut in Congress is demanding an apology and a correction from Spielberg, as the congressional records show that the entire Connecticut delegation voted for the 13th amendment.  He's even provided us with a scan of the page showing the votes.  Provided this all holds up, and there's no error here, I would be interested in reading Spielberg and Kushner's explanation of the choices made to change knowable historical facts for the screenplay of the film.  What historical and artistic work were these changes meant to accomplish?  Joe Courtney, his staff, and whoever else was involved in prompting this (perhaps some historians in the state itself) may have just shown us another dimension to the historical work Mr. Everyman can do. -Erin

ETA: The Atlantic ran a piece on historical inaccuracies that included pseudonyms given to Democrats who voted against the amendment.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Article submission tips for grads

Mike Limberg just received the happy news that an article he submitted was accepted for publication.  Hurray!  On his blog, he talks about the process he went through and offers some tips that are useful for graduate students looking to publish. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Fear of Beginning (Or, "Pushing Submit")

[My rambling thoughts on the occasion of submitting my first article for publication. -Mary]

Two days ago, I submitted my first article for publication.

It was terrifying.

I thought I was ready, I really did.  I had read and reread the submission guidelines.  I had read and reread my paper.  I had gone over my footnotes repeatedly.  I was excited to submit it.  But when it came right down to it, and it was time to hit “Submit,” I nearly had to call an officemate over to direct my cursor over the word and push the button.

This article has been two years in the making.  It started out as a seminar paper for my Historical Methods class in my first semester of PhD work.  I was lucky to have an instructor who left our paper topics open, so I chose something I had wanted to write about for a while.  It was one of those wonderful projects that was fun to work on—I enjoyed both the research and the writing.  Yet when the class was over, I didn’t feel like I was finished.  I asked my instructor (who by this point was also a member of my PhD committee) if he would help me revise it with an eye towards publication.  It wasn’t going to fit in my dissertation, so I took the next logical step.

Finally, two years later, it’s submitted.  In the interim, I’ve had roughly 10 people read it, presented different versions at two different conferences, traveled to Washington D.C. to do research I couldn’t do from home, and completely retyped the manuscript.  I finally feel that the project is finished.

I’m learning, though, that feeling like it’s finished is a long way from being ready to let go of it.  I won’t lie: I’m kind of proud of this paper.  I think it’s interesting, and original, and, yes, publishable.  But the experience of writing was one that I found extraordinarily humbling.  So many different people have looked at this project already; I have been able to draw on helpful comments from colleagues and friends inside and outside of my field.  Still, I’m scared.  I’m not scared of rejection—I expect rejection.  I hope that rejection is accompanied by “We suggest you try another journal.”  If it isn’t, I’ll probably try again anyway!

No, what I think I’m scared of is the fact that, for the first time, I have made a really conscious effort to do something that is going to stick with me.  If this gets published, my name will be attached to it forever.  I’m so used to thinking in grad school terms—short-term, even if I am planning for the future—that the thought of anything that is going to go beyond the next two years is overwhelming.  I’m currently facing the two biggest challenges of my PhD: the exams, and the dissertation.  The coursework (which, if you include my MA, I have been doing for 5 years) is almost over, and I am stuck in the thicket of “almost-ABD-good-Lord-willing-and-the-creek-don’t-rise” for the next 10 months.  Yet here I am, having decided to go and jump ahead and try to publish something.  I know some PhD advisors advocate strongly against that and don’t allow their students to publish before they finish their degrees.  I have a wonderful advisory committee who pretty much lets me do what I want (within reason, of course).  They encourage me to do whatever I think I need to do.

So the project is finished…but the career is just beginning.  Maybe I’m starting a little early.  The thought of actually having a “career” is a little foreign.  Still.  I have to start somewhere.

Monday, January 28, 2013

MOOCs from the inside

A colleague at UConn, Mike Limberg, is enrolled in two MOOCs as part of our department's graduate teaching seminar.  He offers his initial thoughts on the merits and problems of the system here.  A taste:

Here's my take so far on what's good with these courses.  They're open-access, without the cost or entry threshold of college.  This makes it easy for anyone interested in bettering their own knowledge and academic skills to join in.  Some of the content threads are dedicated to people telling where they're from, and there are thousands of people in countries all over the world taking these courses.  The comment threads also reflect some of the much broader diversity in background knowledge or "common-sense" interpretations of history people from different places have.  This can be quite good, particularly opening up American students to non-Western perspectives (though some of the troll postings about 9/11 and America show how that can be bad too).

