Monthly Archives: September 2010

A Pittsburgh fan’s case for sports in history

"Stan, Guy, love the show!"

Earlier this week I wrote about history and journalism.  I posted that day with a heavy heart because my favorite radio station had just been unceremoniously scrapped.  (In fact, I had been following the Twitter pages of the afternoon show hosts, The Drive, and they literally were planning their afternoon show Monday when they got the news that they were done.)  I think sports represent a really interesting an important part of social history.  My station was ESPN 1250 on the AM.  It was the Pittsburgh ESPN affiliate radio station.  One of the hallmarks of the station was the Stan and Guy show in the 10-2 slot.  This was a special show, because for years the two sports personalities had previously aired their show together on the local Fox affiliate’s TV station with devoted fans. Pittsburgh is a serious sports town.  There is a long loyalty born out of the economic trials during the 1970s, relieved by the success of the Steelers.  While the Steelers were irrelevant before before the ’70s the Pirates were not, playing in an America whose sports scene was still dominated by baseball (ironically, Pittsburgh and the Pirates face the reverse situation, now–maybe someday Lemieux will buy them).  This blog post is a short argument (admittedly, colored in black and gold) for the relevance of sports history in “real history”–especially, but not exclusively, for the 21st century.  (And, a tribute to Stan and Guy and the guys on the Drive for their unfortunate dismissal by a national sports media company who, as Stan has so often said, don’t get Pittsburghers or the black and gold nation.)

A Pittsburgh legend: Myron Cope, inventor of the Terrible Towel.

When he was alive the great Myron Cope dominated the airwaves in western PA.  Cope was not just a great personality, he was a great human being.  He inaugurated the Terrible Towel era (and in 1996 gave the rights to the Allegheny Valley School which cares for people with mental and physical disabilities, such as Cope’s autistic son).  The affection for this man was genuine from players and fans alike.  People connected with him.  The city’s history was connected to him and through him and the world of sports.  He was also a huge influence on every sports voice and journalist who came out of Pittsburgh.  It is illustrative of how important a sports community can be in some cities and how important the local media is in bonding that community together through its discussion.  It is that much more evident when you consider the charitable power that these same individuals have and exercise for important causes, locally, nationally and sometimes internationally.

To my mind a beloved sports personality and team in a beleaguered city is a unifying and positive force.  And, any city that puts so much heart and soul into its sports and sports personalities, as Pittsburgh does, has to have that element acknowledged when its history and self-identity are explored.  There are genuine points of interest for sociologists, anthropologists and historians.  Pittsburgh, in particular, is such an interesting case study, because so many people left during hard times creating a widespread but ever-loyal fan base (as with a case like me, exiled in Baltimore!) and because the city has evolved so much in the years since its sports teams stood for success while the city’s success, in general, had faltered.  We can’t ignore the relevance of sports in society, nor should we, be it negative or positive.  The problems in sports are reflective of society’s problems, both because of how they often represent examples of excessive and indulgent behavior in society’s vices and because of the heroism attached to these players.  But, by the same token some of the victories in sports have also been essential in our evolving society, including the emotional victories, such as the Lake Placid’s Miracle on Ice and the Saints victories in post-Katrina New Orleans; and, also the social victories, such as Jackie Robinson’s courageous first step dismantling the color barrier in sports and society, during segregation.

Consider the Pittsburgh Pirates, who drafted Roberto Clemente.  Clemente, a Puerto Rican, would become the first Hispanic player to win a World Series as a starter (1960), win a league MVP award (1966) and win a World Series MVP award (1971).  He died in plane crash, in flight on a mercy-aid mission to earthquake rocked Nicaragua.  While Major League Baseball maybe littered with the stats of Latino-American ball players, today, Clemente was inspiration to a population that was treated like second-class citizens–maltreatment that continues even now.  In an era when one’s race still carried suggested undertones of one’s ability, Clemente challenged those notions with his work and gave back generously when he could have withdrawn in bitterness.  His foundation continues to give to Pittsburgh youth and awards others who give.

Art Rooney, the Chief--a damned admirable man.

During the 70s, as much of the country fell on hard times, the steel mills cut back and Pittsburghers felt the times more harshly than many.  Seemingly out of nowhere, behind a young head coach, Chuck Noll, the Steelers helped lift up a depressed city.  As the team gained momentum and became the standard bearer for the city, the team’s chief, Art Rooney, the Chief, became an accessible hero for the fans.  He walked through the city with a warm smile, a friendly handshake and cigar for anyone who came up to him.  Rooney was humble and generous.  He was the unofficial leader of the city.  When he died the whole city attended the funeral.  Despite some recent blemishes, the Rooney family is still one of the most loved and respected of NFL owners because of what they gave the city and society.  (At the bottom of the page is a link to the NFL Films special on the Chief.)

