Monday, September 19, 2011

Bloody Bloody

I saw Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson twice last year, once at the Public Theater in NY and once on its Broadway run.  Since the first time I've been trying to figure out how to teach with it, because I think it could be a really valuable, and awesome window into early nineteenth-century American history.  Every time I go down this path I'm also reminded of a West Wing episode that begins with a character intoning "Andrew Jackson, in the main foyer of his White House had a big block of cheese," and then I get sidetracked thinking about other ways to use popular culture in U.S. survey classes and never come back to BBAJ.

So, anyway,
The show was conceived by a theater company that likes to do shows that 
"revisit history in contemporary terms by looking at new idioms as a fresh way to explore historical figures or canonical texts. I don’t think it’s cheap. There’s a real populist interest in theater."  
 It was clear both times I saw the show (which changed slightly between its Public and Broadway runs) that the people involved were grounded in history.  There was quite funny (for an historian) joke about the need to footnote that was cut somewhere during the Broadway transition, and "The Corrupt Bargain" the cast sings
"John Calhoun says, We need to find a scheme to keep the power in the hands of the chosen few.  John Quincy Adams says, If my dad was president, I should get to be president too. Henry Clay says, I’ll make you president if you make me Secretary of State ... All you educated people, you can talk of liberty.  But do you really want the American people running their own country?  Ooh!"
The whole show felt a lot like schoolhouse rock for adults, which isn't to say that the take on history isn't one-dimensional and uncomplicated, but I can't really begrudge a Broadway show that.

I've been thinking of putting together an assignment that asks students to listen through a recording of the show (or even better, watch a video of it, but I'm not sure that kind of thing is legally available) and write about how they think the people who wrote the show came to tell the story they did.  Another option would be to come up with another version of the Andrew Jackson story that the playwright could have told, or to pick another historical event and "pitch" a movie or musical idea based on it.  For my class this summer, I had an assignment that asked students to write a piece of historical fiction about a natural disaster, and the two people who picked that option did a really good job of footnoting and otherwise explaining the creative decisions they made.  I think that they both initially had trouble envisioning the form that these pieces were meant to take, so maybe starting with BBAJ as an example of how some people creatively re-tell history would be a good anchor for the assignment.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Normalizing Ireland

Picture of George V's visit to Dublin in 1911 - from The Guardian
In just two days, Queen Elizabeth II will be arriving in Dublin - just a few hours after I leave for Berlin.  I am actually quite happy to be missing the royal visit, and that other semi-royal visit of President Obama returning to the country of (a few of) his ancestors.  But American presidents have visited Ireland before, and despite attempts by the press and the Irish government to cast it as inter-stitial business as usual, the Queen's visit is actually quite a big deal.  The last British monarch to visit Ireland was King George V in 1911- which means that no British monarch has ever visited the Republic of Ireland. Put another way, no British monarch has ever visited the 26 counties when they didn't belong to the British empire.
The range of responses to the Queen's visit is fairly broad.  The establishment seems to be bending over backwards to convince both the Irish people and the world that the visit is a certified Good Thing.  Speaking to the Guardian, tánaiste Eamon Gilmore (the tánaiste is the deputy to the taoisach, who is the leader of the Irish government) said "She is the head of state of a neighbouring country and state visits are very much part of what we do. She will get a very warm welcome. Her visit will herald a much more normal relationship between Ireland and the UK."  RTÉ is running a program tonight on the life of the Queen, which looks to be about how QEII is really a nice normal lady who happens to be a Windsor.
Protest website associated with the Cork English Market
I think that a lot of people who bother to think about the visit at all, wonder if there can ever be a normal relationship between Ireland and the UK. I also don't think that acknowledging how complicated the Anglo-Irish relationship is, is a bad thing.  After all, for many in the 26 counties of the republic and the 6 counties in Northern Ireland, a British presence in the North is considered an unwarranted military occupation.  The security arrangements that are being taken to protect the Queen point to the ways in which this is not a normal state visit.  The press has widely discussed whether it is wise for the Queen to visit the Garden of Remembrance which honours those who died "for the cause of Irish freedom," especially in light of promises made by Republican groups to occupy the garden and surrounding areas in the days before the visit.  Of even greater concern is her proposed visit to Croke Park, where in 1920, British troops took the field in armored vehicles and fired into the crowd watching a Gaelic football match, in retaliation for IRA killings of British intelligence officials earlier in the day.  As The Guardian noted "It is not so very long since no Briton could have set foot there, let alone a British monarch."
There are people - I have met people - who remember living in an Ireland where British colonialism was real, often brutally so.  Although the generation who lived through the Irish war for independence is now mostly dead, there are still OAPs who were children in the 1920s, and who grew up in an occupied 26 counties.  Although these wounds are rawer and more recent in the North, where the events of 'Bloody Sunday' and the hunger strikes have very present repercussions - to assume that they are healed in the Republic is, I think naive.
One of the themes in news reports leading up to the Queen's visit is the importance of memory and anniversary in Irish culture.  Assertions that the Irish are obsessed with the past has overtones of accused mysticism that are very much part of a political tradition where the Irish are cast as dreamers or as unnecessarily mired in the history of their country.  I think that some of these tropes, particularly the seething anti-British Irishman clutching at resentment that has (nominally) been laid to rest in the Northern Irish peace process effectively obscures some of the very real concerns that some people have about what it means for a British monarch to visit Ireland without making some move to atone for British sins.
In contrast to mainstream normalization, Éirigí, a political group that trends younger than many Republican movements, and which calls for "a socialist [Irish] republic" presents this list of questions about the royal visit:
  • Why should the people of Ireland be expected to welcome the head of state of a country that continues to occupy the Six Counties? 
  • What message does this visit send from the Twenty-Six Counties to those who live under the British occupation in the Six Counties? 
  • Why should upwards of €20,000,000 be spent hosting such a controversial state visit at a time of unprecedented economic depression? 
  • Is this visit really about improving relations between the peoples of Ireland and Britain, or is it about reinforcing the British occupation?"
I understand the impulse to normalize this visit - an impulse I imagine is in service of limiting violent protests - but rather than talk about it as if it were simply a long overdue formality, I think it would be well for those claiming 'no big deal' to actually engage with the arguments of people who oppose it.  To dismiss their objections as wrong headed or mired in the problems of the past is to disregard a historical relationship very much at the heart of modern Ireland, and a missed opportunity for people with very different ideas about the place of Ireland in the British archipelago, in Europe and in the world to honestly debate Ireland's future.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Typhoid, Montclair and service learning

