Finishing a Book: Ditch the Ego, Act on the Criticism, Pick the Hills to Die On

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Philip White

Well, I’ve done it, and I’m pretty pleased with myself. I finally finished the remaining three chapters of my next book. Well, kinda. In fact, what I really did was send the rest of the first draft to the two generous souls who are reviewing my manuscript.

Now for the fun part. And by fun, I mean death-to-the-ego-and-all-my-hopes-and-dreams. Unfortunately for me, some editors just want to watch the world burn.

You see, soon enough my inbox will light up with e-mails, containing page after page of edit afflicted prose. And with each new comment, redline and question, I will die a little. Or at least my ego will.

In a perfect, pain-free world, writers could just churn out a bunch of words, revise them ourselves and then fling them out to the unsuspecting public. Oh, wait, we can. I keep forgetting about self-publishing.

But alas, those of us who go the traditional route of talking an academic or trade press into publishing our portable monuments to how smart we think we are, are resigned to several months of editorial torture that we willingly brought upon ourselves.

Here are a few tips to get you through the process:

Accept That You’re Too Close

The trouble with you editing, re-editing, and re-re-editing your manuscript is that you’re wed to it. You breathe it. It wakes you up at odd times of the night, then scolds you for forgetting to put your tablet/notepad & pen beside the bed, you clot. No matter how objective you think you’re being, believe me, you’re not. That’s why you asked those poor saps to read it through with a wary eye and a warning finger before you subjected your editor to the horrors of a hundred thousand unbalanced, repeated, bloated words.

Don’t Take It Personally

What an awful subhead. Sorry. But it’s true – when your reviewers, editor and copy editor are poking holes in your work, they’re not doing it because they hate you, because you’re a talentless hack, or because they want you to refrain from ever inflicting so much as another syllable upon the world. Think about it. They’re trying to take your manuscript and HELP you refine it into a great book. Let them do it.

Pick a Hill to Die On (or 2)

At the risk of contradicting and invalidating my previous point, there are a couple of sections in your book that are special. Trouble is, only you know why. Your editor has likely left a line of five question marks with some nice squiggly lines alongside the paragraphs in question, and when you see them, here of all places, you want to take your MacBook and launch it out the window. Then run downstairs and go all Office Space on it, just in case. This will cost you at least a grand for the computer, plus another few hundred for the window, so don’t do that. But do choose a couple of these areas and cling onto them like you’re defending your hilltop castle from a horde of murderous invaders.

Pace Yourself

Assuming your reviewers and later, your editor, have kindly blessed you with a few weeks to respond to their comments and edits, please take your bloody time. It’s tempting to put in those too-expensive noise cancelling earbuds, down a few double espressos and rattle through the entire manuscript in a red-eyed, heart-hurting weekend. Why do that to yourself? (says the hypocrite who did exactly that with his last book). Last time I checked, the fastest man alive can only go at top speed for 9.58 seconds. Take the time you’ve been given and, if you feel you need it, ask for a couple of extra days. You’ve put in hundreds, nay, thousands of hours into research, writing, oral history interviews, fact-checking and all the rest, so why not close this thing out properly? You’ll regret it later if you rush, right about the time that some miserable reviewer with horns, a goatee and nothing but bitterness in their heart faults you for that silly mistake on page 353.

Good night, and good luck.

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Summertime Hiatus

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During our short break, have a look at these summer-related posts.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012
The Battle of Antietam and War Photography
Heather Cox Richardson

One hundred and fifty years ago this weekend, 75,000 Union and about 38,000 Confederate troops massed near Sharpsburg, Maryland. One hundred and fifty years ago on Monday morning, a clear fall day, September 17, 1862, the two armies engaged. The ensuing battle of Antietam remains the bloodiest one-day battle in American history.>>>

Tuesday, August 16, 2011
School’s Back From Summer: Blogging about Teaching
Edward J. Blum

Well, it’s about that time, that delightful and dreadful moment when classes begin again. Unless you are privileged to have a sabbatical or be on fellowship (cough, cough, Matt Sutton you lucky duck, cough, cough), the end of August is when the kids come back and time flies away. Alas, school’s back from summer!>>>