Super Mario! Twice the savior of hockey in Pittsburgh and a man who had a hand in every Pens' Cup!

Mario Lemieux educated Pittsburgh in ice hockey.  I tend to think that it was essential that he do so, because the arena the Pittsburgh Penguins played in, the Civic Arena, later the Mellon arena, but always the “Igloo” in our hearts–a unique architectural building now at the end of its life–had been built on top of a neighborhood that had been confiscated by the city, displacing one of Pittsburgh’s minority communities, through eminent domain.  (It is, of course, a recurring challenge for cities–just ask the former residents of Southeast D.C. who were displaced by the National’s new stadium–one constantly justified by promises of economic growth that do not often pan out.)  Lemieux turned a largely apathetic city into great fans of the fastest sport!  When, in the 1990s, the team suffered financial woes, Lemieux saved the day, again, and bought the team.  Only a couple of years ago, he saved the team for the city, managing to keep it in Pittsburgh instead of losing it to Kansas City, despite a sweetheart deal awaiting them in that other city.  The days of limbo were awful and as a fan then and someone now living in Baltimore, a city that knows something about uprooted teams, I will always be grateful to that French-Canadian along with thousands of other Pens fans.  Since then, Lord Stanley, the prize of the NHL finals and the most unique trophy in sports, has returned to the city that sits on the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers!

Redemption for Big Ben? Too early to say . . .

On a less triumphant note, I submit, Exhibit D, the 2010 summer of Ben “Big Ben” Roethlisberger.  I do not know exactly what happened in Milledgeville, GA, but I do know it smells bad.  If Ben did not sexually assault the college girl who accused him, he still behaved intolerably.  The emotion in the city was palpable; and, yes, I could feel it all the way in Baltimore.  What is so depressing is the deplorable behavior of all involved: if Ben did it, we will never know, because the alleged victim was too intoxicated to provide the necessary testimony and evidence; regardless of what occurred in the end, it is hard to understand why the bodyguard, a Pennsylvania state policeman, let it go as far as it did, clearly an accessory; and, finally the apparent utter lack of respect for other human beings exhibited by the big man on campus, and shared by so many other hot shots in our society, at some point along the way became an integral part of Ben’s personality.  Now, what we all wonder, is can he reform–does he even want to?  Again, I cannot answer that, and certainly not at this juncture, but preliminary evidence suggests he might redeem himself.  Perhaps, it would be fitting of me to traverse the Keystone state and consider Michael Vick.  If both men are guilty, Vick’s crime is the lesser but remains deplorable.  Vick, now working closely with the Humane Society, has returned from the pallor of a jail sentence and the probable conclusion of his career as a humbled man and one who still has game.  One may hope he is truly a repentant, new man.  I would be hard pressed to judge anyone for not forgiving Ben, but I would like to believe a second chance is out there if he is responsible and determined enough to fully earn it, all the more so because jail time will not be served to punish any action that might have happened.  I know that for more than a few Pittsburghers it will take more than a winning season to embrace him, again.

In a society where history is often regarded as drab, boring or irrelevant, I think it is important to take advantage of fans’ passion.  In this case, I am clearly talking about more than just statistics.  I believe that there is legitimate course of study and a way to catch the interest of a broader segment of the population.  Imagine, for example, the depth and value of investigating the removal of the Baltimore Colts from a city devoted to them by a young Ravens fan today.  Covering the Baltimore scene would bring up many fruitful research segues into the economic times and trials of the city that coincided with that unfortunate event.  (No offense Indianapolis, but the NFL gave you the team and Baltimore’s football history and heritage!)

Legends: Guy Junker, Mike Lange, Steve Blass, and Stan Savran (left to right)

So, sports are an important window into society’s soul.  In order to reach that window, we rely on sports journalists to boost us up and give us a glimpse through it in our contemporary world which shapes history.  Where some are comedic, like NFL Network’s Rich Eisen and ESPN’s Kenny Mayne, others are brash and contrary, like ESPN’s Colin Cowherd and Pittsburgh’s Mark Madden, and still others are in touch with the pulse of sports in society, like ESPN’s Chris Berman and Pittsburgh sports guys Stan Savran and Guy Junker.  Stan and Guy brought genuine emotion and real insight.  I will miss that and hope to hear from them again, soon.  In the meanwhile I want to thank them for great and moving times that I experienced as a listener.  Guy’s savant-like knowledge of Pittsburgh baseball earlier this year, a fantastic interview at this year’s training camp with “Mean Joe Green” and this summer’s discussions about childhood games and crotchety neighbors are just some of my favorite memories from this year alone.  I have been moved to anger, tears and laughter over some jubilant and trying years in the Pittsburgh sports scene and ESPN 1250 (online) was there through the last decade of it!  It was great being reunited with former Mountaineer and Steeler Mike Logan!  And, it was great having the Stan and Guy show reunited on ESPN while it lasted–may it return again, soon!!