As a side project, C and I are trying to put together a curated New York City walk.  We're starting with a public health theme, centered on the story of "typhoid" Mary Mallon, perhaps the most famous silent carrier in American history.  It's easy to see epidemics like typhoid as urban problems, and many health experts throughout history have prescribed a clean air rest cure exactly because the close, airless conditions that are common in cities were thought to be insalubrious.  (An aside, at a recent talk at NYU David Oshinsky argued that Roosevelt's polio might be traced to just such a proscription for clean air.  Oshinsky thinks that stress from Congressional hearings about gays in the Navy combined with a vacation that featured vigorous outdoor activity and swimming in the Bay of Fundy made Roosevelt particularly susceptible to the polio virus, which he might have picked up while visiting a boyscout jamboree in 1921.)  I came across another counterexample while looking for an organic dairy that would deliver near where I live.  In 1894, the New York Times reported a "local epidemic of typhoid fever in Montclair, NJ" that was traced to a Verona milkman named G.W. Gould.  There's no particular revelation here - typhoid can be spread through a number of media and food was historically one of the most common.
Having recently re-worked my statement of teaching philosophy - in which I lay a great deal of emphasis on encouraging students to think of history in terms of human consequences rather than a litany of facts, this article on the Montclair typhoid epidemic served as a nice reminder of the ways in which academic history can intersect in unexpected ways with "real" life - and reminds me how much I want to destabilize the model that deliniates between life in the ivory tower and everything outside of it.  The "service learning" concept, which is used by some colleges to encourage their students to "not only learn the practical applications of their studies, [but also to] become actively contributing citizens and community members through the service they perform," satisfies this need admirably.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Gem from the archives

From the Dublin Nation of October 17th, 1846:

"On the whole, we advise the Irish people by no means to rely on government officials, or government relief, and especially to fear and distrust mere Political Economists."

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Scaling tragedy.

Two things.  Yesterday I went to Skibbereen.  Today I watched an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? featuring Lisa Kudrow.