Thursday, July 7, 2011
Summer Fiction Reading
Randall Stephens

Have you noticed all the newspaper and magazine articles on summer reading? Can you take your iPad, Kindle, or Nook to the beach? (Someone must have invented a waterproof case already.)>>>

Thursday, July 15, 2010
Dog History Days of Summer
Randall Stephens

Lately I've been on some history walking tours of Boston, accompanied by my dog, Beatrice. She's a border collie. Very smart.>>>

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Tom Watson Brown Book Prize, Society of Civil War Historians

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The Society of Civil War Historians is soliciting nominations for the Tom Watson Brown Book Prize for books published in 2013.

All genres of scholarship on the causes, conduct, and effects, broadly defined, of the Civil War are eligible. This includes, but is not exclusive to, monographs, synthetic works presenting original interpretations, and biographies. Works of fiction, poetry, anthologies, and textbooks will not be considered. Jurors will consider nominated works’ scholarly and literary merit as well as the extent to which they make original contributions to our understanding of the period.

Thavolia Glymph, Associate Professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University, will chair the prize jury. The other members are Alice Fahs, Professor of History and Director of the Humanities Honors Program at the University of California – Irvine, and Kenneth Noe, Alumni Professor and Draughon Professor of Southern History at Auburn University. Tad Brown, President of the Watson-Brown Foundation, Inc., will serve as a non-voting member of the jury.

Publishers are asked to send nominated books (only those published in 2013 will be considered) directly to the four jurors no later than January 31, 2014. The winner will be announced by August 1, 2014. The award will be presented at the SCWH banquet at the Southern Historical Association meeting, where the winner will deliver a formal address that will be published in a subsequent issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era. 

More information>>>

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Mothers in the Academy: How to Do It All*

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Heather Cox Richardson

Well, first you need a good household staff.


OK, now that we’ve got the hilarity out of the way, how really can mothers take on teaching, research and writing, and children—three incredibly labor-intensive jobs—at the same time?

Let’s start with teaching. Here are a few things I picked up along the way, largely by the seat of my pants as I jumped into a job when my first child (of three) was just shy of three months old. Nothing I learned was intentional, but some of it has stood me in good stead.

The key concept for enabling mothers to survive in the academy is efficiency. And here are some things that helped me to achieve it:

Teach big courses with a wide scope. That sounds counterintuitive, I know. Most people think it takes less energy for junior scholars—and most people with small children will be junior scholars—to teach smaller classes in their specialty. The problem with such specific classes is that they tend to be under enrolled, which means you will constantly have to come up with new courses to keep your numbers up. Repeatedly writing courses from scratch is a huge time-sink.

The initial time investment for writing a survey course is undoubtedly large, but it’s a one-time thing. From there, if you need to, you can pivot that material into a number of other classes. (My History of the American West stands alone, but has also spawned Race, Riots, and Rodeos, as well as The Plains Indians.) But the chances are good you won’t need to. Surveys tend to fill every semester. So do other sweeping courses that cover large periods, major events, important themes, and so on. Yearly tweaking will be enough to keep the courses up-to-date and interesting until you have the time to invest in creating new ones.

Another way to teach efficiently is to use grading rubrics. Instead of writing line-by-line comments on essays and exams—which takes forever—develop your own set of categories that you will evaluate. I grade essays with six categories: thesis, argument, style, evidence, grammar, errors, and overall. Under those categories, I write anything from a line to a paragraph about what worked and what didn’t.

You could, of course, break down your rubrics even further.

This takes about a third as long as my old style of line-by-line comments, and students love it. I started it not to save time, but because I read an education study showing that students were overwhelmed by unorganized comments and learned very little from them. So I gritted my teeth and tried a rubric. The first time I did it, grading took so much less time than usual I felt like I was cheating, but that year I got the best student reviews I’d ever gotten for my essay comments. In this case, it appears that less really is more.

I did both of these things for reasons that had nothing to do with mothering, but they ended up being very helpful ways to organize my teaching time most efficiently. They also were great for my own research, but that will be a different post.