Go Stillers!  Go Pens!  Pittsburgh is the City of Champions!  (Except Pitt!)

Check out this short film about the “Chief” from NFL Films:

Myron Cope:

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


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal

History vs. Journalism, a problem with sources

Where have all the reliable sources gone?

I love reading a well-written piece in magazines such as the Smithsonian.  These cultural catch-alls are entertaining and usually skillfully crafted prose, often adorned with fantastic photography or artwork.  Still they are not written from an academic perspective, nor typically for an academic audience.  The sources are frequently limiting in their perspective and infrequently fully disclosed.  As a historian I read many pieces with a certain sense of frustration, usually related to the author’s method.  (As a high school student, I recall being particularly fired up after reading a National Geographic article on Ibn Battuta, the African Muslim traveler who covered way more turf and sand than Marco Polo, but NO sources were provided.)  I am not entirely sure how this is played out for other academic fields, but in the field of history there are demands for disclosure of one’s sources that are not required of journalists–in fact, journalistic codes often require just the opposite: protection of one’s sources.

An "Indelible Image" in Smithsonian Magazine, a regular edition that typically interviews the individuals in the photo and the photographer about the picture.

A few years ago, I sat in the Dirkson cafeteria on capitol hill with a fellow colleague of the Close Up Foundation.  He was also working part time at one of the big box book stores and taking advantage of a book loan program they had for their employees.  Sadly, I cannot recall the title or author of the particular book he was reading, but I do recall that it was about the Bush administration’s decision to go to war.  When I asked him about it, he said it was rather odd: it was written by a journalist and had sections of dialogue in it.  Actually, it was like a running transcript of a discussion supposedly held in the Oval Office by Bush with Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell.  According to my friend, there was no citation or explanation about where the script came from.  WHAT??!?  Don’t you have to at least tell me that you got it from a source you can’t tell me about?

Admittedly, journalism has changed–look at what I’m doing; journalists do it, too–but, the whole approach was always different from history.  If journalism requires investigations into current politicians, corporate heads and international politics, than sources need to be protected so that they may speak freely.  That is the theory, anyway.  I respect that, although, when the news contradicts itself as much as it does, today, it is really hard to know what is actually happening.  Historians do not need to worry so much about their sources feeling reprisal since all parties are often dead.  In fact, it is quite the opposite approach.  Everyone should have access to the source!  As I read a historian’s work I am not only at liberty to check his interpretation against the sources he used, but am encouraged to follow his sources to develop my own theories and ideas and build on our current understanding.  This is an essential feature of  the field.  It is frequently not possible with journalistic writing.  When I would desire to check a random assertion, I am left without a footnote and my only recourse is to see what others have published.  It is often difficult to get to the primary sources, because no one wants to divulge them.  All I can do is trust the journalist’s integrity and judgement!

Journalists forgetting their press badges are not "backstage passes."

It is thus difficult to do one’s due diligence.  We have an undesirable situation compounded with the withering of the newsprint industry.  Instead of reading a lengthy story with explanations and a trail building to a conclusion, most people have chosen short blurbs on TV media or snappy online sources.  I tend to ignore tweeted news without an article attached to it.

Twitter killed the newspaper star?

That explains my frustration with current news media, but it also explains one’s irritation when reading journalist-written histories.  The training creates significantly different products from a journalist than it would from a historian, but it often gets read more, promoted more and discussed more outside of academic circles.  To add insult to injury, journalists with insufficient knowledge or training often review academic history works in popular publications.  What a mess!  I don’t really have it in for journalists, but I do get frustrated with them–they aren’t historians, but they sometimes play historians in the media!


Filed under Historian's Journal

The Quandary of the assigned debate in class

One of my favorite units in my 101 class is the week we cover the Hebrews.  I frame the question of the unit around the challenge of how history is affected by the historian’s search and we spend the opening volley looking at the minimalist and maximalist camps in biblical archaeology.  This subject is potentially as emotional for my students as it is for the scholars debating it today.

There are a lot of challenges built into this field of study.  Particularly when considering the early biblical books, it is difficult to assess what should be regarded as history versus religious origin myth.  Abraham came out Ur, but conquered all sorts kingdoms for which we have no evidence at all.  It is a considerable hurdle that the stories were written down well after the events supposedly happened. In my opening workshop where we considered the question about how a historian’s beliefs effect his/her research, I used the example of the Exodus story and the maximalist arguments by James Hoffmeier (“Out of Egypt”, Biblical Archaeological Review, Jan/Feb 2007) and Meshel Ze’ev (“Wilderness Wanderings”, Biblical Archaeological Review, Jul/Aug 2008) to explain how one side answers a lack of archaeological evidence.  Maximalists argue for authenticity in biblical texts to demonstrate plausibility.  Minimalists argue that biblical texts comprise a collection of religious documents–not historical documents.  So, I decided to introduce the debate into our classroom with one of the fairly recent flash points in the field.

