Monthly Archives: August 2010

Cover the Earth – Early Modern RED!

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A review of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (Winter 2010), “Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color,” 48 pages, by Elena Phipps

Textile history. . .  Yawn, right?  Listen to this excerpt from Elena Phipps,

The same physical qualities that make each textile unique and give it beauty—fiber, dye, weave structure, texture, pattern, and design—also give it historical relevance and locate it in a specific time and place.  Designs that originate in one culture may be adapted to suit other purposes in another.  Some fibers are found only in one particular region; others have been traded across the globe.  Artisans in one area may spin yarns in one direction while their neighbors spin in the opposite.  Each textile thus carries the cultural signature of the people created it.  (2)

Thus, it takes a unique training to be literate in textile history and Phipps provides us with a fascinating translation for red textiles in the Early Modern era.  This quote explains, very neatly, the purpose and relevance of her field to historians.  The quality of fabric, the method of production and the dye all speak to the owner and the manufacturer.  Thus, the excess of sumptuous materials expensively dyed from the court at Versailles is in marked contrast to the attire of the Jacobean revolutionaries, or even that of the French nobility after the revolution.  The quality of a cleric’s clothing, for example, may inform us a great deal about the man’s perspective of his profession or, too, about the wealth of his parish and benefactors.

COCHINEAL RED, The Art History of a Color by Elena Phipps

While textiles have this promise, it is not on such a particular scale that Elena Phipps, the Senior Museum Research Scholar and Conservator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, engages in Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Winter Bulletin, 2010.  In this brief work, she traces the red coloring of the South American cochineal insect, Dactylopius coccus, from its origins in the New World to its eventual spread throughout the globe.  To do this she marshals all the resources of the Metropolitan Museum of Art: three thousand samples were examined using high performance liquid chromatography, X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, surface-enhanced Raman scattering and more, surveying the textiles to establish the red dye used and the material that was dyed.  (3)  By this means, she follows the dye from the New World to the Old World and back to the colonies and Asia.  We are exposed to the political and economic history of European expansion, beginning with the New World.  There is also social history related to the pursuit and distribution of New World products during colonization.  All this made possible through the collaboration of scientists, archaeologists and historians.

Neolithic cave painting from Lascaux, France.

Phipps begins with prehistory, from which time the color red has been difficult to achieve, and thus a valuable and often sacred, hue for human societies. Neolithic cave painters frequently used ocher and other earth materials to create reddish colors.  In Egypt, it was a protective color—Phipps cites The Book of Death and the description of Osiris as “the lord of the red cloth”—and early textile examples are tinted with finely-ground hematite (iron oxide).  (5)  Other options included cinnabar, powdered mercury (mercuric sulfide) red lead and mercury pigments used in both the New World and Old World.  (As Phipps alludes, the toxic nature of these pigmentations is rather poignant for New World cultures that valued human blood above all else and as a sort of currency with the gods, which explains the rituals of human sacrifices.)

The next development, which actually achieves truly red textiles, was to move to the use of animal and plant sources for dye.  For example, the following plants, Madder (Rubia tinctorum), safflower (Carthamus tinctoris) and alkanet (Anchusa tinctoria) were popular in Mesopotamia, Europe and Asia.  (6)

Quick Latin lesson: Rubia tinctorum: Rubia, from the Latin adjective ruber, rubra, rubrum, meaning “red”; tinctorum, from the noun tincta, tinctorum, meaning “dyed cloths, colored stuffs”—related to the verb tingo, tinxi, tinctus, tinctere, meaning “to wet, moisten, dip bathe, imbue; to soak in color, dye, tinge.”  The Madder’s blooms are white (the red coloring is derived from the root) suggesting that the scientific name comes from the practical usage of the plant, for which it was better known, than from its appearance.