Be sure to follow Mike's blog for further reflections on his MOOC experience. -Erin

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Pulling back the curtain...

A few years ago, during my office hours, a student asked “So, what are you? A senior history major?” I realized that many of my students didn't know much about what I was doing or how certain structures of the university operated. And really, why should they know? Quite often the other parts of our academic life are very separate from our teaching. How could our students be expected know what graduate school is like, or what a Ph.D. is for, or what academic careers are like, or how colleges and universities operate? Lately I have been thinking about whether our students should know, and whether or not we as graduate students and teachers should play any role in that.

I've found that pulling back the curtain on certain aspects of my graduate life has created opportunities to connect with my students that I hadn't anticipated. The semester I was taking my comprehensive exams, I made the conscious choice to tell my students what would be occupying my time that semester. I was TAing for the second half of the U.S. survey, and I found myself talking to my students about what I was reading when it was relevant. Surprisingly, they were interested in what I was reading, and what this exam was about, and why I had to take it. When they came to my office hours the day after my exam, before they asked questions about their final exam, they wanted to know how mine had gone and what it had been like. The past might be a foreign country, but so was grad school to my students, and they wanted to explore.

Pulling back the curtain on things like comprehensive exams is one thing, and perhaps not very controversial, but my thinking about this issue was actually prompted by a few articles that have been floating around the internet lately. One, in the New York Times, discussed the relationship between a student's grades and the amount of financial support that student was receiving for their education. Amy Lewis' November 2012 piece on Inside Higher Ed used the recent “Manifest Destiny” Gap t-shirt disaster to make an argument for the relevance of the humanities to those seeking a degree in business. “The Adjunct Project,” hosted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, and other online forums for tracking the pay and conditions of contingent faculty around the country have been getting increased attention. The controversy rages over the “worth” of the humanities, with states like Florida pondering tiered tuition systems that privilege more “valuable” majors. What colleges and universities do with their money, what students are learning, and what they should be learning are all incessantly debated by people inside and outside of the academy. I know that my fellow graduate students and I discuss these articles and issues, and I can only assume the faculty do as well.

Do our students know about these things? If they don't, should they? Is it ever appropriate for us to introduce them to some of these issues? Our students remain with us as a group of people, but cycle through as individuals fairly quickly, and perhaps we assume they don't have a vested interest as a result. But when we're talking about how our institutions operate, do our students need (or want) to know how the sausage gets made? Do they need to know just how much the rest of the country can't stop talking about undergraduate education? And do we as historians defend the importance of historical thinking simply by modeling it, or is it ever appropriate to give our students contemporary examples of situations where it matters in the “real world?” 
I am thinking about bringing up the “Manifest Destiny” t-shirt issue with my class when we discuss the concept as part of a larger discussion of American imperialism. It seems like a good way to get at what the concept meant to different groups of people. But I don't know whether I'll give them Lewis' essay. I like a lot of what she says about the role of the humanities in the education of a business major, but I don't know whether bringing up those issues is appropriate, necessary, or desired.

I'd love to know how my colleagues have dealt with these sorts of situations and what they think about bringing up these kinds of issues with our students. - Erin

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Model Conversation

Some of you may have also been following the conversation on this recent NPR piece: Why Does Jared Diamond Make Anthropologists So Mad?  While the piece itself is interesting to me as a historian, I was more fascinated by the comment section. 

In general, the comment section of a news article online can be a place that makes you weep for the future of humanity.  Online comments are often full of vitriol and name-calling, and sooner or later someone is compared to Hitler and it's all over.  But this NPR piece was different, and I think it encapsulates some of the possibilities that exist, even on heavily-trafficked sites, for real dialogue.  Like some of my favorite academic bloggers, the author of this piece engaged with her readers, and her readers actively sought her expertise, and the expertise of the community of scholars that appeared to take part in the conversation.  It wasn't simply scholars telling the general public How It Is, but rather a real conversation about how anthropologists think about and disagree on culture, and also how they communicate those thoughts - or fail to communicate them, as the case may be - to a broader public that is keenly interested. 