Broken in antiquity and reused as building material, the stela lay in a wall beneath the eighth-century B.C.E. destruction debris from Tiglath-pileser III’s conquest. The inscription’s 13 partially preserved lines in the Early Aramaic language, written in paleo-Hebrew script of the ninth century B.C.E., uses dots to separate the words.

A heated question in biblical archaeology, today, is the question over King David.  Did he ever exist?  Is he part of an origin myth story?  In the mid-1990s, excavations at Tel Dan revealed a shard of a stele that had been torn down, stuffed into a wall and used as filling.  The writing on the fragment is perfectly clear, but the artifact is only a chunk of a larger piece.  It made so much news because the lead excavator, Avraham Biran, announced that it provided proof of King David’s existence.  On the stele, the proto-Hebrew letters BYTDWD, Bethdod, which Biran translated as HouseofDavid.  I have deliberately run the letters together, because the written language 1) has no vowels, and 2) uses dots to indicate a separation of letter groupings into separate words.  Minimalists argue that DWD can be translated as David, or uncle or kettle, the lack of written vowels opening the door to various possibilities.  Also, there is no dot between BYT and DWD in the inscription which leads Biran to suggest the likelihood that DWD should be translated as David, but others to point out that this is not the only or most logical possibility.  Biran hypothesizes that the shard comes from a victory stele erected by an invader referenced in the biblical record.  Critics argue against both the translation and the use of the Bible as a historic source to prove that the Bible is a historic source.  (Some scholars who believe the fragment says House of David, are critical of some of Biran’s explanations.)

In the Biran translation, the material in brackets represents suggested reconstructions. Fortunately, the phrases “House of David” (the dynastic name of the kingdom of Judah) and “king of Israel” (often used without a specific name in the Books of Kings) need no reconstruction.

The Biblical Archaeological Review (BAR), admittedly a maximalist publication, is often conscientious in giving voice to detractors and published a critical paper by Phillip Davies, who was particularly unimpressed with the translation Biran provided–especially given the gaps in the tablet.  So, the Davies article was paired against the write-up based on Biran’s report and written by BAR’s editorial staff.  Students, during the practicum phase of class, met in small groups to discuss the Biran perspective and the Davies perspective which had been assigned as homework.  They were tasked with analyzing both sides and then we came together and each side of the room was assigned a position to take.  They were given time to prep their arguments and asked to write them down, including their own position at the bottom.  Something curious happened next.

The debate grew heated (though always respectful and friendly) almost immediately.  As students were preparing for the debate, some acknowledged that they supported the opinion I assigned them to

argue against, others said that they were undecided.  By the end of the this debate, some of the students had strongly allied with the position that they were assigned.  What did I do?  Had I created an emotional attachment to the side that they were developing an argument for?  Were they fully listening to the other side of the aisle?  Why had they flopped?  I am adamant when I assign a student a position in an argument that they will always be able to supply their own opinion at some point.  My brother-in-law thinks such assignments are immoral, forcing a student in to a compromising situation.  I have never thought that, but last night seeing students switch their position post-debate got me worried.  The reason I do this is to insure an equal representation of each point of view–I always tell the students that I know some people will be arguing against the position they believe in, so they will always have the opportunity to clear the air and state their actual point of view.  At least two of my most active debaters switched their point of view.  So, was this a successful exercise because their point of view evolved?  Or, had I created a circumstance that swayed them artificially?  Not all students flip-flopped, and a couple remained undecided, so perhaps it is just that, an evolution of thought, but I am not really sure.

I would love to hear ideas or comments–I can also direct you to some more information about the controversies.

Leave a comment

Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

History and Tourism: What are you learning on Vacation?

My first job out of college was as a tour guide for Bike the Sites, in Washington DC.  I had just graduated with a history degree and was excited about using it!  How naive!  One of my managers thought my interest in history was an asset, but no one else really gave a rodent’s behind–tourism was all about entertainment.  Laughing customers usually meant customers who would recommend us and tip well.  As we journeyed along the National Mall, visiting the monuments, with a tour designed to cover ground on the bikes and the monuments on foot there was plenty of opportunity to eavesdrop on other tours.  It was often absurd, not always, but often!  I vividly recall a discussion with a tour guide who was tagging along with us because her clients had added our bike tour for its novelty–I think they were European, actually.  At the White House I pointed to the flag that flies on the rooftop,

“Now, many people will tell you that that flag on the White House roof only flies when the President is at home, but that isn’t true.  The flag always flies there.  The Secret Service is not particularly interested in signalling to incoming planes–‘He’s here!  Hit it, now!’  So, this is not any indication for his whereabouts.”