*I’m writing another post on the theoretical argument behind this series of posts. Until then, once again, I am defining “mothers” as a different mindset, not as a biological identification.

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Forum on Labor and Civil Liberties in the June 2013 Issue of the Journal of the Historical Society

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Randall Stephens

The latest issue of the Journal of the Historical Society should be in mailboxes and on the shelves of libraries now.  The June 2013 issue features a forum on Jennifer Luff's 2012 UNC Press book Commonsense Anticommunism: Labor and Civil Liberties between the World Wars. The introduction to the forum notes that: 
Luff finds that during the 1920s and into the '30s, the American Federation of Labor developed a policy position between labor radicalism and state intervention: the AFL's “commonsense anticommunism” promoted voluntarist efforts to curb Communist influence within its unions while also opposing legislation that would outlaw Communist agitation. This position would shift over time, but Luff reveals much about “labor conservatives” that should surprise readers accustomed to the usual popular narrative about the varied strands of the labor movement, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, and American anticommunism. After Luff introduces her work to our readers, we present commentary by a number of scholars: Eric Arnesen of The George Washington University; Jennifer Delton of Skidmore College; Harvey Klehr of Emory University; Judy Kutulas of St. Olaf College; Tony Michels of the University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Steve Rosswurm of Lake Forest College. To conclude the forum, Professor Luff responds to the commentary on her important book.

Luff writes:

I tried to follow the clues that the testimony of John Frey and J. Edgar Hoover gave me. In the end, I came up with Commonsense Anticommunism. The book argues that conservative officials of the American Federation of Labor were the vanguard of American anticommunism in the interwar years. The AFL's antisocialism and ingrained suspicion of state power produced an organic and reflexive opposition to Soviet Communism that pervaded the AFL from the first days of the Bolshevik Revolution. Yet AFL leaders played a paradoxical role, evangelizing against Communism while opposing statutory restrictions on Communist activity, and often clandestinely collaborating with federal repression of Communists while rejecting formal authority for federal repression. In keeping with their longstanding ethos, AFL leaders advocated a voluntarist approach to contain Communism, which relied on private citizens and organizations to identify and repudiate reds in their midst. AFL leaders viewed Communism as an obnoxious but legitimate political movement, not a cultural tendency or a catch-all for all sorts of radicalism, which put them at odds with many other antiradical and patriotic groups in the interwar years. I call their approach “commonsense anticommunism,” and I argue that labor anticommunists were a crucial backstop protecting civil liberties in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Read the rest via the Wiley Online Library here.  Or, subscribe to the journal and Historically Speaking by becoming a member of the Historical Society here.

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Labor History Roundup

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Rebecca J. Rosen, "Augmented-Reality Game Brings a Story of Jewish Labor Organizers Back to Life," Atlantic, June 6 2013

There is a feeling you get when you stand on, say, the ground at Gettysburg or the steps of the Lincoln Monument and you know that something momentous, a piece of history, occurred right on that part of the Earth right beneath your feet.

But what about the history that went down at less noted locations, places that you pass every day on your way to work or when you take your dog out for a walk? It's easy to never see those stories, to relegate them to museums and books, away from the physical locations where they took place. But what if the city itself became our history museum, and its sites bore their pasts more prominently?>>>

Rich Yeselson, "Fortress Unionism: Decades after its passage, the Taft-Hartley Act still casts a shadow on labor. Unions have a future—but only if they accept some difficult realities," Democracy: A Journal of Ideas (Summer 2013)

. . . . With the long decline of the labor movement has come a parallel decline in our historical memory of its once-extraordinary influence, and of the effort to curtail that influence. Books about Truman give only passing mention to the most contentious law passed during his presidency. Taft, the son of a President and a man who might have become President himself, is barely remembered. And it is unimaginable today that a President would give a national address vociferously defending labor unions.>>>

Josh Eidelson and Sarah Jaffe, "Belabored Podcast #9: Who Stole My Wages?" Dissent, June 7, 2013