I don't know that we should immediately have "Why Does [Insert Name Here] Make Historians So Mad?"  But it did make me think about different ways of engaging with the public, and more importantly, what we can do to help make those conversations more productive.  In this piece and its comments, Barbara King moderated and engaged in a conversation that promoted learning among interested adults.  It seemed worth taking a minute to applaud that.  -Erin

Tours, Teaching, and Charity

[My thoughts on Becker's 1931 Presidential Address -Mary]

“If we remain too long recalcitrant Mr. Everyman will ignore us, shelving our recondite works behind glass doors rarely opened. Our proper function is not to repeat the past but to make use of it, to correct and rationalize for common use Mr. Everyman’s mythological adaptation of what actually happened. We are surely under bond to be as honest and as intelligent as human frailty permits; but the secret of our success in the long run is in conforming to the temper of Mr. Everyman, which we seem to guide only because we are so sure, eventually, to follow it.”

Here is a fact about me:  I am a horrible tour-goer.  Seriously.  I should not be allowed on historical tours.  I trail near the back, halfway paying attention, creating mental lists of things that are inaccurate and questions to trip up the tour guide.  In other words, I become the exact opposite of my typical self: instead of an overachieving, Type-A, generally positive and kind graduate student, I become an elitist, snobby jerk.  Granted, I try to keep it to myself, but my eye-rolling gives me away.

This stands in direct contrast to the version of myself that exists in the classroom.  In the classroom, I strongly advocate acquiring historical knowledge in any way possible.  My paramount goal when I teach is to make the information relevant to my students.  This takes many different forms, but one example is an assignment I’m giving this semester.  I’m teaching “Classical Literature,” (basically, Ancient Mesopotamian and Greek literature with lots of historical info thrown in).  I’m tasking my students with offering an interpretation of one of the plays we read using the language of the Internet—Facebook, Twitter, memes, Pinterest, Reddit…whatever their minds can come up with.  I’m excited about this assignment; the goal is for the students to stretch themselves.  I hope that Grumpy Cat makes an appearance at some point.

After reading Becker’s speech, I’m left with this thought:  What is the difference between tours and what I’m asking of my students?  Both attempt to make history relevant.  Both ask their participants to use the information available to create their own interpretations.  Both don’t conform to the notion of “traditional historical scholarship.”  I can imagine some professors I’ve had who would be shocked at the assignment I’ve designed.
Becker points out that history should be Everyman-driven.  My assignments are student-driven.  My students certainly qualify as “Everyman.”  In the end, perhaps there is no difference.  And perhaps I should be more charitable in my tour-going.

Case in point.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Priming the Pump

[I thought I'd post some initial thoughts on Carl Becker's 1931 AHA presidential address to prime the pump. -Erin]
If you haven't read Becker's address yet, I encourage you to do so, even if you don't want to contribute your thoughts at this point. One of the things that struck me was how startling, even transgressive, his thoughts on the nature of the discipline would be to some of our students, to large swaths of the general public, and even to many within the confines of academic history. For instance:
  • To establish the facts is always in order, and is indeed the first duty of the historian, but to suppose that the facts, once established in all their fullness, will 'speak for themselves' is an illusion.”
  • Even the most disinterested historian has at least one preconception, which is the fixed idea that he has none.”
  • It should be a relief to us to renounce omniscience, to recognize that every generation, our own included, will, must inevitably, understand the past and anticipate the future in the light of its own restricted experience, must inevitably play on the dead whatever tricks it finds necessary for its own peace of mind.”
  • To set forth historical facts is not comparable to dumping a barrow of bricks. A brick retains its form and pressure wherever placed, but the form and substance of historical facts, having a negotiable existence only in literary discourse, vary with the words employed to convey them....It is thus not the undiscriminated fact, but the perceiving mind of the historian that speaks: the special meaning which the facts are made to convey emerges from the substance-form which the historian employs to recreate imaginatively a series of events not present to perception.”
  • Our proper function is not to repeat the past but to make use of it, to correct and rationalize for common use Mr. Everyman's mythological adaptation of what actually happened.”
Beyond simply wanting to embroider half of this speech onto tea-towels and throw pillows, I find myself thinking about my obligation to the classroom full of Everymen and Everywomen in light of Becker's charge to us as historians. Becker describes a Mr. Everyman who practices a “history of everyday things” on the most intimate level – a man who daily gathers together the strands of history that help him make sense of his day, and his “specious present.” In many ways, this resonates with what many us practice as historians; we try to understand how people understood the world they lived in.
Becker argues, though, that we must engage with Mr. Everyman, because if we don't, he will ignore us. We must join with the rest of society as it uses history “to understand what it is doing in the light of what it has done and what it hopes to do.” And why not? Among other reasons, we are historians because we feel that the methods our discipline provides are the best for understanding the past. But as Becker shows, to draw lines between the past, the present, and the future is difficult, if not a waste of time, and I know that what I study is influenced by my present and helps me understand my world.
As a native Nutmegger at the flagship university in the state of Connecticut, as a historian of the Early Republic, and as a teacher getting ready to start another semester of the US I survey, I find myself pondering how to respond to Becker's argument. As a state, and as a nation, we find that our “specious present” has been violently enlarged in the past month, and as historians, we see and hear discussions of guns, the Constitution, the “Founding Fathers,” mental health, and on very rare occasions, even whiteness and masculinity. While we might see the relevance of history in everything we do, because of our training, there are times when the rest of the world actively – even desperately – turns to the past to make sense of the world, for better or worse. What role do we play, as teachers and scholars, in these debates?
I have thought about how I teach the Constitution, the composition and role of the militia in the United States, and the connection between guns and race in the 19th century. I don't talk about the 2nd amendment explicitly, but I'm wondering if I should. Now, you can make the argument that I shouldn't allow my teaching to be dictated by contemporary desires; after all, if historians only ever studied what society deemed valuable, our scholarship would look very different. But if Becker is right, and Mr. Everyman will ignore us if we ignore him, how do we engage instead? As teachers, as public intellectuals, as people who exist in society, how do we engage in the short- and long-term? Because we must, and to do that we must meet Mr. Everyman where he is – not by bending our scholarship and teaching to meet his mythology, per se, but by transforming our scholarship and teaching to reach him and be useful to him, and perhaps even to transform him.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Welcome to an experiment.