(I think that Who Do You Think You Are? is really fascinating T.V.  The people they profile always seem to be transformed by what they find out - from Sarah Jessica Parker saying that knowing one of her ancestors went west for the gold rush changed everything she knew about herself to Spike Lee saying that he always knew who he was, now he just knew more.  I've been interested in my family's history for, if not as long as I can remember, at least some time - so the idea of never asking questions about where parents and grandparents and great-grandparents are from feels unnatural to me.)
For people who study Irish history, Skibbereen (a village in west Cork, about 50 miles from Cork city) has become a stand-in for all of the worst parts of Ireland during the 1845-52 famine.  In part, its development as an archetype for famine Ireland comes from the fact that during the famine, residents of Skibbereen - particularly Dr. O'Donovan and Rev. Traill - worked hard to let local elites and government representatives in Dublin know about the extent of destitution in their district.  Their many letters made Skibbereen famous as a place where scenes of horror were plentiful, and diarists and artists on tours of Ireland in the 1840s and 1850s would often stop at Skibbereen to see "real" Irish destitution.  In addition, the most iconic images of the famine today - like the "Boy and Girl at Cahera"produced for the Illustrated London News in February of 1847 - were drawn in Skibbereen and its environs. 

Given the iconic place that Skibbereen holds in the imaginations of historians of the famine, and the central role it played in nineteenth-century accounts of suffering in Ireland, it was hard for me to imagine the town at all.  I think I was expecting something greyer, and more sinister than the cheerful and very typical Irish streetscape that I found.  There is a museum devoted to the famine, as well as a walking tour that takes you to the town's soup kitchen, the site of the old poor house, and the dispensary - but today these are just eighteenth and nineteenth-century buildings, like any other less meaningful edifice on any street in any small Irish town.  I think that I had been expecting to feel the scale of the tragedy in some way.  I knew, I had read about, people dying in the streets of Skibbereen - in some of the very spots that I stopped.  I knew that the poor house turned people away, and that those lucky enough to get in were packed in so close that there was no room to move - but I simply didn't feel the chill of that knowledge as much as I'd expected to.  I looked for it too at the Abbeystrewery Graveyard, site of a burial pit into which it is estimated that 9,000 people were buried, coffinless and nameless, during the famine.  One boy was so ill that his mother thought he had died, and buried him alive in the pit.  He was able to dig his way out through the corpses, but remained marked for life both mentally and physically.  The physical injury has been attributed to the fact that his mother broke his legs in order to get him into the only coffin available.

The famine plot is the lighter green patch at the bottom of the hill.
The graveyard in Skibbereen is an eloquent, and muted testimony to suffering.  The graveyard is built on a hill, with most grave markers precariously perched on whatever ground is available in the midst of rocky outcroppings.  The only truly flat area, which would be the easiest and most likely place to put new graves under other circumstances, has no graves, and marks the plot where the famine pit was.  It's not a shocking memorial.  There are no accounts of abject suffering, or of people dying of starvation - I think that the people who designed this memorial assumed that no one would visit the graveyard without some prior knowledge of the famine and its impact.  But I also have to imagine what it must be like to live today with the responsibility of tending to the historical legacy of Skibbereen.  The town as a whole seems relatively ambivalent towards the famine - which is totally understandable.  Who would want to actively remember that the place you live is famous for suffering?  I don't think that I had anticipated the fact that Skibbereen was a real place.  I had fetishized the suffering so much in my head that it had almost become divorced from reality.  There's an old chestnut of a Stalin quote (supposedly) that's something like 'one death is a tragedy, one thousand deaths are statistics' [See note] that I think rings true for historians of disaster.  It was almost impossible, for me at least, to get my head around the scale of the suffering as a consequence of the famine - so much so that when confronted with an actual place and actual graves, all I felt was disconnect.

By way of contrast, on the episode of WDYTYA? that I watched today, Lisa Kudrow learned that her great-grandmother had been forced by SS officers to stand at the edge of a pit with two other members of her family, and had been shot and then set on fire.  That was evocative, and tear-jerking - everything I thought I'd feel in SkibbereenSkibbereen does an excellent job of honoring its past while not becoming mired in re-enacting tragedy - and I am working, as someone who studies crises to keep the epic scale of disasters and the poignant narratives of individual sufferers in my head - and do justice to both in my work - at the same time.