Uprisings in Turkey and the role of labor unions, international actions targeting McDonald’s, ongoing conflict at Palermo’s Pizza, and an independent organizing campaign at an upscale New York deli. Plus the debut of Belabored Explainers!>>>

"The Desperate Would-be Housewife of New York," Smithsonian, June 13, 2013

In the early evening of January 30, 1857, a middle-aged dentist named Harvey Burdell left his townhouse at 31 Bond Street, a respectable if not truly chic section of Manhattan, and set out for a local hotel. Burdell had recently been taking his dinners there, even though he had a cook on his household staff. His relationship with one of his tenants (and a regular at his table), Emma Cunningham, had become strained. Burdell had accused Cunningham, a 34-year-old widow with four children, of stealing a promissory note from his office safe. She in turn had had Burdell arrested for breach of promise to marry, which was then a criminal offense.>>>

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When is Profanity Justified?

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Maura Jane Farrelly and Chris Beneke

April was an especially cruel month in Boston. It was also a profane one. In the wake of the marathon bombings, the Dominican-born Red Sox slugger David Ortiz dropped an f-bomb before the team’s April 20 game. “This is our f**king city” he declared to an approving roar from the “Boston Strong” crowd.

A week later, a filmed confrontation between Cambridge resident Roger Nicholson and Dan Bidondi, a correspondent for the conspiracy theory website, InfoWars, went viral. At a press conference earlier in the week, Bidondi had implied that law enforcement officials knew about the marathon attacks hours before they happened. Nicholson told Binondi that he was not welcome in Cambridge, where the citizens have “half a f**king brain.” “I don’t care if people think I’m an ***hole,” Nicholson said, “ I’m not saying the FBI blew up innocent people.”

Under ordinary circumstances, both Ortiz and Nicholson might have been censured or fined for their emphatic use of expletives in public space. But less than an hour after “Big Papi” addressed Fenway Park, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski tweeted that all was forgiven. Ortiz, the chairman noted, “spoke from the heart.” Nicholson’s tongue-lashing earned its own kind of public sanction when Nicholson was invited to appear on MSNBC’s Martin Bashir show. Bashir extended a warm welcome to Nicholson and agreed that the idea of government involvement in the Boston bombings is a “risible theory.”

Both events raise a question with which a liberal democracy must occasionally grapple: When is profanity justified?

Forty years ago, near the fractious end of the Vietnam War, these same questions came to a head when the Supreme Court heard the case of Cohen v. California (1971). In a narrow 5-4 decision the Court ruled that Paul Robert Cohen’s t-shirt, imprinted with the phrase “F*** the Draft,” was a form of protected speech. “People bring passion to politics,” Judge Harlan wrote in the majority opinion, “and vulgarity is simply a side effect of a free exchange of ideas—no matter how radical they may be.”

In the 1960s and early 1970s, profanity became a kind of oppositional discourse, a means of expressing firm, unequivocal dissent or of radically reframing mainstream assumptions. What is indecent and obscene, new leftists argued during the 1960s, was not bad language or sex, but violence, bigotry, and poverty. The idea was arresting. And so it remains today.

Of course, profanity is sometimes merely indecent, and sometimes merely titillating. In 1972, a year after the Cohen decision, George Carlin famously enumerated his seven words you can’t say on TV, which walked a fine line between political expression and mere titillation. That line is not always obvious nor defensible.

The politically expressive power of profanity (just like its comic effect) resides in its restricted and selective use. Employed too often and without thought, profanity devolves into coarseness. Liberal democracies require the civil (and yes, decent) language that shields our social interactions, collective endeavors, and commercial enterprises from the unrelenting siren call of the id.

But Ortiz’s f-bomb and Nicholson’s remind us that profanity can sometimes perform an invaluable public service. When pointed and well-conceived, it can bring egregious false-dealers to light or express deeply felt grievances in a poignant way. In other words, it has the capacity to stir us from our collective slumbers.

We just shouldn’t grow too dependent on it.