In South East Asia, Africa, and South America a purplish red was produced from tropical heartwoods (brazilwood, camwood).  In the Mediterranean, and places under its influence, Tyrian purple was produced from mollusks in the genus Murex and was the color of the wealthy or sacred, producing either a reddish-purple or deep bluish-purple.  Brilliant crimson was achieved only from a group of scale insects of the Coccoidea superfamily—kermes, lac and cochineal.  Middle East examples of the dye from this insect family date back to at least 714 B.C.E. (Assyrians under Sargon II invaded Urartu (Armenia) and acquired access).  (6)

The image shows New World variety of cochineal, male and female, on the right, and being harvested on the cactus on the left.

It was the New World cochineal species, Dactylopius coccus, which yielded the most colorant—further improved by domestication and breeding!  The species feeds on moisture and nutrients from fruit-bearing pear cactus endemic to subtropical Mexico and South America.  While genetics research places the insect’s origin in South America, the New World cochineal was being used in Mexico and Peru as early as the 2nd century B.C.E.  It was also a common tribute item in the medieval economy in Latin America.  (10)  In Mexico, the pre-conquest Matricula de tributes (Tribute List) is an early 16th century Mexican codex recording tribute owed to the Aztecs.  This amatl (bark) paper folio tallied bags of dried cochineal insects in combination with the glyph for “twenty.” (12)  The Mixtec of Oaxaca owed forty sacks among other goods and valuables (i.e. twenty jade belts, eight hundred quetzal feathers).  The Spanish would later adopt and continue the Matricula, demanding the tribute previously owed to their supplanted predecessors.  (13)

Phipps goes on to explain, from primary sources, how the cochineal was packaged and shipped to the Old World.  In the Old World, she explains, the cochineal became an important trade item with restricted use as sumptuary laws dictated who may wear which colors.  The Dutch became major manufacturers for the English, the Italians dyed the expensive fabrics coming in from the East, and the French crown would establish itself as a manufacturer of expensive, dyed textiles for the court at Versailles.  Recipes for dyes using cochineal red were kept confidential by families and guilds as trade secrets.  Salvages, or sewn “tags,” were used to identify garments as having been dyed with New World cochineal—a standard confirmed by Phipps and scientists.  (32)  In 1464, Pope Paul II officially changed the Cardinal Purple to red as the ancient Mediterranean dye source, the mollusk, which had dyed the clothing of the Roman emperors, the Roman Catholic higher clergy and European royalty, was suffering from over-use and had all but died out.  Just in time for New World cochineal to enter onto the scene—Phipps says it was gold, silver and cochineal which built the Spanish empire.  (26-7)

A coverlet from a set of bed hangings by Mary Breed of Stonington, Conn., 1750--cochineal pink-dyed wool embroidery.

The British colonies, meanwhile, were forbidden from acquiring cochineal directly from neighboring American harvesters, instead having to purchase finished products from Europe.  Phipps reports on one incident in which English colonists salvaged packaged cochineal from a weather-wrecked Spanish galleon to sell the dried insects to fellow colonists more cheaply than they could purchase red-dyed goods from England.  (37)  The Spanish-ruled natives, though harvesting the cochineal insects, were forbidden to manufacture or wear cochineal red.  (26)

Spanish trade routes brought cochineal to the Southwest American Indians—they also brought lac to the same region from India and Southeast Asia, where the use of red was often limited to accents.  In fact, it was not until the introduction of American cochineal to the Chinese that they made fully red garments.  (38-9)  Spain jealously guarded its early monopoly, protecting the insect and its food source, though it would eventually be harvested on Guatemala, Iberia and the Canary Islands.  Indonesia also began using American cochineal after the Dutch East India Company introduced the prickly pear cactus and cochineal to the Dutch colony on Java, in 1602.  (41)  The European demand continued to increase after the kermes from Persia and Armenia were lost through the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks.  (43-4)

The work is richly informative and provides insight on Early Modern politics and economy from a unique perspective.  Its brevity leads to numerous discussion points as many aspects of social history, are only touched on briefly or merely implied.  While I will summarize three such points, here, I confess I am somewhat disappointed on this score after the passion and enthusiasm implied in her prologue (quoted at the beginning) where she suggested an excitement for the textile crafted by an individual’s hands.  This implied personal connection is not felt throughout her exploration of the New World insect’s travels and influences.