“Really?” said the D.C. licensed tour guide, “The flag doesn’t indicate that?”

“Have you ever come by and not seen that flag flying?  Ever?  Even once?  Is he even home, now?  Isn’t he at the ranch, right now?”

She was stunned!  She had to pay a pile of money and take an exam, but that basic fact had alluded her–a fact that could be confirmed by one’s day-to-day experience and occasionally following the news!  (I have an unsubstantiated theory that this myth came about from the flag at Buckingham Palace that supposedly only flies if the reigning monarch is at home.)  At least, she was friendly.  These umbrella-toting guides–part of the bona fide badge of honor to designate that you were a licensed guide, or that you thought it might rain later–were often extremely rude to anyone who was not in their horde and sometimes to folks who were paying them!  Working with the Close Up Foundation, we often took students to the Mall and were continually amazed at the umbrella-tour guides because of their consistently unpleasant demeanor and the content of their spiels.

This blog post is motivated by a couple of articles I have read in the last couple of months.  Both were published in the Washington Post, the most recent of the two was published earlier today (September 20, 2010) and is an editorial, entitled, “Tour de farce.”  It opens in the following way:

The Lincoln Memorial, built in 1964 and designed by John Paul Stevens, commemorates the life and accomplishments of the 54th president of the United States.

IF YOU SPOTTED the numerous errors in the sentence above, you may have a future as a District tour guide.  If you did not, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs wants to keep you from making a living by ripping off visitors.

The Lincoln Memorial, completed in 1922 and designed by Henry Bacon, commemorating the life of the 16th president of the United States.

As the editorial points out, the goal is a noble one, but as is so typical of D.C. bureaucratic solutions the overhaul of the current program, not revised since its inception in 1902, fails–miserably.  While it usefully extirpated archaic rules requiring a doctor’s note to prove a prospective tour guide was not a drunkard, it also requires tour guides to speak “proficient English,” a rule that might be useful for the tourist from Iowa, but much less helpful for the tourist from Germany.  Beyond passing the 100-question test required for the license, what actually tells the prospective client of a given tour guide that they are actually knowledgeable?  The previous exam could not keep the White House flag-myth from seeping through, what will this exam prove?

To the cynic, this appears to be a means for increasing revenue through the tourism industry by trying to ensnare bus-drivers and segway tour operators.  Bus drivers who speak to their passengers, even with an audio tour, about the city monuments are potentially required to be licensed if the vehicle is in motion–but not if it is stopped(?)–according to the characteristically unclear language of the law.  New regulations also require guides that use “self-balancing personal transport vehicles,” segways, to obtain licenses.  The owners of one such company, Segs in the City, is suing the city over the new law.

At the end of the reading, it is not clear to me what the city hopes to achieve with this law.  As a historian, I see no reason to be excited.

So, what should one expect from a tour guide?  Is it merely entertainment in a new city?  My first tour guide mentor, Mark Farrell, always maintained that a tour was supposed to be factual in content, helpful in logistics and entertaining. I have given tours in two places: Washington D.C. and Scagway, AK.  In the former case, the history is both inspiring and often moving.  Not only does one visit monuments to famous and inspiring, yet often controversial, figures, one also visits locations that were the sites of famous and inspiring, yet often controversial, events.  In the latter case, I worked for Sockeye Cycles at one of the important sites in the Alaska Gold Rush and the history is both fascinating and raucously entertaining.  Accuracy was important to me.  (Sockeye, as a business, valued historical accuracy more than Bike the Sites.)  But, entertainment seemed to be the trend–I don’t know of any fellow guides in Scagway who were history majors!  Financially, entertainment was key, most people tipped better if they had laughed and parted company with their guide in an enthusiastic and upbeat mood.  Again, what do customers really want in this instance?

In Barcelona, last spring break, we took a Fat Tire Bike Tour and had a great time, getting to see some things that we probably would not have been able to fit in any other way, all in a couple of hours.  Had we not done it, I don’t know how we would have managed to see La Sagrada Familia by Gaudi or the city park, but I am not going to lie: I really cringed inside when the guide explained that the Cathedral was a cathedral because it had a dead saint’s bones in it!

The church is a Cathedral because it is the bishop's church.

We all enjoyed the tour and the guide was entertaining, but it failed to sate my appetite for Barcelona’s history and I later visited one of the city’s museums–not far from the cathedral, actually–and, learned a great deal more about its origin in Roman times, its medieval history and its transition through the modern era.  As it is, I am still trying to piece together Barcelona’s history.

