Extra Credit: Sonic Youth Friday

Why is extra credit so motivating for my students? I wonder if there’s any educational psychology literature on this? Readers who are in the know, please let me know. My students, whose class attendance and record of written assignments is mixed overall at best, will do just about anything so long as I call it extra credit! (Is it like getting a “free” appetizer or dessert with your dinner, or a dollar off your coffee after you have your loyalty card stamped ten times?)

Does this happen to any of you faculty and teacher-types out there? Continue reading

Thursday round-up: The Right Shoe, Judy Blume, No Obamacare for You Bluegrass Review

Well, well, well:  fires are raging here in Colorado, and hellzapoppin’ everywhere else these days.  Here are a few tidbits to keep you entertained today while I’m stuck in paper-grading hell. On a post last week that featured a new pair of shoes, a commenter asked if there were “shoes with manuscript-finishing powers?”  Girl, there’s a shoe, or a boot, for every job.  I’ve got these boots to inspire me to kick some a$$ and take names.  That’s what they say about me, friends:  Historiann really has a pair!  (Of boots, duh!)

  • Are your there, Judy Blume?  It’s us, your perimenopausal fangirlsAnna Holmes’s writes a valentine to Judy Blume’s unforgettable adolescent protagonists:  “Blume’s œuvre is filled with young female protagonists for whom boys, breasts, and sexual base-clearing are, if not irrelevant, sort of beside the point. In book after book, Blume gives us girls who have rejected the preciousness of childhood yet preserved the self-possession, ambition, and appetite for adventure that their peers and elders find in short supply. (‘What Mrs. Daniels didn’t know was that you could play with paper dolls like a baby or you could play with them in a very grown-up way, making up stories inside your head,’ reads one passage in ‘Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself.’) Contrast this with Blume’s exasperated, often derisive depiction of adult women—highly anxious, easily upset, overprotective, obsessed with outward appearances—and you begin to understand that what Blume is celebrating is that brief yet exhilarating time in a young girl’s life in which internal narratives take precedence over external attributes.”  Yes.  Don’t miss Holmes’s comments about the new e-book versions of Blume’s work, which totally undermines the way that the Blume books circulated in grade school back in the day:  someone would bring in their dog-eared copy, and each girl would have one or two nights in which to devour it before passing it along to the next girl.  Deenie.  Are You There, God?  It’s Me, Margaret.  And the succes de scandale, Forever!  (I never understood the appeal of Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, Blume’s one foray into male adolescence.  But that’s her only dog, in my view.)
  • From the department of “oops!”  Dahlia Lithwick called her shot last week about the Supreme Court’s review of the Affordable Care Act:  Continue reading

More on “the bloody, rich mulch of life:” Part II of my interview with The Republic of Nature author Mark Fiege

Today’s post is the second of a two-part interview with Mark Fiege (pronounced FEE-gee, rhymes with BeeGee), who has just published The Republic of Nature:  An Environmental History of the United States (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 2012).  Mark is a colleague of mine at Baa Ram U., and his book delivers what its sweeping subtitle suggests–a striking reinterpretation of American history as environmental history, with chapters that span the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries.  Part I of our conversation is here, if you missed it.

As I explained yesterday, The Republic of Nature is not a textbook, but rather an attempt to interpret key episodes or turning points in American history as environmental history, reconsidering them from the different angles employed by environmental historians and their extra-disciplinary colleagues.  Its nine chapters explore New England witchcraft, the Declaration of Independence, “King Cotton,” Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address, the Transcontinental Railroad, the atomic bomb, Brown v. Board of Education, and the Oil Shock of the 1970s.  (Click here to learn more about the book at its own website.)

Mark saddled up and rode out East yesterday for the start of his national book tour–see here if he’s coming to a middle-western or eastern town near you this spring.  His book will be the subject of a special session next month at the annual meeting of the Organization for American Historians in Milwaukee on Friday, April 20 at 1:30 p.m.  Be there, and you just might get an opportunity to meet Mark and his fellow panelists, Linda Gordon, Mary Beth Norton, Eric Foner, and William Cronon.  Yes, that’s where Mark’s career is heading, friends–we’ll be lucky to keep him down on the high plains desert from now on.

In today’s conversation, we talk about how Mark defines environmental history and we even talk about some women’s history and history of sexuality and the connections between our fields:

Historiann:  I love the point that “nature” and “the natural” are inherently ideological constructs—just as are classic concepts for organizing American history like “liberty,” “republicanism,” and “democracy.”  Yet historians of the past several generations have been much more interested in organizing their lectures and books on the sweep of U.S. history around those  contested political terms because of their flexibility.  Americans as different as Jefferson, DuBois, Alice Paul, and Antonin Scalia, for example, have had very different interpretations of these big ideas.  Your book shows how nature can be an organizing principle of American history, too.

I want to press you further on your definition of environmental history.  Since you are advancing an expansive view of what constitutes environmental history, where I wonder do you draw the line between environmental history and everything else?  Is there any subject or methodology you would categorically exclude, or is your habit of mind now inclined to look for an environmental hsitory angle in everything?

Mark Fiege:  A recent book that I deeply admire and that speaks to all of these issues in particular ways is Susan Klepp’s Revolutionary Conceptions, some of the insights of which I incorporated into The Republic of Nature. As an environmental historian, I like the book because Klepp takes seriously the relationships among biological processes, culture, and power in explaining the causes and consequences of the decline in fertility during the American Revolution. Her claim that “procreation is power” is marvelous and expresses precisely what environmental historians are trying to do, which is to explain that complex, interacting combination of human and non-human material factors that drive history. Continue reading

“Race and nature are at the heart of the story:” Part I of my interview with The Republic of Nature author Mark Fiege

Today’s post is the first of a two-part interview with Mark Fiege (pronounced FEE-gee, rhymes with BeeGee), who has just published The Republic of Nature:  An Environmental History of the United States (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 2012).  Mark is a colleague of mine at Baa Ram U., and his book delivers what its sweeping subtitle suggests–a striking reinterpretation of American history as environmental history, with chapters that span the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries. 