The first of these points, is the brief anecdote relayed by the Spanish soldier, Captain Baltasar de Ocampo, who described the execution of the last living member of the Inca royal family, Tupac Amaru.  As he was marched to his death Ocampo described the vivid Inca red attire worn by the king, including his Inca “crown” adorned with red fringe that hung over his forehead.  Apparently, this was the lone marker of his being Inca, because Ocampo describes him as wearing a Spanish doublet!  It is at this point that Phipps discusses the laws in the Spanish colonies and the sumptuary laws in Europe.  (25-6)  It is affecting that Tupac Amaru wore the traditional color of his rank, but could do it only in the clothing provided by his captors as they lead him to execution.  In this instance, if we had the doublet, the language of the textile would have been one foreign to the man who wore it—the maker having no connection to the wearer.

The British Redcoat uniform.

Secondly, there is the almost passing reference to the Dutch supplying the English their red uniforms.  Phipps says that in 1625 the Dutch employed fifty thousand people to dye woolens destined for England.  Beginning, at this time and continuing until the late 19th century, the British army purchased cochineal red-dyed uniforms from the Dutch for its army.  (28-9)  This is instructive for students of American history who learn about young George Washington’s frustration with the habits and manners of the army under the successful British General Edward Braddock who seemed too arrogant to adapt to American realities of war (or, for that matter to grant officers’ commissions to the colonists).  The very idea of camouflaging the army was entirely contrary to the point of the red coats.  They were clearly meant to demonstrate the wealth and, thus, the power of the British crown.  The bright scarlet coats sent a message to all opposing forces.  The British army included other units in the 18th century who would wear green, a more concealing color, but the British red coat regiment was clearly intended to intimidate by being seen, marching with precision—to be a spectacle!

Europeans spread the color literally across the globe where it interacted with the local cultures creating new styles fused together by the young but active global economy.  Phipps captures that sense of fashion and flair primarily with the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and some samples from other institutes.  It is a beautiful way to follow world-altering historic events of such dramatic impact and variegated consequences.

RESOURCES for cochineal red:

In addition, to the secondary sources from Phipps’s work (below), there are the following video resources:

The videocast from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

And, a series of videos put together by the Stephen F. Austin State University’s Ralph W. Steen Library on the harvesting and manufacturing process for cochineal red: Cochineal Information, Breeding Cochineal for Harvest, Spread of Cochineal from Mexico and Painting with Cochineal.

Further reading from this work:

(Secondary sources)

Brunello, Franco.  The Art of Dyeing in the History of Mankind.

Cardon, Dominique.  Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology, and Science.

Donkin, R. A.  “The Insect Dyes of Western and West-Central Asia.”

— “Spanish Red: An Ethnogeographical Study of Cochineal and the Opuntia Cactus.”

Finaly, Victoria.  Color: A Natural History of the Palette.

Forbes, R.J. Studies in Ancient Technology. Vol. 4, The Fibres and Fabrics of Antiquity . . . .

Greenfield, Amy Butler.  A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage and the Quest for the Color of Desire.

Lee, Raymond L.  “Cochineal Production and Trade in New Spain,” The Americas 4, no. 4

— “American Cochineal in European Commerce, 1526-1625,” Journal of Modern History.

Phipps, Elena.  “Color in the Andes: Inca Garments and 17th-Century Colonial Documents,” Dyes in History and Archaeology.

— Johanna Hecht, and Cristina Esteras Martin.  The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530-1830.