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Mothers in the Academy

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Heather Cox Richardson

A recent studyshows that having children hurts women in academia at every stage of the profession. This will not be news to any woman who has had to sneak out of a meeting to pick up a child before the daycare fine system kicks in, who has had to explain to an older male colleague that his insistence on scheduling his pet seminar from 4 to 6 guarantees she can never attend no matter how angry it makes him, who has worked all night in the office because search files could not leave the premises and there was no time during the day to get enough time to read them all, and who has heard those chilling words: “You can have tenure or children, but not both.”

There is a push to change the mechanics of university life to address this problem, offering maternity leave to graduate students, for example, and extending tenure clocks for mothers. (More first-floor bathrooms wouldn’t come amiss either, by the way; two flights to a bathroom when you’re eight months pregnant is no picnic.) These steps are important, to be sure. But for historians, even more important to remember is that, by cutting more than half the population from the study of humanity, we are skewing our scholarship so badly it threatens to lose all meaning.

This is not a theoretical argument; it has real-world meaning for the study of history. Having a family—and nurturing it—is crucial for historians. (And this does not seem to me to have to be birth or adopted children, by the way. Investing in community does not require youngsters who actually live in your home.)

Here’s why: history divorced from the real concerns of everyday people is so rarified it is often meaningless. And when it comes to distinguishing important issues from theoretical fancies, there is nothing like having to explain to a five-year-old what mommy is doing. “Mommy is trying to figure out why sometimes white people aren’t very nice to black people,” was my age-appropriate explanation when writing The Death of Reconstruction, and the constant reminder that my discoveries had real-world implications for today that mattered to my kids made it a much stronger book than it would have been had I emphasized instead the theoretical implications of my argument.

Similarly, constant interactions with kids—your own and others—helps you to recognize which of the many issues that grab you is actually of interest to anyone who isn’t bowled over by the beauty of history for its own sake. Kids actually love real stories (which is, after all, what we discover) and chewing over their meaning. But which story you’re telling matters. The general history of mass protests in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s that led to liberation for a number of groups that had previously borne much discrimination . . . not so much. The story that mid-20th-century New York City laws deliberately targeted drag queens by making it a crime to wear articles of clothing associated with the opposite gender; that this forced gays and lesbians to frequent bars owned by the Mafia, which could afford to pay off the police; and that a bunch of well-oiled gays and lesbians had finally had enough when police raided the Stonewall Inn in late June 1969 and took to the streets to demand equal rights . . . that story rings true to young adults. It’s personal. It taps into their own sensitivity about discriminatory rules, and offers not just a lesson about historical change but also the example of people who stood up for their principles.

Your colleagues will happily argue the theoretical implications of mass movements for months. Your students will pretend to listen when you expound on the importance of movement theory. Your non-academic friends will nod as if they’re interested in what you have to say about theory, the same way you pretend to care about the insurance market. But your kids and their friends will always remind you that there’s a reason they are called “theoretical underpinnings.”

The perspective of kids, who are not yet sophisticated enough to pretend interest in anything for appearances’ sake, also helps one’s writing. “How can I explain what I learned today in such a way that it would interest my fifteen-year-old?” is a much better guide to narrative structure than “This is so cool, in all its intricate detail!” I can see the second my kids begin to glaze over as I tell them about a recent discovery, and try to remember that moment of disconnect when my prose gets hijacked by the intricacies of historical events that are so deeply fascinating . . . to me and about three other people.

It’s great to see discussion of the problems of motherhood in academia, but the discussion is hardly new: it was in full swing when my first son was born, twenty-one years ago. While our discussion seems to use more sophisticated words now, the actual world of the academy seems pretty much the same, if not worse than it was in 1992. So how can we actually create change? Part of the problem might well be that the drive to include mothers in the academy tends to focus on how unfair discrimination is to those excluded. That angle is painfully obvious, but it offers nothing to those doing the excluding except the chance to be noble. Evidence suggests that nobility doesn’t interest authorities enough to make much of a difference. But the discipline of history—and, I daresay, all other fields—needs to find a way to keep mothers in academia not so we can pat ourselves on the back for our generosity, but because without them the field runs the risk of becoming so insular it makes itself entirely irrelevant to the real world. It is not a mother’s battle, or even a women’s battle. It is a battle for the relevance of history itself and, as such, should be waged by every historian who thinks our scholarship matters.