Because we have had conversations on this blog about many of the issues Mark addresses in his book, I believe that many of you will want to learn more about The Republic of Nature.  Those of you who are training graduate students in history and who are looking for ways to bring environmental history into your survey and upper-division lectures and readings will find this book indispensible.  American historians will learn something new, and non-U.S. historians will behold a model for using environmental history in telling a national story.  Furthermore, all readers who enjoys brisk prose and surprising insights into stories you thought you already knew will be rewarded with discoveries on nearly every page. 

The Republic of Nature is not a textbook, but rather an attempt to interpret key episodes or turning points in American history as environmental history, reconsidering them from the different angles employed by environmental historians and their extra-disciplinary colleagues.  Its nine chapters explore New England witchcraft, the Declaration of Independence, “King Cotton,” Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address, the Transcontinental Railroad, the atomic bomb, Brown v. Board of Education, and the energy crisis of the 1970s.  (Click here to learn more about the book at its own website.)

In today’s conversation, we talk about nature, race, and their central roles in American history:

Historiann:  Abraham Lincoln and race are emotionally and actually at the center of your book:  Lincoln’s profile at Mt. Rushmore greets us on the dust jacket of your book.  Your introduction opens with a fascinating meditation on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.  Chapters 3 through 5 focus respectively on slavery and cotton production, the mythic and actual biographies of Abraham Lincoln, and the Battle and Address of Gettysburg.  And finally, your interest in race and the color line in American history are evident again in your choice to focus on Brown v. Board of Education in chapter 8.  What is it about Abraham Lincoln and America’s record on race that attracted your interest as an environmental historian?  I can’t help but perceive a rebuke to environmental historians who perhaps have not attended to this aspect of the American historical landscape–or is that an unwarranted assumption?

Mark Fiege:  Researching and writing this book has convinced me that race and the black freedom struggle are central to American history, perhaps even its defining elements. But I’m an environmental historian, and another part of me recognizes that all social struggles unfold in the material medium generally known as nature. So I felt that I had to explain how race and nature are at the heart of the story.

While working on the book, I came across “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the national anthem composed in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson. I had never heard it performed, so the ethnomusicologist Deborah Wong gave me a version of it on a CD. It is profoundly moving, as great as any of the other national anthems. In it, people wander across an awesome providential landscape until they come to a place where they can live in God’s sheltering grace. It presents a kind of alternative Manifest Destiny that is about redemption, not conquest. It captures perfectly the sense that the struggle is centered in a landscape and involves a people’s special relationship to nature. 

So I think my focus on race is less a rebuke to anyone than an embrace of what I take to be the truth of the matter–that this is what American history, at its core, is really about.        Continue reading

Falling down the Alice of Old Vincennes digital rabbit hole

“Alice of Old Vincennes” float, 1929

I know that I promised around the New Year not to buy any more books.  I’ve held to that promise, and have been pestering my subject-area librarian at Baa Ram U. with requests, as well as drawing heavily on our in-state library exchange system.  It’s been fantastic to read, enjoy, and return the books I’ve been reading!

However, as I warned you, I might make an exception for books I find in used book shops and old junk stores, and I’m afraid that last Sunday I did buy a book, Alice of Old Vincennes by Maurice Thompson (Indianapolis:  The Bowen-Merrell Company, 1900), which was a popular smash and among the top ten best-selling books of 1900 and 1901.  I paid all of $4.50 for my first edition copy, although you can pay eight or nine times more for it online.  (I love my old junk store haunts here in Northern Colorado!)

Who cares about some musty historical novel from the last century?  I bought the book because it is a story built around the capture of Fort Vincennes (now Vincennes, Indiana) from the British in 1779 during the War of the American Revolution.  Vincennes was originally a French fort, and the book purports to tell the story of a beautiful but willlful orphaned teenager named Alice who was adopted by a prominent French family at Vincennes.  Of course, SPOILER ALERT, she turns out to have been originally an Anglo-American girl who as a child was taken captive by Indians before she was “rescued” by the French family that raised her.  In short, it’s a typical turn-of-the-twentieth-century set-piece of Colonial Revival romanticism that portrays the French and Indian presence in the Old Northwest as a charming but doomed relict of the past, and it comes complete with the dashing young Anglo-American military hero ready to sweep Alice off her feet and return her to life among English- speaking Protestants.

Why are you still reading this post?  This is a post not so much about Alice of Old Vincennes as it is about the amazing power of the internets to elucidate and explain what otherwise would have been a long-forgotten historical novel that would interest few of us as a literary novel.  Continue reading

Apparently, I’m ready for my closeup.

Student government elections are upon us on my campus, so for the last week this warm, early spring several of the student candidates and their friends have been electioneering on the main plaza outside of the student center.  In walking to and fro for cups of coffee, various meetings, and trips to the library, I have been stopped by a student who’s asked me if I “plan on voting in the election this year,” not once but twice.  When I finally understood they were talking about a Baa Ram U. student election and not local or national politics, I said in complete disbelief, “No, I’m a professor.” 

We have a large number of returning students, but most of them are in their mid- to late 20s or early 30s.  Nevertheless, back when I was 28, I would have been put out by being mistaken for a student.  Continue reading