Filed under Book Reviews, Historian's Journal

A metaphor to explain what historians do

An Introduction for history classes

Each week when I teach Western Civilization 101 or 102, I pair a question with the material for that week’s unit.  This question is designed to introduce students to the field of history using that week’s content as a way to teach how historians do their thing, as a way to drive the methodology point home.  (I do this both to introduce students to historical method and to introduce students to the fallibility and controversy of the field–something lost in most history textbooks, museums and documentaries, but useful for citizens in the U.S. where there is an information overload.)  For example, in the week we study the Greeks, I ask, “What are a historian’s sources?”  Thus, I can introduce the literate society of the Greeks that recorded earlier oral tradition and really introduced history, drama, philosophy and political discourse to Western Civilization.  In so doing, it is also possible to introduce the methods historians apply to these different primary sources types.

I begin with this concept on day 1, where I introduce the course with the question, “What is history?”  The purpose being to introduce methodology to separate history from other studies of the past.  We read a brief excerpt from Sam Wineburg (Historical Thinking) about the importance of studying history, in an ever-shrinking world, where one is taught the skills to recognize that the context of a document may be foreign and require research and careful consideration ahead of assumptions.  (Note:  Whether Wineburg is read in class actually depends on the class format–it is hard to fit him into a 50 minute class!)  We also read a brief excerpt from Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier’s From Reliable Sources in which they explain that history is something people write about the past–it is constructed and requires reliable sources to be reliable, itself.  This is the point where I generally introduce a metaphor to help students understand what a historian does and what those sources are.

The Detective

Today, on TV you can watch fictional detectives at work every night: NCIS, CSI, Law & Order, Castle, Criminal Minds, Cold Case, Bones, etc.  The popularity of these shows has contributed to reality TV shows and regular shows dedicated to following actual criminal cases.  So, people, including our students, are acquainted with the methods (more or less) by which detectives collect evidence to build a case against criminals.  Using this fairly common “knowledge”, I set up some comparisons to explain how historians do their research, such as seeking clues from witnesses by reading primary sources.


  • Investigation
  • Crimes
  • Interview witnesses
  • Training and experiences
  • Evidence
    • Clues
    • Observation


  • Research
  • Questions
  • Read primary sources
  • Secondary sources
  • Evidence
    • Realia
    • Names, geography
    • Events

The Prosecutor

Just as detectives investigate in order to build a case for the prosecution (or Matlock!), so, too, do historians investigate in order to build a case for a paper or book.  So, where the historian’s research is to detective work, the historian’s written argument is to the prosecutor’s court case.  The publication, the written case, is the presentation of the evidence that has been gathered to convince a jury of one’s peers about what actually happened, and why one’s sources are most reliable and should be considered in a certain light.  It is remarkably similar to the process the prosecutor follows–even needing to consider other points of view and address critics, just as the prosecutor must do with the defendant’s case.


  • Opening statement
  • Interviewing witnesses on the stand
  • Presentation of physical evidence in exhibits
  • Closing statements
  • Oral arguments
  • Rebutting the defense’s case


  • Introduction
  • Citing primary sources in your text
  • Citing archaeological evidence
  • Conclusion
  • Written arguments
  • Taking into account critics and opposing view points

The Workshop

For each week we spend a class (or in accelerated courses and once-a-week courses, a portion of class) working specifically on the content that helps demonstrate the point that the question is teaching.  This typically means looking at specific primary or secondary sources.  For example, in Week 3 of Western Civilization 101, the question, “Is research the story of the victors/elite?” is asked.  This week’s content is Egypt and to a lesser extent the Hittites.  When considering this question, we look at the monumental evidence left behind by the Egyptians–covering a general history of the culture.  The homework includes reading excerpts from The Book of the Dead, so we discuss the Egyptian afterlife.  The PowerPoint ends with a look at the archaeology of the tombs and worker cities built around the tombs.  The rest of the week, the content continues to circle back to this question and demonstrates how the losers and lower strata of society can be found and accessed by historians (and archaeologists, too), while also showing that it takes a slightly different approach in order to get there.  This helps to provide some context for the students so they can try their hand at some of the detective work.