Encouraging mothers to stay in the academy might be good for mothers, but it is imperative for the academy.

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Maps and History Roundup

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Stephanie Butnick, "Maps Chart Speech Patterns Across America," Tablet Magazine, June 5, 2013

Today in fun charts: Joshua Katz, a statistics PhD student at N.C. State University put together a series of maps of the United States which reveal the staggering extent to which where we live in influences how we say what we say. Basically, why New Yaw-kers speak differently than, say, Texans. In addition to illustrating the geographic coordinates of the sub/hoagie and soda/pop debates, Katz’s cartographical endeavor plots contentious pronunciation from coast to coast: caramel (where more vowels get dropped the further west you go), crayon (all over the board, literally), and mayonnaise (which I prefer to simply avoid both in speech and practice).>>>

Mickey Mellen, "Historic Overlay Maps of North Carolina," Google Earth Blog, June 3, 2013

Image overlays have consistently been one of the neatest features in Google Earth.  The most common use of overlays is to show imagery that is more fresh than what can be found in Google Earth (such as this one from President Obama’s Inauguration or this one from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico).  However, overlays can also be used to showcase alternate maps such as detailed topography or historical maps like we’ll show you today.>>>

"Library hosts conference, exhibit on historic maps," NECN, May 17, 2013

The Library of Congress is hosting a conference and exhibit about the creator of one of the world's rarest maps. On Friday and Saturday, the library is bringing together scholars to discuss some of the unanswered questions about Martin Waldseemuller's 1507 world map and his other creations and experiments. The library purchased the 1507 map for $10 million in 2009. It was the first map to name "America.">>>

Joey Holleman, "Collection of old maps, engravings, lithographs gets new home on USC campus," Herald online, May 9, 2013

The Arader donation includes about 15,000 natural history watercolors, woodcuts, engravings, lithographs, chromolithographs and maps from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The new donation is so large, two full-time employees will be hired to process and catalog the collection, McNally said.>>>

"LONDON MAP FAIR - June 8 & 9 2013," LondonMapFairs

We exhibit at the historic London venue of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). This event brings together around 40 of the leading national and international antiquarian map dealers as well as hundreds of visiting dealers, collectors, curators and map aficionados from all parts of the world. A very large selection of Original Antique Maps will be available for sale, ranging in age from the 15th C. to the 20th C., covering all parts of the world and priced to suit all pockets: from £10 to £100,000.>>>

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Public Scholarship

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From Puck magazine, 1912.
Benjamin Railton

In the final stages of my work on The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us About America (Palgrave Pivot, June 21, 2013) I found myself struggling with a challenge that I believe faces all of us who seek to produce works of public scholarship. Much of the history on which my book focuses is well known to academic historians, but is (to my mind) almost entirely unknown (if not indeed often misrepresented) within the broader American community.

For example, the first of the three main “lessons” I seek to draw from the Chinese Exclusion Act has to do with the history of legal and illegal immigration, and more exactly with the commonplace phrase “My ancestors came here legally.” Academic historians are likely to know that there were no national immigration laws prior to the 1882 Exclusion Act (or at least its immediate predecessors/starting points such as the Page Act), that prior to 1921 there remained no laws that affected any immigrants not arriving from China or related Asian nations, and that between 1921 and 1965 the quota laws were directly based on ethnic/national discrimination. Yet most Americans have no sense of that history.

So how do we public scholars bridge that gap? How do we produce work that can speak both to academics and general readers? For me, the answer lies, at least in part, in a two-pronged approach: in my Introduction I explicitly address these questions for fellow academics, arguing that we scholars need to do more to bring our shared knowledge to broader public audiences; and then my three main chapters represent case studies in that approach, that is, efforts to write about subjects currently of interest to academic historians in such a way that will also enlighten a broader audience.

As I take the next steps with the project, seeking spaces and conversations where I can share its ideas, I continue to consider these questions, and to work on finding a voice and approach that can speak to different communities. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject and, of course, on the book!