NOTE: On this topic, Eddie Izzard says:
"Pol Pot killed 1.7 million people and we can't even deal with that.  I think, you know, we think somebody kills someone that's murder, you go to prison.  You kill ten people, you go to Texas they hit you with a brick, that's what they do.  Twenty people, you go to a hospital, they look through a small window at you forever.  And over that ... we can't deal with it, you know?  Somebody's killed 100,000 people we're almost going 'well done! well done!  You killed 100,000 people?  Well, you must get up very early in the morning.  I can't even get down the gym!  Your diary must look odd: get up in the morning death, death, death, death, death, death, death.  Lunch.  Death, death, death.  Afternoon tea.  Death, death, death ... "

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A quick note on death and the Celtic fringe

Most crime dramas feature scenes in the morgue, when quirky doctors pore over, and sometimes talk to the dead.  We expect these coroners to be weird.  After all, who in their right mind - mainstream culture asks - would choose to spend their time with corpses?  This weirdness tends to be coded into the character themself.  It is not enough for audiences to assume difference because someone works in a morgue instead of a doctor's office - most portrayals of coroners in popular culture, and particularly television and film, assign them other "othering" characteristics.  In U.S. television, sassy women of color or creepy cadaverous men dominate, but in British crime dramas, coroners are almost always a denizen of the Celtic fringe.  A few examples: in the Inspector Lynley Mysteries the coroner, Stuart Lafferty is a punk-rock-listening Irishman.  In Being Human, the coroner Quinn is Scottish, and also helping the vampires of Bristol cover their tracks.  Even in NCIS, an American drama, the coroner is a Scot by the name of Dr. "Ducky" Mallard.

As someone who spends a fair amount of time engaging with differences - real, imagined or constructed - between "The Celts" and "the rest," the persistent use of Scottish or Irish actors to play those who work was perhaps more noticeable to me than it is to either the people who watch these shows or the people who write them.  I'm not sure whether this casting is due to a lingering association between the Scottish anatomists of the nineteenth century and the the modern coroner, or between the morbid and decidedly weird Burke and Hare; or is just another way of signaling that those who work with death are not part of the mainstream.  Either way, now that I've started to look for "Celticness" in popular culture as a marker of difference, I'm starting to think that it's a ubiquitous trope in English programs especially.  Want to subtly (or not so subtly) signal that someone is a little odd, or wild, or unknowable?  Find an actor with a Scottish, Welsh or Irish accent.

Friday, March 18, 2011


There have been several notable instances of oversharing on the internet of late, the most recent being the UCLA student who posted a rant on YouTube about Asian students in the library.  I think we think of oversharing of this type as a problem of the moment - exacerbated by internet technology and a generation of facebook, twitter and blogger users.  But, as it happens, I've come across a few wonderful moments of - if not oversharing per se - then at least someone saying something in what they believed to be a private forum, or a relatively un-public forum, only to have it widely, and regrettably circulated.
My most recent example is from accounts of the minutes of the Cork Poor Relief Society:  The Secretary read a form of application for pecuniary assistance, which was to be forwarded to affluent members of society, requesting subscriptions for the poor.  It was approved and the secretary was requested to note down the names of all parties to whom he had written.

The Secretary said that he had written to the members of the medical profession already
Mr. Burke said that he had applied to Dr. William Lloyd for a subscription, and the doctor stated that he would give no money, but would attend the poor professionally two hours each day, gratuitously, give advice and any medicine he ordered them, he would pay out of his own pocket. - (loud laughter)
 One can imagine, reading the transcript of this meeting the next day, that the members wished they either had not laughed so loudly at the prospect of Dr. Lloyd being generous, or that the correspondent from the Cork Constitution (which paper campaigned against the kind of relief the committee was distributing) might have been more delicate in his note-taking.

Monday, March 14, 2011

On disasters

Ruth Reichl, one of my favorite writers, both on food and otherwise, apparently got into a bit of an internet kerfuffle over a tweet.  Before reading the news out of Japan, Reichl tweeted "Basking in sunshine. Gently fried eggs, soft golden yolks. Bright salsa: chiles, onions, tomatoes. Black beans. Warm tortillas. So fine."  The internet, predictably, responded with a measure of vitriol over how a public personality could bask in sunshine and eggs when tens of thousands of people are dying.  Reichl responded with a measured and thoughtful blog post on what she called "horror and gratitude."