The Practicum

The practicum is either done on Wednesday, or in the middle of class (again, depending on format).  This portion of class is dedicated to working with sources to investigate a particular aspect of the culture.  It is a specific attempt to get students to try their hand at the detective work.  We will often draw up outlines, initially as a class and later in small groups, to begin practicing building and presenting a case.

The Discussion

The week ends with a discussion that, it is hoped, will help students retain and be more capable with the skills and content that historians use and learn.  It is the opportunity for students to practice being the prosecutor, often by presenting cases that were built in small groups during the practicum and other times discussing and debating controversies.

* * *

An additional wrinkle that I will be testing this semester is a homework assignment to bring in three documents.  The point is to try this detective work with a familiar context and to get to know each other a little better.  Examples of appropriate material includes a birthday card from a relative, a certificate of achievement, an e-mail or a to-do list.  (If you try this, be sure to also be very clear about what is not appropriate for the assignment.)  The metaphor, thus, introduces concepts of historical method in a recognizable way that is reinforced weekly.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

Visiting Ft. McHenry

Satellite view of Fort McHenry.


I have lived about six miles from Fort McHenry for just over two years but only visited it for the first time today.  (Don’t judge me!  It’s been a hectic couple of years—a goodly chunk of it was spent in DC!)  I thought I would share some of the particulars about visiting the park.  I do this for a couple of reasons:  Firstly, in a couple of years we will begin the celebrations for the Bicentennial of the War of 1812the event that put Ft. McHenry on the map and that Francis Scott Key witnessed, stirring him to write the poem that is today our national anthem.  Secondly, it is precisely the sort of local flavor that I want to occasionally season the blog with.  Besides, it seems like the right sort of post as the summer boils away.

To start, I wanted to cover some logistical points.  Most weekends do have a planned event.  That said, we went on a Tuesday and there was hardly anybody there when we first arrived, which was kind of nice even though we failed to beat the heat.  Also, the changing of the flag ceremony (held at 9:30 a.m. and 4:20 p.m.—participation encouraged!) is one of the few events going on daily, weather permitting.  While parking is free, it is a $7 entrance fee for ages sixteen and up.  Technically, if you’d like to save the money, you can show up and simply walk around the fort, taking in the earthworks and the view from the point.  To get in the fort you pay at the visitor center and receive your sticker, which must be visible.  (Once purchased, they will give you two receipts, one of which is actually a seven day pass that is good for the subsequent six days.)  There is a small exhibit, a short film, a typical gift shop and restrooms.  From there you can walk out to the fort.  There is a small food stand with hotdogs, chips and beverages, but we packed a lunch and ate at the picnic tables in the shade right next to the parking lot.  Once you are on the fort grounds there is little cover from the elements, so come prepared for them—fortunately, we had some Gatorade in the house to slightly appease the group who had a smaller appetite than I for guns and fortifications under the August sun!

A model of the fort as it appeared during the War of 1812.

The fort itself was in use up through the twentieth century.  It was decommissioned after WWI, according to the volunteer answering my questions, and was temporarily used as a training site for the Coast Guard during WWII before it was returned to the city of Baltimore and became a National Park.  So, the fort, in its current design and construction, is not exactly as it was in 1814 when the British showed up to attack Baltimore.  In 1814, all of the fort’s buildings were single-storied and the outer works were not quite as built up as they appear today.   But, the star-shaped configuration had been paid for by the wealthy citizens of the city of Baltimore—particularly a man by the name of McHenry!  (As the guide told us, McHenry figured he put enough money and work into it the fort ought to have his name, thus, foreshadowing the process for naming stadiums all over America.)  The star-shaped design is critical for the fort’s survival.  The brick prongs are reinforced with the earth behind them.  Each prong is both pointed and sloped to reduce the effect of incoming projectiles—every hit is a glancing blow.  Eliminating a direct hit helps thwart enemy artillery (canons), but it also turns the ground around the fort into a nasty meat grinder for infantry (soldiers on foot) or cavalry (soldiers on horseback) because the approach is in between the prongs or over them, giving all the advantage to the defenders.  In the case of Ft. McHenry, it did not come to this.  Rather, the fort was only attacked by the British navy, which was forced to fire mortars and rockets from just beyond the range of the fort’s guns.  Both of these weapons had the advantage of sending their projectiles up into the air and then falling into the fort, but they did not succeed in defeating it.  In fact, according to the film only four men died, twenty-nine wounded.  The British gave up and sailed down to New Orleans only to come up short against Andrew Jackson (whose role in the victory would propel him into the presidency).