Ben Railton is associate professor of English and coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University. He is the author of Redefining American Identity: From Cabeza de Vaca to Barack Obama (Palgrave Macmillan 2011) and Contesting the Past, Reconstructing the Nation: American Literature and Culture in the Gilded Age, 1876-1893 (University of Alabama Press, 2007). He maintains the daily AmericanStudies blog (

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Vision-Inducing Delphi Fumes Probed

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Part of the mystique surrounding the Oracle of Delphi concerns the possibility that the oracle herself ~ usually referred to as the Pythia ~ inhaled fumes as she described her visions. Recent research shows that the fumes may have existed, and that they likely contained ethylene, creating an effect similar to the experience sought by modern-day “huffers.”
Archeological Odyssey recently published a detailed account of the research, reprinted in Bible History Daily. Here’s an excerpt:
The ancient sources describe two distinct types of prophetic trance experienced by the Pythia. First, and more normally, she would lapse into benign semi-consciousness, during which she remained seated on the tripod, responding to questions—though in a strangely altered voice. According to Plutarch, once the Pythia recovered from this trance, she was in a composed and relaxed state, like a runner after a race. A second kind of trance involved a frenzied delirium characterized by wild movements of the limbs, harsh groaning and inarticulate cries. When the Pythia experienced this delirium, Plutarch reports, she died after only a few days—and a new Pythia took her place. 
According to toxicologist Henry Spiller, both of these symptoms are associated with the inhalation of hydrocarbon gases. Spiller studies the effects of such inhalants on young people, known as “huffers,” who breathe in fumes from gas, glue, paint thinner and other substances because of their intoxicating properties. Perhaps the Pythia too was high on one of these hydrocarbon gases. 
It may even be possible to identify the kind of gas. Plutarch—who, we recall, was a priest of Apollo at the Delphic sanctuary—noted that the intoxicating pneuma had a sweet smell, like expensive perfume. Of the hydrocarbon gases, only ethylene has a sweet smell—so ethylene was probably a component in the gaseous emission inhaled by the Pythia.
Most researchers agree that the Pythia was chosen for her clairvoyant abilities as a trance medium, and that the fumes likely played an auxiliary role in her pronouncements.
Image: Painting of the oracle is by the Hon. John Collier, from 1891.

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Will D. Campbell, 1923 - 2013

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Randall Stephens

I've just heard the sad news that Will D. Campbell--activist, minister, and author--has passed away.  Many who teach southern history or American religious history will be familiar with Campbell's humorous, insightful, page-turners like Brother to a Dragonfly (1977) and Forty Acres and a Goat (1986).  I've used the latter when I've taught the modern South.

Today, the New York Times eulogizes him:

The Rev. Will D. Campbell, a renegade preacher and author who joined the civil rights struggle in the 1950s, quit organized religion and fought injustice with nonviolent protests and a storyteller’s arsenal of autobiographical tales and fictional histories, died on Monday night in Nashville. He was 88. . . .

Followers and friends called Mr. Campbell hilarious, profound, inspiring and apocalyptic, a bourbon-drinking, guitar-picking, down-home country boy who made moonshine and stomped around his Tennessee cabin in cowboy boots and denim uttering streams of sacred and profane commentary that found their way into books, articles, lectures and sermons. Read on>>>

To mark the passing of this remarkable individual, I include an excerpt here from historian and friend Ben Houston's interview with Campbell.  The interview appeared in 2007 in the Journal of Southern Religion, which I was then editing with Bland Whitley:

An Interview with Will D. Campbell

Mississippi-native preacher and civil rights activist Will D. Campbell is a formidable figure. For over fifty years the self-described "preacher without a pulpit" has been stirring the conscience of the South on issues related to social justice, poverty, and race. After receiving an A.B. from Wake Forest College, Campbell earned a B.D. from Yale, where he looked to socially progressive faculty members like Liston Pope and H. Richard Niebuhr for guidance. He served as Director of Religious Life at the University of Mississippi from 1954 to 1956 until he was forced out of that office because of his civil rights work. After this he moved to Nashville where he worked behind the scenes in the sit-in movement. Campbell is a popular speaker and the author of numerous books and articles.  His Brother to a Dragonfly (New York: Seabury Press, 1977) was nominated for the National Book Award and garnered the Lillian Smith Prize. . . .