While this is notable as a primer for the best results of internet scuffles, I was particularly struck by this passage (emphasis mine):
"There is no time, ever, in which a terrible disaster is not taking place somewhere on the planet.  And thanks to modern technology, we know all about it almost immediately. As I see it, we have a moral responsibility to respond to those disasters in the best ways that we can. Write letters, send money, do whatever possible to alleviate pain, end suffering and make the world a more just place."
I think a lot about the intersection between technology and responses to news.  I think that one of the reasons that the Irish famine became such a lightning rod for international interest was that the news technology (ease of printing, speed over land by rail, quick ocean crossings by steam, even faster movement of information by telegraph) made it possible for people as far away from the epicenter of disaster as the Cherokee nation and the Ottoman empire to experience news of suffering in time to do something about it.  I think that Reichl is right - that the rapidity with which we know about something means that we are forced to make quicker and quicker decisions about what we can do.

But I wonder too how that quickness-of-knowing affects the aid environment.  I am absolutely no expert in contemporary humanitarianism, in the running and mechanisms of aid groups or not-for-profits, or on the mechanics of getting aid to the people who need it most.  But it seems to me that since we now have the technology to make everyone a commentator on every crisis (that receives a certain degree of media attention - and that certainly means that many, many are ignored) information might get muddled.  The many stories about the state of Japan's nuclear reactors circulating on twitter in the wake of the earthquake alone seem to point to an information environment in which rumors and facts become intertwined and confused as quickly as it takes someone to write them.  I am again (as I so often am) reminded of my own research, about the many and conflicting ideas about how to save the potato crop, from soaking the plants in lye to coating them in guano, that we know in retrospect were terribly wrong, and likely detrimental, but which were presented with authority in major newspapers because someone of note had speculated at some point that they might work.

So I guess my question is: is there a way to balance widely available and accessible sources of information (and abilities to share information) with some kind of factual "truth?"  Put another way (since that last sentence wasn't entirely clear) what do we gain and loose, in a crisis, from hundreds, thousands, millions of competing stories, some of which will necessarily be right and some wrong?  What do we gain and loose by limiting narratives to those that are "correct"?  I am inclined to err on the side of greater freedoms - both to produce and to consume information - but I do wonder how those freedoms play out in crises and disasters.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Childhood favourites and disappointment

Last night was one for retro-relaxation.  After spending the day tying up loose ends on various projects - and getting excited about the issue of Early American Studies that I'm a co-guest editor for - I went home to my Corkonian flat, caught the tail end of The Spy Who Loved Me and put on Back to the Future while making dinner.  Now, I love James Bond, but in order to watch any of the older stuff, and a good portion of the newer movies, I have to suppress the desire to yell at the t.v. about sexism.  Part of watching Bond movies is knowing, and to some degree accepting, that the women will be at best one-dimensional, that there will be at least one point when Bond demands, and promptly receives romantic attention from some woman just 'cause he's Bond, and that I will probably come to the conclusion, at the end of the movie, that the writers/directors/other people associated with making it did not have much regard for women.

This is the Bond contract.  I do not have a similar mental arrangement with the Back to the Future trilogy, because most of what have retained from watching the movies as a kid is something like: time travel is cool!  Christopher Lloyd is cooky!  Hoverboards!  But watching last night I was kind of shocked by the degree to which the first movie, at least, turns on a unilateral idea of what gendered relationships ought look like.  In the first, less desirable reality the McFly family is lower-middle class, the mother drinks and is (horrors!) not thin, the sister can't get a boyfriend, and the father is a doormat for The Bully.  We learn that the backstory behind this scenario is that the dad (George) fell out of a tree while spying on naked girls, and that the mom (Loraine) rescues him, decides she loves him, and marries him.  After Marty goes back in time and convinces his dad to be more assertive, which includes rescuing Loraine from attempted rape at the hands of Biff (The Bully), and forcibly removing Loraine from the arms of another man at the dance, the future is better, shinier, richer, and for Loraine, thinner.  So, a message to take home from Back to the Future: passive man+assertive woman=world in which men are crippled by insecurity and walked all over by everyone, including the women in the family.  Assertive man+passive woman=world where the family is rich, the kids are successful, the mom is thin and the sister has lots of dates.

These aren't surprising gender roles, but a bit dissapointing given my memory of the movie as one of almost universal coolness.  Perhaps the time machine and time traveling dog clouded my recollections.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On living your historical project

The last of the Triangle shirtwasit factory fire victims has been identified.  In the New York Times piece on the final victims, it was revealed that the man responsible for identifying them, Michael Hirsch "became obsessed with learning all he could about the victims after he discovered that one of those killed, Lizzie Adler, a 24-year-old greenhorn from Romania, had lived on his block in the East Village."