This brings me to the second article about Williamsburg, currently running a boom business in the wake of the Tea Party’s current prominence.  Amy Gardner reported in the Washington Post about “‘Tea party’ activists drawn to Williamsburg and its portrayal of Founding Fathers,” on August 1, 2010.  While I do not want to put too much emphasis on general representations based off of the quotations provided in Gardner’s article, I think there are a few that are enlightening about the current boom for revolutionary sites.  At Williamsburg, men and women who have studied specific historical figures act them out in an interactive way for visitors.  According to Gardner, many come to Williamsburg to interact with the Founding Fathers:

“General, when is it appropriate to resort to arms to fight for our liberty?” asked a tourist on a recent weekday during “A Conversation with George Washington,” a hugely popular dialogue between actor and audience in the shaded backyard of Charlton’s Coffeehouse.

Standing on a simple wooden stage before a crowd of about 100, the man portraying Washington replied: “Only when all peaceful remedies have been exhausted. Or if we are forced to do so in our own self-defense.”

The tourist, a self-described conservative activist named Ismael Nieves from Elmer, N.J., nodded thoughtfully. Afterward, he said this was his fifth visit to Colonial Williamsburg.

“We live in a very dangerous time,” Nieves said. “People are looking for leadership, looking for what to do. They’re looking to Washington, Jefferson, Madison.”

“I want to get to know our Founding Fathers,” he added. “I think we’ve forgotten them. It’s like we’ve almost erased them from history.”

Williamsburg, like other colonial sites with historical interpretors, is built entirely on the principle of educating the American public about the historical past.  One of the appeals, it is hoped, is that this format is also entertaining–one of the things that makes these places attractive for families and school groups.  Gardner’s article suggests that this newer waves of tourists comes seeking validation.  Nieves sounds more like a pilgrim than a tourist in this account, coming to sit at the feet of founders.  This puts an entirely different burden on the historical interpretors from any I ever encountered as a tour guide.  But, it is not entirely out of step with the perception of our national heritage historically.  Ft. McHenry, maintained by the National Park Service is referred to as a shrine: “Fort McHenry, National Monument and Historic Shrine,” NPS.  The name existed before the “Tea Party.”

I wonder how often history really motivates Americans when we plan our vacations.  Clearly, there are Civil War buffs who visit Civil War sites and the National Park Service maintains many historical sites, but buffs come already knowing something and I sense many other people just want a good story–one they will repeat, but not necessarily one they require to be perfectly accurate!  Americans are really lucky to have a great number of wonderful places to visit, within our borders, that have little to do with history–visiting the Grand Canyon may actually remind us just how short a historian’s domain is in the earth’s grand story.  So, does real history motivate many vacationers?  I know more than a few tour guides who would bet that a good yarn is better than real history for most visitors and I think they may have the pulse of the average American tourist.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal, Travel

It’s Constitution Day!!!

Right after the colonists won the War for Independence, they sat down to write some rules, the Articles of the Confederation.  These articles reflected a general suspicion of strong central authority.  For example, the first article established our (somewhat cumbersome) title, The United States of America, and the second article reads:

“Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”

(I wonder if the Confederates of the Civil War South ever looked at this wistfully or bitterly.)  After we established a name for ourselves, the most unifying statement in the entire document is:

“The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.”

Other than that, the states act independently, with the assembled Congress assigned the task of  final arbitrator in disputes among the states, first authority in foreign relations and the sole body allowed to declare war (although, even there, Article 6 has an exception).

Honestly, I find it amazing that the whole thing did not fall apart–especially given the incredibly low success rates of other revolutions to establish free societies.  The period of American history between the war and the establishment of the Constitution bears more scrutiny for most Americans.  Regardless, there is a great dissatisfaction with the situation coming from some prominent Americans, including Alexander Hamilton and b.  So, in the sweltering summer of 1787, the first American government conspiracy was afoot!  As delegates gathered in Philadelphia behind closed doors and locked windows achieving sauna-like secrecy, the future of our capital, our three branches of government and other important details were loudly hammered out with much debate.  Slavery was tabled for another time.  And, the inclusion of a Bill of Rights was tabled for a very short time–getting a unanimous vote on the final draft was only achieved with a promise that the first amendments would be the first ten we have today, also known as the Bill of Rights (a promise that was kept!).

If you can, head down to the Archives and see the original and in the same hall see other important documents historically establishing our freedoms, such as Colorado’s ratification of the 19th Amendment for women’s suffrage.  Otherwise, check out the website at the National Archives and take a look at their Constitution Day events and especially their Charters of Freedom page.  Also, the regular series “Inside the Vaults” features some handwritten and printed documents from the era, pertaining to the Constitution’s history; please, view it below (other videos in the series are also available profiling various sources from vaults inside the Archives):

So, Happy Constitution Day!!  Take a look at it, buy a copy, do something you can do because you have the right to do it . . you know petition the government, state your opinion on government policy, write an article or a blog, say a prayer or don’t (the First Amendment is pretty cool)!