Benjamin Houston: It is July 1, 2003. I am in the cabin of Will Campbell near Mount Juliet, Tennessee. Reverend Campbell, I know you were born in Mississippi. What was the date?

Will Campbell: July 18, 1924.

Houston: How would you describe 1950's Nashville to me, an outsider both to Nashville and the 1950s?

Campbell: Nashville was deceiving itself. It thought that it was ahead, and it was, ahead of, say, Jackson, Mississippi, or Birmingham or Montgomery and so on, in terms of some leadership that did not want to be embarrassed by being haters and all that. But underneath that, you had some old aristocracy. The old Fugitive movement [a group of poets at Vanderbilt University], for example, was here. That was a racist movement. Actually, Donald Davidson [Vanderbilt professor of English; Fugitive poet, and Southern Agrarian], who was a fine writer, reporter, and others, I thought they had some good ideas when they talked about, you know, throw the radio out the window and take the banjo and the fiddle down off the wall. I thought that was cool. I still do. But, when it happened, why could not Donald Davidson, and I am using him as a prototype, or even others have said to Uncle Dave Macon and the Grand Ole Opry early-timers, say, hey, man, it would be cool, we will go down to the Ryman Auditorium [site of Grand Ole Opry], and you pick your banjo and you sing me mountain songs, and then I will read poetry. And let there be this fusion of folk and university culture. Instead of that, they moved to Belle Meade [a wealthy and exclusive suburb of Nashville] and didn't read anything but one another's [work].  They were embarrassed by the mountain, the rural people, the country music.

Houston: You have acknowledged that there is a distinction between a place like Nashville and Mississippi, and you would credit that with the leadership in the first place and a certain self-image in Nashville?

Campbell: Partly self-image, plus it wasn't as rural. Of course, I grew up in it, so what I say has to be kind of sifted through that sieve of small-farm yeomen culture. We were not on plantations. We did not work with other people, blacks and others. We did the work ourselves. . . . So, it was definitely a different culture from what I had grown up in. . . .

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Humanizing History

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Steven Cromack

When I teach, I deliberately make an effort to connect big history to the personal lives of my students. At the heart of my world history curriculum are three main ideas:

Walker Evans' photo, "In front of 310 East
Sixty-first Street," 1938. Courtesy
of the Library of Congress.
  1. How each individual sees the world matters.
  2. Reality is a construction based on an individual’s worldview.
  3. It is difficult to reconcile an individual’s interests with those of a society.
It is my hope that as we examine history with these ideas in mind, students can begin to think about their existence on a deeper level; that as they go about their daily lives, they have the skills they need to grapple and engage with their world; and that they will learn to face not only their own beliefs and sense of morality, but also those of others. In immersing oneself in the world, the individual turns information into meaningful enlightenment. For, as John Dewey once wrote, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” 

Students in my class examine how ideas and concepts travel from generation to generation and arrive in their own lives. They can see that what drives them to interact with their peers in school—the search for a community, something to which they can belong—resembles what drove immigrants who arrived in the United States in the early 20th century. Does cutting a bad player from a team lead to better performance overall? Stalin rapidly industrialized the Soviet Union and the economy grew 400%. That progress, however, came at the cost of 20 million lives lost to forced labor and mass execution.

Ultimately, what is the value of a human life? Is the life of a Belgian worth more than that of a Congolese? King Leopold certainly thought so based on his European worldview. Is the life of an American worth more than that of an Iraqi? The 9/11 Victim’s Compensation Fund set the value of a life at fifteen times the annual earnings of a person. The average payout to the families of the 9/11 victims was $1.8 million. The United States government writes out a check for $2,500 to those Iraqi families who have lost a loved one from collateral damage.

These are not easy questions, and students have a difficult time grappling with them. Yet, by asking such questions, history becomes more than the study of the past, and more than the progression of events—history becomes a part of everyday existence. History now becomes personal.

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