Maryland was a copperhead state during the Civil War (meaning the state, while positioned on the North’s side of the border, was sympathetic to the South).  Baltimore, in particular, was home to many influential residents who were leading the cause for southern sympathy.  Lincoln took preemptive action and arrested some of these secessionists.  In doing so, he suspended the right of Habeas Corpus along the military lines from Washington to Philadelphia.  (Habeas Corpus, a right predating the U.S. Constitution and originating in English common law, states that an individual cannot be arrested without being charged, to prevent unlawful seizure of citizens.)  At that time, the fort served as a prison.  Despite the Writ of Habeas Corpus issued by Chief Justice Taney, Lincoln and the U.S. Army held prisoners in violation of our country’s laws, such as Lt. John Merryman of the Maryland State Militia.  Merryman had sabotaged train lines to impede the Union army on his governor’s orders.  ( and NPS volunteer, 8-11-2010)

Particularly at the flag changing, but also at other times and events,  the NPS Rangers don the military garb of the fort’s defenders.  On our visit we were given a musket demonstration, by one such historic interpreter dressed in the finery of the early uniforms, before the financial burdens of the war required a less adorned uniform of an artillery soldier (which the ranger said looked very similar to the Civil War uniforms of the North).  He explained the steps for firing his replica 1789 Springfield Musket, 65 caliber.  The first step is to cock the musket, then put powder in the pan, next put powder in the barrel, then the musket ball (which he did not include), pound it down with the ram rod and finally point and fire.  The musket, lacking any rifling on the inside of the barrel, is not terribly accurate, but when a volley is fired into opposing ranks it can have a devastating effect.   In response to my query, he affirmed that the U.S. military, like the British soldiers, trained with live rounds—one of the reasons the British had sometimes had an edge against the French in prior years.  Unlike the British, however, he explained that the elite Americans could only fire three rounds a minute, which, if accurate, is one shy of the vaunted elite of the Red Coats, especially those seasoned in the conflict against Napoleon!  (NPS Ranger, 8-11-2010)

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There is one final anecdote I want to relay.  Our last stop for the morning was actually returning to the Visitor’s Center as we had hurried to get to the flag ceremony.  The film, very typical of the NPS (produced in 1984-5, “The Defense of Fort McHenry”), is told from the viewpoint of Dr. William Beanes, who was captured by the British for his involvement in arresting British soldiers after promises had been secured from the invading officers.  According to the agreement his town’s homes and property would not be molested so long as the British force was left unmolested.  His point of view is unique because after his arrest he was held aboard a British ship until Francis Scott Key, the prominent Georgetown lawyer and also Beanes’ friend, would partake in the negotiations for his release.  The British, grateful for the medical care Beanes had provided to wounded British soldiers, agreed to the release following the attack on Baltimore to prevent them from warning the city.  The  British released Beanes and his negotiators to an American truce ship during the assault on Baltimore and Ft. McHenry.  The fight carried on well into the night, then all was silent and dark.  Beanes’ party waited shipboard through the dark hours before the dawn not knowing the outcome.  The waiting continued until the fort’s morning gun fired and the incredible Star Spangled-Banner was raised above the fort, inspiring Key to write the poem that would become our national anthem.  (The Star-Spangled Banner is an example of the second flag adopted by our country, with fifteen stripes and stars—the only flag with fifteen stripes as the next one would revert to thirteen stripes for the original colonies.)