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


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal

Using student-written blogs to prompt historical thinking

Student blogging

blog (a blend of the term web log)[1] is a type of website or part of a website. Blogs are usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. Entries are commonly displayed in reverse-chronological order. Blog can also be used as a verb, meaning to maintain or add content to a blog.

Most blogs are interactive, allowing visitors to leave comments and even message each other via widgets on the blogs and it is this interactivity that distinguishes them from other static websites.[2]

Many blogs provide commentary or news on a particular subject; others function as more personal online diaries. A typical blog combines text, images, and links to other blogs, Web pages, and other media related to its topic. The ability of readers to leave comments in an interactive format is an important part of many blogs. Most blogs are primarily textual, although some focus on art (Art blog), photographs (photoblog), videos (video blogging), music (MP3 blog), and audio (podcasting). Microblogging is another type of blogging, featuring very short posts.

(Wikipedia entry)

Teaching at CCBC, I have access as a professor to the WebCT/Blackboard hybrid as a resource.  There are many features–not all of which I have explored!  One thing I do use it for is posting student blogs for comment.  In truth there are other options for setting up student blogging that do not require using the types of programs that colleges have available, but in my case there are many advantages–tech support, instructional help (usually!) and a site students are already expected to use.

I suppose the first thing to do is to justify to students and the reader why we are using blogs.  I have several reasons:

  1. Improve student writing skills
  2. Force students to write about material in a short snippet, which eliminates summarizing and demands prioritization
  3. Ask students to write about class material we just covered and upcoming material by blogging on assigned reading
  4. Spur discussion and more thought about subjects by requiring participation through comments

Students write two blogs when their turn is up: the first on the previous week’s material and the second on the assigned homework reading.  This means that students are asked to continue to think about material after we have wrapped it up in class (barring connections that require us to look back and reflect) and before they have ever heard me talk about the next subject.  I laid it out for my students with the following instructions:

For our class, we will be using blogs as a way to practice writing, ruminate on material, continue discussions and hold debates.  The responsibility to write blogs will fall on a rotating basis for each small group in our class.  When your group is on the (blog ) deck you will be required to write two blogs: one about class material and discussions to end the first week and one about the homework reading to kick off the next week.  If your group is not blogging that week, then you are commenting on the blogs that have been posted.  You will need to write (at least) one comment on one of the blogs (and, it can be in response to someone else’s comment) at the end of the week and one comment at the beginning of the next week—in other words, you follow the same timeline as the bloggers, but write less.

In our case, a blog should run from 250-300 words in length.  A comment should run from 100-150 characters in length (so, much smaller than the blogs!) and be in response to the content shared by the blogger you selected.  To give you a sense of perspective, the first two sentences in this paragraph have 40 words and 183 characters (not including spaces).  I am able to check this quickly in Word by going to Word Count under the Review tab.  The comments should be meaningful so it should take you some time to craft a response that is on point but not terribly long.  What we want to avoid are statements such as, “I agree,” or, “good point.”  Rather, I would like to see comments that reflect the thoughtfulness and goals we seek to improve on in our course this semester.

Because I will have multiples writing samples from my students, even if they are not terribly long, I can address specific problems that students maybe having with their writing.  On the downside, I am not assigning a research project with this.  Students are required to write two take-home exams, which ask them to demonstrate some of the skills necessary in research–such as reading primary sources and drawing conclusions from evidence in them about an event–based on in-class practicums, but there is no step for going into a library or archive and finding the material you need.  As this is an introductory course, I do not think that it is the end of the world, but part of me pines for written papers based on student research.

In order to help students who might be faced with writer’s block I came up with the following prompts:



  • (Provide an answer to one of the questions we considered during the week)
  • (Provide further insight into a discussion/conversation/debate carried out in class)
  • Does the class material this week remind you of something else we have looked at already in class (from a prior week)?  (I.e. how familiar or foreign is it?)
  • Did the material in class prompt more questions?  Why are these important?
  • In what ways is this material and history important to us today?
  • (Other prompts that move/motivate/excite you . . . )


  • How does this text help us understand this historical period?
  • After reading this text/document what gaps do you want filled in—either based on the content or the author’s methodology?
  • What questions does this author’s approach to the material raise?  Does the author appear biased?  What assumptions are made by this author?
  • Does this text/document remind you of any others we have read in this class?  How so?
  • How does this text answer the upcoming question of the week (on syllabus) in your opinion?
  • What sources does the author use (if any) and how does he use these sources?
  • (Other prompts that move/motivate/excite you . . . )

I also provided a list of Perspectives of Past and Present, as I call it, which sets up various ways for which history may be relevant, even essential to someone today.  Previously, I had set this up as a short paper assignment in which they would compare events from their textbooks to current event articles, but I felt in many cases there was not a strong enough base knowledge for this to be truly fruitful in the way I had set it up.  So, at present I use it exclusively as a part of my blog prompts, although I expect it will find a new life in future manifestations of my Western Civilization II class.  (I had not used them with the earlier class, because I felt it would only distort student perspectives.)

Some Perspectives of Past and Present:

1.  History as a moral or strategic example.  In this perspective, the observer sees in the past lessons that can be applied to the present.  History has often been used as a teacher by providing moral or strategic examples which can be applied today.  This is the idea that we can use history as a laboratory for human experiences.

2.  History as an exploration of change.  In this perspective, the observer identifies a break with the past that will be long-lasting with far-reaching consequences.  History is a record of change and its study provides tools that best help us understand change.  This type of inquiry, triggered by the questions, “Why now?” and “What has changed?”, teaches us a great deal about human nature and societies before ours, which in turn help us understand our own culture and others.

3.  History as an exploration of continuity.  In this perspective, the observer identifies a continuation from the past to the present.  Continuity in history provides us with a very tangible connection to the past, revealing links to those who came before us.  It is possible to see some of the constants in Western Civilization.

4.  History as cause and effect—the present emerging from the past.  In this perspective, the observer determines an initial beginning point in the past that leads to a specific consequence in the present.  The present conditions are very much the consequences of the past.  In some instances, the causes lay deep in our past, but nonetheless are responsible for both positive and negative effects.

5.  History as it helps us understand peoples, cultures and societies, today.  In this perspective, the observer recognizes past events that explain certain features of people, culture or society, today.  Certain current characteristics of different peoples, cultures and societies are shaped by past events.  Knowledge of these events improves our understanding of people today.

There are other great ways to introduce students to 21st century skill-sets.  I refer often to the following websites–which also appear in my sidebar–for great ideas to introduce students to technology (more necessary than you might think as my young guns in college this semester were by and large unfamiliar with the concept of blogging!):

History Tech:

The History Channel this is not . . . :

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Filed under Experiences, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Tech tools

Visiting the Library of Congress

The original access to the main reading room--the youth on the left is learning and the elder on the right is meant to represent wisdom.

The Library of Congress owes the bulk of it’s establishment to the library of Thomas Jefferson, which was a rather special and extensive library at the time.  Sadly for TJ, it also contributed to his bankruptcy and, thus, his need to sell it off.  Congress did him a huge favor when they purchased it.  When it was in his library at Monticello he divided it into three categories: Memory (Historical interests), Imagination (Literature), Research (Scientific interests).  One of the exhibits in the current building, Jefferson (completed in the 1890s) features a replica of his collection–with most of the books being editions from the years he purchased them.  (Many of the original books have been lost as the Library of Congress had some fires in its early years.)

The artistry is most evident from the floor above the main entrance. Above is a skylight made of stained glass surrounded by aluminum--at the time more valuable than gold!

The main building, called the Jefferson building, is a stunning building of marble, mosaics, statuary, gilded gold and stained glass.  50 artists were recruited from the Chicago World’s Fair to the work on a voluntary basis!  At the end of the project there was a $500,000 surplus, out of which $300,000 was paid to these workers (the rest went back into the Treasury).  The building reflects, as our guide explained, the Eurocentrism that was popular in America during the 1809s: historic men from Western Civilization are depicted–particularly those noted for their love of knowledge and learning–and idealized women are also placed throughout representing abstract ideas–they are not historic unless they represent classical deities.

The L.O.C. does restoration of their books and have even found a method by means of a milk-magnesium vapor to whiten pages that have yellowed with age–a process they predict lasts up to 240 years.  Given the importance of some of their collection, such as a Gutenberg Bible, these processes are essential for the upkeep of the library.  The library is first and foremost a collection for Congress, but is open to researchers who may obtain library cards in the neighboring Adams building.  One requests the books and they are brought from their positions to researchers.  While there are various reading rooms–many devoted to a particular field–I have never been able to turn down the opportunity to sit in the main reading room, except when I was researching in the rare books collection, from which books do not leave to any other reading room.

During World War II Hollywood stars took orders and bussed tables for American soldiers, featured on the wall behind Bob Hope.

For the visitor, as opposed to the researcher, there are always exhibits open to the public and tours are available to explain the building and the collection’s history.  Another fun feature for younger audiences (and a few adults, as well) are the Passports to Knowledge that are available from the information desks.  These Passports provide information to guide you through the building but also have a bar-code that can be inserted in to consoles located throughout the exhibits.  By typing in your information, you can download it onto and access images and information at home.  With exhibits featuring the New World and American culture especially, this is a really cool feature giving you access to what you have seen on your visit.

Past exhibits at the L.O.C. include:


Northwest Gallery, 2nd Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building


Southwest Pavilion, 2nd Floor, Thomas Jefferson Bldg


Southwest Pavilion, 2nd Floor, Thomas Jefferson Bldg


Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment, Ground Floor, Thomas Jefferson Bldg


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal, Travel