I often think that I am luck to live in one of the places that I am writing about.  This is not a luxury allowed to all historians, and might not matter to many, but because much of the work I do is trying to figure out how people responded to a certain set of facts, framed in a certain way, at a particular time, I think a lot about how physical space impacts perceptions of what's read, and what's written.
National Library of Ireland, Interior.  It looks much the same today,
only with more women, more laptops and fewer moustaches.

In New York, hints of the city's past come through in small but unmissable ways.  The New York Public Library feels timeless, insofar as when I am in the Rose reading room, I can look up and imagine the room filled with all of the people from previous times who studied there.  However, New York has expanded so much since my period (1840s and 1850s) that you have to look hard to see the roots of that city.  The smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island is a bit late, but evocative of a time of medical paranoia about foreign populations.  The Merchant's House Museum and the Tenement Museum attempt to resurrect the past, but much of 19th century New York is buried under or obliterated by later incarnations of the city.

In Dublin, the project is somewhat easier.  The reading room at the National Library of Ireland has a similar feel, and not only because the library gift shop likes to remind people that in ye olde (and apparently entirely masculine) times, the library was there.
Postcard of UCC (then Queen's College) c. 1900

At the moment, I'm resident in Cork, a city, unlike New York, that feels old.  The chapter I'm currently writing is about Corkonians' reactions to the famine, and the intersection between their visercal experiences of starving (either personally or through the bodies of the dying in the streets and surrounding towns) and the experience of reading about that suffering in the press.  Cork City's nineteenth-century architectural memories are literally laid bare - few  Celtic-tiger construction projects here to obscure the city's most recent expansion, with the building of the University in the 1840s.    So, faced with a walk home past Victorian and Edwardian row houses, much time spent in a truly Victorian university, it becomes easier and easier to find myself trying to imagine what those 19th century Corkonians thought when they read about "another death by starvation in Skibereen" or of the hundreds of deaths at the Cork workhouse.  The sons of the better off of Cork and its surrounding environs were exactly the kind of people who would be expected to donate to local relief efforts.  Some of them, even, might have been the sons of the much-maligned landlords who expected rents when their tenants had no food to eat, let alone to sell.

Living here makes me want to try harder to imagine their experiences, to make like Simon Morley from Time and Again and by trying hard enough to imagine the past, actually having access to it, for even a brief moment.  But that is a romantic view of history.  I hope, in my time here, to travel to some of the oft-mentioned places in the Cork newspaper articles on the famine - I hope also to continue thinking about the ways in which the place of our writing impacts the way we (I, at least) think about my subject.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Quick note on the Irish election

I was watching the party leaders debates on TG4 last night (as Gaeilge!) and was struck by two things.
  1. The fetishization of Irish land that all of the major party leaders express (Sinn Fein was not represented - Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour were the only debaters) strikes me as very similar to the way that land was talked about during the famine.  If only (leaders at both times said) Irish land could be maximized, the current economic problems would either go away or be largely mitigated.  I can't think of a time (and I'll admit, my recall of early modern or even pre-1800 Irish history isn't as good as it could be) when Ireland has reached this magical maximization of land use.  I wonder if its not something that's easy to invoke, because of its misty-far-off possibility.  
  2. American tourism is another big key to saving the Irish economy.  As an American, I don't believe I've ever heard the actions of another country invoked as a significant column of any kind of reform.  Perhaps immigration, but even then the American debate is about what Americans can do to defend the border, not what Americans can convince Mexicans and Other Dangerous People (tm) from entering the country illegally.
Also, Enda Kenny is pro-puppy.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Monasticism paying off

Ireland, surprisingly, is rather wet and cold.  All to the good, as I am in no way tempted to go outside and do anything.  I have been playing around with IBM Manyeyes, a data vizualization program that requires users to make their datasets public, but is quite robust and doesn't require learning R, or SPSS or python.  I became interested in social network analysis after an AHA panel on the topic, and because as a part of my research I've been tracking what newspapers or authorities are cited as part of articles relating to the famine.  I am generally interested in what sources get cited again and again, by a number of papers, because that might indicate the 'power' of some narratives about the famine (where power=repetition) over others.  The London Times Irish commissioner, for example, is frequently cited by newspapers from Britain, Ireland and America, while the Dublin Evening Mail is frequently cited by rural Irish papers, and only occasionally by other papers.  It is my impression, from reading these papers, that the Cork Examiner and Cork Constitution are frequently used, but only as cited gobbets, among many block quotations from provincial Irish newspapers.
At any rate, network analysis gives me a visual means of testing these assumptions, and is also, for a more data-y History nerd, just fun.

So, anyway, here's the first stab at my citation analysis.  I've not yet tabulated all of the references from the Indian papers or any of the New York or Cork ones, so this is mostly the British papers. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


On Friday, I am headed to Ireland for four months.  The purpose of the trip is to fill in the cracks in the research I've already done, and hopefully get two chapters written in the process.  I've packed my computer, my ipod, my ipad and some DVDs.  I am somewhat upset that I can't bring the small-terror-that-is-called-dog.

What is essential for your research trips?  What have you packed that you've regretted?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Gem from the archives

Nineteenth-century headlines are occasionally wonderfully understated.  Take "Conflict between a man and a Wolf" published in the Cherokee Advocate of December 9th, 1847.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A quick note about sexism, psychology, activism and history

So, my father happens to be a psychologist, and because of this, I happen to be more aware of trends in psychology than I might otherwise be.  Over dinner tonight, we were talking about institutional sexism, and I was pointed towards a few articles that seem to echo many of the claims made by gender theorists about how gender effects perceptions of individuals' social value and utility.  One argues that among men who demonstrate some gender bias, sexist jokes were more likely than not to prime listeners to discriminate against women - in this study discrimination was measured by inclination to fund charities that benefited women. (More than "just a joke"...)  The other uses social psychology tools to make an argument for why things that are gendered female are valued less  than things that are gendered male. (Glick and Fiske in Revisioning Gender.)  I am still working my way through these, but on first blush they seem to confirm a lot of what gender theorists (and others) have been saying about perceptions of gender norms and discrimination.

The contention that "sex is the primary category by which people automatically classify others" (Glick, Fiske) seems a lot like the claim that we need to think about issues of gender when pursuing projects of social justice, to think about how gender intersects with other categories (race, class, age), how the negatives in those categories are feminized or masculaized and how that gendering denotes value.  For instance - women who exhibit aggressive behavior "are penalized for being successful in domains that are considered to be male, and are disliked and interpersonally derogated as a consequence." (Madeline Heilman, Sex bias in work settings project description) Similarly, the notion that sexist jokes are bad for perceptions of and reactions to women is a common-place assertion for people (wonderfully demonstrated in many ways at Shakesville) who talk about rape culture and how it is perpetuated.  In fact, a lot of what psychologists of gender are saying seems to sync with what activists and gender theorists have been saying for awhile.

At the AHA before last, at a panel on the history of emotion, the suggestion was floated that historians and psychologists might benefit from working with one another.  I think that we might add activists to the mix, both to give us more tools to de-center the oft-poorly-reported evo-psych stories that perpetuate tired gender stereotypes without much cause, but also as a means of connecting the people who are approaching the same problems from different perspectives.  This is not, by the way, an argument for "science justifies arguments that other people have been making for awhile, but only with the addition of science are those arguments valid."  Also, the discussion of how certain disciplines are valued and gendered is an important one, but for another day.  I know that my work has  benefited from social scientific and psychological work on philanthropy and social obligation, and this brief foray into psychological studies of gender suggests the same is true for other fields as well.   Perhaps this is already happening - in which case, I'd love to hear about interdisciplinarity in action, but if it's not I think we (wearing my academic hat) need to make a better effort.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Gem from the archives

There's almost never a "dear diary, here's how I feel about [Anelise's dissertation topic]" source, but its nice to find things that come close:
Returns are still coming in from all parts of the country, showing that the spirit of benevolence is as general as the information (thanks to the American newspaper press,) respecting the distress of our transatlantic brethren.  New York Herald, March 11th, 1847

Friday, January 21, 2011

Gem from the archives

The New York newspapers in late 1846/early 1847 seem very interested in the case of the "female Lothario in Canada," a woman who dressed like a man in order to seduce women.  The New York Herald comments that "there is something strange and romantic about the practice of two ladies making love to each other."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Gem from the archives

From the Arkansas Intelligencer of February 21, 1846:
"England and Scotland for ages were rival kingdoms, inhabited by distinct tribes of men, the former loyal to the sovering and the latter ready upon all occasions to quarrel with power and war with unkilted neighbors."
 It's true: the kilts made all the difference.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The history project - or - what are we doing?