The film concludes with a waving flag and the opening strains of our anthem.  At this point, dramatically, the blinds pull back and reveal the fort with the flag flying.  Everyone stood, many of us thinking that the film was at its conclusion and preparing to leave, but a slightly bossy septuagenarian had walked into the room and ordered us to turn, face the fort’s flag, put hand over our right heart and, “Sing along!”  I, at least, was unaware that the entire anthem was about to blaze forth.  What could have been a rather moving moment of patriotic warm-fuzzies was somewhat spoiled with feelings of having just been scolded by a grandfather or ordered by a drill sergeant.  Then he instructed us to follow him for a quick presentation in the exhibit space—which was perfectly enjoyable—but, I feel that this could have been a fully positive event if the film had included a disclaimer telling us at the beginning what they expected or that the presentation would end with the singing of the anthem. (“Please, join us in singing . . “)  I do not think the dramatic effect would have been lost, just the feeling that we’re doing something wrong or being bullied!

(In the YouTube link below you can see just how absurdly enormous the original flag was, or you can click on the hyper-link in the above paragraph to visit the Smithsonian’s website about their exhibition for the original Star-Spangled Banner.)
(Follow the below YouTube link to hear the entire national anthem with the lyrics. 2 min. 45 sec.)

Decorative relief from the Basilica of St. John, Ephesus, Turkey



Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Travel

Historian’s Journal – an Introduction

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This is the first installment of my other blog type–the one under the category “Historian’s Journal”!  For the most part, this is not so much me on my soapbox, rather, it is me walking the walk–I hope!–and brushing off history, digging up the fun and the interesting, leaving the dull and brittle with Coach Yester in my 10th grade history classroom!  In it I hope to share, in a more typical blog style, perhaps, my travels, my research projects, my reviews of museums or articles, the odd but interesting news story or magazine article, the occasional how-to-project (typically related to research I imagine, like cracking the LOC–Library of Congress–or accessing special collections) and related volunteer projects (as in history related).

Henry Jones working on the Grail Diary (The Last Crusade)

Its name, “Historian’s Journal,” is inspired by [imagined?] images of antiquarian journals from someone traipsing through the world in the latter days of the British Empire, because so much of everywhere was British–sun never sinking on it and all–and it was popular to be knowledgeable about everything.  Picture the Grail Diary from the third Indiana Jones (for which there exists an entire website and merchandise!)–but not so narrowly focused!  Maybe the image of Dumbledore’s office, in a book, or, rather, a blog?  I love the tactile connection of a real book–especially a journal!  I have something of a journal fetish, in fact, given the number that are lying around or boxed in my abode. (The revival of the Moleskine journal on the market has had a somewhat costly effect on my finances!)   So, this is a slightly unusual undertaking for me, but I am nonetheless excited to do something so uniquely mine and share it with everyone who visits.

Harry in Dumbledore's office for the first time (Chamber of Secrets)

Unlike my other blog category, “Historian’s Journal” is intended to have more frequent entries and be more akin to an actual journal.  Someday someone could use this as a primary source to learn about my culture and my interests–God help them!–which I imagine will require them to have a great deal more computer skills than many of us historian types, as I am not leaving a paper trail but a digital one.  For someone like me trying to fathom a digital trail is a philosophical exercise.  The vagaries of computer code resemble nothing so much as a grand existential riddle . . one I cannot solve . . yet.

This is an opportunity for me to play, ruminate and occasionally pontificate, but I hope it is the sort of thing that you would want to share with me and engage in a dialogue with me about it all.  Given that I currently live on the edge of Baltimore, many of my entries will likely bear a distinct D.C.-MD flavor to them, but my interests and journeys take me far from the shores of the Inner Harbor on the Chesapeake (journeys, being hampered by practical things like budgets, are not always of a physical nature–another reason I like history: more ways to take a journey than I can afford otherwise!!).

