Category Archives: our thing

January 3, 2014, 4:34 am

Introduction: The Leading Edge

Just in time for the American Historical Association meeting (or #AHA2014 as the cool twitter kids have it) I’m starting a new feature on this blog. Modeled after John Scalzi’s “Big Idea” pieces, this series will give historians a chance to submit a piece about their current project – dissertation, book, etc. – and have that piece run in front of a wider audience. They can use the slot to talk about what they’re working on, why they think it’s important and interesting, and how it fits into the larger historiography.

The project doesn’t have to be complete/published/contracted but it should be reasonably far along and substantially well developed. The closer to it being in some tangible form, the more people are going to be able to do (buy, read, etc) with it. The Chronicle gets seen by a lot of people, and Edge by some fraction of that, so it’s a pretty sizable audience to parade…

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June 10, 2013, 2:31 pm

A Crisis in the Humanities?

(Guest post! Ben Schmidt is the visiting graduate fellow at the Cultural Observatory at Harvard, and a graduate student in history at Princeton University. His research is in intellectual and cultural history and the use of computational techniques for historical research. He writes about digital humanities on the blog Sapping Attention. Beginning fall 2013, he will be an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University. He blogs at Sapping Attention. I’m glad to have him here to give his analysis of the crisis in the humanities. Thanks, Ben!).

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about falling enrollments in the humanities disciplines. The news hook is a Harvard report about declining enrollments in the humanities; the moral they draw is that humanities enrollments are collapsing because the degrees don’t immediately lend themselves to post-graduate jobs….

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August 1, 2012, 1:07 pm

Gore Vidal: pretty good historian, and a great character in US history.

I read Henry Adams before I read Gore Vidal, but I liked Vidal better. Both were funny, but only Vidal was having fun. Which is not something everyone understands, that you can have great fun at the apocalypse. It was perhaps his least American trait.

A critic complained about the versions of Henry Adams and Henry James that Vidal made up. Vidal responded, but they made me up. He shared with Adams an apparent sense that American politics ought to have belonged to him, and as it didn’t, American history would. As motives to write history go, it isn’t the worst. He knew that the affairs of the republic were run by a small group of people who wanted to protect its property. He judged each faction of the group more or less by its tendency to agree with him.

In consequence, he had mixed feelings about FDR, who employed his father and disagreed with his grandfather; he held enduringly…

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June 18, 2012, 5:18 pm

FDR: not the antichrist.

(Another in an irregularly produced series)

THE ARTICLE
Matthew Avery Sutton, “Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth
of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age,” Journal of American History 98, no. 4 (March 2012): 1052-1074.

A NONTRIVIAL QUESTION RAISED
When and why did white evangelical Christians, or fundamentalists, become categorically opposed to American liberalism?

DISCUSSION
There is a journalistic rule that all headlines that ask questions are properly answered “no,” and this article is no exception; even to white evangelical Christians, it turns out, FDR was not the antichrist. According to Sutton, they thought he was moving in that direction, though.

This article fits in with the discovery that modern conservatism predates not only the alleged overreach of liberalism in the 1960s or early 1970s, but also World War II. As Sutton says, “As the actions of…

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June 11, 2012, 4:39 pm

“The real meaning of academic freedom.”

On Friday, UC Davis Provost Ralph Hexter issued this statement on academic freedom:

In March, 1953 the Association of American Universities (AAU) adopted a statement articulating “The Rights and Responsibilities of Universities and Their Faculties.” It includes these words: “A university must … be hospitable to an infinite variety of skills and viewpoints, relying upon open competition among them as the surest safeguard of truth. Its whole spirit requires investigation, criticism, and presentation of ideas in an atmosphere of freedom and mutual confidence. This is the real meaning of ‘academic’ freedom.”

A committee of our campus’s Academic Senate has devoted considerable time and effort to examining an assertion by a faculty member of the UC Davis School of Medicine that his academic freedoms were compromised by school administrators. Our Senate’s Representative Assembly earlier…

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May 25, 2012, 12:53 pm

My new course will be titled “US History: The Awesomeness of Awesome Americans.”

Updated to add, “Hello, Paul Krugman readers!”1

“A Crisis of Competence,” which bills itself as “A Report Prepared for the Regents of the University of California by the California Association of Scholars, A Division of the National Association of Scholars,” (hereafter CAS, for short) has garnered a great deal of attention. It was, apparently, the basis for Rick Santorum’s laughably false claims that California’s universities do not teach US history – though to be fair to the report, Santorum evidently misunderstood what was in it. It was the subject of an April 1 news story (no, not an April Fool’s) in the Los Angeles Times. And it was the basis for a May 20 op-ed in the LA Times. To be fair to the LA Times, its own editorial, on April 7, was skeptical of the report, describing it as “a mélange of anecdotes.”

This is correct: the paper’s methodology is highly suspect,…

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May 11, 2012, 4:35 am

Universitas 21 ranks US no. 1 in higher ed – on some counts.

Universitas 21, which is “an international network of 23 [sic] leading research-intensive universities in fifteen countries,” says:

Overall, the top five countries, nominally providing the ‘best’ higher education were found to be the United States, Sweden, Canada, Finland and Denmark. However, broken down into the smaller sections, it was interesting to see that the US, traditionally seen as a country with one of the strongest education systems, did not always hit the top spot. Government funding of higher education as a percentage of GDP is highest in Finland, Norway and Denmark. Taking private expenditure into account changed this significantly: on that measure funding is highest in the United States, South Korea, Canada and Chile, unsurprising, given the structure in these counties.