Tenured Radical has an excellent post reviewing Gordon Wood's review of Jill Lepore's The Whites of their Eyes: the tea party's revolution and the battle over American history.  Among the very smart things that she says about women's voices and authority in the academy and historical fundamentalism, she says this:
the point of Lepore's book, as I understand it, is that history is a highly public project whether we scholars like it or not.  It cannot be confined to the archival work, truth seeking and critical methods that we historians see as fundamental to our craft, and we have some responsibility to grapple with and shape those larger belief systems.  As the public latches on to history as a way of discussing their political concerns, they develop fetish objects.  For the Tea Party activists in particular, the Founding Fathers operate as fetish objects, as well as intellectual touchstones for a set of political beliefs that are at least as presentist as they are located in any coherent eighteenth century intellectual world.
In light of recent and not-so-recent attacks on the humanities, and history in particular as politically motivated drek by people in ivory towers, I think that it is important to talk about the "highly public" side of history, and the links between that, research and teaching.  In particular, I've been thinking about how, as a teacher of undergraduates, I can connect history's "highly public project" with the content in my classroom, without reifying what TR calls historical fetish objects, while providing students with skills that they can use beyond the U.S. survey.

One of the teaching pedagogy panels at the AHA that really struck me talked about how, at the survey level at least, it might behoove teachers to focus more on analytical skills than narrative, that being able to place a source in a historically specific setting, to make arguments about the motivations of the author and the possible responses of the audience, will be a longer-lasting lesson than the battles of WWI.  I don't think that it needs to be one or the other, but in my classes I am going to try to think more critically about historical skill sets that better equip students to engage with history vis-a-vis larger belief systems, like founding father fundamentalism.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

From the AHA

I was at the AHA in Boston this weekend, and was able to meet/talk to/listen to a lot of people who are doing really innovative things in historical research and teaching.  I like to treat big conferences like this as an opportunity to think about methods, more than about new findings or interpretations, and the AHA planning committee made this particularly easy by including many many panels on teaching and pedagogy.  I am still sifting through all that I heard from those, and a whole other chunk of my brain is devoted to parsing what I saw on social network theory, so some more in-depth thoughts on both of those will come later.  I do want to play around with some ideas that came out of the coincidence of those teaching panels, some others on the uses of narrative and "reading against the grain" in historical scholarship, and a video podcast walking tour that I stumbled across while looking for something to do in Boston over a particularly long lunch break.

Murder on Beacon Hill is both an iphone app and video podcast, made by the creators of the documentary Murder at Harvard, which is about the murder of George Parkman by John Webster, a Harvard doctor.  The murder and subsequent trial have turned up a lot in my own research, because they were widely reported in both the New York and the Cherokee press in 1849-50.  I had idly wondered who this Webster was that papers kept referencing, but I put it largely out of my mind because the case seemed to have no relevance to Irish famine reportage and relief.  I am a big fan of podcasted walking tours, and also of murder mysteries, and I was trebley happy to find that this particular podcast was dedicated to a relatively un-remembered event that I happened to be familiar with. 

But I think that this thing (podcast, art piece, cultural artifact - I'm not really sure what to call it) also connects in interesting ways with the panels on teaching I'd been attending in the past few days.  It's creator, Eric Strange, says that he was compelled to make it because
People have told us they now understand connections become the geography of the area and the cultural history, and between the architecture and the social and political climate of 1850s Boston, that they never realized before.  All because of a 45-minute walk.  We want people to take the tour and afterwards never see the streets and buildings the same way again.  I think we achieved that. (Interview with history news network)
A lot of what I try to do as a teacher is to help students to never see the events of the past, or what follows them in the present the same way again.  I don't mean that in a radical way, but in my ideal world, students who leave my classroom after, say, an intro to British imperial history class will pause when they hear about sectarian violence in Pakistan, and remember what they learnt about the historical circumstances that lead up to that event.  Although at its most basic we might think about Murder on Beacon Hill as entertainment, salacious and murderful at that, it makes me think about alternative approaches to teaching, and the incorporation of the oft-ballyhooed "digital humanities" into the classroom.  Even more so, about the nature of the "classroom" itself.  I am teaching a class on natural disasters in America this summer, and I am trying to find ways to get students out of the physically inscribed space of the classroom, and into the world in which historical events have happened.  It might be worthwhile to think about how to trouble the boundary between academic space and the "real world," and if troubling that boundary can serve students well by connecting the often dry text of their readings with tangible lives.  C and I are going to play around with the idea of creating an interactive tour of New York this summer - we'll see how that goes.