Welcome to an experiment.

Inspired by the kinds of conversations that go on in the places graduate students frequent, we have decided to attempt a broader online version of those spaces and those discussions.  

We envision a collaborative blog with many contributors, all of whom seek to make graduate school and the historical profession a better place.  To that end, we want this blog to be a constructive place where we can help each other navigate graduate school and the scholarly world we all hope to live in.

We hope to have conversations that include, but are not limited to, the following topics:

• Book reviews and historiographical discussions.  It takes a very long time for book reviews to come out, and quite often, we read books and immediately want to talk about them, but have no one with whom to do that.  We envision that this could be a place to share our reactions to historical literature, old or new, alone or in combination with other material.

• Teaching conundrums or ideas.  As graduate students, many of us spend a lot of our time teaching or leading discussion sections.  We envision that this could be a place where we share ideas about lesson plans or discussion tactics, drawing on the knowledge of our colleagues to make ourselves more conscientious teachers.

• Research.  We think that, by nature, research is an activity that is solitary.  However, we think it is always better to be in conversation with others who can help us.  We envision this as a place where we can talk about our research in collaboration, asking for help or suggestions, or simply sharing "that really cool thing that we just found!"

• Conversations about being a historian.  What do we do?  How do we do it?  Why do we do it?  What draws us to it?  What frustrates us about it?  How can we do it better?  We envision this as a place where we can constructively and collectively share our thoughts about the field to which we devote ourselves to.

This blog is growing out of the conversations between two young historians at the 2013 meeting of the American Historical Association.  Erin Bartram is a PhD candidate at the University of Connecticut, where she studies religion and gender in 19th-century United States history.  Mary Sanders is a PhD student at Oklahoma State University, where she studies the religious responses to terrorism.  We think that we are not the only two people who are having these conversations.  The Digital Grad Lounge is our attempt to reach out to those of you who might be out there, like us, having long, passionate conversations about the life that we've chosen to live.

We are inspired by William Cronon's 2013 AHA Presidential Address, which focused on the importance of storytelling.  We think that graduate students have important stories, and that we should share them.

One of Cronon's inspirations was the 1931 Presidential Address by Carl Becker, "Everyman His Own Historian."  We thought we would inaugurate this blog by reading Becker's address, which can be found at this link.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it?  Read Becker's address and give us your thoughts on how it relates to our contemporary mission as historians.  Please limit your responses to 200-400 words, and email them to by January 20, 2013.  Please include a one-sentence bio about you and your work.  Anonymous submissions will not be posted; this rule will stand in general on the blog.  We hope to cultivate a professional place for conversation, and do not feel that anonymous submissions have a place here.

On January 21, we will publish whatever you have sent us in the hopes of beginning a conversation about the discipline and our place in it.  Thank you...and good luck!