I promise, here and now, to do everything by the book, despite the venue.  By this I mean, I will always give you a source when it is appropriate and I will always be clear when an idea is not my own.  As has been said by many great minds in history: if I contribute anything useful, I do so because I stand on the shoulders of giants!  So, enjoy my contributions and share your comments!



Decorative relief from the Basilica of St. John, Ephesus, Turkey

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Filed under Historian's Journal

I. Involve me and I learn, an introduction

This is the first blog entry of a dual blog.  All the blogs I write will fall into one of two categories at this site.  This entry is in the “Involve me, I learn” category, an introductory statement.  This comes from a Benjamin Franklin quote: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.”  This is an idea that I have had for sometime (but, Ben is a lot more eloquent than I am).  It is my belief that history is a subject that should be taught with one eye towards content and the other towards the skills and methods of the field.  (The other category is much more of a catchall, called the “Historian’s Journal.”  More on this to follow in the next blog entry.)

I want to dust off the past.  Not by myself, mind you, because I know many others with similar ideas about history, but I want to put in my two cents.  History is either, notoriously, one of the most painful and boring subjects; or, one of the most exciting and mind-expanding subjects!  The difference is much less the content and much more the instructor.  As a personality, I am an open and extroverted individual, which means I am exploratory, experimental and high energy.  (It does not mean that I lack the ability to withdraw and ponder, nor that I have an aversion to solitude and quiet!)  It does help me engage my students and establish a rapport, but I can hardly depend on that alone.  No matter how much I bounce at the front of the classroom, they can still sleep through me in an 8 am class.  I bring this up to point out that I do not believe a professor’s personality is the difference-maker for a student loving or hating a particular course.  Everything I have read about the craft and art of teaching supports this claim.  What invariably matters more are the following traits: dedication to one’s students, devotion to one’s field, interest in how people learn, commitment to continue learning and growing and, finally, a belief that one’s instruction should improve a student’s thinking and outlook.  So, it is more specifically the instructor’s approach and philosophy that makes a class engaging or boring.

Memorizing content, merely packing in knowledge, is not an acceptable approach to the craft and field of history instruction.  There are too many valuable skills and points of view that are lost in that approach.  And, furthermore, you are often reducing the teacher’s role to “telling” as Ben would say, and thus the students seem likely to be “forgetting” what they are told.  Truly teaching content requires teaching history in an active way.  Most 101s are introductions to the mechanics of a field–English 101 includes reading literature and writing essays, Biology 101 includes dissecting a frog, Astronomy 101 includes a night sky viewing, Archaeology 101 includes a dig and Psychology 101 includes a designed and administered survey.  History 101s are often content-heavy and mechanics-weak, while covering a time range that cannot possibly due any justice to the topics or cultures that are only grazed in such rapid-fire productions.  In fairness, this is a trend that seems to be shifting to a more active style for students.  For most students, the damage is done in high school history classes, of course, where I get the impression many teachers do not understand the mechanics of the field or are lulled into the textbook trap and teach in a boring, passionless fog dependent on distant, tertiary source material ( . . more about this in a later post!).  It is a curious condition, given that other high school teachers in other fields still teach using labs and include the mechanics of their fields.  Why is history different?  Based on the surveys I have taken of my students at the community college where I teach, history is different in exactly the way I have described.  It shouldn’t be.  It doesn’t deserve to be.  The students don’t deserve it, either!

So, this blog is devoted to teaching the mechanics of the field of history.  More specifically, it is devoted to the way I teach the mechanics of the field of history, which is by no means the only way to do it!  Very much in the spirit of Ben’s quote, I don’t want to tell my students what happened (despite their occasional pleas for me to do just that); I don’t want only to teach them so that they merely remember what happened; I do want to involve my students so that they learn! I want them to learn skills inherent to the field that I believe are vital to the health of our society, culture and democracy.  In doing that, I believe they will learn a great deal of content and hopefully will be inspired to keep learning more on their own initiative!

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning