Monthly Archives: January 2012

Word of the Week, 1/30/12 – 2/3/2012 — rotary

ro·ta·ry, adj., n., pl. -ries  —adj.  1. turning like a top or a wheel; rotating. 2. (of motion) circular: In the windmills that operate pumps the rotary motion must be changed into reciprocating (back-and-forth) motion (Beauchamp, Mayfield, and West).  3. having parts that rotate.  4. of or having to do with a rotary aircraft engine.  —n.  1. a rotary engine or machine.   2.Especially U.S. and Canada. a traffic circle.  3. Electricity. a synchronous converter.  [< Medieval Latin rotarius < Latin  rota wheel]

~ The World Book Dictionary

The word rotary is obviously related to words like rotation and rota, all of which share the Latin rota, or wheel, as their origin.  The rotary in mechanics is a fundamental simple machine used in any number of technologies.  It is also the symbol for the service organization, Rotary International.  Curiously, while the organization’s first construction, organized on February 23, 1905–a Rotary club in Chicago–called itself a “Rotary club”, the initial attempt at a symbol was, in fact, a wagon wheel.  The club called itself the Rotary club because the meetings rotated among the members’ offices.  The early wagon wheel symbol, introduced in Chicago, illustrated “civilization and movement.”

The first Rotary club was founded by Paul Harris who sought to create a professional organization with the same friendly spirit as the small town in which he had grown up.  Within a decade, clubs had spread all over the country and by 1921 Rotary had expanded to six continents, requiring the name change to Rotary International in the following year.  It is also in 1922 when a universal Rotary symbol was thought to be required and in 1923 the current rotary wheel was adopted: 24 cogs, six spokes, and later modified on the advice of engineers to include a “keyway” in the center of the gear to attach it to a power shaft, making the rotary mechanically sound.

Soon the organization grew towards an added mission of philanthropy beyond serving club members’ professional and social interests (though that continues through regular weekly program meetings).  Over the years, its motto would be refined to “Service above Self.”  By 1932, one Rotarian, Herbert J. Taylor, created “The Four Way Test” which would eventually be adopted as the Rotary International’s code of ethics:

Of the things we think, say or do

  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  3. Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

While many service and civic organizations would grow up after Rotary, they have since lost membership, which has steadily declined since the advent of television–yes, that long ago.  Rotary continues to have extremely robust membership, though, like others, much of its growth has come internationally.  Still, Rotary’s U.S. membership exceeds most other groups combined total membership.

While Rotary clubs devote themselves to their community, they also look to make an impact abroad, and one of the most momentous decisions made a few decades ago was to give a gift to the world in time for the 100th anniversary.  The goal was to eradicate polio in the world.  While 2005 came and went, as of today there are only 4 countries left with continuous polio cases: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, India.  (If you click on this link:  http://vimeo.com/31028535, you can learn more about the nitty-gritty details behind polio eradication.)  This has been achievable with Rotary clubs based throughout the world, including clubs in developing countries, that have been the manpower onsite to help distribute the vaccines in concert with Rotarians worldwide who are donating and fundraising.

The symbol of the rotary wheel for Rotary International, takes on new meaning as the clubs have reached out to donate locally and internationally for projects, such as Books for International Goodwill, clean water projects, and literacy programs, international clubs are now returning the favor by supporting and donating to local Rotary projects in our own communities.  The symbol continues to reflect continuous giving and support with the ideal of Service above Self.

Click on this link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6lNHtpUgw4 to see a common local Rotary activity–handing out dictionaries to 3rd graders.

Sources:

  1. History of Rotary, Rotary International website
  2. The ABCs of Rotary, Rotary International publication
  3. Bowling Alone in America, Robert Putnam
  4. Polio publications from Rotary International (see link above)

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Upcoming article publication!

I am happy to report that I have been commissioned to write an article in Chesapeake Family Magazine about introducing history to your children through archaeology.  (While the focus of the article is for the benefit of regionally-based families, there are opportunities like this all over the country–and, really, the world!)  As a result of the article’s impending due date, my blogging will be necessarily sparse this week.  (I am trying to get a quality piece in ahead of the deadline!)  Please, be understanding and take the opportunity to peruse older posts that might interest you.  I will be posting oldy-but-goody posts for my tweeps throughout the week.

I will be sharing news about the article on the blog, so keep an eye out for news regarding the April issue of the publication!

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Why you are allowed to be suspicious of history textbooks

History textbooks are dubious things.  On the one hand, they are often large, written in uniform, rather mechanical style, by multiple authors, covering far too broad a range of history, and exceedingly dry.  On the other hand, they are transmitting a single, unified, uncontested narrative of past events without revealing the methods that led to their compiling.  They are really unique animals in the world of history.  Historians are constantly talking about primary and secondary sources: a) primary sources being those texts written by contemporaries  or near-contemporaries of researched events and individuals; b) secondary sources being those books, papers, and presentations produced by professional historians as the result of their research.  Textbooks rank in their own category for me: tertiary sources.  (I also put documentaries in this category as they are frequently catering to TV ratings and rarely directed and produced by professional historians.)

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"You can read this without falling asleep? It doesn't even tell you how we know that!"

Tertiary sources

There are several problems with the further removed, tertiary source that we all used in school.  Some of these have already been referenced:

  • they are dry (aka: boring)
  • they are both incredibly condensed and incredibly long
  • they are frequently written by multiple people, and yet in one voice
  • they are several times removed from the passion of detecting and discovery inherent in the real field of history
  • they reveal nothing of their methods
  • they tell people “what happened” supplying “historical facts”–things which don’t precisely exist in the real field of history

Of these, I will lump the first three together, the fourth follows naturally from them, and the fifth naturally from the fourth, but the final point I will address in the following section of the post.

Textbooks are often dull reads.  They are dry.  They sometimes tease us about something we find interesting, but they do not deliver ending the subject before our questions have been answered.  (From my own experience, I can recall the incredibly unsatisfying two paragraphs written about the fascinating North African, Muslim explorer Ibn Battuta, who covered twice the ground as Marco Polo, before Marco Polo did it.  To further compound my frustration, there was no further or recommended reading provided for him.)  This can have a rather stultifying effect in a young and curious student.  Part of the reason for this is the need to create one (dull) voice to unify the contributions of multiple authors.  There are multiple authors because the text book must cover such long and unwieldy period of time, which further results in the minimizing many important points in history.  This further often also results in the exclusion of various sub-fields of history, that leaves a rather minimalist, narrative account, touching on many things but going into detail on few.

Thus, if a historian is passionate about his or her work–which we typically are since we find it interesting, spend a ridiculous amount of money on learning it, and then hope to continue doing it for a living–none of the passion of discovery or enlightenment comes through in the reading of the textbook.
That is, in fact, frequently sanitized from the text.  The individuality of the scholar is, for that matter, sanitized from the text.  Of course, the adventure of history, the methodology which leads historians to their various conclusions is all together absent.  This is problematic in itself, as sharing one’s methodology is an integral part of every other academic history publication except the textbook.  For some reason, there exists a current of thought which does not require that students be initiated into the real thing but simply swallow what they are assigned to read without question.  This heavy-handed approach seems ill-fit to our democratic society.  This leads, finally, to the next point.

Undisputed narratives

History is not a unified, uncontested, all-agreed upon narrative of fact.  None of us were around when Thucydides, Augustus, Ghengis Khan, Charlemagne, Sulyman, Napoleon, or George Washington walked and talked and acted out their lives.  What happened, why it happened, how it happened, and who was involved is frequently contested among leading historians.  One book about John Adams will reveal a different man than another book that covers him.  Not only is this text book approach to history stultifying,  it is also misleading in representing how we know about the past and at times outright manipulative.

When someone tells another what happened in the past, it can shape one’s present and future.  It is simply dangerous to society to have an American history book that misrepresents the past.  In the 1990s, one of Howard Zinn’s students, James W. Loewen, stirred the waters with a book entitled, Lies my Teacher Told Me.  (Zinn and Loewen have their own agendas, but that does not negate some of the essential points Loewen addressed.)  Lowen described his attempt to get his Mississippi state history textbook published with a lynch mob photograph.  Loewen wrote the following:

Lynch mobs often posed for the camera.  They showed no fear of being identified because they knew no white jury would  convict them.  Mississippi: Conflict and Change, a revisionist state history textbook I co-wrote, was rejected by the Mississippi State Textbook Board partly because it included this photograph [a bleary black and white photo of a group of white men around a fire, with a dark figure appearing in the fire].  At the trial that ensued , a rating committee member stated that material like this would make it hard for a teacher to control her students, especially a “white lady teacher” in a predominantly black class.  At this point the judge took over questioning.  “Didn’t lynchings happen in Mississippi?” he asked.  Yes, admitted the rating committee member, but it was all so long ago, why dwell on it now?  “It is a history book, isn’t it?” asked the judge, who eventually ruled in the book’s favor.

~ Lies my Teacher Told Me, caption p. 167

History written with a particular agenda in mind is common among history professionals and their books, but unlike standard textbooks they are required to be upfront about their agenda and their intentions–this is why you should really read the introduction and the concluding chapter!!!  Textbooks are written with agendas all the time, but seldom explain that agenda–indeed, one imagines explaining it would be counterproductive–nor, do they explain issues for which contesting conclusions exist, regardless of the prevalence of the debate within the field.

As a result, even when there is less of an agenda intentionally built into the program of state-taught history, there is nevertheless a misleading and sometimes dated single narrative.  One of the best examples of this from my own specialization is the evolution of our understanding of feudalism.  I have yet to see a textbook deal with the questions raised about our traditional understanding of feudalism–comprised of conclusions made in the middle of the last century–despite encountering textbooks that would were written this century.  How backward can you be in educational discipline?

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"So, how does this relationship work, again?"

Beyond the intro-level history classes, college-level history courses abandon textbooks for history monographs written by historians with peer reviews and transparency (ok, some of these are badly written, too, but they are usually academically honest, at least).  They must also account for the historiography of their subject, that is, the conclusions and evolutions in our knowledge of it, which addresses the differences of learned opinion and demonstrates the methodology for effectively concluding about the past.

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Word of the Week, 1/16 – 1/20/12 — quixotic

quixotic • adj. exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical: a vast and perhaps quixotic project.

DERIVATIVES: quixoticallyadv., quixotismn., quixotryn.

The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Difficult Words

Picasso, 1955

This is one of those words that was born out of literature, deriving from the main character of Miguel de Cervantes’s opus, the titular Don Quixote.  Don Quixote describes the character and pursuits of a sad (by our estimation, not his own) gentleman from La Mancha:

Down in a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to recollect, there lived, not long ago, one of those gentlemen who usually keep a lance upon a rack, an old buckler, a lean stallion, and a coursing greyhound.  Soup composed of somewhat more mutton than beef, the fragments served up cold on most nights, lentils on Fridays, eggs and collops on Saturdays, and a pigeon, by way of addition, on Sundays, consumed three-fourths of his income; the remainder of it supplied him with a cloak of fine cloth, velvet breeches, with slippers of the same for holidays, and a suit of the best homespun, in which he adorned himself on week-days…  The age of our gentleman bordered upon fifty years; he was  of a strong constitution, spare-bodied, of a meagre visage, a very early riser, and a lover of the chase.

Now this worthy gentleman, in his leisure moments, which composed the greater part of the year, gave himself up with so much ardour to the perusal of books of chivalry, that he almost wholly neglected the exercise of the chase, and even the regulation of his domestic affairs; indeed so extravagant was his zeal in this pursuit, that he sold many acres of arable land to purchase books of knight-errantry; collecting as many as he could possibly obtain.

Miguel de Cervantes,  Don Quixote

(Borders Classics–translator omitted)

This gentleman, rather too taken with his obsolete ideas of chivalry, goes on his adventure which includes, perhaps most famously, the attempted slaying of a dragon that is, in fact, a windmill.  He is, in short, delusional with his attempt to pursue his notions of heroic chivalry as relayed to him through his old books.

Naturally, this work is significant for its style and scope in literary history, putting Cervantes in rarefied air, but that is the work for literary historians.  I find the word a particularly enigmatic one precisely because of the contrasts drawn between the work’s protagonist and its author.  Delusional Don Quixote is pursuing heroism in a time that rejects the notion of a solitary knight hero, when wars and battles are actually increasing from the medieval era and the early whispers of industry allow for large armies of commoners and mercenaries.  (See, for example, The Military Revolution Debate, Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe, edited by Clifford Rogers.)  Opposed to his anti-hero is Cervantes who, in this same era, embodied many of the same antiquated medieval ideas espoused by Don Quixote.

Cervantes fought in one of the last crusades–the only entirely naval crusade–led by the dashing Don Juan of Austria, bastard brother of the Spanish King Philip.  The surprising reality of the Battle of Lepanto, in which they fought against the Ottoman Empire’s navy directly threatening Rome and the Papacy, is that it contains all of the trappings and features of a fictional, chivalric tale from the medieval era.  Despite being fought in the early modern period, it is a crusade called by the pope in defense of Rome against Ottoman Muslims.  The response from Europe to the call is negligible, entirely encapsulated in Italian ships manned by Spaniards (with some Italian mercenaries and German Landsknechts via the Hapsburg connection)–long the stalwarts of the crusades.

In the battle, the two sides line up in the last of the ancient naval battles, which will shortly be revolutionized with cannon.  The records tell us that the Christians lined up in a cross to combat the Muslim line of ships arrayed in a crescent.  The Christians win the day with heroic actions from Cervantes and Don Juan and free Christian slaves who man the rows of the Muslim ships.  Cervantes, is outstanding in his individual bravery and daring, fighting a real threat, in real battle–so much unlike his sad fictional gentleman, clearly a relic from a past time in the novel.

This curious juxtaposition between the author and his character is puzzling.  G.K. Chesterton wrote about it on more than one occasion, including in his short epic poem of the battle.  It casts an interesting connotation on the word quixotic.  If it is simply applied to unrealistic, idealistic, perhaps antiquated, pursuits–which is how I think it is used most frequently–then that is one thing, but it is also mocking not so much because one aspires to heroism, but because the one who aspires is so woefully inadequate, has such vainglory notions, and is so abysmally deluded that the aspiration is empty and hopeless.

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On those days when it is hard to write…

Some days…

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I try to maintain at least a loose schedule for this blog–one which the holidays have completely thrown out of whack, I might add–which requires a fairly steady stream of material.  There are ways to make it a faster easier job and there are times when only a “production” will suit.  One of the important things is that I keep writing everyday, even if it is just in my journal.  (On rough days I let my research notes count as my “writing” but this is really cheating.)

There is always room to improve one’s writing and it is impossible to make any progress without actually, you know, writing.  So, some days I get stuck.  I don’t want to write or I don’t want to blog.  I can find plenty of other work-related pursuits: reading (this can go either way), research, traveling, etc., but it doesn’t get the writing actually written and I always have to make time to sit down with a pen or at the laptop and pound text out.  (To be fair, sometimes this is super easy,too!)

I figured I was not the only one who has these problems, so I decided to share from my experience and see if it helps others or if others have advice for me.  Here it goes:

First, a little about my work life.  I blog as a way to keep writing and to get my writing, interests, and specialties “out there” in the internet forum.  It does not put any money directly into my pocket (maybe later).  I am working on a non-fiction text about sharing history with youth and a novel that is historical fiction (set in the 12th Century Renaissance).  (For those keeping score, the non-fiction will be finished before the novel.)  Additionally, I try to find freelancing work, but only here and there until the books are further along.  (Oh, and I home school my teenager…but that isn’t truly “work,” it’s just work…)

Motivations

Obviously, if you write to eat, you have motivation aplenty.  But, sometimes a particular project burns you out, which can impact the quality of the project.  Do something else for the day–maybe two, but be careful!  Clear out cobwebs or the slush or whatever and get your voice back in tune and your creativity humming again.  This may mean working on another project for a day or two, it may just mean you go to the movies for the afternoon, and it may mean that Friday is a really short work day before you get into the chaos of all the stuff packed into your weekend.

If you write a blog, the problem may stem from boredom, writer’s block, or doubts about the worth of the project (such as those that stem from viewership or lack thereof).  It is hard to get around the boredom factor except by pointing out that your blog is probably about something that you really like, so you probably are not bored with the content.  Maybe the set up has lost its luster or the implied demand that you write consistently is bogging down your blog.  My own has been reworked or revised a handful of times when I needed to refocus, but it has never changed so much that I needed to delete posts or cut content; it still all fit in the framework, but gave me some new avenues to search out.

This is a different problem from sitting down and not knowing what to write.  I have taken several approaches when this has happened to me (click on links for examples): 1) hop on Twitter and seek inspiration from content providers, either celebrating, commenting, or criticizing news and opinion pieces; 2) literally pull out my old Bedford Reader and give myself a writing assignment–some of my most successful pieces came about that way; 3) use current events–my most successful post to date is my post on North Korea (during the missile scare), one of my favorites is on Qatar being awarded the World Cup bid for 2022; 4) arrange a field trip–I‘ve done well with travel-based posts and they help me build a portfolio; 5) develop post-types that are relatively quick and easy that I tap into at ease, such as recommended web reading or book reviews, though these are not my most popular.

Doubting the validity or quality of your work is hard.  When one has an interest in something, it is normal to want everyone to share it, but that is not always the case.  There is advice for bloggers out there and there is the social media network.  For most of us, it takes a lot of legwork–or, social media time–to attract attention and interest.  Tap into your friends and build up your online profile.  This is a problem for other writers, as well, and it takes time and a determination to continue to fine tune your craft.  If writing/blogging is your ultimate goal, seek out freelancing opportunities that can help build awareness about your work and expertise.  (By the way, if you aren’t an expert on your subject it will be harder to drum up interest.  The only exception to that are charlatans: internet “commentators” who are ignorant but say the sorts of things certain people want to hear and create a generic following.  Do not be that person.)

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Inspirations

Part of a writer’s job is to find a compelling story or report.  Every writer has a niche–that’s not to say a box!–but, an area of expertise or personal experience that resonates well.  If you look at the projects of the authors you like to read, you can see this in action.  I read one author’s book about chess, though it was really about the draw chess has had on people of diverse cultures and times.  His other books were related to mental health issues and this book fit into his niche though I wouldn’t have guessed it before I learned more about him, and that help me see his book in a whole new light.  It is all about following your interest and pursuing it to the extent that makes sense for you, your background, and your expertise and experiences–that’s what makes it your work and not someone else’s.

When I made the decision to become a writer, I knew it was a gamble (still is!), but I also knew that I had experience and expertise in history, combined with a love of travel, food, religion, and culture which could be combined with my experience and expertise in teaching history in a plethora of exciting ways.  I just needed to make it compelling.  Some of the stuff I post on this blog is going to be less popular–and I know that, generally–but I enjoy it and it doesn’t take away from the other stuff I write that the general population enjoys more.  Still, if I am going to pitch a magazine or book, I have to go with the stuff I know is of bigger appeal (unless, of course, I make a big name for myself that carries some leverage–which I haven’t done, yet).  The only impediment to many of my ideas are the logistics which, when I am no longer working on a book, will be more easily managed.

I hope this is helpful.  Maybe others have some better suggestions, if so, please share them in the comments.  I have down days or overwhelming days or days when nothing seems to go right and it is hard to sit down and make progress.  Getting through these days in a productive manner can be challenging, so hopefully there are some ideas out there.

In the meantime, I raise my pen to my fellow writers!  Keep up the good fight!

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Geneology research at the National Archives

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Trying to fill gaps in your family history or figure out when your family came to the New.   World?  Much of your initial geneology research can be done online through a resource such as Ancestry.com, but if you get stuck you may want to investigate the resources at the National Archives.  Ancestry.com will provide census documentation and ship manifests for immigrants.  If you come to the Archives the staff can assist your use of this reource and these documents.

These documents have their limits in the information they provide, however.  At the Archives you may be able to build a more comprehensive history by investigating military records and other documentation filed with the federal government.  State governments also keep records and may further assist filling out family history through property records.

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To visit the National Archives in Washington DC for the purposes of research (and not to visit the U.S. Constitution or Declaration of Independence) go to the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance–the side without the lines!  Once their you will go through security.  Travel light: no pens, no notebooks; bring a laptop for notes or a pencil and use their notecards (also make sure that your sweater or sweatshirt is not a bulky one).  If you actually end up going to get records, you will not be able to take these things into the records room.  Any documents that are yours which you bring in have to be shown in advance so there is no question that they might be stolen when you leave.

You will need to go through a PowerPoint about the rules and regulations–theft of records is a problem, so be understanding–and then you can get your researcher card.  Documents you request will go into the queue at regular intervals and the goal is to get them distributed within an hour.  The Archives also have regional offices throughout the country and if you get your researcher card in DC, it works at any of these facilities.

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