Some other interesting findings showed that investment in Research and Development is highest…

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April 13, 2012, 6:06 am

Stories and the survey

When you teach a survey course, you make choices about what to emphasize, what to leave out and what your narrative or analytical through-line for the course will be. For example, for the introduction to US history since 1865, I emphasize the relation between sectionalism and the growth of federal power.

But for lecture you can’t just do a piece of that analytical narrative every time – that would be monotonous. So to change pace and liven things up, you have certain stories you like to tell, even if they slow the insistent forward motion of survey lectures. You say, maybe, here’s a story that helps to illustrate the themes I’ve been laying out; something with a little finer grain to let us see how these issues play out in individual lives.

For example, I use the murder of William McKinley (not surprising, I suppose), the Warren Court and the Brown case; Robert F. Kennedy’s appearance…

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April 4, 2012, 5:14 pm

“Hmm. At UC Davis you get an F if you’re not gay.”

April 2, 2012, 7:06 pm

Whatever else is in Rick Santorum, the truth about California universities isn’t.

Rick Santorum:

I was just reading something last night from the state of California. And that the California universities – I think it’s seven or eight of the California system of universities don’t even teach an American history course. It’s not even available to be taught. Just to tell you how bad it’s gotten in this country, where we’re trying to disconnect the American people from the roots of who we are, so they have an understanding of what America should be.

I suppose that narrowly speaking, he might not be lying: he might have read “something … from the state of California” that said this. That something might of course have been scrawled in green crayon on a crumpled paper bag.

But there is certainly no substantial truth in this statement, especially the notion that either of the “California system[s] of universities” is “trying to disconnect the American people…

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March 29, 2012, 6:18 am

Good-bye, higher education.

USA Today hed reads, “Higher education vanishing before our eyes”.

Even with top grades and extracurricular activities, students may find it difficult to gain acceptance to or graduate from a four-year university after recent cuts to higher education budgets.

The month of March has been particularly bad for colleges and universities nationwide, as budget negotiations have left many institutions of higher education in the red.…

California’s State University (CSU) system announced Monday that they would close the admission process for nearly all of its 23 campuses for the Spring 2013 semester, affecting almost 16,000 students wishing to attend.

In addition, every student applying for the 2013-2014 school year will be waitlisted while officials await Gov. Brown’s proposed budget initiative to increase taxes in November. If the measure is defeated, officials will be forced to cut…

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March 23, 2012, 6:09 am

A day in the archives.

- Hi, sorry to bother you, but could you please help me? I’m confused … the description of this collection says it has 44 boxes but then there are only 20 boxes listed.
- Hmm. Let me look at that for you … [clickety clickety clickety … pad pad pad … murmur murmur murmur … stride stride stride] Yes, that’s correct. There are 44 boxes, but 24 are uncatalogued.
- [heart sinking; the catalogued 20 are from a period completely irrelevant to your topic] Would it be possible for me still to see them please?
- [pad pad pad … murmur murmur murmur … stride stride stride] Yes, though you should know that once we catalogue them the box number may change.
- [calls boxes … boxes begin to arrive … begins looking]

On the one hand, this is terribly frustrating: you’ve no idea what you will get. On the other, it’s wonderful: you’ve no idea what you will get. There are papers in…

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March 17, 2012, 10:29 am

We could sell a lot of shirts.

Someday, perhaps someday soon, The Very Last Edited Collection of Essays will roll off a university press.

For years historians have been told that There Will Be No More, because they don’t make money. When one goes to a small conference, the organizers always say, “we would like to get an edited collection out of this, but the publishers we’ve spoken to say they aren’t doing them anymore.”

For a long time, putting out an edited collection was a good way of defining a new subfield – of saying, not only am I toiling in these weeds, but so also are a dozen other promising scholars. Or of redefining an existing subfield, of saying, brave new work is still happening here. Or, very occasionally, they essay a redefinition of the field itself. Or of course they collect the short works of a major historian.

I have a number of these collections on my shelves. The ones I reach for, repeatedly,…

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March 11, 2012, 3:49 pm

Why is tuition rising?

It troubled me when President Obama scoldingly said, “We’re putting colleges on notice: you can’t assume that you’ll just jack up tuition every single year”. The UC has raised tuition, but it hasn’t been on its own initiative; it’s been because the state has cut funding to higher education.

Now Robert Frank riffs on Obama’s comment, attributing rising tuition to rising faculty salaries.

To recruit professors, universities must pay salaries roughly in line with those made possible by productivity growth in other sectors. So while rising salaries needn’t lead to higher prices in many industries, they do in academia and many other service industries.

As they say about the International Jewish-Zionist Monetary Conspiracy, if there is one I want my share.1 I don’t think rising faculty salaries are the primary cause of increasing tuition costs.

Frank’s colleague Ronald Ehrenberg …

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March 5, 2012, 11:15 am

Historians and Wikipedia.

If you’ve ever wondered to yourself why I don’t edit, say, the Keynesian section on the New Deal on Wikipedia, you might want to look into the now much-covered story of Timothy Messer-Kruse’s valiant effort to get Haymarket treated properly. (We have previously drawn on Messer-Kruse’s excellent work here.)

To be clear, this is, if not quite laziness on my part, then simply a prioritizing of time and energy. I believe in what Messer-Kruse is doing and I wish him greatest success.